By on January 29, 2018

1985 Chrysler LeBaron in Arizona wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Every week, Murilee regales us with a selection of something notable from his junkyard travels. Whether it’s an Audi 100 with infernal inboard brakes or some oddball Camry, the man never fails to disappoint.

Surely, he’s not the only one to prowl the yards across America. What’s your best score taken from a machine in The Crusher’s waiting room?

For this author, pick-yer-part yards were non-existent in the communities of my formative years, except for the town dump where one could scavenge parts for free from battered and discarded automobiles. You were often competing with black bears looking for their supper, though, so caution was warranted. Murilee has no such concerns at his local U-Pik save for the sketchier customers eyeing his junkyard toolbox or crazed LeMons inmates competitors making a beeline for cheap GM superchargers.

Nowadays, the only outlet of the self-serve variety is a solid 75 minutes from my home — a distance which, combined with our foul winters, makes frequent visits a difficult undertaking. This is why I plan ahead when I’m bound for sunnier climes and reserve an afternoon for parts hunting at my destination. The rest of the family enjoys the beach; I enjoy rows of broken cars. I should probably seek help for that, eh?

Last year, I stumbled on a master class in depreciation — a VW Phaeton that had washed up in a Florida yard. It wasn’t a W12, but its speedometer was still good for supercar speed. Thanks to a flat price structure, I was able to walk out of the establishment with a 200 mph unit for the same price as one out of a base Corolla.

What’s your biggest score? It could be something you bought and resold for a relative fortune or simply a part you’ve been seeking for ages. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to plan my next trip.

[Image: ©2017 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

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42 Comments on “QOTD: Mining That Junkyard Gold?...”

  • avatar

    “K” camshaft from an ‘81-84 Volvo B23E engine. (Bricksters know…) It sort of woke up a malaise-era car to regular performance levels.

  • avatar

    Rear driveshaft for my 4runner for $20 after a local driveshaft shop butchered the u-joint replacement and balancing on my original one. New factory shaft is in the $800+ range.

    blower-speed Darlington transistor for my ES300 for $6, junkyard considered it a generic “relay.” New OE part is $300+, aftermarket Airtex-wells unit was $130. That was a satisfying “plug and play” fix on the cheap.

  • avatar

    I have been to a junkyard one time in life.

    I bought a front marker light for my Audi 5000 after I slid into a new Camry on the road behind the icy, non-scraped high school one morning. No damage either side, but it broke the plastic VAG clip on the marker (which I was not aware of) and fell out at some point on the road.

    $50 I think.

  • avatar

    I’m not a hard core wrencher. My scores have mostly been interior “comfort and convenience” items. Protégé: Auto dimming compass mirror with homelink, window trim, upgraded sun visors from a newer My. Focus: leather shift knob, fomoco universal garage door opener module to be installed in headliner, nice OEM carpet floormats.

  • avatar

    I found an 85 Volvo that still had AMM, ECU and ICM not stripped out. Got all 3 for $40. Nice because there was an eBayer who visited the lot a couple of times a week looking for “brick” parts to sell on eBay. He usually had stripped all decent parts from the old Volvo.

    I never needed them but it was good to have them in reserve.

    • 0 avatar

      I see the ebay-seller-pickers sometimes, last time I was there a guy had an armful of Cobalt(?) instrument clusters. There’s also the hispanic dudes loading up mountains of used tires into beaten up old trucks with tall steel cages welded onto the beds. Looks quite precarious, and frankly my limited experience with used tire places makes me quite suspect of their tire-picking/inspecting skills.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    A couple years ago I was restoring an IS300 Sportcross for my mom to use. I would scour the net for yards with IS300s in stock and I was willing to drive several hours to find them.

    Usually I would try to find an armrest. It wasn’t terribly easy to remove so most folks wouldn’t bother. But they typically cost $5-10 and I could sell them on eBay for about $120. These would frequently pay for my entire trip to the junkyard.

    The crown jewel for me though was when I discovered the yard for the IIHS cars. I was looking for replacement seats which needed to be tan and heated. I found them at the yard in Ruckersville, VA from the car in the original test of the IS300 (you can watch it on YouTube) complete with the red grease from the dummy on the headrest and the marks on the seat for alignment. They weren’t exactly cheap at around $225 but they had less than 30 miles on them since 2002 and they cleaned up great.

    • 0 avatar

      That IIHS stuff sounds like a gold mine. A guy could probably make a decent living just buying their discards and running an ebay/craigslist sales operation.

      • 0 avatar

        The problem is that you have to sit on the stuff for so long. New cars get new parts under warranty or new parts from insurance settlements.

        • 0 avatar
          Land Ark

          It’s true. The yard is massive and the seats were in what I would call the Seat House because it was literally an old house that had nothing but seats in it. These were upstairs in an old bedroom. They were protected from the weather and weren’t buried under anything, but they were filthy from sitting around for 13 years.

          But I should correct myself, I looked back at my spreadsheet for what I spent on everything for that car and they were $368.55.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I’ve picked up all kinds of things at the junkyard over the years. End of last year, I took home a front swaybar, HD leaf springs, and the GM-specific Dana 60 rear and driveshaft from a ’70 C20 to put under my GMC.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, I also picked up stuff at our local junkyards over the decades.

      Could not have replaced whole doors, fenders, hoods, grilles, etc if not for the junkyards.

  • avatar

    In my formative years as a mechanic/cheapskate, I kept a 1992 Corolla rolling cheap by scavenging the half dozen or so at my local Pick N Pull. The door handles were of notoriously poor quality and would often break off. I’d take whatever I could find. A starter, alternator and ignition coil were also had to keep that taxi motoring.

    Recently I’ve been building a WJ Grand Cherokee for overland use and it required a front driveshaft upgrade from double CV type joints to a single/double cardan. Mine’s a 4.0L which never came with that front driveshaft, but the V8 models did. I have a few good yards nearby, so I searched their inventory online for potential candidates. These yards put the VIN in the listing which is immensely helpful in decoding what options are on the vehicle. I found a 2002 V8 model that had been t-boned. Went down there with my tools and sure enough, the front draveshaft I needed was there, in great shape. I needed both yokes, and getting those nuts loose required a bit of effort while laying under the heap with melting snow dripping into my eyes and mouth, but I got what I needed for $50. It fits, but will require another couple inches of length when combined with the 4″ lift, but my local driveline shop is tackling that for a couple hundred bucks.

    The donor vehicle also had the NV242HD Selec trac transfer case which I may go back for. $150. Gold.

  • avatar

    This isn’t that great, but I got a complete rear end for my P71 Crown Vic for $500, with a warranty.

    The stealership wanted $2000 to repair the diff and the firestone guys wanted $3400 for a new rear end!

    Instead I just swapped out the rear ends in my driveway in about 9 hours. Been working fine for 3 years now.

  • avatar

    I had a 1978 Buick Regal in high school with the 231 V6. It overheated one brutally cold Michigan morning while running to warm it up before school (thermostat locked closed), and that engine was done. U-Pick yard to the rescue! I found a T-boned Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with the 260 V8 with ~50K miles for $350. It was a bolt-in replacement, and while I was at it, I had the engine warmed over with various performance bits including a hot cam. The result was super fun on the cheap, though it was no Grand National. ;)

  • avatar

    My best score at the pick-n-pull was a updated (non-biodegradable wiring insulation) upper engine wiring harness for a 1992 Mercedes 400E. $18 was an absolute steal for something that goes for around $200 (used) on eBay.

  • avatar

    Back when I thought stereo upgrades were a reasonable use of my time, I scored the complete set of mounting components, grilles, and harnesses from a JBL-equipped Ford Taurus to put into my crapbox GL. I think I paid about $50 for the lot. The JBL-equipped cars were pretty rare and finding one in my local junkyard was a nice stroke of luck.

  • avatar

    Come to think of it, I once scored an entire SU carburetor, in good condition with not much wear and tear at all. It cost a pittance, like fifty bucks cash or something like that.

    I love a good rat rod story, cognoscenti, and your warmed over engine story is a really good one!

  • avatar

    Mine were a long time ago…once I talked an old dude out of a couple of 15″ Mercury wheels for my 1948 Ford, complete with aired-up whitewall tires for $5 – I think he’d already had a few beers that day.
    And I got a nice complete interior – both seats, door and quarter panel cards – in the right red and white color for my 1955 Mercury Montclair 2-door hardtop.

  • avatar

    Got sunvisors out of a ’92 Lumina Euro for my first car, a ’92 Beretta. My sunvisors were shot and the ones from the Lumina fit well. They were a little big bigger than the Beretta ones, but no one noticed aside from me.

    Got a washer fluid reservoir for my wife’s first car, a ’92 Grand Am. That thing was surprisingly difficult to remove from the junkyard car, even with the broken car’s front bumper missing.

    I usually go to the junkyards just to look around and find interesting stuff (i.e. rarieties) like Murilee does. It’s amazing what you can discover with just a little bit of time. I find it oddly relaxing.

  • avatar

    I always assumed Murilee was a female. Bad on me.

  • avatar

    A power steering setup and tilt column for my ’76 Vega GT. After having been sideswiped by a lady in a pickup truck trying to make a left from the left main lane at an intersection, I needed a right front fender.

    A friend and I went to the junkyard to get a fender (a Montessori school now occupies part of that location, and eventually the rest will be covered in new homes), and discovered a straight ’76 notchback, which happened to have power steering and a tilt wheel. The manual steering in my GT had some slop in it, so for $150 (IIRC), we took the wheel and column, steering gear, pump, and brackets. I had to swap over the GT steering wheel, move the alternator from the driver’s side of the engine over to the passenger side (using one of the donor brackets), and add new belts and power steering hoses. I also installed a new ignition switch and pitman shaft seal kit, just to be safe. The only unexpected expense was a new drag link (by the time I got to the swap, the donor had been crushed), as the power steering car used a different part.

  • avatar

    I find it really relaxing. It’s not a junkyard, it’s an automotive parts garden, or perhaps an automotive archeological site, or socio-archeological site. It’s a lesson in technology, marketing, history, etc. Worth the $2 admission even if you leave empty handed.

    • 0 avatar

      I feel exactly the same. I often to with no intent to buy, just to look. I have spent some seat time in some of my many dream cars over the years in the yard (though they are well past their prime).

      And you never know what you’ll find. I have a habit of hording light bulbs, fuses, relays, common interior wear parts, and various clips and fasteners for cars in the family. I have saved the day a number of times with this trove of junk.

    • 0 avatar

      When I was in high school our photography class went on a field trip to an auto graveyard. This was in the 70’s so we saw lots of 50’s iron. Soooo much chrome! Felt like a cross between a museum and a ghost town.

  • avatar

    I didn’t actually score it, but a local yard somehow acquired a rough but running 59 Edsel a few years back. I can’t remember if the guy wanted $2000 or $2500 for it, but either way I had too many projects at the time to think about investing the time and money to get it roadworthy. I drove past that car for months before they finally sold or parted it. I hope someone restored it, even though we have several well attended classic car shows in the area, I can’t ever remember seeing an Edsel at any of them.

  • avatar

    The one that got away: 83 Yamaha Maxxis 750 with about 5 thousand miles on it in the local, very small motorcycle yard. I owned a Seca 750, which had the same mechanicals, but the only thing I needed off it was the oil filter housing. Two months later my transmission grenaded, went back to the yard but the bike had just been sold to someone who was going to restore it. Ended up driving a lot further to pick up a motor/tranny with a lot more than 5K miles on it.

    • 0 avatar

      My brother owns an ’81 Seca, he rode it across the US on a big road trip that me and him and some friends took back in ’08. The Seca was actually the newest, most powerful, and most reliable bike on the trip (also ugliest IMO). Rock solid bikes for sure.

      I used to frequent a motorcycle junkyard near Sayre PA, the owner was a trip. He used to be pretty bad into drinking and drugs, you never knew what kind of state he’d be in, but it would sometimes result in some pretty awesome deals. the state and EPA cracked down on him a few years ago and he started to have to pay tax, keep invoices, etc. But on the flip side he cleaned up so its a net positive. It was an old train depot building with rooms just crammed full of mostly 1970s-1980s Japanese bike parts.

  • avatar

    Best purchase: a year ago, the EBTCM went in my mom’s Aurora. It took 3 trips and going through about a billion older GM H/G/K platform cars, but I finally found the loaded version (Stabilitrak/ABS/traction control) in a Bonneville GXP. Pulled, paid $20, $10 to mail it, and her place charged $50 to install and program. Worked fone ever since, solved 4 dash lights and a Service Stabilitrak message. GM list on a new part was $1100 and RockAuto wanted $700 for new.

    Also added a factory Solara strut tower brace to my Avalon for $5 last summer. I realize a 99 Avalon will never be a sports car, and that’s not the intent. Damn that body flexed before. Now, it’s almost as stiff as most regular cars instead of being a 4 door sedan with cowl shake.

  • avatar

    My favorite Mercedes grille with attached hood ornament from a fresh high miles 560SEL: $20.

    Runner up: The same from a first gen LS400 also for $20. Damn that sucker is heavy!

    Not from junkyard: A pristine grille and hood ornament from a 1972 Continental Mark IV via Craigslist for $80 ten years ago (which is the rare grille from the pre-Federalized bumpers in 1973). This grille overwhelms me with opulence and splendor.

  • avatar

    I have scored many tachometer instrument clusters to put in cars that lacked them from the factory. One out of a early Fox body was intended for my Zephyr, but circumstances took that off the table. I put it on eBay and got quite a bit for it, it went into a Fairmont wagon owned by a guy in North Carolina.

    I have put tach clusters in many of my cars, including my 1998 Lumina (from a Monte Carlo, swapping the odometer to keep the car’s mileage was not easy) and my current 1995 Taurus. I have also sold quite a few for second gen Tauruses as well. Some from SHOs, most with the 85 mph speedometer from a Sable or a Taurus LX.

    I bought a very rare 120 MPH speedometer for my 1992 Tempo LX, I still have it, from a junkyard via online. Its worth a lot to someone fixing one up (I have been offered $150, far, FAR more than I paid for it), but I can’t bring myself to sell it. I’ll have another V-6 Tempo one day, and it’ll be useful again.

    I also made a killing on a instrument cluster bezel from a early 1980s Chevy full-size truck. Like the Mustang cluster, a bidding war on eBay went very nicely for me lol.

  • avatar

    My best score was a Cadillac 500 V8 from a 1971 Eldorado. It was a fresh rebuild that had a broken rocker post. I’m sure the owner threw up his hands when the car wouldn’t run right after the rebuild. Had to extract the broken bolt from the head. I gave $85 for the long block.

    Second best score was an 8.5″ rear end out of a turbo regal with 3.73 gears. Only downside was that it wasn’t a posi unit. Gave $125 and sold it for $500. It was worth it even though the neighbor and I pulled it in snow and below freezing temps.

    • 0 avatar

      That reminds me, I got a new/rebuilt starter for my 1996 Aerostar from a Ranger at pull-a-part for $25. It was so clean, it had to have been replaced very, very recently. That was actually very helpful because at the time, I could not afford one from the auto parts store.

      • 0 avatar

        “That was actually very helpful because at the time, I could not afford one from the auto parts store.”

        I think many people don’t appreciate just how much of an asset a junkyard is to lower income folks across the country. I always enjoy my trips there, not even to look at the cars (although I love that), but to see all the different people going about their business. It is truly one place where there is genuine racial/ethnic diversity (at least here in Indy) that came about organically and works out just fine. I always thought that was interesting. Hispanics, white and black Americans, African cabbies looking for Taurus parts, eastern Europeans and arabs looking for Euro stuff, etc.

        I will say owning an older domestic truck (’97 Ranger in my case) made junkyard searching an absolute breeze. There were at least 10 Rangers to pick parts from in the main local yard. Not a dig at the trucks’ longevity at all, they just sold a boat load of them here. Conversely I’m lucky to see a single 3rd gen 4Runner when I go.

        • 0 avatar

          That’s a fact. I owned Blazing Saddles, my Texas Pinto Squire (rust-free and driven back to Ohoho) about the time Pintos were falling over dead, or being euthanized by owners. Or, of course, burning. That was in the early 1980s, and the local self-yank yard had six Pintos, all coming apart with rust – but many with very-serviceable parts.

          There was no big score. It was ALL the LITTLE things – a hood hinge; a replacement steering-wheel horn-honker strip; a radiator that was PERFECT. All the crap you had to expect to buy for a nine-year-old car in those days.

          The “gold” was, that there was such a yard. U-Pulls were not commonplace in those days. The big, professionally-run yards had signs: NO CUSTOMERS ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT. If you wanted a part, you talked to one of the counter guys. Popular parts and big parts were in bins or on racks (like engines and transmissions) Uncommon parts, you’d put an order in for and come back in a day. Or if they knew you, the dumbest guy there would walk back with you to see if they had one.

          The Jalopy Jungle just placed, often piled, cars out back. Once the carcasses were picked, they’d be stacked to save space. I think the less-popular carcasses would be trucked out with time, based mostly on the owner’s whim.

          In 1983 there were still three old, rusted Model As sitting around. After over 40 years in a marshy field, they’d rusted to where they were collapsing under their own weight…but that’s how organized and scientific was their inventory control.

  • avatar

    I bought the moonroof glass from an FB RX-7 and sold it for $200 – it was nicer than the glass in the RX-7 I was driving.

    I bought an entire FC RX-7 Racing Beat cat-back exhaust.

    I bought an entire RX-7 GSL-SE for $350. One of the injectors was leaking and being one of them newfangled rotary engines, they just gave up on it. Stupid me, I parted it out instead of fixing it.

    I bought an Explorer 3.73, LSD, disc brake rearend plus another short axle to put in my Sunbeam for under $100.

  • avatar
    matthew johnson

    Transfer case for wife’s WJ Grand Cherokee. $250 AND it has 30000 miles fewer than hers did. Coupla hours underneath with jeep on the lift and Bob’s your uncle. Now what to do with the old one?

  • avatar

    Back in high school and college I spent many hours in the local junkyards around Toledo (Spuds was a favorite) looking for parts for my 1976 Camaro and then my 1980 Monza. I think I walked every yard looking for a passenger fender for that Camaro and never found a good one. One day I ran across the remains of one of 2 1975 Hurst Olds sold in Toledo (I had almost bought the other) and later, shopping for Monza parts, I found my old Camaro in one of Spuds’ yards.

    Many years later, when my daughter wrecked her Protege, she said I spent a hot Saturday morning pulling the entire front end off of one here in Columbus. It was a half off weekend so we got everything (headlights, hood, fender, bumper, bumper beam, radiator, ac condenser and core support) for, I think, under $150.

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