In the oil-stained industrial district of a hardscrabble Georgia town, the sun beats down on a graveyard of wretched excess. Row after row of partially-stripped hulks drip planet-poisoning fluids on the orange clay, their remains picked over by a motley crew of opportunists. Scores of full-sized sport utility vehicles are ripe for scavengers, their bloated corpses dismembered for whatever might still be of use. What’s killing off the full-framed SUVs?
There are the usual suspects, of course; the kinds of wear and tear that land vehicles of all types in junkyards. Accidents have claimed more than a few. Insurance stickers are often pasted to windshields, and crash damage is readily apparent. The warped sheet metal of the Suburban above is a telltale sign.
Mechanical issues are another reason these trucks get junked, even though the drivetrains tend to be fairly stout. Transmissions are a frequent Achilles’ heel. The extra load of an SUV body, neglect, and the “What’s a transmission cooler?” school of towing philosophy contribute to burnout. The employees of this yard write useful information on the glass of the heaps to aid shoppers: “Runs good,” “Trans bad,” “Motor good,” etc. The (hopefully working) transmission of this Explorer Sport lives on in another Ford product, somewhere.
Still others are claimed by plain old attrition. This five-speed Rodeo rang up mileage well into the six digits before winding up here. The earliest Explorers are more than two decades old now. Even long-lived Toyota products bite the dust eventually. The one 4Runner I saw in the yard was so gutted that its remains were basically unrecognizable. Xterras are also starting to hit the self-service yards, usually without a single straight body panel remaining. I saw two on my last trip, both of which had fallen prey rabid junkyard scavengers in short order.
The typical explanations aren’t enough, though, to explain why so many fairly clean trucks are hitting in the yards. Most of the odometers were in the low 100s, with bodies and interiors easily worthy of used-car retailers. A decent number of them are less than ten years old, and those aren’t the accident victims. Even after the great SUV purge of Cash for Clunkers, in which the Explorer claimed the #1 spot for vehicle trade-ins, there seems to be an endless supply of BOF SUVs flowing into the yards. I gave up counting after I reached four dozen in my last trip, and this was in a relatively small self-service yard in a medium-sized urban area. Where are they coming from?
The words scrawled on the windows are the key. Two magic ones in particular: title pawn. The last and most desperate source of cash for those living on the edge, especially in the South. These trucks have reached the very bottom of the ownership cycle. When their owners are up against the wall financially, they turn to one of the few entities that will provide them ready cash. The offer is tantalizing: give us your title, and we give you a loan. You get to keep the car, at least until you miss a payment and the repo man comes a-calling. Trucks filled with personal possessions and other detritus attest to the sudden parting of vehicle and ex-owner. Looking for owner’s manuals to add to my collection, I swing open the door of a not-particularly-battered Mountaineer (the windshield damage is from the junkyard forklift) with the telltale words scrawled on the side windows. There are clothes everywhere, as well as random paperwork and bills. A smiling toddler looks at me from a photo glued to the dash. This is what life on the edge looks like.
The title pawn companies can’t offload these SUVs fast enough. They get run through auctions, but only the most perfect or desirable examples wind up with used-car places. Otherwise, they go to the yards; scrap prices make them an attractive commodity. It doesn’t matter if they still run and drive perfectly fine. Practically nobody wants an eight-seat behemoth that gets mileage in the low teens on a good day. Cash-strapped large families, the odd contractor, and the desperate are about the only people willing to take on a ten-year-old BOF SUV. This produces the irony of very poor people driving very inefficient status symbols that retailed for well over twice the Federal poverty line not that many years ago. I find another SUV, a Suburban this time. Lots of papers again, including a partially-filled-in kids coloring book in Spanish. I wonder if the pawn companies will let people collect their personal possessions after the car is taken away. I imagine that a lot of people are probably too embarrassed to show up; it’s not like they have a car to get there now anyway.
What people do want, though, is pickup trucks. A running pickup will virtually always have a minimum value above scrap, especially in semirural areas like this part of Georgia. This is attested to by the relative lack of pickups in the yards, compared to SUVs. Only the most clapped-out pickups are sold for scrap; they have to become well and truly useless before they’re discarded. The SUVs in these yards are the most valuable resource available for keeping those pickups on the road. Expeditions, Explorers, Suburbans and Tahoes are raided to keep F-Series, Rangers, Silveradoes and Sierras going. That explains why so many SUVs have their perfectly serviceable mechanical guts yanked in short order, as well as any straight body panels.
As I watch two men yank a radiator out of an Explorer, I realize I’m watching my childhood get disassembled. I’m not sad. At least something useful is finally coming out of the SUV craze. The yuppies in their E30s and Civics probably felt something similar when their parents’ LTDs and Caprices were hauled off to the junkyard. Even so, nobody has really tried to explain how the SUV boom affected Millennials’ outlook on the automobile in general. That I’ll save for part two.