One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s not only a horrible way to tell your kids they’re adopted, but also a pretty succinct summary of the junkyard business. Need a cheap headlight for your POS clunker or a replacement intake carburetor… cylinder or whatever for that discontinued car your dad bought you for graduation? The junkyard’s probably cut them out of a trashed car months ago and have them stored away in their warehouse. I wanted to learn more about a business that turns garbage into dreams so I talked to Luke who works at a salvage yard in Texas. He told me that:
6. Junkyards Are Basically Giant Recycling Centers
To most people, junkyards may seem like cemeteries for the unwanted children of consumerism. In reality, though, they are really more like morgues that specialize in Transformers autopsies.
“At its core, this industry is all about recycling,” Luke explains. “After we’ve made a profit on the car, we strip it for the fast-selling parts: engine, transmission, differential, alternator, starter, AC compressors etc. Once we strip the parts from the car, we crush the body and recycle the iron and aluminum. We also strip the copper wiring and aluminum pieces to be recycled separately, since those metals bring a lot more money per pound than iron does.”
It’s a lot of work because up to 80% of your car can be cut up and reused in other vehicles which will henceforth be known as Francarsteins.
Luke adds: “A few weeks ago I sold a door mirror for a 1988 Deville that had been in our system since 1999 … The very act of selling a used part means that one less new part is sold. These new parts, whether you buy from an aftermarket outlet or the dealer, tend to be produced overseas from raw materials.” So junkyards aren’t only environmentally friendly, they’re also somewhat patriotic. Not to mention innovative.
Every year, Francarstein makers seem to find new ways to use all the parts of the Gas-guzzling Buffalo.
“Over time, we’ve found more interesting ways to recycle various parts. Computer modules can be sold for their silicon. We wholesale our tires to a nearby wheel shop, and he sells the good ones to the public as budget used tires … My employees use old t-shirts to strain out the gas from the tanks of junked cars, then use it to drive their cars. We’re pretty much a recycling plant where heavily-regulated hillbillies do the work of hippies.”
The “hillbilly” part is actually very apt because…
5. The Whole Business Used To Operate On The Barter System
“I once saw my dad trade a transmission for a rifle,” Luke told me before adding: “Texas, man.” I didn’t have any follow-up questions after that.
“My grandpa was known to accept whiskey as payment just as readily as cash, and of course my dad got that rifle. When I was young, salesmen used to give discounts to shops if they would bring us lunch.” This all of course happened a long time ago, back when the checklist of 1-sentence summaries of all the Texas junkyard regulations wasn’t 17 pages long. But please put away your Libertarian Man signals because this isn’t a story of how government is strangling small business owners. All of those regulations are there for a reason. That reason being:
Lots of people are dicks and they steal.
“Nowadays we can’t accept individual parts without filing paperwork with the sheriff’s office … People used to trade parts all the time until the legislature cracked down on chop shops.”
You see, when you look at it objectively, the only real difference between junkyards and a chop shop is that one is legal and the other is not. “That’s why they started requiring paperwork on every part we trade for or buy individually. We don’t much mind the regulations stopping us from trading, either. This way we work for straight profit, not just swirling our parts around with empty pockets the whole time.”
4. Fraud And Break-ins Are Common Problems
Most junkyards deal with criminals on a daily basis. But once they finish up with the used car dealers, they can focus on their real problem: burglars.
“Burglars can adapt like the goddamn Borg.”
“When I was young, we had a couple super sophisticated break-ins where someone just smashed through our glass doors in the front. So my dad installed an alarm system, and a few months later a break in was foiled by that alarm. A few months after THAT, my dad arrived in the morning to find that the entire glass pane from the door had been removed and set aside. Because it was removed with tools and not just shattered, it didn’t trip the sound alarm.”
Luke was actually lucky because not every salvage crime scene ends up looking so neat and tidy. In 2016, the owner of an auto parts shop was murdered and BEHEADED with a machete. Robbing junkyards might seem like the lowest crime possible, second only to stealing a seeing-eye dog’s wheelchair or something. But the truth is, there’s gold in them there junk heaps. The car recycling business is estimated as the 16th largest industry in America, bringing in $25 billion a year. Not to mention that most salvage businesses operate like, well, like businesses, with valuable office equipment and the like.
“We have a computer network with 10 stations and 4 printers. Those fetch money at the pawn shop. A few times, we’ve found the place torn apart by some people looking for money or valuables.”
Fraud is more common, though. “A person buys a part from me, puts it on their vehicle, then brings their broken one back saying that I sold them a bad one and that they don’t want a replacement, they just want a refund. Last week, a man tried to return a power steering pump he bought from us. Well, a power steering pump comes with a reservoir connected to it. They can separate, but we sell the pump and reservoir together. The man came back hours later to return it, and so we checked our paint marks. There was a mark on the reservoir, but no mark on the pump. He had obviously switched out the pumps and thought the mark on the reservoir would work for him.”
3. You Sometimes See Some Creepy Shit
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The slight possibility of losing your head aside, working in salvage is a very safe profession. For your body. Your mind is a different story, though.
“Insurance sells cars in all kinds of condition,” Luke says, “including burned out, flooded, and bloody. If you get a car in with a Biohazard sticker, odds are that someone died in it. They don’t even clean it. They just remove the body and slap the sticker on it.”
“Most recent was a Ford Ranger we got last summer. It was wrecked hard in the side, and the back glass was spider-webbed, bloody, and had more than a little hair caught in the cracks. I don’t think that guy had a good day. Such dramatic gore isn’t as common as finding some blood soaked into fabric seats or drizzled across the steering wheel. That is common … On a side note, some trucks come in with bullet holes, but I choose to believe that those are from hunting accidents,” or are one of those new fancy speed holes.
Hey, as they say, ignorance of definitely-haunted, blood-sacrifice-triggered demon cars is bliss.
Actually, I joke about the cars being haunted, but junkyard workers take that shit somewhat seriously: “Biohazard cars are treated relatively normally. We do the initial tests and pull the engine, transmission, and other money parts. The only real difference is that we don’t let them graze for very long. An average car might spend 4-6 months in the yard, but we had that Ranger crushed and out of here in two weeks. Keeps the spirits from settling in on our land, I guess.”
2. There’s Piss Everywhere
If you thought that blood was the grossest bodily fluid you could step in at a junkyard, then I’m about to take what was left of your peace of mind and compact it into a tiny cube of disgust.
“Once I was showing a customer a part that was still on the vehicle. We were standing on opposite sides of the engine compartment when I suddenly heard splashing. That’s when I realized he had whipped it out and was peeing right there on the side of the Suburban while negotiating the price with me.”
It’s like all we need is to see a car missing its doors for our brains to go “Welp, obviously the Apocalypse happened so let’s just forget all about that whole social contract and decency thing.”
“When I was in high school,” Luke recalls, “one of our workers told me about a man who was walking down the street, ducked into our gate to take a quick piss, and then went right on his way. The only reason that one instance stood out to me was because he was facing me, shame hidden by the engine compartment, and making eye contact.”
And it’s not just the customers: “Man, everyone pisses in the yard. We even have a corner by the fence designated for that. I’m sure I’ve seen dozens of people do it: workers, customers, my dad, my brother, me. Our bathroom is almost impossible to keep clean, so it’s common for us to just step out back for a few minutes to take a whizz.” You know, I just got a great idea for a used car part disinfection service.
1. You See A Lot Of Human Misery
Obviously the 1% aren’t your usual clientele at a junkyard. Until of course they get bored enough to host actual Death Races on their properties using homeless people. Well, at least when that happens, people like Luke will make a killing on hood spikes and window bars. For now, though, most of Luke’s clients are people whose car is their most expensive possession. As such, he has a front row seat to a lot of human drama.
“I see people with medical issues they can’t afford to treat, driving 20+ year old cars, and it’s my job to take their money for the part they need to keep driving to doctor appointments. That moral dilemma, where I feel like I’m profiting from someone’s misfortune, that messes with my head more than a bloody truck does.”
The sad fact of the matter is that in most of the U.S. it’s virtually impossible to hold a job, no matter how small, without a car, and cars tend to break down.
“If you flip burgers for a living and throw a rod in your engine one day, you end up at the salvage yard. Where the cheapest we sell a motor for is $400-$600, and installation is at least $300 extra. And that’s the cheapest option there is. It’s a lot of money to ask of someone making minimum wage.” On the other hand, we ARE talking about a complicated piece of machinery fueled by exploding dinosaurs.
What’s really sad is that spending their life savings on a replacement part doesn’t always fix some people’s problems.
“Just today, I got a call from a guy that bought a motor from us around a week ago. It turns out that while he was pulling his broken motor, the truck was repossessed. Now he’s stuck with a motor for a truck he doesn’t own. The worst part is that we can’t give his money back. We have no proof that his truck was repossessed. If it’s true, then he’s lost his wheels and he’s out $1,400.”
In the end, a possibly-haunted, bloody car will creep you out for a day or two, but stories like this basically kick your soul right in the balls.