|While the sun has set on these husks, there are still new horizons to be found amongst their skeletal remains.
By: Alex Vendler
Everyone knows that there is a large source of used auto parts at great prices in the many self service junkyards (SSJY) one finds in and around every major US city. I think that many car enthusiasts don't take full advantage of this resource because it seems to be too time consuming or labor intensive a process. While at first it might not seem like these death camps for cars can offer much to a serious gear head interested in relatively high tech cars that is far from the case. For the thinking user these chainlink rimmed car camps are a major resource and not just for parts but for research value and more.
First off, it's important to remember that it's not all about buying parts. Have you ever wondered if the brake calipers from an Acura Vigor will fit the knuckles of a CRX? I know where you can check. Ever wonder if Volvo wheels are the right offset and bolt pattern for your S14? Go to a place where there are both cars and you are encouraged to take them apart. The best thing about mixing and matching parts in the SSJY is that you don't have to buy before you try! You can spend as much time as you would like checking out new combinations of parts across platforms and brands as long as you can find two of them in one yard. This kind of information is super valuable when doing engine swaps and the like because you can try out different axles in different hubs to see what's possible without resorting to custom parts. Same with driveshafts and diffs and transmissions.
The best things to score at these places are parts that are going to be used in a custom application. My Lemons race car uses an interior mounted 1″ rear swaybar that I pulled off the front of a second generation Land Cruiser. Why that bar? I needed it to be 36″ wide at the eyes and have a straight section about the same length. I just hit the yards with a measuring tape and looked until I found one that was close enough. Cost about $25 and came with mounting hardware too. Speaking of hardware, that's another advantage one gets from self service yards. Hardware is largely ignored in the pricing scheme at these places so when you buy a part be sure to keep all the nuts and bolts thereto and pertaining attached as a free bonus. One of the toughest problems I solved using Bone Tech was the search for extended wheel studs for the Geo Metro-Gnome. Normal parts outlets had no way to look up such parts, and charge several dollars each for wheel studs to boot. A set of 16 was going to crest $100. Who knew that the wheel studs from a Daewoo where exactly the right length and knurl diameter? After a bit of junkyard exploration this was discovered and including a set of 16 chrome acorn lug nuts off a Montero the whole project came in at under $15. Such a deal.
The other undervalued category in these self serve paradises is anything electrical. Relays, switches, plugs, connectors, battery cables, light bulbs, sensors, gauges and on and on, are all there to be had for pennies on the dollar. German cars are stocked with high quality Bosch relays and they can be had for next to nothing. Many high end cars have trunk mounted batteries and use high quality cable in those setups. Again, the pricing scheme for such items is very low compared to what it would cost one to buy the stuff at you local F.L.A.P.S. (Friendly Local Auto Parts Store). It might seem a bit low brow to be shopping for such items used, but really you can end up with nicer parts than are commonly available new and at a fraction of the cost.
When hitting the yards one needs to bring the right things to maximize your results. First off make a list of what you would like to find so you can plan accordingly. It's best to travel light and resist the temptation to bring more tools than found at an Orange County steakhouse happy hour. If I do have to bring a lot of larger items or power tools I use one of those wheeled suitcases so I don't end up with one arm longer than the other by the end of the afternoon. Also, try not to bring your best tools because it would be a shame to leave a $100 ratchet in a junked car by accident. I do bring a 3/8″ drive electric impact gun as it makes short work of removing fenders and other parts held on by lots of small bolts.
There are a few tricks that can help when removing certain parts as well. Pulling a windshield? Use a hood release cable as a saw to cut the sealer. Removing a big item like a trans or engine? Use some seat belts and a drive shaft to make an impromptu two man lift. C/V axles make great hammers if you forget yours. I have seen guys de-bead and remove tires by hand using nothing more than a hammer and the “L” shaped tire iron off a GM car in order to save a few bucks by only buying the tire and not the rim too!
OK! Now that we are all in the same thrifty headspace let's take a tour. Check out some of the great finds that a quick visit of a couple of Los Angeles area self service yards yielded. I spent about two hours at two places in Sun Valley Ca., grabbed a couple items off my list, and took these pictures to show and tell. Pardon the quality but an iPhone was all I could sneak in.
Here is a nice S13 that still has a lot of parts left on it. One of the best things about the SSJY is that they don't care what car the part is off of. The price will be the same whether it's for a Mercedes or a Metro. There is no “drift tax” at the junkyard.