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As we hold onto our cars, salvage yards reap profits

A socket wrench in one hand and greasy red rag in the other, Roy Meyers worked under a junked Ford Taurus, removing its air-conditioning compressor.

“It’s Florida,” the Apopka, Fla., man said, “and you have to have air conditioning in the summer.”

His wife’s 10-year-old Taurus needs some work, so Meyers is spending this particular Saturday afternoon at U-Pull & Pay, a self-service salvage yard on Jetstream Drive, near Orlando International Airport. He’s pulling parts from one of several Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable carcasses propped up on old, bare wheels. He’ll pay $35 for the compressor. New from Ford, the compressor would cost $373.32.

As budget-conscious consumers keep their cars longer in the struggling economy, salvage yards across the nation have reaped the rewards of more business.

A study conducted last February by, a California-based auto repair information site, found that 56 percent of respondents planned to keep their current vehicle “until it dies,” and another 13 percent planned to keep their current vehicle until it has at least 150,000 miles.

“Not only are consumers holding onto their vehicles for years longer but, more significantly, for miles longer, opting to repair and maintain rather than purchasing new,” said President Shane Evangelist.

Mike Philpott of Heathrow, Fla., considers himself typical. He drives a 1999 Ford pickup truck, and his wife has a 1997 BMW.

“The total cost of ownership for any new car or truck I’d be interested in far outweighs the maintenance and operating costs of my 1999 truck,” he said.

Rachel Rigsby Lare, whose family owns Rigsby’s Auto Salvage in Zephyrhills, Fla., has seen a steady uptick in the junkyard business.

Lare, also vice-president of the Maitland-based Florida Auto Dismantlers and Recyclers Association, a statewide trade group for salvage operators, said for the first four months of 2010, her business was up by about 900 sales, or more than 8 percent, over the same period from 2009.

“And this trend has been going on for some time,” she said, adding that the FADRA has 35 member salvage yards in Central Florida alone.

Lare said that the fact people are driving cars longer has not made it substantially harder to acquire more vehicles.

“Most of ours are the result of collisions,” she said. Her lot has more than seven acres of vehicles — typically from 1,000 to 1,200 — awaiting recycling.

“Automobiles are probably the most recycled item on the planet,” she said. “We reuse everything. And I mean everything.”

Terry Thompson, president of the FADRA and owner of Ole South Auto Salvage in Lake Placid, Fla., said he has seen an increased demand for mechanical parts such as engines, transmissions and air conditioning compressors.

“Those are parts that you need to keep a vehicle on the road — basic transportation from point A to point B — and not so much the parts you need to just make a car look better,” he said.

Parts prices can vary dramatically. At U-Pull-&-Pay, a front fender for a 1992 Chevrolet Camaro — as well as any front fender for any vehicle they have — lists for $32.99, but figure on spending 30 minutes or more removing it, using your own tools.

That price doesn’t include the $2 “entry fee” that U-Pull & Pay charges to come in and look around. The yard does loan you a wheelbarrow to haul your parts to the parking lot.

The same fender, but already removed from the car and ready to be picked up at another Orlando salvage yard, is $65. A new fender not made by General Motors — likely stamped out in China, and imported here — costs $172.26. And a new fender that is OEM, or made by Chevrolet, the “Original Equipment Manufacturer,” costs $461.10.

Even hard-to-find parts have become easier to locate, thanks to computerization, which has changed several aspects of the salvage business.

At yards like U-Pull & Pay, clerks can cross-reference parts and tell you, for example, that if you are looking for an alternator for a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier, an alternator from a Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac Grand Am and Sunfire and Oldsmobile Achieva should also work.

And many salvage yards are connected to computer networks that can find the part you need at other yards, if the yard you’re visiting doesn’t have it in stock.

Thompson doesn’t expect business to slow down soon.

“As long as the economy is slow, and credit is tight, I expect people to hang on to what they have,” he said. “And that’s good news for us.”

By Steven Cole Smith / The Orlando Sentinel