Vintage Photos: Let’s Go Used Car Shopping… In 1982

(first posted 11/13/2017)        Used car lots rarely get preserved in photographs.  So when I came across these 35-year-old snapshots of a used car dealership in Fairfax, Virginia, it was akin to discovering a lost world.  Dating from 1982, these photos were most likely taken by someone affiliated with the dealership itself, shortly before its grand opening.  Whatever the purpose, they certainly give us something to enjoy three decades later.

Before examining the used car inventory, let’s focus on the dealership’s building, since it has changed with the times almost as much as the auto market itself.  The original structure on this ⅔-acre corner lot was constructed in 1950 as a Texaco gas station – with a small building and a single pump island.  That may seem underbuilt by today’s standards, but in 1950 that was not an unusual configuration for a gas station on the fringe of a metropolitan area.

In the early 1960s, the property was sold and became a car dealership, with the new owners attaching a 1,200-sq. ft. glass-enclosed showroom onto the front of the Texaco building.  Parson’s Cars, as it was then known, was initially a used car dealership focusing on imported cars.  Within a few years, Parson’s acquired a Triumph franchise, becoming one of only two Triumph dealers in Northern Virginia.

In 1967, Parson’s ditched Triumph for Volvo, and later that year sold the business to new owners who renamed it Fox-Keller Volvo.  A service garage was added to the building, nearly doubling its size, and Fox-Keller picked up other foreign-car franchises as well, such as Rover and Renault.  But Volvo was by far its biggest success, so much so that by the late 1970s, a ⅔-acre lot with an old building didn’t cut it as a Volvo dealership anymore.  The Volvo franchise was moved to another location, and the property’s owners looked for another tenant.

In 1982, a new tenant moved in – a used car dealership called Fairfax City Auto Ltd.  The following pictures appear to have been taken shortly before the dealership opened, so let’s take a stroll around the lot and examine their inventory.

A logical place to start is with the car positioned in the place of honor in front of the showroom, which is a 1978 Chrysler LeBaron Medallion 2-door.  This then-4-year-old Chrysler could still turn heads in 1982, especially with that shiny Tapestry Red paint, white Landau vinyl roof and aluminum road wheels.

Next to the LeBaron is a blue 1980 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  These two cars occupying high-visibility spaces on the lot reflect the popularity of 2-doors in the early 1980s – either of these cars would have been a respectable and stylish choice for a variety of used car buyers at the time.

Moving down the front row of cars is the Slightly-Better-Than-Riding-The-Bus section of the lot.  The Sunshine Yellow Pacer is a 1976 base model, complete with dog dish hubcaps.  In 1982, Pacers were far from achieving their eventual cult classic status, and instead were considered somewhat dumpy used cars.  Competing for buyers in this price range was the Mustang II Ghia parked next to it.  It’s easy to see either of these cars being bought by a young driver who needed a cheap car to get to his or her first job.  And today that person can take pride in saying “Can you believe I once owned a yellow Pacer?!”

If I were a first-time buyer in 1982, I’d probably choose the Chevy Monza over either the Pacer or the Mustang.  Next to the Monza is a rust-colored ’77 Plymouth Volare wagon – a useful car for a budget-conscious family… at least until it rusts through.  Competing for a different market segment is the 1978-79 Camaro Sport Coupe, most likely equipped with the standard 110-hp 6-cylinder engine.

Next up is the truck section of the lot, and two GMCs and a Ford offer as varied a choice as one could expect from just three vehicles.  It’s likely that one of these two men is the dealership owner.

And this is likely the owner’s son, showing his appreciation for GM clamshell wagons.  This is a 1971 Chevrolet, and while clamshells are desired collectibles now, this was a family vehicle of last resort in 1982.  After all, that was the year Merle Haggard released his hit song “Are the Good Times Really Over?” which included the lyrics:

I wish a Ford and a Chevy would still last ten years like they should…

Given that widespread sentiment, buyers could be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to own this 11-year-old Chevy.

In front of the Chevy is a Pontiac Astre wagon, and then a Corvair, which wasn’t exactly a sought-after car in the early 1980s, so seeing this one on the lot is surprising.  Alternatively, the brown Corolla is one of the few imports on the lot in these pre-opening shots – this one is a 1976-79 Liftback.

The 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme here sports a dealer license plate, so it’s possible that the owner used it as his personal transportation.  Hidden from view behind the Corolla is what appears to be an Opel 1900 (Ascona) Sport Wagon, which is even more surprising than the Corvair.

This shot also shows detail of the building, and we can see the original 1950 Texaco station’s colonial-style facade was still intact, with the 1960s showroom addition having been simply tacked onto the older structure’s front.

This photo was taken a few weeks (or maybe months) later, and inventory has rotated a bit.  The Pacer hadn’t sold yet, and appears to have been banished to the very rear of the lot.  The blue Monte Carlo is still hanging around, as is the Volare, the Astre, the Pinto wagon and the Opel.

We see many more Japanese imports in this scene, so maybe the Corolla Liftback sold quickly, and the dealer figured that Toyotas and Datsuns made for easy used car sales.  Imports, though, were still relegated to the dealership’s second row – no prime street front spaces for those little foreign cars quite yet!

Perhaps the most intriguing new arrival is what appears to be an F-150 pickup with a camper shell… not quite the type of vehicle one sees at a used car dealers much anymore.

During the dealership’s first year, the owners partitioned off half of the showroom, and subleased it to a doughnut shop.  This picture was taken during construction (we can see the partition wall being built inside) – but more interesting to us than the building renovation is the Ford LTD parked in front of the showroom.

Here’s another shot taken during the renovations (looking towards the next-door transmission shop), with the most notable vehicle being the Subaru BRAT.  With a Knaack job site box where the rear-facing seats ought to be, this was a working BRAT; its owner was likely working on the construction project.

Fairfax City Auto Ltd. survived for about 15 years, after which time the space was leased by Thrifty car rental, and then in about 2001 was again leased by a used car dealer – this time a dealership known as Fairfax Motors specializing in higher-end imports (the above picture dates from 2009).  Fairfax Motors is still in business, and that, of course, means we can compare our 1982 snapshots with modern-day scenes.

First, let’s look at the front row.  No more Tapestry Red or bright blues or yellows – today’s drab-colored cars look like they’re on their way to a funeral.  The BMW i3 makes an interesting choice for the coveted streetside place of honor – at $18,000 it is far from the most costly car on the lot, but maybe it has the eye-catching pizzazz that the LeBaron Medallion possessed 35 years ago.  Next down the line is a 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG at twice the i3’s price.  But not all of the front row cars are European: The light gray car is a Hyundai Genesis, and the thought of a $30,000 used Korean car must have been completely implausible in 1982.

Today, the amorphous blob of a Pacer has been replaced by the… amorphous blob of an Audi A6.  Judging from these shots, it’s hard to believe the Pacer was an evolutionary dead end.  Could it be that Dick Teague’s widely panned design really did portend the future?

If the overstyled Mustang II Ghia has an equivalent on the current lot, it might be in the building itself.  The 1960s-era showroom has been covered by exterior cladding, heavily stylized parapets and flashy signage in an attempt to make it look fancier than it really is – architecture has possibly entered its own malaise era.

Few automotive contrasts are more pronounced than a mid-1970s LTD and a smart fortwo, but those are the cars we have here parked at the building’s corner.  The smart is less than half the big Ford’s length, and two-and-a-half smarts would weigh as much as one LTD.  The LTD’s companions of a Pinto and Olds Cutlass Salon have been replaced by black Mercedes-Benzes in the modern picture.

In our final comparison shot, we can gaze upon the one brightly-colored car on the present-day used car lot.  A lonely-looking red Honda Civic appears like it was cast to the far reaches of the lot like the Pacer was three decades earlier.

As I browsed the used car lot contemplating how cars and buildings have changed so greatly over 35 years, the past and present collided ever so briefly.  Sauntering along the road, and just over the hood of a Mercedes-Benz ML350 came an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – just the sort of car one can picture at Fairfax City Auto Ltd. in the early 1980s.

“Get ready for the future,” I thought.  Just imagine what people 35 years from now will think of today’s used car lot…