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Twin virtues of wrecking yard

Much has changed in the automotive landscape over the past 30 years, but a trip to the wrecker’s yard can be like going back in time.

You might be greeted by a surly counterman, who will – in an offhand fashion – send you to forage for the part you want. You may still have to bring your own tools and trudge across a yard slimy with mud and a cocktail of automotive fluids. And once you’ve extracted a serviceable specimen of the part in question, you might see the yard owner slip the cash you hand him right into his hip pocket.

Arrive after hours and you may well get to meet his dogs.

But auto wreckers are evolving, even if there are lingering images of grimy, polluted mud-yards operating on the margins of civil society. The image in some cases remains accurate, but often ironic, too. This is an industry built upon two of the saintliest environmental virtues: reuse and recycling.

The culture and processes that result in cubes or pancakes of crushed metal being shipped to the shredders – usually with a human body inside, according to Hollywood – are only part of the auto wreckers’ story. And many in the business could use a little help from the public to remake the image, especially when it comes to reusing perfectly good automotive parts.

“We’re really happy to sell the parts,” says David Gold, president of Standard Auto Wreckers in Scarborough. “The trouble is the public doesn’t know we exist. Some of my own relatives go out and pay $400 for a new alternator, when I’ve got 10 of them for $75 that I can’t get rid of.”

Reuse can range from customers pulling a heater-control lever out of an old Civic in the U-Pull-It section, to a local repair shop purchasing a serviceable engine off the shelf to extend the life of a neighbour’s beloved Nissan Axxess, to a body shop snapping up an entire front-end structure from a wreck that got rear-ended so it can repair a similar vehicle with frontal damage.

Much of the growth in parts reuse has been driven by auto insurers trying to keep premiums down.

Standard Auto Wreckers, which also has a new 4.5-hectare indoor facility in upstate New York, uses a warren of old portables for offices at its original Scarborough location.

Most of the outdoors is unpaved, but you’re likely to be greeted by a friendly young woman at the reception desk. Gold himself looks like the proverbial nice young man, and if you met him outside work you might guess he’s a laser eye surgeon.

But he is very much a businessman and he doesn’t want to lose customers who can’t find the parts they want. Things are organized at Standard; Gold has a department that sells new or reconditioned aftermarket parts. Another one does new wheels and tires. In a different area, four employees sit in front of computers. They’re “attending” online auctions of salvage vehicles – wrecks that have been written off by the insurance companies.

A staffer named Ryan Pegg “wins” a late-90s Pontiac Grand Am for $600. His software program also lists the parts that Standard expects to sell – for a total of $2,750.

It all looks like easy money until Gold points out that the yard’s overhead averages nearly $2,000 per vehicle.

Parts prices are elastic; inventory control software constantly monitors supply and demand and adjusts prices accordingly. Another program keeps track of interchangeability – letting a customer know, for example, whether he can use a headlamp from a 1995 Intrepid on his ’97.

Buying salvage vehicles online has become nearly universal in the past few years. The practice relies on vendors providing truthful information on the cars’ condition, and the industry has developed a protocol for doing that, using commonly agreed upon codes.

There’s also the risk that the vehicle may acquire further damage – perhaps hit by a forklift – between purchase and delivery. “The auction houses don’t really care,” Gold says. “Their customers are the insurance companies.”

Typically, a salvage car would be a 2001 model purchased for about $2,000. These vehicles represent about 15 per cent of the 400 autos that enter Standard’s facility each week.

The other 85 per cent are mostly end-of-lifers – average model year 1990 – towed from pounds or driven in by their last owners. Some are donated through programs such as Car Heaven (the vehicle’s scrap value goes to charity and the donor gets a tax receipt).

The going rate for scrap vehicles is $160 a tonne, Gold says.

A newly arrived scrapper’s first appointment is with the hoist; all its fluids have to be drained. Radiators, oil pans and fuel tanks are simply cut open to let the stuff out. Four hydraulic jacks on the hoist can tip and tilt the car body to ensure every last drop gets out.

Air conditioning refrigerant is captured and disposed of according to set procedures. There’s also a special recovery program for the mercury switches used in most modern cars. Standard also does the paperwork to de-register the vehicles, so the authorities know which vehicle identification numbers (VINs) no linger exist.

Nothing goes to waste. Batteries, wheels and tires are resold, if marketable. If not, they are recycled. Gasoline goes into a tank from which employees fill their own cars for free. Clean coolant is given away to customers.

Depending on marketability, remaining parts of the hulk either go straight to the crusher or spend four to six weeks in the U-Pull-It yard.

Elsewhere, in a heated shed closed to the public, Standard’s employees remove saleable parts from the newer vehicles.

Every part destined for the warehouse gets a detailed, computer-generated tag. “A late-model car is just the box the parts came in,” Gold says.

Increasingly, computers and online commerce mean trips to the wrecking yard are of the virtual variety.

On your home computer, you might click on

and enter the details of the part you need. The website searches members’ inventories and lists recyclers that have it.

Miller’s Auto Recycling in Fort Erie might be the one with the right part at the right price. You might contact the company, arrange shipping and payment on your credit card.

A few days later the part arrives at your front door – and all without going within five miles of a junkyard dog.

JEREMY SINEK – Apr 21, 2007, Toronto Star