Army Staff Car: 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle

This 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle is a former Army-owned staff car, but that’s not the most interesting thing about it. This Chevelle was previously part of a well-known but highly secretive collection known as “The Car Garden”, located somewhere in California and its location never revealed to all but a few friends of the owner. Now that he’s passed away, some of the cars are coming to light, and you’ll find the Chevelle here on eBay with a $1,350 Buy-It-Now.

Car and Driver magazine was the only media outlet allowed to venture into the Garden to document the sprawling collection, acquired over decades of buying discarded vehicles from auction lots and impound yards. The visionary behind it, Tom Merkel, really did intend to create an artistic exhibit that captured the history of the owners and the cars and trucks that carried them through life, right down to the beach passes in the windshield and newspapers on the seats. This Chevelle is a perfect example of this philosophy, still wearing its Army-issued license plates.

The Car Garden was mostly comprised of fairly average vehicles like this, but at its peak, it did house a few Porsche 356s, Austin Healeys, and Jaguar E-Types. It seems the individual that’s listed this car has some claim over the liquidation of the site, which is a shame – from what I’ve gathered, Merkel never wanted to see the collection broken up. It’s been a haven for photography students from the Brooks Institute for Photography and other colleges, but from what I can gather, those were the only regular visitors allowed access to the site.

What’s incredible is the seller says he has about 70 cars left. There were originally 1,200 in this collection, and I can’t help but wonder how many were crushed. They weren’t all valuable, but many were certainly rare – like the Fiat 124 Special sedan mentioned in the Car and Driver article.

The same article mentions a nonprofit trust that formally owned the Car Garden, which also had an agreement with the state of California that none of the vehicles would be sold or moved off-site. Whatever has happened in the time since the article was written to the present day would help answer many questions about one the most famous – and secretive – car collections in the U.S.


  1. Steve R

    The opening bid is $500, the pictures don’t show anything to suggest there is that much value in it as a parts car.

    No title or registration? The seller says that means no back fees, which is disingenuous, that may technically be true, but California will find a way to get its pound of flesh. Someone won’t be able to walk into a DMV office and walk out with a new title with minimal expense or significant hassle.

    Steve R

    Like 13
    • Tirefriar

      Its actually not as bad as you think. As long as the seller provides you with a title and signs a “lost title form” along with a statement of facts you should be ok. VIN must then be verified by a DMV employee, CHP officer or and indie. This being a pre ’76 model year so no smog is necessary. Simply gather all the paperwork mentioned above and head to your local DMV to complete the registration.

      Like 4
      • Steve R

        The seller says he has no title.

        A friend just went through this with a 2001 Chevy Tahoe he bought for the engine. The seller never put it in his name and lost the title he got when he bought it. My friend chased his tail for over a month trying to junk it without paying to have it put in his name, which would have cost him close to $1,000 for a lien and fees. Even someone he knew that ran a junkyard wouldn’t touch it.

        Steve R

        Like 5
    • 433jeff

      Thats not a Chevelle, sorry , too old to be caught dead in that, no attraction, maybe a demo derby. Yukk ok im done

      Like 2
    • Jerry Brentnell

      take your $1350 and get your self a high class call girl and bottle of bourbon have fun get drunk and for get this pile of junk!

      Like 2
    • VAL

      If it’s truely a X military Vehicle then it has a Military Form 97 title it’s like a New Vehicle as far as DMV know’s because there is no record in the book’s it doesn’t matter when it was bought from the military .Been around these types of car’s and truck’s all my life Best 1’s to reg .

      Like 2
  2. Chebby Staff

    Wow, what a weird story. I had the same thought the seller did, turn it into a Derelict style cruiser with a big block.

    Like 4
  3. Ghostnote

    I’m with Chebby. Clean it up, topside and underside, clear coat it, refresh the interior, fix the A/C, beef up the suspension and brakes, drop in a built small block (or a BBC if you must, but a SBC would be laughably easy) and a modern autobox and go. Quickly and stealthily. I’d pay $500 to get that ball rolling. Army plates and no title are the only monkeys I see in the wrench.

    Like 5
  4. Spridget

    1. Car and Driver was hardly the only group allowed to visit the Car Garden; the Barn Find Hunter show with Tom Cotter went there several years ago, and there are numerous Flickr photos of the garden.

    2. Merkel died several years ago, and the collection has slowly been liquidated, but I’m not sure if one person has had total control.

    3. In my opinion, parking 1,200 cars in the desert with relics of their owners isn’t art. Capturing “the history of the owners and the cars and trucks that carried them through life, right down to the beach passes in the windshield and newspapers on the seats” could describe basically every vehicle on this website. Furthermore, the Garden wasn’t open to the public; what’s the point of “art” if no one can see it? To me, this man bought 1,200 cars and parked them in a vaguely organized fashion in the middle of nowhere- sounds more like a junkyard than an art exhibit to me. I think it’s for the best that these cars are sold off, and some can get back on the road or serve as part’s donors.

    Like 37
    • Mountainwoodie

      I kind of agree. On the other hand he undoubtedly saved some from the crusher. Personally I couldn’t have let some of them sit there and rot.

      Is that the Navy ’61 Pontiac ambulance that carried JFKs’ body off the plane after Dallas?

      ’61 DeSoto? ’60 Dodge…yikes!

      • Ralph

        The ambulance that carried JFK’s body in Washington was a 1963 Pontiac and it was destroyed by the Kennedy family in the 80’s after being in storage for many years.

        It was destroying gov property that was part of American history but hey, when you’re last name is Kennedy you can get away with murder……..

        Like 9
  5. matthew B steele

    Omg..$1300 to buy …or are they paying $1300 to have it hauled away? Either way it’s not a deal

    Like 5
  6. matthew B steele

    Wacko smacko

    Like 1
  7. Ralph

    Scrap from koo-koo car hoarder……pass.

    Like 2
  8. KevinLee

    Take it back to the garden and this time, leave it buried. Or make a demolition derby car out of it.

  9. mike D

    personally, I think it would be a blast to drive , it is just a plain Jane probably the underside is rust free I would want to do something about that surface rust though paint it primer flat black like the “Old days” till I decide what to do with it this car would be no ” worries” about it being ” correct ‘ I really like the idea of the dog dish hubcaps if the current engine will run, get ‘er up and running while deciding which engine to put in it next a crate 350 with glass packs comes to mind black walls as I said the dog dish hub caps ( current ones) maybe a bench seat from a Impala ( mid 70s) or Bel air tunes, and I am set

    Like 3
  10. stevee

    IF (big IF) it has the Army plates and there are no CA plates ever issued to it, it was never titled in CA. It would be to the buyers advantage if there were some military paperwork, good. If not, it’s up to the highway patrol inspector to inspect and verify its Army history (plates + door painted numbers + vin plate) and provide that to the DMV. I dealt with a car that had never been USA State titled, and the state police investigator cleared the car and even used the original VIN on the title. Might not have any fees due….

    Like 2
  11. Mountainwoodie

    @Ralph…….Clever……….Here’s a little more detail that originally ran in Jalopnik

  12. Al

    That thing is hideous. I wouldn’t take it if given to me. Seriously, look at it. If a 2 door, MAYBE, again, if it was given to me. But that style was the end of a good thing they had going.

    Like 1
  13. Bodyman68

    Id take it in a heartbeat, all you haters have no clue . Clean it up rebuild the engine and drive it ! Oh it’ll turn heads if not drop in a bbc, there a dime a dozen and drop in without major mods . Perfect sleeper ! Yes they handle with small block suspension very nicely. 73 was best looking out of that era 73-77.

    Like 5
  14. Gary S.

    I don’t think i would pay 1350 for it, but would fix and drive it. Even though it’s a plain 4 door still cooler ride than most of the plastic pieces of crap that they call cars these days.

    Like 3
  15. Fred

    I bought it. Folks, you’re all narrow minded on titles and California Centric, California ends up with nothing on this deal. There are 49 other States in the country. Tom’s brother is Ben Merkel the Checker Taxi Cab Expert and collector. They were/was/are Historians and have contributed to this hobby immensely This car is going to a fine collection of Fleet Vehicles, Taxi Cabs, Cop Cars, Postal Vehicles, to someone that does and will appreciate it. Now go back to your sameness and oneness of collection Camaro’s and Mustangs.

    Like 1

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