Here we are: eight acres of mashed Toyotas, Dodges that crashed and burned, Fords that failed on Saturday night curves, sailed into the void, and came to rusty rest on the far side of Simonized dreams. Field full of junk.
"Please," Doug Johnston says, wincing at the word. "Automotive salvage, recycling. We are conserving natural resources."
Johnston, founder, owner, paterfamilias of Lorton Auto Parts, Lorton, Va., steps into the warehouse. Shelves sag under the glittering weight of chrome -- floor-to-ceiling chrome.
"We got motors five high, count 'em. We got transmissions six high. There are only three places on the East Coast I know of where they stack 'em this high. Look at this floor. It's cleaner than the floor in a Dart Drug store."
Master cylinders, flywheels, brake drums. Alternators, starters. Shelved, labeled, color-coded like books in a library. "Organization, presentation," Johnston says, "I know if I can get the customer in the door, I got the competition beat."
Back out in the yard, a Good Humor truck, packed to the gunwales with gas tanks, rides high on the metal sea. A fleet of buses goes nowhere. One day they will meet the crusher, two steel slabs driven by a pair of hydraulic cylinders, "260,000 p.s.i. each. An eight-year-old could opoerate this thing." Put a pickup in the crusher and it comes out looking like a mattress. t
Johnston walks deeper into the yard, passing a fat, middle-aged Buick. "A big car like this, nobody wants it. Nowadays, everybody wants this little junk. You buy a -- and you're buying a coffin. Those things are made out of beer cans. Look at this one." He points to a car with its roof bashed to the dashboard. "You think that guy doesn't have a headache?"
All this late model tin in his yard gives Johnston the creeps. Mention the word Japan, and he answers "balance of payments." He puts all the foreign cars in one corner of the yard "so they don't contaminate the American cars. Look, friend, we don't buy American, and we aren't going to have an America."
This is America. Doug Johnston, age 54, college, Army, insurance adjuster. "There was no money in that." Where was the money? Postwar America, pent-up demand, pent-up energy. People buying, driving, and totaling cars. Insurance companies were unloading them for a song, then turning around and buying back the salvageable parts with which to settle damage claims. Used parts. Read the fine print in your policy: "of like kind and quality." There was money to be made as middleman between insurance company and body shop. When Johnston got into the business in 1960 there were 12 salvage yards in the metropolitan area. Now there are 43. There are 17,000 of them glimmering out there across the American landscape, doing $7 billion in annual sales. They have a Washington-based trade association doing its best to deal with this nagging problem of image -- that people see auto junk yards as fronts for stolen goods. For his part, Johnston says he has nothing to hide. He says in his 20 years he has unwittingly bought two hot cars. One was sold to him by a former employee.
"I started with two acres, 24 cars and a bus." Ah, the bus. It was Johnston's office for six years. No running water, a little gas heater. "The Health Department made me dig an outhouse." He lined the place with Dobermans, and there would be mornings when he'd arrive to find people standing on top of cars. He experimented with sheep as a way of keeping down the grass so that customers could eyeball the merchandise. But sheep and Doberman's don't mix.
Nowadays Johnston has 18 employees dismembering and reselling 130 cars a month. He grosses "something over three quarters of a million a year," but quickly adds, "it costs me $60,000 a month just to open the doors." A few years after he moved out of the bus he finally got up the courage to feed it to the crusher. "I shed a tear or two when I did that."
Out through the trees on one side of the yard, Interstate 95 moves with a low, menacing buzz. On the other side lie train tracks, and now and again a train whooshes clickety-clack past. Three big oaks rise in the yard, spreading some shade around, anchoring the place. Nuts, bolts, clamps and washers litter the ground like shells ridden up on a high, nighttime tide.
A '79 Monte Carlo resembles an accordion. "Looks like a total loss," says Ann Fogle, an affable young woman in her early 20s, married to a man who runs a 24-hour towing service. She used to drag race. "A lot of men didn't especially like racing against a girl, but what was worse was when they lost. They'd kick their cars and beat on the hood."
Fogle "works the counter" for Johnston. She was in new parts, but then came here to work. "I didn't realize there was so much to know here." Used parts made new parts look boring -- and not very profitable.
Take this '73 Pontiac Le Mans. She figures Johnston paid about $400 for it. What can he get back out of it? "The hood $75, windshield $65, door $100, trunklift $50, quarter panel $100. Bumper with strips and guards and all that other good stuff, $65, tail light assembly $25 -- we sell the whole thing as a unit. Rear vision glass, without heat $35, with heat $50. the wheels, $10 a piece for the rims, the tires look good, maybe $15 each, five a piece on the hubcaps. Hubcaps with wire spokes go for about $15, except for the Cadillac ones which are real fancy -- $25 each. They're $98 a piece brand-new, can you believe that?
"The steering column, if its got tilt and cruise control, a hundred. The interior, the back and front seats, we sell those together, maybe $75. Instrument cluster $35. Radio, if it's AM-FM $50 to $75, cassette and eight-track are more, $100. The top of the dashboard if you pull it out yourself is $25, a lot of the items here are self-service. The engine in this is a 350, it's probably in good shape. We'd well it for about $350, plus exchange for the old engine. The transmission, Hydra-matic -- $125 and exchange. Rear end drum to drum, $100."
If they sell it all, they might get as much as $1,500 for the $400 Le Mans.
Fogle's auto knowledge -- and that of her three counter coworkers -- is encyclopedic. Ringing phones punctuate their 10-hour work day: body shops, adjusters, other parts dealers, car buffs calling. Seventeen thousand pieces make up a car; many within a manufacturer's product line interchange. But what exactly on a Shylark will also fit a Cutlass? Johnston's counter people need to know that -- fast. They need to know what's in stock and what parts will "move" faster than others. They need to be able to bid competitively over the phone for a wrecked car, sight unseen.
Mitchell Mockabee is the senior man on the counter. His education extends merely into the middle years, but ask him about Chevy-Olds interchangeability and you'll get a dissertation.
Mockabee dates from the bus era. He came to work at the yard at 17 and bought his first car here, "50 Chevy, two-door hardtop, Powerglide." His second he also bought from the yard -- for his mother: "'54 Plymouth, two-door hardtop, six-cylinder, three-speed."
In those early days of "'51s, '48s, '50s, Chevies, Fords, Packards, Studebakers," things moved a little slower. There was time for an occasional game of marbles or badminton, and when the boss was away, demolition derby. Then there was the infamous Monday when Mockabee and three coworkers came sailing in off a weekend, feeling in need of a vacation. They jumped into his '55 Chevy and headed for Florida. Down around Fredericksburg the weekend began to wear off. Mockabee rang up the yard. "Boss, we're coming back."
They returned anyway, arriving simultaneously with a truckful of merchandise that needed unloading. Johnston took them back. They unloaded the truck and were promptly refired. Then another load came in.
Out at the counter the phones ring on. Back in his office Johnston punches his adding machine and mumbles about cars. GM knows how to market a product, he says. AMC does not. "Without a doubt the best engine made today is the American Motors six-cylinder." He puts those engines on the highest shelf in the warehouse because he knows they won't move. "Who wants to buy a Rambler?"
As for Chrysler? "I'm writing a letter to Lee Iacocca. I see his business from the other end. I think I can help him." For example, Johnston thinks the Chrysler double-reduction starter, in use since mid-1962, is a real turkey. He sees them move off his shelves. "Little things can made a big difference, you know," he says.
Johnston's office, like its occupant, stands on little ceremony. It is a bottle of Maalox on the shelf and fly paper dangling from the ceiling. It is a bulbous, Florida, Johnston-landed bass on one wall, and on another -- catch this -- a print of a Himalayan snow leopard. "If I had two lifetimes I could really get my act together," says Johnston, pulling on one in a chain of Marlboros that is putting a dent in this his one and only. "This business is like farming. You live poor and you die rich." It is also "like having a $5-a-night whore in a $100-a-night apartment." Translation: the real estate under Johnston's has gotten very valuable.
Johnston's wife has been nudging him toward retirement and the Sunbelt, but he resists. He likes the feel of the place, the flow of the business. He likes his employes, and they like him. "Besides," he says, "if I sell the business what as I going to do? What's going to keep me out of the barroom? This is my life."
Saturday morning and a light rain falling. "Good," says Johnston gazing out the window. "This will thin out the tire kickers." He likes to deal with the hard core, the kind that will come out in the rain for a little self-service.
"I went out last night and ripped up my car racing an old friend of mine," says Bill Wilson, flat on his back out in the yard under a Chevy, a handful of wrenches at his side. He drives a '70 Olds Cutlass, and the reat end support bars off the Chevy will get him back up to speed. "A lot of street racers hit this place. I've been coming down here five years."
I've been coming down here 10," says his buddy, Steve Little, from under a cowboy hat and behind tinted glasses. He crouches in the grass and flicks asses off a Salem. "I've got a '71 Pontiac Le Mans. It's got 103,000 miles on it. I keep it pieced together. I once had a '55 Hudson Hornet, but it got to be a real bitch to find parts for. I ended up selling it to a guy who won three demolitions derbies with it. That car was a real tank, without a doubt the best piece of equipment I ever owned."
"Yeah," says Wilson, his brow now flecked with grease and dirt, "the newer the car the more problems you'll have with it."
"The oldies got more metal; they give you better protection," says Little. "This piece of junk here [a subcompact next to the Chevy], you hit it in the rear end and the fuel tank's gonna go. A guy once hit my rear in the Hudson, and I had a tow hitch on the back. It went right through the guy's radiator. My bumper wasn't even dented."
Little is 30. In his half-life he has owned: "Five different Corvairs. I had the Hudson. Had a Dodge van. Had a '77 Kenilworth tractor-trailer, and now this Pontiac. Couple of Simcas -- junk."
Wilson counters: "I've had three mustangs, '65, '66, '67; a '65 Chevy II, a '55 Chevy pickup, a '46 Ford pickup, a '69 Lincoln Continental, a '66 Chevy, a '65 VW, a '61 Falcon."
"Oh yeah", says Little, "I had a Valiant once."
A '70 Ford station wagon, and now this '70 Cutlass, I'll never get rid of it," Wilson says.
Wilson works on with his wrenches, and the conversation ranges. There are laments for the passing of the "muscle" cars, talk of smog pumps disconnected and girlfriends who -- unlike cars -- "complain." Wilson remembers a Camaro and a motorcycle he owned and forgot to mention. Then he recounts an elaborate trade that netted him the Cutless for next to nothing. The Cutlass, he says from deep under the junked Chevy, "is nice -- gold with a black vinyl top, AM-FM radio. You never lose money on [trading] cars if you know what you're doing -- and as long as you stay between the telephone poles." And then he adds: "You know, it would all be pretty boring if it wasn't for cars." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, The view through a fractured windshield in the eight-acre yard of Lorton Auto Parts, where the remains of highway mishaps are sold to give new life to similar models still running the roads. Dozens of unfractured windshields racked for ready availability. Earl Swisher holds a monument to Detroit's "boats" of the past, a mammoth, and costly, taillight assembly. A Thunderbird shorn of bent sheet metal: lenses, seats and chrome; Pictures 5 through 8, Put a Pontiac in Lorton Auto Parts' car crusher and yard manager Buck Wood will push the buttons that make it a pancake, worth about $10 per 1,000 pounds.; Pictures 9 through 13, Doug Johnston will pull a racked-and-ready front-end assembly off his open-air steel shelvs to replace your wounded one. A flywheel hangs above a not-exhausted engine. Crashed coachwork may be worthless, but the parts beneath the skin can be worth hundreds of dollars. Parts workers, J. Sheperd, Eric Johnston, Doug Johnston, Mitch Mockabee and Ann Fogle. Door storage. Photographs by Breton Littlehales