- Hero image and all other pictures from the authors family photos. Art, text and errors by: Chris Breeden

Opinion: What Happened to all the Junkyards?

In Search of the Past.

In Search of the Past.

When I was 17 my daily driver was a 1953 Ford F100 pickup truck. It was a very nice truck, but had two problems, at least in my 17 year old mind. Firstly, it had a horribly under powered 250 cubic inch straight 6 engine. You are correct if you are thinking that wasn't the engine that came in the truck. At some point in the trucks life the Flathead 6 or V8, the truck came with, had been swapped out for the 250. By the late 1990s the engine was pushing 30 years old and had very little power (honestly, I suspect it didn't have much power when it was 30 days old either). The other problem I had with the truck concerned the transmission. Whoever had swapped out the engine had left the old manual 3 speed, non synchronized, transmission in place.

Being that I was a 17 years old I treated the truck much like you'd expect a 17 year old to treat a truck. This eventually brought the 3-speed to the end of its life. In fact, the transmission was so badly damaged that it couldn't be repaired and another transmission was located and swapped in. It was a 3-speed too, but automatic instead of manual.

Of course the one thing a automatic transmission doesn't need to operate is a clutch pedal. The brake and clutch pedals on a 1953 Ford F100 share the same pivot point and removing the clutch pedal will render the brake pedal useless. So instead of removing the clutch pedal the carpet was pulled out of the truck and the spring on the clutch pedal was removed. This allowed the clutch pedal to be pushed all the way down to the floor board. The pedal was then unceremoniously buried under the carpet.

If you have ever experienced the disorientation of being thrust into a automatic transmissioned vehicle, after having a manual transmissioned one as your primary transport, then you'll understand the phenomenon I'm about to describe. For months after getting the old '53 running again any time I'd be driving in traffic and would need to stop I'd find my left foot had become possessed and was looking for a now absent clutch pedal.

Depressing a clutch pedal isn't a natural action. I had to learn to do that. I had learned so well that it became a involuntary action, like breathing. It took me a while to unlearn it. But I did.

What does this have to do with junkyards?

There was a time, not too long ago, that the solution to many problems faced in the garage couldn't be solved with a search engine or YouTube. Luckily, if you found yourself facing some sort of backyard, shade tree engineering quandary you had a couple of places you could turn to.

Firstly, you could bother your gearhead friends and neighbors for advice on how to solve your problem. If they didn't come up with any eureka moments then never fear you still had a couple of options. The next step was to consult the clerks at the local auto parts stores. Believe it or not, but there was a time when the people that stood behind those greasy counters, piled high with books and manuals, were the practitioners of a professional trade. In the event you had a mechanical marvel so complex it befuddled the counter man you had one option left to you.

Junkyards weren't the graveyards of unuseable and worn out cars they have now become. They used to be a collection of parts and assemblies that were simply setting and waiting for their next purpose in life. They were a sort of Engineering Encyclopedia, that was right there, right in front of you, so you could see how other, professional, engineers had solved the same, or similar, problem you had encountered. They were a wealth of knowledge and a savior to many Hot Rods, Street Rods and Custom cars.

That old '53 F100 was saved by a transmission from one such junkyard. Truthfully, it had probably been saved numerous times before by junkyard parts. Probably even that 250 cubic inch engine it had. I learned how to work on Rods at a time when the junkyard was an incredibly important tool in the Rodding world. So naturally, just like my once possessed left leg, when I encounter a car-o-logical problem, my first thought is to seek answers at the auto parts store. I quickly remember how futile that would be and I get on the interwebs.

Most of the time I can find an answer to my question on the plastic box, but due to the nature of fooling with 70+ year old cars the answers can't always be found there. Junkyards aren't gone, but they don't contain the same parts and assemblies they once did. Plus, due to insurance reasons, you really can't just show up to one and wonder aimlessly around. So where do you go to find parts and even people that understand how difficult it is to make 70+ year old automobiles work again?

Automotive swap meets. It turns out all of that junk, or a good part of it any way, is still floating around. It's just not in a central location any more. It's stored in people's garages, barns, out buildings, even their houses! Some of them will even drag it out once or twice a year, load it onto trailers or in the bed of trucks, and drive hundreds of miles to stand in parking lots and attempt to thrust it on others that are deep into trying to solve their own mechanical maladies!

Next February I, along with thousands of other gearheads, will brave near freezing temperatures in an attempt to sell not needed parts and purchase needed ones. On the surface it's odd, but it's a much needed thing in the automotive world. In fact, I've noticed that most of the regular car meets/shows I attended every year have very large swap meets to go along with them. So as you set in your comfy and warm house next February, please think of all of us crazies freezing in a parking lot in Nashville, TN, but don't pity us, because we will be having a blast!

Keep on Cruisin'!

(P.S. You wouldn't happen to know where I could find a windshield frame for a '28 Chevy touring car? Thought I'd ask... You never know otherwise!)

Art by: Chris Breeden

Art by: Chris Breeden

Thanks for reading!

Join In

Comments (22)

  • Loved spending an afternoon wandering the junk yard. It always seemed like the car I was looking for was in the back corner of the lot, and I'd stop and look at 5 other vehicles before I actually got to it.

      2 years ago
    • Going to one of these junkyards was an experience and wondering through the "old sections" was a highlight! You do not get the same experience at a pull-a-part place.

        2 years ago
  • In part due to the trend of television? Motor shows aplenty make everyone think they’re sitting on a fortune or that one day they’ll restore their rusty crap

      2 years ago
  • Bumped 2 DT USA FB 2morrow @3pm EST

      2 years ago
  • this was a cogent,well thought out and most of all pertinent posting. we have junkyards around here but they suffer from not containing the sometime 50 year old category of parts that some of us need or even covet to own(re:jag irs units,that sort of thing) for our own rides. eventually, you become something you never dreamed of being when some of us start this petrolhead's journey....a fabricator. what is a fabricator some will wonder?

    "a fabricator is someone that makes shit you can't" i was told early in life. i was lucky. i design and program electrics/computational hardware and do fabrication and that has made all the effort over the years worth it. being retired and disabled to a point due to arthritis things take more time than they used to but if i can do it....you can too!

    hail to the junkyards...the saviours of our hobby & craft.


      2 years ago
    • Thanks, gizmo! The Fabricator, a childhood hero of mine. So much of what one knows has been learned through necessity and accident!

        2 years ago
  • Not really noticed any change, myself. The internet does give a bigger search area. It used to be that if you couldn't find it at your local junk yard, you would probably have to pull out a catalog and start searching for new parts. The internet does mean you can search the whole world for a part, although most searches are just nationally, but you can if need be.

    Since I remember going with my dad in the 70's and going on my own as a teen in the 80's, the new cars go to auto recyclers. If you have a newer car your going to need to get a Mechanic to get the part for you from the recyclers. If the car is a little older they end up at the junk yard, and you can get the part yourself, or they will go out with you. Most placers I have been go out with you, until they know you well enough to let you wander on your own. As the car ages even more, the junk yards get picked clean. the only place to find the parts then is swap meets. Or, today the internet. When I used to regularly visit the junk yards, there was only a couple that had cars back to the 50's. Most had a small section of cars from the 60's a lot from the 70's and other than the very early 80's that was about it. If you wanted something mid 80's they were all over at the recyclers and they would only let professional mechanics in.

    While I don't go to junk yards as much these days, when I do, I still notice that they only have a certain range of cars, too new, and they don't have it, too old and if they have it, it's been picked pretty clean. I will say, these days they are more likely to have it already pulled off, cleaned up, and ready to be sold to you, or someone on the internet. You have to be after a small low demand part to get into the yard itself.

      2 years ago