By on March 21, 2013

These days, with scrappers paying $240/ton (the going rate in Denver; I hear it’s similar elsewhere) for cars and steel car parts, we’ve seen an explosion in the numbers of guys cruising around in hooptied-out minivans, pickups and the occasional bicycle with trailer, looking for metal. The older parts of the Denver urban core, where I live, have alleys between streets, and so the scavengers (I call them Jawas) spend their days patrolling these alleys in search of stuff they can turn into cash at the scrapper. It turns out that these guys can smell a transmission as they pass by, even one that’s behind a gate and barely visible.
My ’66 Dodge A100 van has proven to be a useful car-parts-and-lumber hauler, though I still haven’t made much progress on my 70s-style customization project. It has only one major mechanical headache, and that’s a transmission that leaks from every possible location; the van sat for 15 years before I got it, and all the seals and gaskets are bad. Replacing the pan gasket solved about 50% of the problem, but that’s really not enough. Normally, I’d just go to the junkyard and pick up another Torqueflite 727 from one of any number of easy-to-find dead Chryslers, but the A100 used a funky van-and-RV-only top-of-the-tailshaft rear mount. My plan is to rebuild the leaky 727, but I don’t want to immobilize the van while I’m learning the black art of slushbox rejuvenation.
Then my friend Andy, owner of a big yard full of interesting vehicles picked up a rusted-to-hell A100 with a good transmission.
I traded him these catalytic converters (hacked from a Lexus SC400 that served as the suspension donor for my 1941 Plymouth project) for his A100’s transmission, and now I just need to get around to doing the swap.
In the meantime, I stashed the transmission next to my garage. Whoops, forgot to bend the cooling lines up high enough, so there’s a bit of a melted-snow-and-transmission-fluid stain beneath it now.
But then the Jawas started catching sight of the Torqueflite through the (locked) gate. It’s not worth busting a padlock to get $12 worth of scrap, so my doorbell started ringing. “I’ll help you dispose of that unwanted transmission!” Then the notes appeared in my mailbox.
An old sheet will keep the transmission invisible until I put it in the van.
You can tell something is there, but it doesn’t look quite so metallic. What happens, though, when scrap steel gets to $1000/ton?

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62 Comments on “Denver Alley Scavengers Scrap-Maddened By Torqueflite Visible In Yard, Camouflage Only Option...”

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    “You can tell something is there, but it doesn’t look quite so metallic. What happens, though, when scrap steel gets to $1000/ton?”

    You’ll end without the “unwanted” item.

  • avatar
    Ted Grant

    Same issues with the scavengers here in my town. Scrap prices are lower @ 180.00 per ton and I wonder how the scrappers are making money driving around in beat up gas guzzling trucks. Clean copper is close to 3.00 a pound so any crt tv’s dropped off after hours at the Good Will stores have the back of the cabinet smashed out and the copper yolk removed. I pulled an older Jenn Air range out of my daughters house with the intention of selling it but overnight some scrap bandits beat me to it…

  • avatar

    If the transmission is working fine otherwise, I would be inclined to find the source of the leak instead of replacing the transmission. Clean-up the grime, drive the van for a bit, then look for the source of fresh fluid weeping out.

    Chances are good that the culprit is the shift shaft seal. Pull the pan again, then remove the valvebody, pop out the old shift shaft seal and press in a new one. Can be done with the trans still in the vehicle, I’ve done it.

    While you have the valvebody out, you could install a shift kit if you desire and/or a part-throttle kickdown module. Some trans guys will say that a 1966 valvebody can’t be retrofitted with the PTK module, but it depends on the VB casting. My 1966 VB was the correct casting so it had the requisite ports. If so, adding the PTK module isn’t difficult.

    The other likely leak point would be the front seal, which you can tell because the trans fluid will be weeping from inside the bellhousing. To get that, you either need to drop the trans or the engine, then pull the torque converter out. Pull out the old seal and hammer in a new one. While you’re there, snug-up the bolts on the pump.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s gonna suck when the 40+ year old seals on the “new” trans start leaking too.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m going to do a full rebuild of the trans in the van now, but I know it’s going to take me forever (never done a transmission rebuild before, always just swapped in a junkyard unit when one went bad) so I want to keep the van mobile while that goes on.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        You could rebuild the extra one you have now? Swap it in, then rebuild the original one correctly, having learned from mistakes made the first time around.

        • 0 avatar

          The spare one came from a running, but very rusty, van and doesn’t leak at all. The one in my van has to be kept 3 quarts low on fluid or it dumps 3 quarts on the ground when parked.

          • 0 avatar

            The shift shaft seal on my ’66 A-100 caused the same type of leak. The only problem was that the actual shaft was so worn that a new seal alone did nothing. It leaks when parked because the fluid level at rest is higher than where the shifter enters the case.

      • 0 avatar

        A well maintained 727 will last darn near forever. If you want to rebuild your spare one for the learning experience that’s a valid reason, but doing it because seals are leaking is not, IMO. If minimizing downtime is priority, that’s an argument in favor of not swapping transmissions.

        If you go the route of changing seals as I suggest, adjust the bands while you have the pan off. (Being able to adjust the bands is one of the reasons a 727 rarely needs overhaul.) One of the bands is adjusted from outside, but to access the other one you must pull the pan.

        If your pan doesn’t have a drain plug, install one or replace the pan with one that has a drain plug. Then it’s easy to change the fluid every now and then, and if/when you need to service the trans again, it will be much less messy.

      • 0 avatar

        I have a 66 A100 /6 manual I’m in the process of swapping in a TB injected 360 auto.
        I’m desperately seeking an A100 small block auto trans
        ANY CONDITION (rebuildable)
        I live in Fort Collins. Any chance you’ve done the swap yet? Interested in selling the “spare”
        [email protected]

  • avatar

    Back when I lived and worked in a not so great city called Newport News Va (and Hampton, next to it) we had a lot of scrapper problems. One guy came around and asked if he could have the old forklift radiators my boss had started a collection on (to turn in). Next day they were gone.

    Then I worked at a industrial turbo-rebuild place. We had to keep are scrap locked up inside, as, during the day, in middle of business hours, they’d drive behind the building and start stealing it, and then argue with us how so-and-so said they could take it (so-and-so never existed or worked there, this was a very small operation). He had a service-station style bell installed on the drive that went around back. About every other day somebody would drive back there scoping it out, ignoring all the signs posted along the way.

    • 0 avatar

      Hah, the very place I spoke about below, add to that the catalytic converter theft ring – with a lot of trucks in the area there was a group of jawas sneaking under the trucks and cutting the converters out.

      • 0 avatar

        Cat theft is a huge problem here in Phoenix. The thieves are bold enough to hit office complex and shopping mall parking lots during daylight hours. My brother recently had a muffler shop weld a cage of hardened steel around the cat on his Tacoma; apparently Tacomas are one of the more popular targets.

        • 0 avatar

          They are easy to get under.

        • 0 avatar

          My employer recently had an entire low-boy trailer hooked up and stolen – in broad daylight, with employees in the plant. Somebody ran out of the plant just in time to see the thieves speed off.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes, this is true. I work on the parts counter of a Toyota dealership and sadly these calls come quite often…. it slowed down a tad from last year, but it wasn’t unusual to get 4-5 calls on Tacoma/Hilux cats per day…. in fact a customer had all 4 cats stolen on their 4.0 V6 Tacoma in the parking lot of a hotel…. plus as an ultimate ‘FU’, they cut the wires on the O2 sensors as well.

        • 0 avatar

          That’s interesting to hear. My buddy had his cat nearly stolen out from under his Tacoma until his dog started going off and woke him up. He ran the guys off, but they were brave/dumb/whatever enough to come back in like 30 minutes and try again. Of course he heard them and called the cops. I guess some people just don’t know when they’re beat.

  • avatar

    The idea these urban miners can smell scrap metal is no exaggeration. I walked some scrap to the curb knowing (thinking) within a few days it would be gone. I had only returned to the house when a truck drove up and loaded it away.

  • avatar

    Sounds about right. I live in Denver proper and see a lot of the same thing. I usually leave small, unwanted metal bits from automotive or house projects next to the dumpster for these guys, rather tossing them in the dumpster, and they’re always gone within an hour. My old water heater lasted about 30 seconds before it was plucked. Love the use of the Jawa term!

  • avatar

    One enterprising jawa in my home town realized following every railroad track had an old copper telegraph line next to it.. I guess it was to much of a bother for whoever owned the tracks to take them down so the scrapper decided to help himself and on one occasion even had the police assist him when the line crossed a road. Eventually he was busted but only recipe ed a slap on the wrist as they estimated the amount of copper he had taken and fined him that with no jail time.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the industrial area version of the organized family-packs of scavengers who hit student housing areas at semester break times in college towns.

    I used to ride motos at the crack of dawn just for some zen-time before work. 0500 hours and here is an organized army consisting of mostly (but not all) Hispanic and Hmong families in minivans cruising the student ghettos, working the junk piles at the curb and in alley ways.

    These people were no BS… fast and coordinated as a Nascar team.

  • avatar

    “What happens, though, when scrap steel gets to $1000/ton?”

    Ha! If Denver scrappers are anything like Chicago area guys “if” it reaches $1k/ton not only will that trans be gone, the gutter, gate and that A/C unit will also be in the wind.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick T.

      Ha. Nobody on our alley has had a garage downspout in years!

    • 0 avatar

      what i find the most interesting about the chicago scrappers is that the trucks they use are seemingly held together by some of the scrap they’ve collected. they are universally 80s American pickups with mismatched beds, sagging frames, 4 different wheel/tires, and hack-welded stake ‘cages’.

      i used to live in the city and one of the major scrap areas by the river was on my way to the highway. all hours of the day, every day, they’d be moving scrap in. in the mornings there’d be lines of guys waiting to drop.

  • avatar

    If that gate wasn’t there, it would be gone. Guaranteed.

    One of my friends did a SR20 swap on his 240sx. He had the old KA24 and tranny sitting just as you have it, but no gate. I don’t know how the Jawas lifted that 400-500lb assembly into their truck, but somehow it happened, and the KA was stolen.

    These guys are scum. I always see their truck full of kids’ bikes. I have some nice photos of a 30ft tall PILE of newish bicycles at the scrapyard. If only I was a cop, I would give these guys the Dirty Lyle treatment every day.
    “You ain’t welcome in these here parts!”

  • avatar

    In Detroit, these guys risk life and limb for a few bucks. There’s been a few stories of scrappers being electrocuted trying to steal copper grounding wires.

    They also have no issue raping abandoned homes for their plumbing and siding.

    I’ve made my fair share of money on scrapping metal, but I’ve always done it on the up and up.

    • 0 avatar

      My parents house had the same fate a few years back. Most of the plumbing was cut out of the house. Spent over $2,000 in supplies getting the house fixed. It was for-sale and I would bet the house was targeted for being empty at the time.

      • 0 avatar
        James Courteau

        When I was house shopping last year, the realtor and I were racing the scrap bandits rather than other buyers. Sites like Zillow and Truilla must be nightmares for home sellers. Its a free online service to find empty buildings!

  • avatar

    Give you new appreciation to the phrase “meaner than a junk yard dog”

    al formerly from the southside..

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    In Chicago, we had a Jawa break into the city school bus yard and make off with five – count ’em, five – big yellow school buses.

    He immediately went to work turning them into $250/ton yellow scrap, and just about got away with it if it weren’t for those meddling GPS location units, which led the cops to his scrap yard, and his office, where he was cowering above his desk up in the rafters, above the ceiling tiles and florescent light.

    At least in Denver, your Jawas have the decent courtesy to leave a note and ask. If your transmission were in Chicago, there’d be nothing left of it but a stain on the sidewalk.

    • 0 avatar

      That was two weeks ago. They were perfectly good buses and were scrapped, not even valuable parts (engine, transmission, wheelchair hoists and so on) stripped. I almost think it was a mafia thing against the bus company.

      That said I don’t mind scrappers cursing the alleys for metal. At least it’s getting recycled and helping someone that’s doing a pretty tough job. I’ve disposed of a lot of car parts by leaving them in the alley.

  • avatar

    $210 in Ontario at the moment. I learned that this weekend along with the fact that if you cut a truck in half to make a trailer, what remains of the truck will take at least 2 trips to bring to the scrap yard in said trailer. Said another way: The front half of a truck does not all fit in to the back half.

    I also learned that my new truck-box trailer was ~1,000 lbs, and carried 760 lbs with no issue.

  • avatar

    One good thing about the Jawas is that when your refridgerator craps out you can just plant it on the curb and in about 15 minutes you’ll have someone knocking on your door asking if they can have it.

  • avatar

    If that trans was mine and I had a use for it I think I would move it. The JAWAS will tire of you always saying no and it will eventually be taken. Id put in a crate and in the back of your van or under the front step. I came home to my garbage box (only used for recycling) a mess and all the cans and bottles gone and my BBQ(big, heavey and stainless steel) wheeled halfway across the deck. the garbage box now has a small lock and the BBQ is chained to the railing

  • avatar

    Same thing happened here in Houston a few weeks ago, seven ambulances were stolen and sold to the kind of scrapyard that doesn’t ask questions.

    • 0 avatar

      Legislation changes in the UK are supposed to mean that there are no scrapyards that don’t ask questions anymore but it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
      They can’t pay cash on metal being brought in, they need to do a bank transfer or pay with a cheque. These rules are only a few months old but most places have already got a cheque cashing office on-site.
      The net effect is that the scrap seller gets a cheque from the scrapyard, then has to pay a percentage to the scrapyard to convert the cheque to cash.
      Legislation is always one step behind.

  • avatar

    I’ll admit to being somewhat a scrapper myself, but I only take things that’re left beside trash cans at the side of the road or are marked “free”, and usually sitting beside the road.

    Otherwise I don’t go around stealing things nor pestering people, it ain’t worth the trouble.

    I do love how just when the writer needed a transmission one shows up at his friends scrapyard, I say that Murilee has a four-leaf stashed somewhere.

    Around where I live I don’t get many scrappers, just people that want to mow my lawn, re-build my roof, etc,

  • avatar
    gator marco

    I live in a gated community here in Florida. Just about anything that does not require a fork lift will be taken from our trash. I’ve out out scrap wood, appliances, fencing, etc and it all just disappears.

    We have been having a problem with our recycling; the scavengers will just throw over your recycle bin to collect the aluminum cans, and just leave everything else. I used to put the aluminum cans into 1 small bin, and everything else into another. Didn’t matter; they’ll still go throw it all over the place for that extra can.

    I’ve reached the point that I don’t put any trash out until I hear the truck coming down the street.

  • avatar

    I’m guessing most of you are too young to remember the 70s when scrap prices were so low you had to PAY someone to haul away a junk car. After the oil shock of 73-74, lots of people lost jobs, and didn’t have the money to pay for a junk car removal. The result was junk cars all over the place. Next to houses, in back yards, or just abandoned on the street. I can still remember all the junk cars that littered the streets and highways in New York City. The City was so broke, there was no money to haul them away. Many sat where they were abandoned for weeks or months.

    As for you wiseguys making fun of today’s scavengers, you don’t seem to realize that the people running this country are now playing with fire. Millions of people in the US have been reduced to living a Mad Max existence. If things don’t change soon, it’ll get real ugly, and your AR-15s aren’t going to help you.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    I have a couple of dead mercedes parked in front of my place and I’ve had to chase off scrap thieves.One lot came on Christmas eve!!. A friend had two old mercedes W108’s stolen out of his driveway in the middle of the day. Cars fetch around $500 here and we have plenty of tilt tray tow truck operators keen to make a few easy dollars.
    The big down side of all this metal recycling is that old machinery such as milling machines,lathes and other heavy gear is worth more as scrap so the days of picking up a useful piece of equipment are long gone in Australia.
    When it hits $1000 a ton,the gate will go along with the trans .

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    It doesn’t have to be metal in my neighborhood, even if it is broken to pieces and rotting they will take it. I had wooden outdoor furniture that was badly rotted that I put out for the garbage and someone knocked on the door and wanted it. I had an old prelite artificial Christmas tree that had most of its needles gone and its branches badly bent looking more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree and it was gone within minutes of putting it out for the garbage pickup. I am more than happy that people can find a use for it. My metal stuff I usually recycle at the nearby salvage yard, where they are more than happy to take it.

  • avatar

    I have a sort of roachy 1978 chevy C10…I live in socal…I’m going to slap the next person that knocks on my door talking about free scrap car removal.

  • avatar

    >What happens, though, when scrap steel gets to $1000/ton?

    They’ll bust down the gate and take it along with the tranny.

  • avatar

    I keep my old beater Maxima at my mom’s house, those guys keep bugging her about it since it kind of resembles a ‘walker’ from the Walking Dead. Still pretty damned annoying though. No you can’t have it and no it’s not going to get turned into scrap!

  • avatar
    The proto-Jawa.

  • avatar

    “What happens, though, when scrap steel gets to $1000/ton?”

    Then they’ll just take the transmission. And the gate.

  • avatar

    I am always looking to see what I can find but it needs to be a stick.
    For Michael Karesh – Protege5 that looks in great shape. – does anybody remember these things Mitsu 3000GT – a Midget – I did not even know these were still around and this dealer had 2. – its got a VR6 – for the BMW fans
    Which would interest you?

  • avatar

    Nice alley! Much prettier than my Bluebird District alley.

    Swapping my Gen 5 Accord’s engine with a 6th Gen’s out back, I’m on a first name basis with a few of the scrappers and a head nodding basis with some of the others. Same deal: I leave any scap out for them. In turn they tend to leave my other stuff alone. The opposite problem is nearby Aurora’s large-item disposal policy. Aurora charges for mattress & furniture pickup while Denver does quarterly large-item pickup for free. So our alleys tend to be the recipients of those items trucked in from Aurora & dumped at 2am.

  • avatar

    Everything that Bigoldchryslers said was correct. But if you are already pulling the trans and want to learn how to rebuild them then you may as well while the opportunity is there. Torqueflites, both the 904 and 727 are pretty easy to rebuild. Use good quality parts, such as Kevlar clutches and the trans should last practically forever. The 318 will never kill that 727. A cheap upgrade is a pan from a 518. It’s 3 inches deeper for more fluid capacity, and uses a modern reuseable gasket. Be sure to get the 3 inch filter spacer used in the 518 so that the filter will be low enough in the deeper pan. While it’s apart you may also want to upgrade to a 4 or 5 gear planetary gear set. It’s not necessary, but a bit of overkill is often a good thing. Even the 8 gear planetaries from the cummins equipped 518 will fit, but totally unnecessary unless you get them for free.

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