Auction To Crusher: 12 Weeks In the Lives of Two Cars At a Self-Service Wrecking Yard
I’ve loved high-turnover self-service wrecking yards since I used to hang out at U-Pull Auto Wrecking in Oakland as a teenager in the early 1980s, and so it makes sense that junkyard-related stuff became so central to the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™. During the last year, as my Junkyard Find series has evolved into a near-daily thing, I became increasingly curious about the life-cycle of the vehicles in these yards. A new row of fresh cars appears one day, replacing one that was put out a few months before, and that’s all I knew. Then, earlier this year, I was able to convince the brass at U-Pull-&-Pay Self Serve Used Auto Parts to give me a behind-the-scenes look at their operation, and I chose to follow the trajectories of two cars I thought would be typical junkyard inmates: a 1991 Honda Civic Si and a 1994 Toyota Camry XLE. I visited the auction at which they were purchased, I documented the pre-yard preparations, and I visited both cars every week for their three-month stint as parts donors. After that, I watched them get fed into the cold steel jaws of The Crusher. Here’s how our Civic and Camry spent the final months of their lives.
It all started last winter, when I found this ’78 Chrysler Cordoba at a self-serve yard near Chez Murilee in Denver. This fine example of Malaise Era personal luxury had a genuine Corinthian Leather bench seat in excellent condition.
So, I went back, bought the seat, and made it into a very comfy garage couch. In that tale, I’d mentioned some unpleasant experiences I’d had with certain California self-serve yard employees, experiences that make me reluctant to ask for help— say, moving a junkyard welded-wheel jackstand that made Cordoba seat bolts difficult to access— from any junkyard employees. The folks at the yard that provided the Corinthian Leather seat have always treated me well, so I had no complaints there… but then I got an email from a TTAC-reading employee at the corporate HQ of the chain that owned another Denver yard that has provided many Junkyard Finds: “I think you frequent our Aurora and Denver stores (from what I can see in your pics anyway). If you ever do need assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask. For safety reasons, we’re reluctant to bring mobile equipment into the yard during store hours. But someone could’ve helped you get that last nut.” I assured him that I had no complaints about any employees at those yards (in fact, Colorado junkyard employees tend to be several orders of magnitude pleasanter and more competent than their California counterparts)… but, while we’re on the subject, perhaps he might be able to find a way to get me access to the inner workings of one of their yards, for a future TTAC piece?
Next thing I know, I’m wearing a hardhat backstage at the Denver U-Pull-&-Pay yard, talking to John Fernbach, chief vehicle buyer for the company’s Colorado yards (sharp-eyed readers might recognize in the background the ’71 Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser that later got picked completely clean within days of being put out on the Denver U-Pull-&-Pay yard). John, who holds a degree in economics and specialized in commodity studies, doesn’t exactly conform to the the hardbitten, gas-axe-wielding junkyard dog stereotype some of us old-timers might hold. These days, running this sort of operation is a tightrope-walking science, where even slightly bad moves can move the balance sheet right into the red. His job is to obtain the feedstock for the three Colorado U-Pull-&-Pay yards, and that job gets tougher every week nowadays. High scrap-metal prices, well over $200/ton at the scrapper, just for cars dragged in off the street, and years of a grim economy have created legions of car-hungry scavengers who scour the land for any vehicle they can drag to the scrapper for a quick buck. Meanwhile, the same grim economy means that money-strapped working folks keep their old cars limping along longer than ever. The upshot is that finding fresh inventory for three major yards is like pulling teeth, and the job requires nonstop hustling.
John buys a lot of vehicles at local auctions, so he took me along to a nearby operation with plenty of inventory to move. A decade back, I used to buy Tercels and Civics at the San Francisco City Tow auctions of towed-away cars, a Wild West operation at which you could pick up runners for a C-note… but those days are long gone. In a few minutes at this auction, mostly watching beater 15-year-old dealership trade-ins go under the gavel, I became shocked at the prices being paid for these heaps.
For example, are you shopping for a rough-looking early-90s Ford Escort with bad oil rings? This car sold for 800 bucks, at an auction mostly attended by hard-eyed car-biz veterans. Whaaaaat? Blame high commodities prices, tough credit for new-car buyers, and general economic misery. Still, John manages to buy enough cars and trucks at sufficiently low prices to keep the yards in business; keep in mind that high prices for scrap metals mean that the picked-over hulks leaving the yard are worth much more than they were a few years back, even if the value of their parts to junkyard shoppers hasn’t increased much. Back to the Denver yard we went, so that I could pick out a couple of cars purchased during a previous auction visit.
We headed over to the holding area, where fresh arrivals are kept. I wanted two cars, one that I knew would inspire an instant feeding frenzy among car-enthusiast junkyard parts seekers and another that would be sought after by those patching together their daily drivers. For the latter car, I picked this ’94 Camry XLE, the kind of cockroach-grade survivor that’s usually worth fixing up when something breaks.
For the car that would really put some blood in the water for the junkyard sharks looking for bits for personal projects or maybe to resell on eBay, I selected this 1991 Honda Civic Si.
The 1988-91 Si hatch was once the factory-hot-rod Honda of choice for street-racer types, and the fourth-gen Civic still retains enough of a devoted following to ensure that one that appears at a low-priced self-serve yard will attract hordes of parts-pullers.
I was really tempted to go with this 1978 Mercury Marquis, just because it was so incredibly cool. Unfortunately, cars like this don’t get much action at a self-serve yard these days; probably a guy with an F-150 would yank the 400M engine and maybe the C4 transmission, and the rest of the car would go right into The Crusher’s jaws without giving me much of a story (plus this yard separates imports from domestics and I wanted the two cars parked side-by-side, meaning I’d need two Detroit cars or two imports). I tried my best to get a certain TTAC writer with an irrational love of Malaise Era Blue Oval products to buy this rust-free car— which ran and drove perfectly and which U-Pull-&-Pay was offering at a very reasonable price— but he didn’t feel up to the Denver-to-Houston, single-digit-MPG drive that would be required.
Once I chose the cars I’d be following, it was time for me to watch the U-Pull-&-Pay grunts prep them for placement among the rest of the inventory in the junkyard proper. At this point, my bullshit detectors kicked into DefCon One mode, as I geared up for any sign that the men running this yard were faking up a Potemkin village of just-this-one-day-only safe-and-clean fluid-disposal procedures and so on; such is the level of suspicion that interacting with car-company PR flacks engenders in a properly cynical automotive journalist. Having watched plenty of junkyard-chain employees in allegedly-enviro-conscious California dumping oil on the ground a few hundred yards from the endangered species of San Francisco Bay (and no doubt playing Crush The Alameda Whipsnake with old car batteries when customers weren’t watching), I was ready to pounce on signs of phony safety and/or waste-disposal hijinks.
As suspicious and pessimistic as I try to be, and as much as I want to write an Ida Tarbell-grade muckraking exposé, I’ve got to admit that the operations at U-Pull-&-Pay Denver (and, I hope, the rest of their yards) appear to be legitimately safe-n-sane, and that what I saw behind the scenes this summer looks like their typical workday.
Before a new arrival gets put up on the rack for fluid and refrigerant removal, the U-Pull-&-Pay employees harvest all the loose change they find under the seats. This goes into a bucket, and the contents of the bucket are used to buy pizza for the whole crew on Fridays.
Batteries are removed from vehicles and brought to this area for testing. Good batteries are sold to customers, bad batteries are sent to recycling plants.
The air-conditioner refrigerant is harvested and stored, and all fluids— including windshield-washer juice and brake fluid— are sucked out and sent off for recycling or disposal.
A vampire-like device punches into the fuel tank and drains all the gasoline without spilling a drop. Good gas is given to employees; bad gas gets recycled with the other petroleum-based liquids. The entire procedure is weirdly clean and not anything like the puddles-of-burning-gear-oil Superfund nightmare I’d imagined.
After that, the cars were put into the on-deck area, where they’d wait until it was time to pull out an old row of imports and replace it with fresh meat.
So that the forklift drivers would keep the Civic and the Camry together on the yard, my name was written on the windows in paint-pen ink. This made me feel like a junkyard VIP.
I was off at a distant 24 Hours of LeMons race when the cars were placed at the end of a row in the Imports section, so they’d already been exposed to parts shoppers for two days when I visited them.
The hood and a couple of wheels had sold off the Camry, but otherwise it was untouched.
The Civic Si, on the other hand, had already given up a bunch of high-value parts. The Si instrument cluster probably lasted about 20 minutes; these things fetch good money on eBay— not bad for a part that U-Pull-&-Pay gets $20.99 for. The factory aluminum wheels and many interior components were gone as well. I visited this Civic every week for each of its 11 weeks in the Import section, but we’ve only got room for a brief outline of what parts got pulled when; go here for the complete start-to-finish photo-essay of the 1991 Honda Civic Si’s life at U-Pull-&-Pay Denver.
The following week, the Camry’s dash had been hit, but the factory radio, once removed, was judged to be not worth buying. Go here for the complete start-to-finish photo-essay of the 1994 Toyota Camry XLE’s life at U-Pull-&-Pay Denver.
Under the Camry’s (nonexistent) hood, the usual scramble for pocket-sized relays and electronic devices had begun.
Next door, the Civic had donated a fender and most of its front body parts to Denver Honda fanciers.
The door panels and inside latches had been taken, along with about 50% of the remaining interior parts. Exterior trim pieces were also evaporating.
By Week Three, the Camry had started to lose some in-demand bits; the driver’s-side rear-view mirror, for example.
At the same time, someone had removed a valve cover and begun the process of pulling out a couple of the camshafts, before giving up and leaving the cams in place.
Not much had changed on the Camry the following week. Nice front door panels on sub-20-year-old import sedans mostly get snapped up from self-service yards, and that’s what happened to our Camry.
By Week Five, the Civic was looking even more naked. Taillights, most of the exterior trim, and a sprinkling of parts from all over the car had departed.
The Camry’s interior, which looked pretty clean for an 18-year-old car, was bearing the brunt of the scavenging by this time. Part of the center console and the parking-brake lever now live on in a still-on-the-street Camry.
After the Civic Si spent six weeks on the yard, someone finally came and pulled the car’s 108-horse D16A6 engine. The transmission, oil pan, and most of the accessories were left behind.
By that time, the Camry had yielded some more interior parts, including the driver’s-side armrest and power-window controls.
While Civic-parts shoppers continued to pick the ’91 Si cleaner with each passing week, the Camry at seven weeks was still 90% there.
With 266,542 miles on the clock, this Toyota served its owners well.
A row of cars stays out for two or three months at this type of yard, so time was running out for these two after 11 weeks.
The next row over was replaced around this time, with this ’73 Super Beetle parked nose-to-nose with the Camry.
High-demand parts are often pulled from a car and stashed in an adjacent car, while the buyer runs home to get money and/or check to see if he really needs the thing. I’m not sure why anybody would care much about a Mexican Solex 34PICT knockoff, but I found the Super Beetle’s carb sitting in the Camry’s trunk.
Twelve weeks after our Camry and Civic were placed on the yard, it was time for some new inventory. In their place, a Mazda Protege and a Lexus SC400.
Meanwhile, the junkyard-browsing public having had three months to pick over the Civic and Camry, our cars waited in a holding area next to The Crusher.
The forklift man grabbed the Toyota first.
The aluminum-laden engines of modern cars are removed before crushing at U-Pull-&-Pay; the forklift operator just tears the engine and transmission right out of the car.
This guy then jumps in and begins clipping off valuable copper wiring from the engine.
After that, he’ll remove the alternator, starter, and other accessories that have value as rebuildable cores.
While that’s going on, the forklift goes back in and rips out the dash wiring harness and whatever remains of the engine harness.
Copper is money!
18 years and the equivalent of 11 trips around the world’s circumference, and the end of the line has been reached for this Camry. Into The Crusher it goes.
If you have a ghoulish fascination with watching cars die, here’s a video compilation of the sequence I just described.
With the Camry pressed flat, The Crusher has room for another course in its meal. The forklift fetches the Civic.
The engine and much of the wiring had already been pulled by customers, so there wasn’t as much to extract from this car.
Placed atop the Camry in The Crusher, the Civic gets mashed flat quickly.
Here’s the video version of the Civic’s demise.
The two-car pancake is then hauled over to the stacks of squished cars awaiting a trip to the scrapper.
The two cars together couldn’t have been more than 18″ thick.
I’ve owned a few fourth-gen Civics and liked them a lot, so this sight made me a bit sad. Still, the endless cycle of cars and steel must continue.
The crushed carcasses are loaded onto a truck, which then takes the load of steel about ten miles south to the scrapper.
The pressed remains of our Camry and Civic then get shredded and put into shipping containers. Maybe they’ll be hauled by train over the Rockies and Sierras and put into a China-bound container ship, or perhaps they’ll head to foundries in the United States or Europe. And that’s it— two more cars reenter the food chain.
For the complete story of the ’91 Civic Si’s 11 weeks as a parts donor, go here.
For the ’94 Camry XLE’s saga, go here.
Writer d'Elegance Brougham Landau.
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