It's too bad that beautiful new car was wrecked, and it's a shame somebody totaled that classic convertible, but the bad news is money in the bank for Walter Meinhardt.
Meinhardt is to wrecks what Koons is to new cars. As president of Brandywine Auto Parts, he's a high-volume dealer whose lots cover 75 acres of Prince George's County with row after row of used engines, wheels, body parts, trim, tires -- almost all of it salvaged from battered wrecks towed off the road after accidents.
To Meinhardt, the debris of other people's misfortune is just a commodity. By his account, Brandywine sells $12 million a year in auto and truck parts, some new or rebuilt but mostly cannibalized from hulks. It claims -- with no challengers -- to be the largest business of its kind in the Washington area.
About 1,000 cars and trucks a month are hauled into Brandywine's lots, Meinhardt said. "We give 'em a decent burial." It is a recycling operation, he said, "sort of like a kidney transplant," in which some cars gain new life from others that die.
The occupants of the cars may have died too, of course, but Meinhardt says he "doesn't want to know" the circumstances of the wrecks. Years ago, when he was in the towing business, he recalled, "people would come down to the yard to look at the car that killed somebody in their family. That's morbid. It's unreal. We used to hide the cars."
Brandywine has its main lot for domestic parts at Route 301 and Brandywine Road, amid the tobacco farms of southern Prince George's County. It is not an operation run by a couple of grease monkeys with wrenches and torches, but a complex business, heavily advertised, in which the entire inventory of parts is kept on computer printouts.
Brandywine buyers hunt for bargains at bankruptcy auctions. Meinhardt negotiates deals to export used truck parts to Afghanistan, Mexico and other countries. A radio-telephone network links Brandywine's lots to competitors, and they call back and forth searching for hard-to-get items much like stockbrokers matching buyer and seller.
Despite his folksy, open-collar style, Meinhardt has a reputation as a shrewd businessman, willing to use his connections in the state legislature to promote laws to help his companies. He has interests in banking, an auction company, truck sales and quarrying. This year he is president of the Prince George's County Board of Trade.
His father started the business in 1927, he said in an interview. During the 1930s, the elder Meinhardt "sold Model A's and Model T's and shoed horses. There were still a few around." Later his father sold Kaisers and Frazers, automobiles that had brief lives and died unmourned during the Korean War era.
Walter Meinhardt, 47, and his brother, Henry A. Meinhardt Jr., took over the business in 1958, when its assets consisted of "maybe 20 wrecks, some parts, some gasoline, and $1,000 in cash," he said. Today it is still a family operation in which Walter runs the auto parts companies, his son, Walter Jr., manages the foreign-car-parts lot in Upper Marlboro, and Henry, 49, runs the other units.
Brandywine's sprawling lots and sheds give eerie proof of the law of conservation of matter. To an owner, a car's life ends when the insurance company writes it off as a total loss, but its economic life still has several cycles to go.
Brandywine salvages almost everything except the steel body shell itself, which is crushed and resold to a scrap metal dealer. Racks of intact dashboards and steering wheels -- wires in place, waiting to be reattached to a new body -- hang over shells of taillights and piles of brake drums. Drive shafts hang vertically like salamis in a delicatessen, entire front and rear ends, rows of transmissions, doors, windshields, steering assemblies, complete engines, seats, bumpers, tires wait for buyers.
In the bewildering array of parts, the key to making sales is knowing whether the part a customer wants is available and if so, where it is. A computerized inventory is updated weekly, so the clerks know what is available, what condition it is in and how much it costs, without having to rummage through the yard. Brandywine has one lot devoted to parts for late-model domestic cars, one for older parts, one for foreign-cars, one for light trucks and vans, and one for heavy trucks. mong the thousands of items in stock last week:
A red hood for a 1974 Alfa Romeo, $100.
A complete front "clip" -- hood, grille, fenders -- for a 1977 Buick LeBaron, $1,200.
A red left front door for a 1975 Audi Fox wagon, $100.
An engine for a 1969 Simca, with 49,000 miles on it, $250.
The left side-view mirror for a 1973 Volkswagen 412, $2.
An eight-cylinder engine for a 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix, only $300 because it has 91,000 miles on it. The lower the mileage on the wreck, the higher the price of the salvaged engine, Meinhardt said. The engines carry a 101-day warranty.
As he spoke, workers were cutting up the newest arrival, a 1977 Dodge Royal Monaco with Louisiana tags. Its front end was heavily damaged, but the engine, wheels, seats, transmission and rear end were untouched. "It's too old to keep it intact and salvage it whole," Meinhardt explained, "so they're cutting it up."
Brandywine acquires most of the wrecks from insurance companies, Meinhardt says. After an insurance adjuster decides a car is a total loss and the company pays off the owner, the company acquires the vehicle. Then it sells the car to a salvage operator such as Brandywine, to recoup a portion of its loss.
"We usually pay between 10 and 30 percent of the book value of the car," Meinhardt said. "If it's a basket case, such as badly burned, we adjust downward." The hardest cars for Brandywine to acquire, he said, are those that are the most expensive new. "If a car costs $30,000 to buy, it's usually worth repairing instead of junking." utside, at the door to a shed full of light-truck parts, Bart Spicer was loading a used Ford transmission into his pickup truck. "Used is the only way to go," he said. "This cost me $100, and if I bought it new it would cost maybe $450. It's only got 40,000 miles on it, it's good for 100,000 more. The same thing for the starter."
Meinhardt himself, naturally, is a big fan of used parts, which he says are often better than newly made replacements. "If you buy a used door," he said, "you get factory-installed innards like the glass and the crank. A new door is just a shell, and you have to rely on some shop to attach the parts."
Like most privately owned businesses, Brandywine doesn't divulge details of its finances, but Meinhardt did say that he buys all his merchandise for cash, and thus has no interest payments to meet.
But the business suffered a setback early this year, he said, with the collapse of the Mexican peso. The Mexicans had been good customers for used truck parts, he said, but "we haven't sold anything down there for six months." CAPTION: Picture 1, Engines salvaged from wrecked vehicles await customers at Brandywine Auto Parts.; Picture 2, Worker at Brandywine saws into wreck of what once was a luxurious Mercedes Benz.; Picture 3, Customers search among the battered wrecks of Brandywine Auto Parts' 75-acre used-car graveyards for salvageable material.; Picture 4, Brandywine Auto Parts President Walter Meinhardt, sells $12 million a year in used auto and truck parts salvaged from vehicles that end up flattened scrap metal.; Pictures 6 through 8, Scenes from Brandywine's 75-acres of lots. Its a recycling operation, says Meinhardt, "sort of like a kidney transplant" in which some cars gain new life from others that die. Photos by Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post