Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »

Striking Portraits of Lonely Cars in 1970s New York

Nighttime scenes of parked cars and deserted streets.

<em>White Tower car, Buick LeSabre, Meatpacking District, 1976.</em> From <em>Cars - New York City, 1974 - 1976</em>, by Langdon Clay.
White Tower car, Buick LeSabre, Meatpacking District, 1976. From Cars - New York City, 1974 - 1976, by Langdon Clay. All Photos: Langdon Clay/ Courtesy Steidl

On a snowy night in 1976, a Buick LeSabre was parked outside a White Tower hamburger restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District. For photographer Langdon Clay, armed with a Leica and some Kodachrome film, it was an arresting moment. In Clay’s photograph of the scene, the empty car looks almost forlorn under the neon strip lighting. Around it, the street is empty. The only signs of life are the blurred figures inside the diner, presumably the car’s owners ordering food.

This photograph is just one of many Clay shot between 1974 and 1976. In those years he documented parked cars, in Manhattan and Hoboken, in streets devoid of people and always at night. The title of each image includes the names of the cars, which are themselves evocative: Chevrolet Bel Air, Plymouth Duster, Gran Torino Sport.

So, too, are the backdrops. One photograph shows a Buick Skylark on a shadowy street in Soho in 1976, in front of a small sandwich shop with the sign “Pat’s Hot and Cold Heroes.” Another has a Ford Galaxie 500 parked in front of the Carz-A-Poppin car wash on Houston and Broadway.

Four decades later these lonely cars, and most of the businesses around them, are long gone. But they can be revisited in Clay’s book, Cars – New York City 1974 – 1976, published by Steidl. 

<em>Charlie Robert's campaign car, Chevrolet Bel Air, Hoboken, NJ, 1976.</em>
Charlie Robert’s campaign car, Chevrolet Bel Air, Hoboken, NJ, 1976.
<em>Subway Impala, Chevrolet Impala, 7th Avenue and 29th Street, 1975.</em>
Subway Impala, Chevrolet Impala, 7th Avenue and 29th Street, 1975.
<em>Basketball Car, Plymouth Duster, 1974.</em>
Basketball Car, Plymouth Duster, 1974.
<em>Hard Rock Caddy, Cadillac near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue, 1975.</em>
Hard Rock Caddy, Cadillac near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue, 1975.
<em>Fountain Car, Oldsmobile Cutlass, 1975.</em>
Fountain Car, Oldsmobile Cutlass, 1975.
<em>Box Car, Gran Torino Sport, in the Twenties or Thirties on the East Side, 1975.</em>
Box Car, Gran Torino Sport, in the Twenties or Thirties on the East Side, 1975.
<em>Pat's Hot and Cold Heroes Car, Buick Skylark, Soho, 1976.</em>
Pat’s Hot and Cold Heroes Car, Buick Skylark, Soho, 1976.
<em>Carz-a-Poppin Car, Ford Galaxie 500 (1966), Houston and Broadway, 1976.</em>
Carz-a-Poppin Car, Ford Galaxie 500 (1966), Houston and Broadway, 1976.
<em>Silver Fish, Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe, in front of Con Edison substation, 1975.</em>
Silver Fish, Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe, in front of Con Edison substation, 1975.
The cover for Langdon Clay's <em> Cars - New York City, 1974-1976</em>, showing the <em>Marlin Room Car, Cutlass Supreme in front of the Marlin Room and Lounge connected to Clam Broth House, Hoboken, NJ, 1975.</em>
The cover for Langdon Clay’s Cars - New York City, 1974-1976, showing the Marlin Room Car, Cutlass Supreme in front of the Marlin Room and Lounge connected to Clam Broth House, Hoboken, NJ, 1975. Courtesy Steidl