Curbside Classics: Detroit Compacts of DC

Nova Front

Washington, DC has an image around the country as a city filled with lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other unproductive white-collar members of society, and along with these professions comes an image of cars corresponding to their owners: Mercedes, BMWs, Priuses.  Normal people with normal cars live there too, though, as shown by the presence of curbside classics around the city.  Among these cars, Detroit compacts of the 1960s and 1970s win by a landslide.  The ongoing use of these cars makes sense: they are simple and reliable, dirt cheap to maintain and repair, and small enough to park easily on tight city streets.

Mustang 1

This 1968 Mustang is the car that first inspired this idea.  (Pony cars, being based on compacts, are included in this category.)  I have seen this car around the city for almost a decade.  For many years, I saw it regularly after work, parked top-down outside of a now-closed liquor store near the downtown sports arena and the National Portrait Gallery.  About a year ago, I finally found where it lives on the street, surrounded by Priuses, Range Rovers, Mercedes W123 diesels, and other cars more typical of an affluent urban neighborhood.

Mustang 1a

The owner that I saw years ago was of an age indicating that he could have owned the car since new, and the interior abounds with one-owner-from-new old car details – an original-looking radio, sheepskins over the front seats, a Club, and an ashtray crammed full of cigarette butts.  The plastic plates over the cowl air intakes are an unusual detail, though; perhaps the owner does not want his cigarette smoke diluted by the ventilation system when the top is up.

Mustang 2

The Mustang has a slightly younger cousin living across town, a bit more corpulent and hobbled by a flat tire, but still registered and apparently ready for the road.  The rust cancer, which includes undercoating hanging down in sheets that indicates a Fred Flintstone driver’s side floorboard, makes me concerned for its longevity.


Fans of the Brougham era of the 1970s will feel somewhat left out by the curbside offerings of DC, but the streets have not sent all of their vinyl-roofed, hood-ornamented children to the melting pot (the crusher).  This Mercury Monarch, a compact so luxurious that it was positioned above the Ford Granada, which you could not tell apart from a Mercedes according to Ford advertisements, needs only new wheel covers and a front bumper rechroming to take you back to the disco era.

Nova 1

The Chevy Nova is a well represented vehicle on the streets of DC.  The Dart/Valiant and Maverick/Comet ( appear occasionally, but the Nova appears to account for the most survivors on the streets.  The Nova in this photo lives only a few blocks away from the Capitol Building.  A 1973-74 model with big steel bumpers, it is in no danger of suffering the sort of ugly deformation experienced by the plastic-bumper modern car behind it.

Nova 1a

This view shows that it is wearing a substantial set of dual exhausts and an appropriate vanity plate.

Nova 3

A few blocks away, a 1965 Chevy II continues to soldier on after almost 50 years.  With the red ribbon on its grille, it makes a great counterpoint to those awful long-running Lexus Christmas ads.

Nova 2

Speaking of soldiering on, this nicely customized 1973-74 Nova wears stickers on the rear window declaring the owner to be a veteran awarded the Bronze Star.  Whoever you are, thank for your service, and congratulations on a tastefully modified car that is not a garage queen.  The Cragar wheels, narrow front and wide rear tires, and hood and trunk lid stripes make it exactly like the Novas that once abounded on the streets in the 1970s and early 1980s, but have largely disappeared from everyday use since then – many survive, but heavily modified cruise night cars and drag racers account for many if not most of them.  This car shows that not all of the Detroit compacts parked on the street are just old beaters.


The end of the line for this class of cars (aside from the pony cars) came with the introduction of front wheel drive compacts such as the GM X-cars and the Chrysler K-cars.  Less than a football field length away from the Nova in the previous photo, this Chevy Citation lives regularly on the street in Georgetown, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in DC.  A Citation II from 1984-85, it represents the period when GM badly fumbled the transition from the 1960s holdover platforms and drivetrains of the 1970s to the unit body, front wheel drive designs of the 1980s.  The survival rate of these cars has been low, but this car is still registered and on the street.  It remains to be seen whether it and the other surviving X-cars, K-cars and Tauruses will have the longevity of their 1960s and 1970s forebears as they reach antique status.