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Car Tribes

Pirates of the Pick-n-Pull

HIDE CAPTION

It was a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-January, and Steve Porter was making the best of a bad situation.

Some days earlier, an unknown individual, or individuals, had taken the liberty of smashing the sunroof and two windows of his 1993 Lexus LS400 sedan. As he was surveying the damage, Porter was joined by his young daughter, who, perhaps not entirely familiar with the concepts of vandalism and theft, inquired, “What happened to your beautiful car, Daddy?”

What happened: with a few swings of a pipe or a baseball bat, three pieces of tempered glass had been shattered – glass which, if purchased new from a local Lexus dealership, would have cost Porter $1,648. That is why, on this particular Friday afternoon, he was at the San Jose, California, location of Pick-n-Pull, a company that bills itself as “an industry-leading chain of self-service auto parts stores” and “one of the largest recyclers of end-of-life vehicles in the industry”.

Founded in 1987, Pick-n-Pull began as a chain of auto recycling yards based primarily in northern California. In 2003, a metals recycling company based in Portland, Oregon, Schnitzer Steel, acquired a controlling interest in Pick-n-Pull, and over the last decade, via the purchase of numerous independent auto recycling yards, transformed it into a nationwide – and international – brand. There are a total of 52 Pick-n-Pulls in the US, and seven in Canada. 

Unlike full-service auto recyclers, which deal primarily in cars eight years and younger, and whose salvaged parts tend to be used to repair cars covered by insurance companies, Pick-n-Pull's cars tend to be 10 years and older, and most of its customers are do-it-yourselfers or neighborhood mechanics who work for a local clientele.

Porter, 34, of Santa Rosa, California, is not a mechanic by profession – rather, a DJ at an internet hip-hop radio station – but with sweat, determination and a few hand tools, was able to successfully extract a sunroof and two windows from another Lexus LS400, which, in Pick-n-Pull's San Jose store, was gradually succumbing to the forces at the tail end of the automotive economy. Porter's total outlay for these items: $129.99. “It's like Christmas,” he said. “If I had to buy these new?” Porter paused, contemplating the horror. “I'd be broke.”

On its arrival at the San Jose yard, like every one of the 350,000 cars Pick-n-Pull recycles annually, the Lexus was drained of fluids – oil, gasoline, transmission, steering and brake fluids, antifreeze and freon – which were reprocessed and recycled. Other hazardous materials – the lead in the battery, mercury switches and the like – are likewise reclaimed. Wheels are removed, the tires pulled from the rims, and if there is sufficient life left in the treads, resold like so many lightly used shoes, at around $20 each. At this stage of undress, the car is moved to its appointed space in the yard, whereupon Pick-n-Pull broadcasts its availability and location to customers via an online database.

Not all of Pick-n-Pull's customers, however, rely on its database. Marco Guerrero, 21, a community college student from Gonzales, California, discovered his find – a 1993 Acura Integra – entirely by chance. While Guerrero mostly scavenges parts for his own projects, he also keeps an eye out for the odd aftermarket part – a high-performance exhaust header, for example – that he can resell on Craigslist for a quick $50.

He is not alone in this regard. According to Steve Heiskell, Pick-n-Pull's chief development officer, a number of the company's regular customers earn a living by pulling high-demand parts and accessories and selling them on internet auction sites.

On this day, though, Guerrero's mission was strictly personal. A former professional mechanic, Guerrero knew on sight that the Acura's engine would bolt neatly to the motor mounts of his 1993 Honda Civic, and that the transplant would increase the Civic's horsepower by nearly 50%, from a meagre 100 to a robust 145. Furthermore, he said, the electronics on this particular engine were tuneable, meaning that he could reprogram them to boost engine output even higher.

It took Guerrero all of 40 minutes to extract the engine. Implanting it into his Civic, and getting that operation sewed up, he estimated, would take a day and a half.

When asked how he knew that this particular engine was worth the effort, Guerrero said that by examining the deposits on the inside of the exhaust manifold, he could determine that it had been scrupulously maintained. The manner in which he made this pronouncement, with the same detached certainly with which one might say “the sky is blue”, was enough to turn a novice tinkerer green with envy.

A stroll around the yard yields a view into machinery that had once been someone’s dream: pickups, coupes, wagons and sedans, all chariots that had seen better days. Amid these, a passerby could hear snippets of conversation emanating from beneath a chassis, and occasionally, catch sight of a disembodied arm, its hand sheathed in a plastic glove, gripping a wrench or hammer caked in blackened grease, its owner perhaps considering an angle from which he or she might achieve superior leverage.

After a certain interval, when the customers have already had their way, Pick-n-Pull gives the cars a final once-over, pruning any remaining components before trundling the hulks to a crusher, which squashes them flat, and to a shredder whose hammerlike teeth grind them into little bits of metal. Some of this metal makes its way to Schnitzer Steel's own mill in Oregon, which makes rebar and other construction and engineering materials. The bulk of it, though, is sold primarily to Asian firms, who reprocess and reintroduce it back into the manufacturing cycle – possibly to be sold anew in the US. The circularity is compelling. To think that the stainless steel bowl in your kitchen might contain shreds of your grandfather's Plymouth Volare, or the i-beam beneath your feet, molecules of his beloved Chrysler New Yorker.

Driving north from San Jose back to San Francisco in rush hour traffic, surrounded by the newest, most potent, most efficient products the automotive industry has to offer, a Pick-n-Pull visitor’s eye becomes attuned to the rear-enders, the t-bones, the sideswipes and head-on collisions, the decade of benign neglect that would someday lead each and every one these creatures to a wrecking yard.

But that may not be their coda. As a visit to the Pick-n-Pull demonstrates, the end of a car’s life could be but another beginning.

To think that the stainless steel bowl in your kitchen might contain shreds of your grandfather's Plymouth Volare, or the i-beam beneath your feet, molecules of his beloved Chrysler New Yorker.

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