Engines of Cars in Clunkers Program Doomed, but Other Parts Have Many Lives

The Cash for Clunkers has highlighted an aspect of the auto industry that's rarely focused on -- what happens to a car after it dies?
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

Killing a clunker takes patience and intestinal fortitude. Five minutes ago, a hulking Infiniti Q45 at Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Germantown guzzled a lethal dose of sodium silicate -- liquid glass that hardens engine arteries. A technician keeps stepping on the gas. The Q45 keeps purring.

"She's holding on," says Scott Addison, a Fitzgerald executive watching the execution while puffing a thick cigar. Then the car begins coughing. "This is a terrible way to kill a car. This is suffering."

The cough gets louder. "Here it goes," Addison says. Silence. Time of death: 1:33 p.m. Hundreds of clunkers surround him, awaiting their fates. Not even "Obama '08" bumper stickers can save these gas guzzlers from the 435,000-vehicle sell-off created by the president's Cash for Clunkers program. Addison calls this sea of discarded vehicles Clunkerville, but this is no car's final destination. Even after their engines are silenced, the dead clunkers face a long journey to auto heaven.

They embark on an odyssey through family businesses nearly as old as the car industry. Auctioneers in Elkridge shout "$25, $25, $25, do I hear $50?" to salvage buyers who then take their winnings to junkyards to be picked over for parts. Junkyards eventually sell what's left of the clunkers to processors, who use mammoth shredders to chew the cars into tiny pieces of scrap metal that are later recycled into steel. Almost nothing is wasted.

This gritty side of the car business is largely unseen in a country where the dominant image of the automotive industry is pristine cars rolling off production lines. But the Cash for Clunkers program, which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Thursday will end Monday, is leaving behind vast lots full of discards -- a big job for the $22-billion-a-year auto recycling business and its many colorful characters.

People wonder: Where do all these cars go?

"It's sort of like flushing a toilet. Nobody knows what happens after that," said David Simon, president of Baltimore Scrap, one of the region's largest car shredders. "This aspect of the recycling industry is often out of sight, out of mind for the general public."

After the government-mandated engine killings -- a measure that ensures that the old cars cannot be resold -- clunkers are trucked to auctions or sold by dealers directly to outfits like Crazy Ray's in Jessup, a junkyard in a locale that immediately tells lost drivers they are headed the wrong way.

Crazy Ray's is what's known as a you-pull-it operation, meaning that customers dive into the heap and find their own spare parts. Co-owner Joe Duff, a bubbly fellow with a heavy Baltimore accent, sits at a desk on a slightly elevated stage. Outside, sweaty men haul toolboxes to extract parts from his inventory. Duff picked up a handful of clunkers this week at Manheim Total Resource Auctions in Elkridge. Winning bids: $150 to $250 each.

His junkyard rules are strict; his prices, nonnegotiable. You come out with a brake drum, that's $10.37 -- cash. Intake manifold, $25.47 -- cash. Crazy Ray's Web site warns: "We do not keep an inventory. It is constantly rotating." If you are not out by 5:15 p.m., the prices double.

Duff runs a tight operation. He has to, he said, because of the shenanigans some parts hunters pull. Not long ago, a man walked up to the cash register, all hunched over. He put a cylinder head on the counter but remained hunched over. The attendant asked him to lift up his shirt. "He had another cylinder head stuck down his pants," Duff said. "Complete with rockers and all."

Despite the hassles, Duff said, it's a good business. Cars break; people need parts. Clunkers come along; parts are replenished. Yin-yang. Looking out his office window, Duff said: "There's a guy buying a door. That's $50. That rear hatch there, that's $65. There's a guy over here getting tires. A car lasts 30 days or so around here. Here's a guy bringing up a rear seat. That's 25 bucks."

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