A certain 1970s-era van has been parked on the street by my house for probably two years. Can I have it? It clearly doesn't belong to anyone. Wouldn't I be doing everyone a favor by fixing it up and turning it into my personal rolling bachelor pad? —Sammy Johns
I'm concerned about what you mean by "personal rolling bachelor pad," Sammy. That said, kudos on the sly pseudonym, which almost went over even my vast head.
Unfortunately, you can't just ground score a van like you would an ounce of weed you found on the sidewalk. It may seem ridiculous to folks like you and me who drive cars that one might reasonably trade for a microphone, but the state insists on an unbroken chain of possession for every car, no matter how shitty: Someone, somewhere, is the legal owner of that van.
The obvious solution is to track down that legal owner and offer to take the thing off their hands. Unfortunately, it's not that easy to find someone's contact info from their license plate number. (If it were, a lot more road-rage incidents would turn into home-invasion murder-suicides.)
There are online services that purport to offer license-plate lookup for a fee, but the one I paid for (you're welcome) took my money only to tell me there's no record of either of my cars.
What if the owner can't be found? The law is clear: "In order to title a vehicle, one must have acquired a legal interest through some legal process." (You can almost hear the bureaucracy saying, "I don't care, just give me a piece of paper.")
If this van had been abandoned on your property, that piece of paper—a possessory lien—would be pretty easy to get. But since it's on city property, only the city can seize it.
I suggest you rat out the car as abandoned, wait for the city to impound it, and buy it from them when they inevitably auction it off. It's probably your best bet in a world where the law doesn't take into account who's most likely to give a car a good home.