The '90 VW Vanagon's unsliding sliding door needed a new plastic thingamajig.

First step: Call the local VW dealer's parts department. Checking the schematic, the parts guy couldn't find a parts number for it. He said he couldn't order it. Same answer from another dealership parts shop and two independent parts stores.

A Maryland junkyard manager thought he had a wrecked Vanagon somewhere but didn't know if its plastic thingamajig was any good. He invited the caller to come look for himself.

Any ordinary consumer who has tried to find an obscure auto part knows it's a jungle out there. But, even for the mechanically ungifted, the Internet is changing that. Knowing this, the caller browsed online. Searching Excite for "auto parts retail VW" turned up 4,974 hits; Google got 868; Yahoo, 218. Twelve Web sites that sell VW parts didn't have that item, though most carried standard stuff like mufflers, seat covers, and clutches. Responses to eight online auto-part classifieds also came up empty-handed.

Out of the blue, called just to say it is up and running and good at what it does. Within a few days, and during the holidays at that, the wrenchead site ( checked its 350,000 on-location parts, then the 1.5 million items available from its warehouse distribution system that stores car, truck, and even tractor parts for models as far back as 1972.

"We've found the part," reported Burt Burtis, wrenchead's manager, who also advised that the door problem might involve the lock mechanism, which he also found. Both parts seemed reasonably priced.

"I want to be an auto-parts retailer who happens to be on the Internet. That doesn't mean I'm better, but we might be a little more efficient," co-founder and CEO Gus Conrades said of his competition, both online and off.

Conrades' love affair with automobiles started in high school when he and a classmate, Burt Burtis, rebuilt a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. After founding several Internet companies over the past decade, he teamed up with his Detroit-based, car-lovin' cousin, Bryan Murphy, to launch last September. Now he's promoting it as a one-stop, online shop for car enthusiasts and tinkerers alike. guarantees "a 100-percent fit" for parts you buy if you start with the correct basic info--your car's year, make and model. Its prices, said Conrades, are "competitive with all traditional retailers"--and on the average roughly 12 to 15 percent below retail stores. During its introductory period, shipping is free.

"If you walk into an auto parts store, they probably have to order it anyway," Conrades said. "Why not trust yourself and use the same look-up software that's used by the major retailers in stores across America? Go on to wrenchead, order it yourself, and get it delivered to your door."

Conrades also is developing the Web site into an online community of repair-it-yourselfers who identify with the "wrenchead" label--people who love working on their cars and talking about it. The site's free message boards already are turning into a veritable advice corner on repairs and a passionate car dialogue space. "If you don't love your car, this doesn't make much sense," Conrades acknowledged. "We're just trying to empower the do-it-yourselfer to do it yourself."

Pokemon Recall Reminder If you missed Burger King's Pokemon recall amid the ruckus of the holidays, here's the heads-up again: Last week's recall of more than 25 million ball-shaped containers that held Pokemon toys included in Burger King kids meals is the largest toy recall ever. Pulled apart, the balls are a suffocation hazard to children 3 years and younger. One 13-month-old died after half a ball got stuck over her mouth and nose. Trash these balls immediately, or exchange both halves at a Burger King for a small order of fries.

Got a consumer complaint? Question? Smart consumer tip? E-mail details to or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, 20071.