It is always fun to go to an old-style auto recycling center — a.k.a. junkyard.
There are several that I like in the West. Bend, Oregon has one, there are a couple in San Bernardino and one in Las Vegas. Ecology, You Pull Your Part, and the newer organized auto salvage yards just don't have the charm of the old junkyards.
Ecology, for example, has a standard posted price list. No matter what steering column you choose, it is usually the same price.
The old-style junkyards price according to the rarity of the part, condition of the part, and how much the buyer will pay. This leads to negotiations that may include some adult beverages for the owner and crew. Many times — after a few beverages — the independent guys remember a part that is in the same family as a part you are looking for and the game is on.
I have been known to go in for something small like a brake drum and end up with a spare transmission.
In the You Pull Your Part operation you pay your two dollars, get your part, and get out. Very few additional sales are made other than what you went in for in the first place.
The independent owner of the auto junkyard is a true entrepreneur, salesman, business owner, and purchasing agent. Ecology and the others are simply businesses of used parts connected by a corporate network. The chain junkyards have all the same policies and procedures wherever you go.
It never ceases to amaze me the attire people wear to the junkyard. At my local Ecology it runs from trendy brand name attire to clothes that definitely need their oil changed. I always wear clothing that I can throw away without regrets. Never wear shorts — just because you can't get all the grease out of your knees.
One afternoon I was out at Memory Lane Collector Car Dismantlers in Sun Valley and someone told me about another junkyard that was nearby. It was a chain-type like Ecology but was obviously privately-owned.
It has a you-pick-it program with one difference: they had all kinds of vehicles. Boats, motorcycles, military vehicles, and a bunch of other stuff as well as cars. This was also the first time I had ever seen guys in suits and ties in a junkyard. They were an active bunch even though their dress was not normal for the territory.
I finally asked what they were doing out there and one explained that they were from CBS in New York and were out to watch some filming in the area. This junkyard was a big treat for the New York boys and a nice California day made it more fun for them.
I found out later that they were in the neighborhood because they were watching the filming of the cable show "Junkyard Wars" behind Memory Lane.
There are some dangers in junkyard scrounging. Most junkyards are a natural breeding ground and habitat for the black widow spider. Snakes like the area under the front and back seats. An unexpected snake find is always exciting. Opossums and raccoons like old cars and can be equally exciting. Smart junkers always wear gloves and are extremely careful.
One story that a friend likes to tell is the one about the snake in the dashboard. His buddy thought the tail was the antenna cable — until he grabbed it.
Memory Lane is probably my favorite auto salvage yard as they specialize in old cars. Second would be Downtown Auto Wrecking in San Bernardino. Steve Reich is a neat guy and has more unusual stuff than anywhere I've been. Downtown is organized somewhat like Target. There is a steering column department, an intake manifold department, and a driveshaft division. Steve's prices are fair and if he doesn't have it he knows who does in the area. The only dilemma is a trip to San Bernardino — including looking around for treasure — is usually a full day.
My customer, Henry Fuji, had a saying; "Make every day special." I had a special day up in Carson City at a junkyard that was pretty hard to beat. In fact, my wife calls it "Allen's perfect day."
To start off, my bride was going golfing and had no troubles with me going to the junkyard. You seldom see a woman in a junkyard and I don't think I've ever seen one at a junkyard having a good time.
Anyway, I had most of the day free to go scrounging. I went to an independent pull-your-part in Carson City. Lurking around were two guys from L.A. waiting for the workers to bring out a Chrysler New Yorker. As I learned later, the junkyard owner tipped them off on the arrival of the Chrysler.
They came ready for the work with lots of power tools, a cooler of beer, and a festive attitude. Once they heard I was a Mopar guy they invited me to join them in dismantling the Chrysler.
After we pretty well stripped the Chrysler down to the carcass and loaded their trailer we went to pick up their friend at the Bunny Patch Brothel where he had spent his afternoon.
The next stop was an air-conditioned casino for 50 cent Rolling Rock beer in bottles.
A good day for me: 50 cent beer, dismantling a Chrysler, male bonding, and a trip to the brothel.
And I learned the next time you want to make the airport security personnel smile, take a Chrysler steering wheel through as carry-on luggage.
I can remember being a high school kid and knowing all the junkyards and the owners in my area. After all, old cars run on used parts and used parts were the cheapest. Now urban sprawl and government regulations have taken over a lot of auto-wrecking businesses.
The auto recycling center/junkyard picture has changed but, regardless of the format, big operator or small, it's still fun for me to search for treasure.
Originally published in the April/May 2004 Automotive
Copyright 2004 by KAL Publications Inc.
Covering the California auto parts aftermarket since 1928.