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There’s a simple reason why Edward Smith’s AMC Rambler squats in the yard behind his old house on Varnum Street NE, losing a little of its dignity with every rain.

Because in the early 1970s, Smith bought the green four-door used.

Because during the next 15 or so years, he wound the Rambler’s odometer up to 52,000 miles.

Because in 1986, Smith died, and the Rambler got parked in his detached garage, a Wonder Woman air freshener still hanging from the rearview mirror.

Because the Rambler sat there like a museum piece until a few years ago, when the garage toppled down around the car, and Smith’s relatives pushed it from the rubble onto the grass.

Because when Smith’s 32-year-old granddaughter, Rita, sees the Rambler, she remembers riding in the passenger seat with her grandfather. Because she, like the rest of Smith’s family, can’t let the car go.

In city code legalese, cars like Smith’s Rambler are “abandoned.” They can be yanked from private property if they lack tags and registration for 30 days, can’t be driven, or harbor rats or other vermin.

In short, the city can snag cars that don’t do what they were engineered to do. Dreams and memories don’t count.

“We do it just about every day,” says Mike Carter, deputy director of the Department of Public Works. Carter says DPW investigators respond to complaints by neighbors and patrol for derelict cars.

When they find one, investigators tag the window with a violation sticker. If it’s still there 45 days later, the car gets towed away, Carter says.

But a quick drive through the city suggests a more lax approach. Worn-out jalopies rest in backyards, carports, and driveways, some with ancient DPW violations stuck on their windows.

The city may consider them abandoned, but to their owners, they are far from junk.

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1970 Triumph TR6
Gerald Dean, Petworth

Dean restored the TR6 back in the late ’80s. He drove it up to New York and down to Savannah, Ga., cruising past 100 miles per hour with plenty of pedal left. In 1993, he pulled the convertible behind his house. He started buying property. “I got into hammering and nailing, and the priorities took over,” he says. As the Triumph sat, the paint bubbled, rust peeked out and spread. But Dean won’t haul the car away. “I’m hoping to put up a garage and drag it in,” he says. “I’ve got the parts and books. I’ve got great, ambitious plans.”

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Dodge Charger SE
Rosa Jones, Petworth

Rosa Jones prefers her contemporary Cadillac to the ’70s-era tan-and-primered Charger her husband keeps pulled up to their garden.
“I just don’t see the fascination with that one,” she says. But like her husband, other men are smitten with the car. At least twice a month, suitors knock on the door and make offers for the Charger. But Emmett Jones isn’t selling. His wife says he’s thinking that with some carburetor work and a paint job, the Charger will be ready for the highway.

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1965 Mercedes Benz 190
Tim and Jo Cooper, Tenleytown

Mold is spreading over the red seats of Tim Cooper’s Benz. It smells like a vintage Army tent left out in the rain. A tiny tree has taken root in a crack of the trunk. Yet when Cooper looks at the sedan parked behind his house, he sees the car he discovered decades ago on a Virginia farm and restored. His sons, however, see a dusty hulk covering a perfect spot for a basketball hoop. The car has been sitting for three or four years as they battle it out. “I can assure you, we’ll never forget it,” says Jo Cooper, who thinks the time has come for the car to go. “It’s a part of family history, an appendage to my body,” Tim says. “Come back next year, it will be here. Two years, who knows.”

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1961 Cadillac Fleetwood
Ronald Payton, Randle Highlands

“The only fin better than this one is the ’59,” says Payton, 31, as he strokes the tail fin on his Caddy. “I’m trying to find one of those.” In 2002, Payton got shot coming out of a Maryland nightclub. Since then, he says he has rededicated himself to his limousine service and his cars. He owns seven, including the Caddy that has sat in the driveway behind his mother’s house since the mid-’90s. “They are pretty when they are dressed up,” he says. With its shaved door handles, working hydraulic suspension, and rechromed bumpers, the Cadillac lacks only paint to be fully dressed. Then Payton will need an engine to fill the empty bay.

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1970 Dodge Dart Swinger
Joe D’Angelo, AU Park

D’Angelo’s red Dodge has 67,697 miles, a Slant Six engine, and rust holes through the floors. He parked it behind his house in 2002, after his mother passed away. It hasn’t moved since. “It was the first new car that she ever had, and she drove this ’til the day she died,” he says. D’Angelo, who is the drummer for the metal band Wolf-Spider!, wants to fix up the car, but he doesn’t have the cash. So he’s looking to sell it to someone who will restore it. “My mom drove slow and easy,” he says. “I don’t think this car was ever up past 60 miles per hour.”

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1976 Volkswagen Westfalia
Joanna Davidson, North Cleveland Park

When the Davidsons run out of party seating, they slide open the side door of their yard bus and pile in. They once fit 17 teenagers inside. It’s also good for hiding large birthday gifts, like the kayak Jonathan Davidson’s wife gave him. The bus belongs to their daughter, Joanna, who bought it when she was a student at Stanford and
left it when the transmission failed. Since the late ’90s, the van has sat in the yard, partially hidden by bamboo. Joanna now lives in Atlanta. Jonathan wants the bus gone. Sure it’s good storage, but he’d
trade it for a garden.

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1965 Ford Thunderbird
Charles “Butch” Ross, Michigan Park

Ross’ T-bird was dead when he bought it. For years, he’d been eyeing the rusty “money green” cruiser parked in an alley a few blocks from his house. A couple of years ago, the man who owned it took $300 and told Ross to haul it away. Since then, the T-bird has perched behind Ross’ house. But he has plans for a restoration, to turn the chrome anodized gold, to ride around town in it with his kids. “These cars have personality,” he says. “It’s a keeper.”

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1940 Oldsmobile
Leroy Tonic, Michigan Park

Jack stands lift the whitewalls of Tonic’s Olds off the yard. “I had it here to fix it up,” the 79-year-old says. “But I don’t know. I might get rid of it.” Tonic has owned the purple custom classic for more than 30 years. He parked it in 2004. Now the interior holds a half-bag of Quikrete, jumper cables, and a marine gas tank. All it needs to run is a fuel pump, Tonic says.

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1966 GTO and 1969 Toyota Corona
Willie Seaward, Woodridge

Keep the GTO or the Corona? To most car nuts, Willie Seaward’s dilemma would be an easy one. Yet Seaward, a retired mechanic, seems partial to the Toyota. “Remember when the gas crisis was on?” he says. “People would be lined up at the station, and I’d be riding by.” Both cars have been sitting for “a long while,” the Toyota against his detached garage, the GTO in a neighbor’s yard. Kaleem Washington, Seaward’s 17-year-old grandson, has his own ideas about his grandfather’s choice. “Ever since I was about 9 years old, I’ve been wondering about this car,” he says, staring at the GTO.

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