#find a car
Junkyard 101: How to Find Cheap Car Parts
Your local automotive graveyard can be an intimidating place, but it’s a great source inexpensive parts and unusual finds. PM tells you what to know before you go.
PICK YOUR POISON
Junkyards come in two styles you-pick and full-service. At you-picks, customers bring their own tools and personally wrestle parts from derelict cars. Full-service yards will pull requested items and deliver them to the front desk, where payment is collected, though this convenience comes with added cost. My preference is definitely the do-it-yourself type, which offers endless opportunities for mechanical exploration. Plus, their low operating costs mean these businesses are popping up all over the place lately.
When you’ve found a yard, call ahead to find out what they specialize in. Some yards deal primarily in domestic-brand cars, others in Japanese, German, high-performance, or vintage. Most are generalists and stock what the market both supplies and demands. If you have a rare car, ask if they have your model before spending time wandering around. They might know; they might not. The likelihood of finding that window-crank handle for your Triumph TR7 is pretty low because the supply and demand aren’t there. Conversely, you’ll probably find piles of pickups, vans, midsize sedans, and econoboxes. Wrecks come and go regularly, so try to find out when the new junkers come in they have the best selection of parts. Remember, these places buy crashed and abandoned cars to recycle them, so selling their parts is a happy bonus.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The scariest part for junkyard first-timers is passing through the gates. Before stepping foot in the yard, a clerk will ask for your signature on a brief document that absolves the company of liability in case you do something stupid like drop an engine on yourself. Some places charge a nominal fee for entry as well, usually about a dollar. Consider this cheaper than paying for a movie and way more educational. In well-operated yards such as Parts Galore in Flat Rock, Mich. there is an underlying logic. The in-demand stuff is kept up front that’s where you’ll find plentiful vehicles prone to frequent breakdowns or high accident rates. Conversely, examples of cars that are rare or older or don’t break down much will probably be all the way in the back, with a gradual progression between. Lots are often divided by vehicle manufacturer or point of origin domestic versus Japanese versus European, or GM versus Ford versus Toyota, and so on; think of it as the difference between Dewey Decimal and alphabetical library systems. If you’re lucky, a map of the grounds is posted. Of course, your local yard may be a mess of cars with no logic whatsoever. Some owners are just lazy.
The first thing to look for is the price board. Rather than put tags on all the items on every car, modern junkyards post a list of the different parts in cars and generic prices for each. Because the board doesn’t care if a radiator comes from a Ford Escort or a Mercedes C-Class, the savings against new parts can be staggering.
While prowling for parts, don’t jump at the first one matching your needs. Look around for the best example and inspect it carefully, making sure it isn’t damaged. Parts Galore has a database of all interchangeable components so you can find all the possible cars that could contain a replacement for your missing fuel cap or broken window-control-panel switch. Before buying an electrical component, test the part to ensure it functions. Junkyards usually have 12-volt sources, such as batteries, that you can use.
Sometimes inflicting structural damage on a vehicle is the fastest way to pull a part: Crossmembers, brackets, and wiring get chopped up all the time just try not to destroy anything someone else might want. Be aware not everybody visiting these places works safely, so before crawling around, inspect your quarry for safe working conditions. Move on if something looks fishy. After finding what you’re looking for and extracting the thing, take it up to the clerk you passed on the way in; tell her what it is, and pay. Some cheaters will call expensive items cheap ones to get a better price that can get you banned from the grounds if you’re busted.
THE FUN STUFF
Most people go to junkyards for parts; handles, cylinder heads, lights, glass, body panels, and suspension pieces are popular. There are other things to do in junkyards, though. Treasure hunters pick out expensive parts and sell them online airbag modules and computer boxes are targets here. But there are other treats to be found. A wall of metal hubcaps or a chandelier made of hood ornaments can spruce up the garage nicely. You can find switches, speakers, air springs, and other widgets useful for DIY projects. My favorite junkyard pastime is learning. Every car is made a little different, and any engineer will tell you the best way to understand how a thing works is to take it apart. Find a car with a part you don’t understand, such as a differential or transfer case, take it apart, and then try putting it back together. If it doesn’t go back, that’s okay. Got a big project coming up and want some practice? Junkyards are a great way to try out a repair or modification before the real deal. The junkyard is really what you make of it whether you go for parts or mechanical voyeurism, just make sure to get your hands dirty.
Packing tools for the yard is a bit like planning for a hiking trip: You must carry every ounce of weight you bring. With that in mind, pack the bare essentials and leave the backup in the car, just in case. Here are the must-have tools to drop into your bag for an efficient and painless hunt.
IN THE TOOL BAG
Short pry bar
-inch-drive ratchet set (standard and metric)