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Washington orchard yields bumper crop of classic cars

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Out of the blue, a gravelly voice boomed: “I understand you buy old Camaros.” 

As Dan Stafford said, it’s the kind of a phone call you dream about if you run a muscle car wrecking yard in the eastern Washington desert. The barn find might not be as big as the Lambrecht Chevrolet sale in Nebraska, but surely the cars would be better.

“As I talked to him, I realized he’d just found me on the Internet; he had no idea who I was,” said Stafford, who has run Dan’s Garage in Kennewick, Wash., since 1981. It’s a 3.5-acre wrecking yard that specializes in ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s GM performance cars – Chevy Camaro, Impala, Chevelle, Monte Carlo and Nova; Pontiac GTO, LeMans and Firebird; Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442; Buick Skylark, Grand Sport and Regal. He usually has about 200 project cars for sale at any given time, and the yard contains about 150 Chevelles, 75 Camaros, 75 Firebirds and some El Caminos. Sedans and wagons provide spares.

Stafford, who is 62, has been wrenching on muscle cars since high school. The Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland sprawl across the junction of the Snake and Columbia rivers. The area is best known for the Hanford nuclear reactors, where Stafford worked before he followed his dream (after his wife complained about cars cluttering the pasture).

Hanford has provided jobs and construction work since the 1940s, and what’s a kid with a good paycheck to do? Surrounded by dark desert highways and light traffic, it’s just the place for a 396 ci 4-speed Chevelle with booming glasspaks. With only seven inches of rain a year and no salt on the roads, the survivability rate of old cars is excellent, provided you don’t roll your 1964 409 Impala into Badger Canyon.

Stafford’s caller was in Las Vegas, Nev. But his girlfriend’s father had retired 12 years ago to the family apple orchard outside Wapato, at the end of miles of gravel road in the Yakima Valley. Dad had died some months back and his daughter returned to find the house ransacked. There were several cars under cover in the orchard, and something needed to be done quickly.

“They sent me some murky pictures and were trying to sell the cars with Nevada plates and no paperwork,” said Stafford with a sigh. “They had  ’68 and ’69 Camaros, a ’56 Chevy Bel Air, a ’61 Ford Econoline Pickup and a ’77 Dodge Ramcharger with a 440. I made them a substantial offer – I wasn’t trying to steal the cars, but I told them they’d have to find the paperwork.”

Thus motivated, the family gave the house a second ransacking. “I got another call a week later,” said Stafford. “Same voice: ‘You got the money?’ They’d turned the place upside down and at the bottom of a hamper of dirty clothes in a bedroom closet was a little safe. Inside was all the paperwork. I bought the three cars, and then because they didn’t want to take anything back to Vegas, I bought the Ramcharger and the Econoline. We took care of the licensing, and with the death certificate and affidavit of inheritance, it’s all sorted.”

The three cars were driven to their resting place and have been covered since, so the desert sun hadn’t cooked the paint or the interiors. “They’re really good cars: straight, not rusty, nice patina. The interiors aren’t ripped, though the carpets have faded. The red ’68 Camaro isn’t a Z/28, despite the badges, but it’s a V-8 auto car with power steering and air conditioning, missing the compressor. The Hugger Orange ’69 Camaro is also a V-8 auto. It’s an a/c car, too, but also missing the a/c unit. It’s also got power steering and disc brakes,” said Stafford.

“The family said the red and white ’56 Bel Air sedan was driven from Vegas to Reno for Hot August Nights the year before it was brought to Wapato,” he added. “It’s a 265 ci V-8 with Power Glide automatic transmission, radio and clock. The interior is black and white and was redone at some point.”

The ’78 Ramcharger’s paint is faded, but Stafford says it’s loaded with options and has the 440 V-8. The Ford Econoline pickup is very straight, but needs paint. It has a six-cylinder engine and 3-speed transmission and lettering on the tailgate that says “Ramos Drug Company.”

Stafford says he’ll get the cars running and sell them. “I’m going to ask $8,000 each for the Camaros, $5,000 for the Chevy Bel Air, $2,000 for the Econoline and $2,750 for the Ramcharger.”

You read it here first.

You can find Dan at http://www.dansgarage.net/ . As he says: “It’s kind of like an amusement park, only all the rides are broken…”

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