Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Bit More Car Talk

More money sunk into Ye Olde Buick. It seems to go in spurts. For the last two years or so, it's been fine with nothing but oil changes and a set of new tires to put us back. Now, it's one thing after another in short succession. First, all this stuff. Now, two weeks later, the CD player decided not to work. With my regular nine hour drives cross country, this was a catastrophe. Then the climate control panel display went irretrievably dead, so that neither the outside air temp nor the inside temp settings could be read (the latter failure made it very difficult to adjust the temp inside except a degree or two). Finally, I was raising the driver's side window a couple days ago (after getting a McDonald's Diet Coke, if I'm not mistaken) and there was a snap followed by a sickening thunka-thunka-thunk (and no movement) when I tried to lower the window again. Because the car is a coupe, and the doors are very long, it is hard to function without the window, as I need to use card readers and to order and take delivery of Diet Cokes on a very regular basis. So it all needed to get fixed, but the window especially. Something similar had happened a couple years ago to a back door window of a 1981 Cadillac Seville that used to serve as my airport car (back when the Buick was still acceptable in polite society--the Caddy looked like some kind of Okie transport from The Grapes of Wrath), and when I dug into that door to assess the problem I found a mickey-mouse nylon strap-thingy which had holes in it that corresponded to teeth on the window motor, and thus did it move up and down--like magic!--to the tickling of a gaudy chrome switch. "Carefully built to last," I can hear the GM manager say, "for the exact duration of the warranty." In most cases. Statistics used to beat us over our own heads. So I feared for the worst when I dug into the Buick.

One of my crash pad roommates has a Mercedes 300 diesel of the same vintage as my old Caddy (1981), and we were always doing the I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours thing with our two shitty airport cars. His was purchased for $1,500 from a relative after it had been sideswiped and driven into a ditch; mine came from some guy's front yard in Appleton after his wife passed away. I paid a grand. (It astounds me now that that old car made 10 or 15 trips between WI and KY.) But the Caddy had about 175,000 miles on it, while JMD's Mercedes was pushing 300,000. Yet they were in similar overall condition. I remember "working" on the body of his car by simply going to a junkyard and taking the front fender and both passenger side doors off a solid-looking nearly identical Benz that had recently taken up residence in the yard. These pieces bolted on to JMD's car quite easily, and after a $200 paint job from the local charlatan, voila! the car looked great. It still dog-tracked down the highway a bit, but it looked fabulous (at least for the four months the paint job lasted before it started to show its pedigree).

Anyway, one of the two "new" old doors on the Benz had a non-functioning power window, and we swapped out the motor with a functioning one from his old, dented door. And what a contrast it was to my Caddy: the Mercedes was an expensive car at that time, as they are today, but in this case you could really see the quality of the materials that went into the car originally, and see what that quality yielded some 22 years later. The window mechanism was all metal, and the motor and linkage were quite beautifully-crafted and stout and simple. Whoever designed it gave a damn and took pride in their work. Likewise, the basic structure of the car was as solid as a brick even with a third of a million miles on it, and the engine was still the same rattling, smoking lump it was when it was first cranked to life. Diesels are great in this way, as they are inherently more heavily-built by their functional definition. (I'll note now that the Caddy died and went to the crusher two years ago, but the Benz continues to chug away with something approaching twice the miles that killed the Caddy.)

So I was a little pleased to find a more robust mechanism in the Buick's door than what the Caddy sported, but still the key parts were made of plastic and--surprise!--that is what had let go. I decided that the GM / Delco radio was not worth looking for a OEM replacement, and so that job was entrusted to Sony. But the window motor and climate control module needed to be original. So, off again to the junkyard.

Now to the thrust of this post. Have you ever spent time around a junkyard? This particular place in Louisville seems quite large, and must have several thousand cars. The office looks from the outside to have been cobbled together from scrap lumber lifted from post-Katrina debris piles. The inside is clean but very depression-era. The whole business--office and yard--sits on several acres of lumpy gravel surrounded by a 10 foot fence. Weeds grow unchecked except by the occasional gurgling Superfund fluid leak. Inside the office are four or five guys sitting at a counter, each with a phone and a computer screen in front of them. A TV flickers soundlessly from a wall stand in the corner. I sat for 45 minutes while the parts I wanted were pulled, by one of eight or ten yard guys who came in and out with orders, each wearing clean coveralls with an embroidered name patch, their pockets bulging with screwdrivers and pliers and a few other basic tools. It was all much more professional than one would expect from this kind of place. But this turns out to be a much bigger market than it might seem at first thought.

Think of the number of parts in a car like my Riviera. Switches and cosmetic pieces and power seat motors and brackets and window washer pumps and reservoirs and exhaust pipe hangers and transmission oil coolers and a buzillion things. Well, thousands and thousands, easily. And many of them--the things we see, anyway--are specific to this make and model. I can't simply go to any junked Riviera and take the dash apart and take out the climate control box, as these things have a way of changing subtly from year to year, and this problem is multiplied for each system and part in the car. Now multiply that by every reasonably popular make and model of car and light truck over all the years of the model run, and you have something getting out of hand exponentially.

And this is what a well-run junkyard specializes in. It's actually a rather green concept, a form of recycling that both keeps the no-longer-functional cars from simply going to a landfill as well as keeping an ailing car from a premature retirement. But this is a less mindless process than it might seem, as anyone who has tried to work on their own car knows: the opportunities for error in obtaining parts, new or used, are lurking around every corner. And it takes a certain kind of person--not a rocket scientist, obviously, but neither a blithering idiot--to do this job well. The office computers do now what used to be the domain of a collection of huge, multi-thousand page manuals: find out first exactly what the part in question is--usually with an exploding diagram of each part or system of the car--figure out its specific part number, and then--the crux of the matter at hand--find out all the applications of that part number, maybe the range of years of Rivieras, but also the other cars using the same part. I cannot go to a 2001 Riviera for a window motor window for my '97 Riv, but I CAN find the part I need in a '98 Olds Aurora. Likewise, my climate control panel was also used on the '97 Buick LeSabre (about as un-sabre-like an automobile as Detroit has conjured), a much more popular denizen of any junkyard. It's like a computer dating service for car parts.

And now my old car (same color, same car, but definitely not this picture) has several old but functional parts in it and all is again well with the world.



Jeffy said...

The junkyard protocol has changed a lot over the years. In the old days it seemed that all the junked cars were just piled in the yard, and when you wanted a part the guys at the counter would point you in the general direction of the right sort of cars and turn you loose. I recall going to the junkyard for a master brake cylinder for a VW Rabbit long ago and found that all the similar VWs were piled together. Some had piles of parts in them that others had removed to get at the part they needed.

With the increased value of parts, and the much greater risk of lawsuits from injured customers, I think lots of junkyards have gone to a system similar to what you experienced. I know of a chain of junkyards here in MSP that really go all out to maximize the profits they can wring from their junked cars. When a car comes in it goes into the shop where it gets stripped. First all of the fluids are removed and some are saved and resold. Then all of the parts that are worth removing are carefully extracted from the car and cataloged. This way damage to other parts is minimized, and they always know what they have on hand. Plus, it is easier to sell the remains of the car as scrap, and you don't have to leave it in the yard rusting for the years it takes for its parts to gradually be removed and bought.

Going to buy a used part now is almost identical to buying a new one (and I suspect that the price difference is less than it used to be). Then again, it took quite a lot of my effort to retrieve that brake cylinder for my old Rabbit, and I had to get two or three to get one that was any good, so the new improved system sounds pretty good to me.

wunelle said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. I've been going to this junkyard for some years, but it's the army of professional yard guys that has changed. There were always yard guys filling orders for call-ins or exchanges with other yards or whatever, but now--due to either the increased size of the yard or probably to the economic pressures you describe--they are much more likely to fetch the parts you want than you doing it yourself.

I pulled some of my own Caddy parts before and they were quite cheap. But you could see where others had done the same, destroying plenty of good parts in the hasty process of getting to what THEY wanted. These two new Riv parts (climate control box and power window motor) came to $90; not cheap, but still a far cry from the new parts, which, I'm guessing, would come to over twice that--maybe three times. And I'm sure the donor cars were left in good shape.

Esbee said...

My oldest now wants some Peugot 206 thingie. I may have to Google it so I know what in hell he's talking about. But my instant gut feeling was Peugot parts might be hard to come by in Cackalacky.

wunelle said...

"Peugot parts might be hard to come by in Cackalacky." And expensive! I don't know that the car itself is so pricey, but I think they're not available here (and hence, not legal) and so would be a... trial to acquire one! But they're cool looking, and were the basis for Peugeot's World Rally car for a while, I think.

But we must have our dreams. Meself, I'd take a Ferarri Enzo. Or a McLaren F1. So you're getting off cheap! ;-)

woolf said...

All I can say to this blog is I'm so glad I don't own a car anymore. Thank god for mass transit!

wunelle said...

It's ironic that I love cars as much as I do, but I'd be happy to move to the City and live without one (I'd still have to have a motorcycle). I suppose it's my fondness for trains, and would almost surely wear off--not the fondness for trains, but the willingness to live without a car.