Car enthusiasts have long known about the appeal of junkyards, with their acres of gleaming metal and affordable classic parts. Visiting a junk or salvage yard today can mean finding a quarter-panel for a dinged VW Beetle or salvaging a motor from a totaled new-model sedan. And paying a small admission fee or browsing for free at some of the thousands of junkyards across the United States or around the globe can lead to some surprising finds.
Walking through dusty rows of dilapidated castoffs might not be your idea of a hobby or something you would think to do on a weekend, but you might change your mind after you try. Going with someone who knows the difference between a classic and a clunker helps, and it might be especially worthwhile if you have a broken-down project car on your property that might be fixable or worth, say, $4.4 million dollars.
Grab a wheelbarrow and read on to see what kind of junk goes to scrap, what beauties got saved from the salvage yard and what takes place at the junkyards themselves.
Seeing the grill and flashing lights of a police car from a rear-view mirror is quite a different experience than seeing one in a salvage yard. Retired high-mileage and damaged cop cars often face the public auction blocks in cities around the United States, but many also end up in junkyards. What's surprising about many of these out-of-commission vehicles is that they're in relatively good shape. You might find a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, the "Crown Vic," or other undercover blue or traditional black-and-white sedan with less than 100,000 miles on them.
Some police cars have had their fair share of high-speed use, but it's likely they have just passed their peak or were replaced with newer or more efficient models. Vintage police cars are a lot less common, but with a Ford Taurus Police Interceptor set to replace the "Crown Vic" after 2011, this salvaged police model may itself become a rare find in the coming decades [source: McCausland].
Diners and bars made from old trolley and subway cars have been retro fixtures for decades, but most old public transport vehicles spend their last days in junkyards or undergo creative reuse. It's very expensive to scrap or recycle subway cars because, at about 18 tons each, they require some effort to move and often need to be stripped and cut down before being crushed and scrapped. Many sit in scrap yards, but for a time, subway cars donated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York City were dumped off of the New Jersey coast into the Atlantic. While that sounds pretty fishy, the cars were approved for dumping because they created an artificial reef for keeping marine life in the coastal waters. Although it started as a successful project, it ended in 2009 because the cars were starting to fall apart. Once again, the retired subway cars, which are costly to break down, land in salvage and scrap yards [sources: Murray, NJ.com].
Lying in wait for 47 years, a British race car was found in the yard of a home in the United States in 2010. While spared a trip to the crusher, it was "junked" under a tarp but thankfully recognized as a significant find before hitting the salvage heaps. A British soldier had brought the pre-World-War II Vauxhall 30-98 race car to the States, where he was stationed, and it changed hands in the 1960s [source: Garrett]. When the car's owner died, the rather rough-looking yard car could have been towed away for scrap, but closer inspection revealed that it was a 1926 racer and had been a British track winner before it seemingly disappeared during the war. When it came to the U.S. in 1948, it wasn't registered as a historic auto, so its racing legacy was lost until uncovered, literally, and identified [source: Garrett].
An Internet search on "stolen car junkyard" will yield dozens of articles on busted theft rings and found stolen vehicles from around the world. Some notable junkyard finds include perfectly fine automobiles that were simply hooked up to tow trucks from their parking spots and towed away by crooks looking to make fast cash at scrap yards. From Philadelphia to Cleveland to Albuquerque, rings of tow truck drivers "shop" for cars, tow them away at will, and sell them to junkyards. How many of these cars end up actually getting scrapped versus being resold whole or for parts probably depends on how on the "up-and-up" the salvage yard buyers are. Sellers usually need proof of ownership to sell to junk yards, and a car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) can provide history through a simple search -- if the proprietors are looking to verify.
In 2010, another type of junkyard-related theft made news internationally, as a bomb plot centered in New York's Times Square was foiled. The vehicle linked to the attempted bombing had a license plate that had been lifted from a truck in a Connecticut junkyard. The license plate helped detectives narrow the timeline and close in on the suspects. Abandoning getaway cars in junkyards is one way to try and hide evidence, but the New York bomb plotters took from the junkyard in an effort to falsify the vehicle and make it appear legit if its plates had been run through a police check [source: Croghan and Gaskell].
With an average "life expectancy" of 12 to 15 years, buses from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York City end their duty by being sold and recycled for scrap metal. Before being sliced into smaller pieces with hydraulic cutters, you might find yards of buses awaiting the crusher [source: MTA].
School buses face a similar fate nationwide although some are sold and reused for personal transport, motor home conversion and even housing. Many municipalities have yards for holding out-of-commission city or state vehicles, so it's less likely to find buses in public junkyards except in smaller or more rural areas. Some salvage dealers post available buses for sale online if you're in the market and don't happen upon one at a local yard.
Other supersized vehicles destined for the scrap yard include fire trucks. Though many are auctioned to collectors or stay on the grounds of a firehouse after retiring, some find their way to salvage yards where they're sold off in parts or scrapped.
While it almost sounds like something sweet and chummy, the "Purple Gang" car was named after the 1920s and '30s Detroit gang known for its robbing, shooting and boozing, and even for the attempted murder of a U.S. Senator. At three o'clock on a summer morning in 1936, police raided a junkyard in Albion, Mich. -- a frequent midway stop on gang runs and crime sprees between Detroit and Chicago -- and in addition to capturing more than half a dozen Purple Gang affiliates, they confiscated the "gangsta" car, which was riddled with bullet holes from previous chases and attempted seizures.
What stands out about this junkyard find is that the car was a very tricked-out mobster mobile with some of the following special features: three-quarter-inch, bullet-proof glass; two-sided license plates for quickly changing the car's identity; metal armor flaps for deflecting bullets and keeping rear tires from puncturing under gunfire; eight guns, including revolvers, sawed-off shotguns, pistols and rifles; sledge hammers, claw tools, six flashlights, a wrecking bar, a monkey wrench and other burglary tools; explosive dynamite and blasting caps; an empty bank bag; and lots of rubber wire [source: Passic].
Now that's a "fully loaded" automobile.
It might not be a common sight in the United States to see a giant tank in someone's front yard, but collectors of military goods worldwide buy, show and use government-issue military pieces. Sometimes these private collections make their way to salvage yards as they change hands over time. And today, online "junkyards" sell everything from 15,000-pound British tanks to Czech and Russian reconnaissance trucks, all available for purchase and delivery via the Internet. Government auctions are another common way to unload military stores, and row upon row of vehicles may fill lots until items are sold and shipped. Sometimes there are stocks of junked military vehicles and other goods on accident, too, like when forces succumb to attack and scarred vehicles get left behind at the site.
If someone has ever pleaded with you to "do something with that old piece of junk in the garage," this find may motivate you to get cracking. While a barn isn't a junkyard, it's often the last resting place where classic cars go to die a slow and neglected death, much like in a salvage yard. Fortunately, one junked beauty made it out alive and fetched a cool $4.4 million at auction. There were only 17 1937 Bugatti 57S cars made, and one of them sat, undriven, in a doctor's garage in England for 50 years. After the owner's death in 2007, the Bugatti went up for auction. Resurrecting the auto was estimated to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to the seven-figure purchase price [source: Kurczewski].
Whether you're looking to lift your ride or lift off into space, there's a salvage yard in North Hollywood, Calif., where you can find parts for doing both. Used NASA rockets and components land at Norton Sales Inc., and among its aisles of space gadgetry you'll also find "old school hydraulics" and other car parts. Some enthusiasts even adapt hydraulics designed for space flight to custom cars. Others find props and air cannons for movies and stunts.
Anyone from novices to rocket engineers can buy a piece of space history, and if you're looking to launch a private commercial venture for sending people to space, buying used can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars. As of this writing, Norton had NASA X-15, liquid propellant and liquid rocket engines for sale, as well as assorted thrusters, transducers and turbine assemblies. It's no wonder that Norton Sales was dubbed "one giant heap for mankind" by the Los Angeles Times [source: Johnson].
Urban legends and "I heard about this guy who found ..." stories are part of the beauty of looking through junk. Most everyone has a story about finding a treasure in neglected trash or locating something of great personal value after a long search. Junk and salvage yards are notorious sites for finding the stuff of legends -- those true and tall tales of cars past becoming refined and drivable or showable classics. "Junkyard Crawl," a series of articles on Car Craft Magazine online, highlights finds like a 1965 Plymouth Barracuda and a 1968 Ford Fairlane, as well as newer model replacement parts. Another source for inspiration is the car forums, where real people talk about real finds in their local yards or online. And if you're not into getting knee deep in elbow grease, you can import a needed hotrod part from Japan or haul a low-rust Beetle from the West Coast to the East with the click of a mouse -- without fighting off the junkyard dogs.
No one wants a car that's been badly damaged by a hurricane. HowStuffWorks and the guys from CarStuff explain how to avoid buying one accidentally.
More Great Links
- Croghan, Lore and Stephanie Gaskell. "Time's Square Car Bomb Scare: Vehicle's License Plate Led FBI to Wayne LeBlanc's Junkyard." NYDailyNews.com. May 3, 2010. (May 25, 2011) http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-05-03/news/27063298_1_license-plate-car-bomb-junkyard
- Davidson, Keay. "Space: The Final Junkyard." SFGate.com. March 12, 2006. (May 20, 2011) http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-03-12/news/17284450_1_space-elevator-space-junk-international-space-station
- Foley, Aaron. "Ford Reportedly Dropping Its Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, Attempting to Woo Cops to Taurus." MLive.com. Aug. 28, 2009. (May 23, 2011) http://www.mlive.com/auto/index.ssf/2009/08/ford_reportedly_dropping_its_c.html
- Garrett, Jerry. "A Piece of Racing History, Under a Tarp." The New York Times Blog. May 12, 2010. (May 23, 2011) http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/vauxhall/
- Griswold, Kent. "Jake's Bus Conversion." Nov. 25, 2009. Tiny House Blog. (May 27, 2011) http://tinyhouseblog.com/tiny-house/jakes-bus-conversion/
- Grossman, Lisa. "NASA Considers Shooting Space Junk with Lasers." Wired.com. March 15, 2011. (May 25, 2011) http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/lasering-space-junk/
- Henricks, Mark. "Equipment Spotlight: Auto Crushers." American Recycler.com. Nov. 2005 (May 20, 2011) http://www.americanrecycler.com/1105spotlight.shtml
- Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). "Activities in Balkan." 2011. (May 27, 2011) http://www.jica.go.jp/balkan/english/activities/activity11.html
- Johnson, John Jr. "North Hollywood Junkyard: One Giant Heap for Mankind." Los Angeles Times. March 25, 2007. (May 16, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/25/science/sci-junkyard25
- Kurczewski, Nick. "Long Lost Bugatti Sells for $4.4 Million." New York Times Blog. Feb. 9, 2009. (May 16, 2011) http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/long-lost-bugatti-sells-for-44-million/
- McCausland, Evan. "First Look: 2012 Ford Taurus Police Interceptor." Motortrend.com. March 2010. (May 23, 2011) http://www.motortrend.com/roadtests/sedans/112_1003_2012_ford_taurus_police_interceptor/index.html
- Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). "New York City Transit and the Environment: Scrap Commodity Management and Recycling." 2011. (May 24, 2011) http://www.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffenvironment.htm
- Murray, Brian T. and Wooley, Wayne. "30 Subway Cars Dropped Off Cape May Coast." Free Republic. Aug. 25, 2008. (May 24, 2011) http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2075803/posts
- New Jersey Star Ledger. "N.J. Creates Artificial Reefs Without Subway Cars." NJ.com. June 1, 2010. (May 24, 2011) http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/06/despite_end_to_subway_car-reef.html
- Passic, Frank."Purple Gang Car Seized Here in 1936." Albion Recorder. Feb. 28, 2002. (May 16, 2011) http://www.albionmich.com/history/histor_notebook/R020228.shtml