A field guide to scrapyards

  • Real bargains can be had at a scrapyard, but you’ll have to do the work. This door will replace a terminally dented one, but pulling it off the donor and hoofing it home was all up to us. How much is your sweat worth? Image credit: Daniel Shea
  • Scrapyards have evolved. Now they’re an environmentally friendly stop on the way to the shredder. Liquids such as coolant, oil, brake fluid, petrol and washer fluid are extracted by workers for recycling or reuse. Metal rims are welded together as stable vehicle stands so folks can safely pull parts before cars are crushed. Image credit: Daniel Shea
  • Tyes and tailgates are hot commodities. This pick-up has sheet metal, glass, and engine bits. Take what you need. Image credit: Daniel Shea
Date:27 October 2012 Tags:, ,

How to use your local car graveyard to find cheap parts and get a good education in the process. By Ben Wojdyla

A scrapyard is a magical place if you’re a penny-pincher, gearhead, professional widget collector, or just bored out of your mind in need of something cheap to do. Most upstanding citizens ignore this last stop in the automotive life cycle and choose new parts from a nice, safe dealer installed at exorbitant rates. If, however, you like to add a dash of adventure to your car repair, you should definitely check out a scrapyard before shelling out for new parts.

For the uninitiated, these places can be intimidating, but that needn’t be the case. A good automotive recycler offers a priceless mechanical education as well as a boatload of inexpensive parts.

Pick your poison
Scrapyards come in two styles: you-pick and full-service. At you-picks, customers bring their own tools and personally wrestle parts from derelict cars. Fullservice yards will pull requested items and deliver them to the front desk, where payment is collected, though this convenience comes with added cost. My preference is definitely the do-it-yourself type, which offers endless opportunities for mechanical exploration. Plus, their low operating costs mean these businesses are popping up all over the place lately.

When you’ve found a yard, call ahead to find out what they specialise in. Some yards deal primarily in mass-market cars, others in Japanese, German, high-performance or vintage. Most are generalists and stock what the market both supplies and demands. If you have a rare car, ask if they have your model before spending time wandering around. They might know; they might not.

The likelihood of finding that windowcrank handle for your Triumph TR7 is pretty low because the supply and demand aren’t there. Conversely, you’ll probably find piles of pick-ups, vans, midsize sedans and econoboxes. Wrecks come and go regularly, so try to find out when the new junkers come in – they have the best selection of parts. Remember, these places buy crashed and abandoned cars to recycle them, so selling their parts is a happy bonus.

What to expect
The scariest part for scrapyard first-timers is passing through the gates. Before setting foot in the yard, you may be asked for your signature on a brief document that absolves the company of liability in case you do something stupid like drop an engine on yourself. Some places charge a nominal fee for entry as well. Consider this cheaper than paying for a movie and way more educational.

In well-operated yards, there is an underlying logic. The in-demand stuff is kept up front – that’s where you’ll find plentiful vehicles prone to frequent breakdowns or high accident rates. Conversely, examples of cars that are rare or older or don’t break down much will probably be all the way in the back, with a gradual progression between. Lots are often divided by vehicle manufacturer or point of origin – Japanese versus European, or Ford versus Toyota versus Nissan, and so on; think of it as the difference between Dewey Decimal and alphabetical library systems. If you’re lucky, a map of the grounds is posted. Of course, your local yard may be a mess of cars with no logic whatsoever. Some owners are just lazy.

The first thing to look for is the price board. Rather than put tags on all the items on every car, modern scrapyards post a list of the different parts in cars and generic prices for each. Because the board doesn’t care if a radiator comes from a Ford Escort or a Mercedes C-Class, the savings against new parts can be staggering.

While prowling for parts, don’t jump at the first one matching your needs. Look around for the best example and inspect it carefully, making sure it isn’t damaged. Resourceful yards might have a database of all interchangeable components so you can find all the possible cars that could contain a replacement for your missing fuel cap or broken window-control-panel switch. Before buying an electrical component, test the part to ensure it functions. Scrapyards usually have 12-volt sources, such as batteries, that you can use.

Sometimes inflicting structural damage on a vehicle is the fastest way to pull a part: crossmembers, brackets and wiring get chopped up all the time; just try not to destroy anything someone else might want. Be aware that not everybody visiting these places works safely, so before crawling around, inspect your quarry for safe working conditions. Move on if something looks fishy; your instincts are probably your best guide.

The fun stuff
Most people go to scrapyards for parts; handles, cylinder heads, lights, glass, body panels, and suspension pieces are popular. There are other things to do in scrapyards, though. Treasure hunters pick out expensive parts and sell them online – airbag modules and computer boxes are targets here.

But there are other treats to be found. A wall of metal hubcaps or a chandelier made of bonnet ornaments can spruce up the garage nicely. You can find switches, speakers, air springs and other widgets useful for DIY projects.

My favourite scrapyard pastime is learning. Every car is made a little different, and any engineer will tell you the best way to understand how a thing works is to take it apart. Find a car with a part you don’t understand, such as a differential or transfer case, take it apart, and then try putting it back together. If it doesn’t go back, that’s okay. Got a big project coming up and want some practice? Scrapyards are a great way to try out a repair or modifi cation before the real deal. The scrapyard is really what you make of it – whether you go for parts or mechanical voyeurism, just make sure to get your hands dirty.

The satisfaction is also palpable – and the saving in cash also feels pretty good.

Expedition tools
Packing tools for the yard is a bit like planning for a hiking trip: You must carry every gram of weight you bring. With that in mind, pack the bare essentials and leave the backup in the car, just in case. Here are the must-have tools to drop into your bag for an efficient and painless hunt.

In the tool bag

  • Short crowbar
  • Ratchet set (standard and metric)
  • Hammer
  • Pliers
  • Tin snips
  • Hacksaw
  • Screwdrivers
  • Combination wrenches
  • Allen keys
  • Safety glasses
  • Gloves
  • Sunscreen

In the car

  • Long crowbar
  • About two-thirds of a metre of pipe (breaker bar/bludgeoning stick)
  • 12 mm-drive socket set
  • Big hammer
  • Overalls and cardboard (for on-ground work)

Our US edition’s Associate Auto Editor, Ben Wojdyla, on when to scrapyard
I go to scrapyards, or car recyclers, as they like to be called these days, when I feel the need to be inspired. Most of the world’s best ideas are already out there, so diving into old cars reveals design failures and successes. More often than not, I’ll come away empty-handed, but greasy and happy.

Scrapyards – a magnificent obsession
My perfectly harmless love affair with scrapyards kicked off many years ago when I happened upon a broken sword. Blackened with age and redolent of romantic duels (or so I imagined), it was immediately plucked from a pile of metal detritus and hung on my bedroom wall, where it attracted lots of attention and gave me a useful opportunity to lie about its origins. Sadly, it was stolen in a burglary many years later, together with a bullwhip (it’s a long story) and the only dirty book in my 500-volume collection.

Since then, I have retrieved many treasures from scrapyards, including a cast-iron cistern that I converted into a braai (not my most successful DIY job), an old frame that I intend to use in an electric motorcycle project (a work in progress for 15 years or so) and a brass ? tting that may (or may not) have once formed part of a ? re? ghter’s hose.

A few weeks ago, I spent a thoroughly satisfying hour in a local scrapyard, keeping my eyes peeled for the elusive gems that distinguish us treasure hunters from ordinary folk. And then I spotted it: a classic Triang tricycle frame. Okay, so it lacked wheels, a seatback and half a handlebar – but aside from that, it was perfect. My next challenge: how to sneak it past my wife, a woman whose prescience is the stuff of legends.

Regular PM reader Kevin Thorpe, on the other hand, has no such fears, having established a “confession fund” to which his spouse is privy. In essence, he pays regular sums into this fund each time he sells a scrapyard find at a healthy profit, thereby helping to finance future purchases. Frankly, this guy is in a different league.

He started at the age of 10, when he accompanied a neighbour on a scrapyard jaunt that netted an old lawnmower. Sensing its potential, Kevin replaced the spark plug, poured in a little patrol – and it started. The lawnmower engine was duly pressed into service as the powerplant for his brother’s go-kart, and Kevin was hooked. His subsequent scrapyard visits provided a regular source of pocket money throughout his school days, and he saw no reason why adulthood (and a successful career in IT) should change anything.

Today, Kevin continues to visit scrapyards and municipal recycling depots at every opportunity, sometimes buying an item and re-selling it on Gumtree the same day. His purchases have been used to excellent effect in his home extensions and renovations, and he’s amassed a formidable collection of ships’ bells and other nautical items over the years – most of which he has no intention of selling. Among his more memorable finds is an old diver’s helmet that was sold to a collector for a very healthy profit.

Obsession? Maybe. Worthwhile? Damn right. – Alan Duggan

Glossary: Fluff
The mix of plastic, rubber, textiles and sound deadeners that results from grinding a car for metal recycling. It’s used at landfills as daily cover to prevent garbage from blowing away.