ARA Home > Automotive Recycling Magazine > January-February 2013 >Q&A: A BIT OF HISTORY: THE BEGINNINGS OF AUTO RECYCLING
Automotive Recycling magazine (ARM): How did salvage yards come about?

John Vander Haag, Jr.: In the late 1900s to 1920s, junk cars were traded in, given away, or parked out of the way as they didn’t have much value. In my town, the Ford garage burned down and all the cars were put into the city dump, in rows and covered with ashes. When World War II (WWII) started, the cars were dug up for their scrap value. Each town had scrap drives for the war effort and many old cars were brought in from the farmers’ groves where they had been left to sit. Auto junk yards were just starting, mostly for scrap for the war effort and then for parts.

ARM: What kind of cars did recyclers purchase?

John: In the late 1930s, we were buying Model A Fords for $10 and Model T Fords for anywhere between $5 and $10 per car. We would remove the battery for lead and the radiators for copper. Lincoln and Cadillac Models manufactured from 1928 to 1932 were especially sought after due to their scrap value. We paid between $25 and $30 each for these cars. We used the aluminum from the bodies of the cars and also the aluminum that was in the new engine block for scrap.

ARM: How was it to be in business during the war years?

John: Young men were going into the service. Big cars were gas guzzlers, gas was rationed, and there was a 35 mile per hour speed limit. Farmers had only cars, as there were no pickups before and during the war years. Pickups came after the war. People were riding the trains or buses instead of driving their cars. There were no new cars during the war years of 1942 through 1945.

When WWII started in 1941, it became hard for the auto recycler to stock pile cars for parts as the government came in with regulations that required all salvage yards to scrap everything to support the war effort. Tires were also being rationed so you had to go to the rationing board for a permit to replace a tire.

ARM: It was during this time that National Auto Truck Wreckers Association (NATWA; now known as ARA) was formed. How did this come about?

John: In 1943, a group of auto wreckers formed the National Auto Truck Wreckers Association to tackle some of the legislative issues that were facing the new industry. The group visited Washington, D.C., and negotiated a deal with the government to scrap the same amount of steel as they purchased and to hold an equal tonnage for parts.

During the war, the Bureau of Mines made everyone fill out a report each month telling the tonnage shipped out and taken in. By the way, steel was bringing $12 per ton, and cast was $20 per ton. Labor was cheap so engines were dismantled for the cast, copper, aluminum, and babbitt.

Another thing that NATWA did during that time was to provide members with a glossy magazine with ads for hard- to-find parts. This began our networking with other recyclers to provide parts that our customers needed. It greatly enhanced our customer service. From these ads, I was buying aluminum fenders from Pioneer Auto Wrecking in Denver, Colorado, running boards from Glassman Auto in Akron, Ohio, grills from Victory Auto and hard parts from Warshawsky Auto Parts, both in Chicago. I made my orders in the evening by Telegram because it was much cheaper than using the phone. The parts were then shipped to me via the Railroad Express.

ARM: How did the industry change after WWII?

John: During the war, cars were burnt, bodies of cars were cut into smaller pieces with an ax, parts were then mashed with a roller and shipped to steel processors by railroad. After the war, car frames and axles were cut up into 18’ x 60” pieces with a torch as they brought more money, $18-20 per ton. When new cars became available for the public to purchase after the war, the old cars from the 1920s and 30s started coming in. The parts business did not pick up much because of the flood of new cars to the market.

In the 1950s people started insuring their cars. As there were no insurance adjusters as we know them today, the insurance companies hired attorneys in the area to settle claims. Then, the larger insurance companies started to hire their own adjusters to settle claims. They took bids on the salvage, taking the highest bid. The salvage business really started to grow during this time. I was buying most of my late-model cars (from 1946 on) from attorneys at that time and able to get better quality parts.

As the industry progressed, car pools were created where damaged cars were collected for auto recyclers to bid on. Auto recyclers went to the pool location where they were given a list with all the cars for sale with a number next to the car. The recyclers placed bids on the cars they wanted by writing a number next to the car on the sheet. They had to wait one or two weeks before they knew if they got the car or not.

The pools added an auction held at the location to eliminate the wait time to receive the vehicle you bid on, and expanded the selection of parts available to the auto recycler.

Today, auto recyclers can bid on cars from several different auctions at the same time over the Internet. It isn’t just a local parts business anymore, making it much more competitive today. How-
ever, with the increasing competition, the auto recycling industry has evolved to become a more efficient and environmentally-friendly business that is set to face the future.

Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

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