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Car Pyre: 1955

Car Pyre: 1955

From mid-1950s California, the aftermath of an epic carbecue in what looks to be Sierra ski country. Please present your claim ticket to the valet! 4x5 inch acetate negative from the Shorpy News Photo Archive. View full size.


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1950 Mercury woody, needs slight restoration $5000 also have 1949 Cadillac could use some TLC $4000

A Woody can get dry rot

As a kindergartner or 1st grader, I remember my Dad replacing the middle horizontal wood piece on our '49 Ford wagon. He cut, shaped, sanded and applied varnish in the driveway. I watched.

That was the same car that our neighbor lady tried to start when we were on vacation in Waupaca, WI. As a 1st grader, I am surprised that she listened to my suggestion to pull that knob when starting, as I had observed my Dad doing all the time. He had the idle set so low it wouldn't run without a bit of increased idle speed from the choke mechanism. She pulled the button and it started right up. Funny what memories from about 60 years ago you can dredge up.

This sure looks like a collapsed garage fire. Note the twisted cable in front of the Caddy, the same as would be used by a tow truck.

Forest Fire of Sept. 4, 1955 Sierra Nevada

Could this be it?

The front page of the Sept. 4, 1955, edition of The Fresno Bee detailing a Sierra Nevada wildfire that imperiled the community of Miramonte.

Read more here: Fresno Beat Newspaper

At the bottom of the heap

appears to be a Cadillac and a Pontiac from the early '50's. The silver streaks on the Pontiac look a bit melted.

Oil Can Evidence

Pretty sure it was a garage fire. The top of an oil can is visible in the middle center with the distinctive punch out of a filler spout.

Re: Not Scrap

Junkyards don't burn the car for scrap deliberately, but they often have accidental fires due to the use of cutting torches to remove parts. (My parents owned one in the 70's)

Late model cars get junked if they're in an accident but these do look more like something heavy fell on them, trees or a building.

A wooden two story parking garage seems unlikely, perhaps they were stacked after the fire to clear space.

Handy in snow

The topmost vehicle in the pile looks like a 4x4 Willys Jeepster with rear mounted spare tire of early '50s or late '40s vintage and would have been very useful in the mountains in any season.

[As pointed out earlier, it's a 1949-51 Ford or Mercury wagon, now minus the wood. -tterrace]

I see it now.

One Possible Explanation

A two-storey garage with the cars from the second storey having fallen on the cars below.

Not "scrap steel" in 1955

It is unlikely that those cars, which were all "late models," would be burned for scrap in 1955. There are obviously salvageable body parts such as fenders, bumpers, etc. Useable parts from late-model cars are obviously worth more than scrap steel.

The wood is part of a garage, not just "firewood". The charred wood is square timbers, not round logs. At the right corner of the foundation, there is a partially consumed corner post still standing upright.

Only the "stacking" remains to be explained.

The identities of the cars could be key to assessing this photo. The convertible on the top of the stack at the upper right _might_ have been a British sports car with wooden coachwork, perhaps an Austin-Healy. I will leave the exact forensics to the Automotive Bureau of the Shorpy Sleuths.

[The car at the top of the heap is a 1949-1951 Ford or Mercury station wagon. -tterrace]


My take on this scene is that an avalanche crushed the garage and the mangled pile of automobiles with their batteries, gasoline and other combustibles caused the fire. I can not conceive of another explanation for the five foot thick layer of snow*.

[You've never been in the Sierras in the winter. -tterrace]

The snow in the foreground still has the evidence of the recent fire.
It must have been a working garage as I see an oil can with the top punctured by one of those fancy chrome spouts (remember those?)

* That looks like the leading edge of a glacier!


The foundation and stacked cars raise the possibility of a garage fire.

More clues

A snow plow obviously carved that ridge, and there appears to be an unburned car partially embedded in it.

"Oh, valet -"

Anyone else instantly "hear" that in Jack Benny's voice?

Was this a junkyard fire?

How (or why) is one car on top of another? An interesting photo - as usual for Shorpy. What is the backstory?

Well, Officer

We were on our way to Oakland, when all of a sudden --

The Acrid Scent of Money

Based on the way these cars are piled, the clean, fresh snow, and the solid logs of wood, I am not convinced this was an accidental fire.

Because rusty steel weighs more than non-rusted steel, it used to be a practice to burn junked cars before selling them for scrap metal. The fire took the paint off and took away the non-metal things like glass and rubber. The unpainted metal rusted. So all you had to do was wait a few months to get your money to start adding up. Plus there was the bonus that it was all steel, so the scrap buyer paid for everything he weighed. Nothing had to be deducted.

I suppose this could have been a pile put together by a bulldozer, from a much earlier accidental fire, before the snow. But fires don't twist hoods like that. Seems to me, these cars were junk before they burned.

Not merely burned

but mangled too, and stacked on top of one another.
These may have been wrecked before they burned.
Junkyard fire perhaps?

Oh valet-

I've come for my car. Yes, it's the black one.

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