What's the Story Behind the Wrecked Car on a Mount Tamalpais Trail?

As part of our series Bay Curious, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. Our first question comes from Kermit Robbins, a student at San Francisco State, who wanted to know:

What's the story behind the wrecked car on Mount Tamalpais?

Mount Tamalpais is known for its staggering redwood groves, sweeping views of the Pacific and well-worn trails popular with Bay Area hikers.

But high along one of the park's more northern trails sits something you might not expect to find in such a serene and natural setting -- the rusted, hulking carcass of a vintage car.

Many have left graffiti or engravings on the car over the years.
Many have left graffiti or engravings on the car over the years. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

KQED listener Kermit Robbins has hiked by the wreck dozens of times, and always wonders how it got there.

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"I was out there with a bunch of friends once, and we did the exact same thing that everyone who comes across this car does," he says. "We investigated it."

He regularly finds a group gathered around the car, speculating how it may have come to rest in this unusual spot, about 350 feet below winding Ridgecrest Boulevard.

KQED's Katrina Schwartz and listener Kermit Robbins explore the wreck.
KQED's Katrina Schwartz and listener Kermit Robbins explore the wreck. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Did someone miss a curve in the road on a dark and rainy night? Could it have been a drunken driver? A suicide? Or maybe a mob deal gone wrong? Staring at the twisted metal, one grim thought can't be avoided: Did someone die here?

Mount Tamalpais Park Ranger Tom Frasier says the people who work there have tried to track down the car's origins in the past -- but they haven't gotten very far.

The letters "GM" are visible on the engine block, but General Motors hasn't helped them identify the vehicle, or who might have owned it.

"It's not like today, where everything's accounted for and maintained in a database," says Frasier. "For a lot of these vehicles, especially the early ones, there's not extensive record keeping."

A sharp turn on Ridgecrest Boulevard sits about 350 feet above the car wreck.
A sharp turn on Ridgecrest Boulevard sits about 350 feet above the car wreck. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Though Frasier can't tell us how the car got here, he does know that when the trail was constructed in the 1970s, workers had to build it around the wreck because the car was already there.

Is the Car a Clue?

It's easy to tell from looking at the shape of the vehicle that it's not a modern car. But how old is it?

Mike Sarcona, owner of Classic Cars West in Oakland, zeroes in on a few key features of our mystery car.

"It's an inline 8 [engine], so that eliminates a whole brand of cars that just didn't have inline 8's," Sarcona said.

The grill, fender stamping and steering wheel also offer hints about the era of production and manufacturer.

After about 20 minutes of studying our wreck, Sarcona's face lights up.

"It has to be a '41 Pontiac," he says.

The car's odometer reads 38,297 miles, although it could have also been driven 138,297 miles. There aren't enough digits on the display to show mileage over 99,999, so it's possible the car's odometer rolled over.

An advertisement of 1941 Pontiacs from a magazine.
An advertisement of 1941 Pontiacs from a magazine.

Given the lower mileage figure, Sarcona estimates the car is most likely to have crashed in the late 1940s or 1950s. If it were the higher mileage figure, it would probably have crashed even later.

Digging Through the Archives

If there had been a devastating accident, chances are good that we might be able to find newspaper reports or other records that document the incident.

But nobody has ever found any, says Fred Runner, the historian for Mount Tamalpais' West Point Inn.

That leads him and other historians to believe that however the mysterious car got here, it may not have been particularly noteworthy.

"In the less environmentally aware times, it wasn't unusual to have people take an automobile and push it over a cliff to see what happened," says Runner.

This matches up with a theory that Kermit Robbins thinks is most likely.

"I imagine that if the car had gone off and somebody died in it, it would've gotten hauled out," says Robbins. "So, I pictured that it was a bunch of kids in the 50s, all up there drinking beers at the top of the hill. They had some old junker car and they decided to just run it off [the hill.]"

So, here we are -- our very first report in the Bay Curious series and we find ourselves at a dead end. We asked Robbins if he was disappointed that we didn't find the "real real" answer.

And ... he let us off the hook.

"You know, the real real answer is probably really disappointing anyway. So, no, not at all," he says.

For now, the car will have to remain something of a mystery. It will continue to be a place where hikers stop, investigate and create their own theories.

Maybe that's more fun anyway.

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