Want to travel back in time? All it takes is a drive down U.S. Highway 101 in the heart of San Francisco at exactly the right moment. The portal is there, perched in plain sight on top of a squat two-story former warehouse in the tech capital’s expensive SoMa neighborhood. It can only be seen when conditions are perfect.
We’re talking, of course, about the internet-famous, 27-year-old billboard for the 1993 Toyota Supra that’s somehow survived for decades in a city whose name is synonymous with unstoppable progress. Its enduring presence has been a mystery—until now.
The old ad was brought to wider attention in January after a passing motorist snapped a picture of it that went viral; with the launch of the new Toyota Supra last year, the sudden appearance of an iconic image from 1993 seemed like a guerrilla marketing trick. “The line has been crossed” has held up well as far as early-90s taglines are concerned, too. Though as commenters pointed out, the real reason it popped up was because the newer ad that had been plastered on top of it was being swapped out. Not as exciting, but still a treat to witness in 2020.
Still, we couldn’t help but wonder. Billboard ads are generally printed on massive vinyl sheets held in place by a high-strength adhesive. Assuming others graced that spot between 1993 and the late 2010s, why did workers keep peeling until they reached the O.G. Supra of all things? And why is it in such excellent condition? Those questions were only magnified in early May when another motorist again spotted the Supra ad and posted it in the official Radwood Facebook group. We had to find out.
Many people have come to know it as the Salesforce billboard, since the tech company has its logo splayed across the top. But in reality the spot is owned by Clear Channel Outdoor, a national billboard and display ad company that was until recently part of the massive Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) radio empire.
We got in touch with CCO Regional President Bob Schmitt, who finally revealed the truth: Billboard ads used to be hand-painted, and the 1993 Supra image has survived because it was the last painted one before the company switched to vinyl prints on that particular display.
Rather than wasting paint to blank out the canvas, the company decided to leave up the A80 Supra as the base for all future ads. And so it will stand forever—or at least until some executive declares that it’s time for a digital sign there. That means this past January was far from the first time it’s popped up; in reality, the car appears every time Clear Channel Outdoor changes the current image.
As for why it’s only getting attention now, Schmitt explained that workers can swap out vinyl billboards in about two hours and do so at random times. The billboard can only be seen from the highway, and the only tall building with a view of it is a courthouse and county jail on the other side of the freeway. For it to have gone viral, someone needed to be driving by in the right window of time—we’re talking maybe six non-consecutive hours total in a given year—and paying attention with their smartphone immediately accessible.
Apparently it took until five months ago for that to happen. The fresh cultural relevance of the Supra helped, too, though there are doubtlessly some Bay Area natives shaking their heads right now over our fascination with something they’ve known forever.
Those brief glimpses are also the reason why the painting has held up so well, as it’s only exposed to air and sunlight long enough for the new ad to be put in place. So if you’ve got dreams of time travel, know that it’s possible—if fleeting. Here’s the exact spot if you want to make a run at it. Good luck. — Chris Teague