True Genius Is Knowing How to Shop a Junk Yard

True Genius Is Knowing How to Shop a Junk Yard
Photo: Eviart, Shutterstock

A tragic T-boning incident in my post-college years sent me to a junkyard searching for a replacement door for the Sky Blue 1978 Chevy Nova I’d purchased from a friend for one dollar and named Laverne. Through my love for Laverne, a deeply flawed car even before the collision, I learned that a door from a Nova or a similar car (the Buick Skylark, for example) could fit her, but the junkyard held many more lessons beyond that.

It was intimidating. Junkyards are enormous, and they’re run and populated by the sort of people who know what a Mansfield bar is. Thus began my education about junkyards, which are much more than mounds of automotive trash. Junkyards do a lot of work to recycle and dispose of toxic fluids like antifreeze and old motor oil, and they provide a source of affordable replacement parts for folks who need to keep old cars running (or who have serious automotive hobbies) — something crucial at a time when buying a used car requires tons of cash. But before you go running to your local junkyard for spare parts, you need to have a plan of attack, because the junkyard experience is competitive, complex, and easy to screw up. Here’s how to get the most out of your visit to a junkyard.

Plan ahead before visiting the junkyard

If you’re looking for a specific part (as opposed to simply spending an afternoon wandering around looking for interesting things, as one does), step one is to fire up the ol’ computer and check out the junkyard’s website. Most junkyards have pretty advanced Internet presences these days — you can (and should) perform a search. The more information you have about the part and the car it’s going into, the better. If you can’t find your part in the database, you can probably set up an alert that will contact you if and when the part comes in.

Next, find out what tools you’ll need. While junkyards will sometimes do the dirty work for you, often you’re expected to remove parts yourself. Driving all the way to a junkyard and locating the rusting hulk that contains the part you need only to realise you didn’t bring the right wrench will put a serious crimp in your schedule and your pride. Also, if you’re going after a specific part knowing the required tools will reduce the number of heavy implements you’ll need to carry around with you.

A few things you won’t need at a junkyard:

  • Jacks. Junkyards almost always have the vehicles up on blocks or stands, and typically provide hoists if you need to remove an engine or transmission.
  • Wheelbarrows. Hauling an engine or several very heavy parts requires a conveyance, but most salvage yards will provide wheelbarrows or similar tools.
  • Torches or grinders. Junkyards are absolutely soaked in flammable stuff, so anything that produces a flame or a spark will not be allowed. If you need something cut off, the yard will help you with that.

Finally, research your vehicle. Many cars and trucks share drivetrain components and other parts — it’s all part of the efficiencies of scale that automotive makers leverage. A lot of junkyard websites will offer this functionality; if your local junkyard doesn’t, try one from a different region — for example, www.pull-a-part.com has a pretty robust parts interchange database that can give you a lot of terrific information. Alternatively, AutoZone allows you to search specific parts for your make and model and will show you a range of parts that will fit, which you can then plug into your junkyard’s database.

Ask for help

As I said, junkyards can be intimidating because everyone there lives and breathes car and truck parts. But that’s an asset. Junkyard operators make their money selling people parts, so they’re usually more than happy to offer you expertise and advice. So if you can’t seem to find what you’re looking for, or you can’t get a part removed no matter how much effort you put into it, don’t be afraid to ask for some assistance. And if you don’t see the part you’re looking for in their online database, it’s almost always worth it to call — many parts, especially for older models, go very, very fast, and a call can sometimes lead to a lucky find.

Some junkyards offer more services than others. Some will remove the parts for you, and some will even install the parts on your vehicle for you if you can drive it there. If that’s something that you’re interested in, it’s worth it to find out ahead of time.

Junkyards are incredible opportunities for anyone interested in cars or in desperate need of a cheap repair. Getting the most out of your visit there takes just a little planning and effort — but the payoff can be huge.

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