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Around the Block: From Junkyard Dog To Engine Builder: How The Automotive Aftermarket Grew
By Don Fedak
The flood of Asian scrap on North America highlights cultural, industry differences
Recently, the Ford Motor Company formed a wholly-owned subsidiary and began acquiring large regional wrecking yards and publicly announced it was committed to becoming more environmentally responsible by recycling original equipment passenger car and light truck parts.
Ford’s pilot facility in Tampa, FL, covers 13 acres, includes a 40,000 sq.ft. building and is focused on supplying bolt-on components for all makes and models of vehicles to independent body shops, installers and do-it-yourselfers.
Not a lot of people in the engine building business today understand how their trade evolved or realize that many traditional jobbers and machine shops started out as wrecking yards or recyclers (the current politically correct term for the salvage and wrecking business).
For example, when I was a kid, my dad ran the machine shop for an auto parts store that included an adjoining wrecking yard. I have fond memories of being allowed to hang around Brantford Auto Parts, the shop, and especially the wrecking yard after school and on Saturdays. After sweeping the floors and cleaning the machines, I was allowed to explore the yard, always very conscious of the tolerant watch of the security system, a famous German Shepherd named "Sport."
My lifelong interest in engines and machines was doubtless inherited from my dad and then firmly imprinted on my psyche during those early junkyard experiences.
Although the wrecking yard and the parts businesses of my youth have long since disappeared, the original building still stands rock solid on its foundation of concrete reinforced with discarded car axles and serves as a Salvation Army men’s hostel. Many years ago, the wrecking yard was cleared for a building, which initially housed a car dealership and was later occupied by a discount store and then a bingo parlor. I don’t know what happened to Sport, but I believe he must be in the junkyard dog hall of fame.
There are interesting lessons to be learned from examining the roots of the automotive parts and repair business and tracing its evolution over the last century, lessons which may help us to try and anticipate the future and determine our respective roles.
When cars first began to seriously challenge horse-powered methods of moving people and goods, no infrastructure of dealers, parts manufacturers, warehouses and jobbers existed. So, when your vehicle broke down, you had no choice but to go back to the dealer or the manufacturer for parts and repairs. Eventually, the cost of the repairs couldn’t be justified, and the vehicle was retired and used as a source of parts. Blacksmiths learned to change tires, sell gasoline and some upgraded their knowledge and became auto mechanics. Liveries became garages, and their back lots soon began to fill up with their customers’ abandoned junk vehicles.
Henry Ford came along and utilized mass production to reduce the price of cars. The automobile population exploded, and most repair garages with limited space were happy to sell their surplus junked cars to those with acreage and an interest in specializing in salvage. Eventually, some wrecking yards became so large and pervasive that entire sections of land were transformed into rural parking lots and a major industry knows as auto "ranching" evolved.
Like many others, my dad started his own shop in the late 1940s and, because of the demand for personal transport, the business grew and prospered. Once I got my driver’s license, I made frequent trips to wrecking yards to pick up cores, especially flathead Ford V8 blocks. One or two out of every three blocks in a typical load would be cracked and be returned to the bone yard on the next trip.
Eventually, cores became so hard to find that cold crack repair methods were developed. For many years, much of this discarded cast iron and steel was allowed to slowly rust away and diffuse into the ground from which it was originally extracted. Then aesthetics, economics and advances in steel making converged to drive the "mining" of most of these rural roadside "spreads" in order to recover and recycle the valuable iron content of their scrap.
Today, a century after the horseless carriage first appeared, many of these former auto ranches have been cleared or reduced in size to share the landscape with neighboring hobby, dairy and horse farms. In many areas, cars and light trucks seem to have been designed and developed principally to provide a means of transportation to and from the boarding stables and riding schools.
Clearly, people have evolved and are bonded with horses and whether they are beasts of burden or kids’ ponies, they’re usually fun to be around, especially if someone else is taking care of their emissions problems.
Asia and Europe on the other hand, have never had enough geography to support either a large number of vehicles or "auto ranching." So one solution is to tax them off the road. It is not widely appreciated that in Japan, for example, all vehicles are subjected to a rapidly escalating yearly tax. This tax forces owners to scrap their vehicles within three to four years.
However, before these cars are crushed, their low mileage engines are removed and crated for export. The remainder is then melted down and used to feed the factories that produced the original and which are busy making replacement vehicles, which will also be prematurely retired by onerous taxation.
Containers of these crated scrap engines are then shipped to North America and sprinkled across the continent to be retrofitted into high-mileage vehicles, which are road worthy except for the fact that they need a replacement engine. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have governments with the political will to stop the flow of someone else’s scrap into our countries by imposing matching onerous import taxes. Readers who have made it this far will now have realized the real lesson in this tirade.
Today, any wrecking yards with significant amounts of really vintage tin are the exception and considered by most members of the old car hobby as hallowed ground and worthy of preservation or protection in order to avoid or postpone their inevitable demise via the crusher.
The same legislators who reward major polluters with credits for crushing old cars have failed to understand that every crated scrap engine sold and installed is growing our supply of metal scrap and precluding the more environmentally friendly option of having the original engine remanufactured and recycled.
Does anyone care or understand why the number of engine rebuilders is currently falling rather than rising as it did after 1945?
At least Ford seems to have it figured out … raw material to product to scrap to raw material.