By Paul Dwyer
SCHODACK, N.Y.This summer, another auto junkyard will go the way of the drive-in theater.
Rising operating costs, land use restrictions and growing development value all work against the salvage business, whether its a traditional boneyard or a modern auto recycling center. Other challenges include unstable scrap metal prices and tougher environmental regulations.
In the case of Bob & Arts on Reno Road, its just a matter of time. I want to close it up, I want to get rid of everything, is what I really want to do. I want to retire, says Art Carkner, 59, who grew up in Schodack Center with partner and neighbor Bob Jeannin.
Carkner and a 59 American
The two friends started their salvage business as a hobby, officially opening in 1958 in the basement of Carkners mothers home.
They always had other jobs, and the yard never was a great moneymaker, Carkner says: If you could pay your insurance, license, power, phone and not be behind at the end of the year, you were doing good.
At one time, Carkner sold cars for East Greenbush dealer George Canaday; a lot of Bob & Arts stock originally came in to Canaday as trade-ins.
In those days, he says, If you took in a 49 Hudson in 57, lets say, it normally wasnt worth retailing, so youd hand over $25 and you took it home.
That was a good theory, as Carkner puts it, until the 1960s, when a depressed scrap-metal market and late-model parts that didnt sell led Bob and Art to retrench.
We literally gave away 500 or 600 cars, All the 57 Chevys and the fin Cadillacs and all the stuff we had here all went into the crusher in 69.
We also learned that the orphan cars, a lot were sold here and we knew a lot of the people who had them, as we still do today, so we had a market for the parts.
In the intervening years, Bob & Arts has become a godsend for owners of orphan cars such as Hudson, Nash, Studebaker and AMC. Most parts for those makes, especially the older models, cant be found in auto parts stores, and the dealers no longer exist.
Im hoping somebodys going to be smart enough to realize that heres a 70 Ambassador, a 75 Matador, that theres going to be desirability down the road, says Carkner. I dont know if anybodys astute enough to have thought much about that yet. If not, weve saved a lot of parts for nothing, frankly.
Meanwhile, the crushing continues, About 300 cars went last summer, Carkner says, and most of the 200 or so left will have to go by mid-July.
Thats when Bob & Arts state dismantlers license, normally renewed for two years, expires. Insurance runs out at years end. State regulations on the transfer and disposal of parts, including auto titles and dismantler licensing, help prevent auto theft or unauthorized transfer, according to Motor Vehicles Department spokesman George Filieau. But they can sometimes make life more difficult for the legitimate small business. Youre not supposed to handle a titled car if people dont have the papers. They may want to give you the car, they may even be willing to bring it, but it just isnt worth the paper trail to resolve it, says Carkner.
Though he supports the law, Filieu acknowledges that procedures for obtaining proof of ownership may be complicated sometimes and may involve a lot of paperwork.
For the older models that typically go to yards like Bob & Arts, it may not be worth it, especially considering the vehicles scrap value. Youre only going to get 20 dollars for a carcass, if youre lucky, Carkner says. Its a very fickle market; theyre paying about $26 per thousand [pounds] now. It makes cars not worth much more than 20 or 30 dollars on the hoof, so you dont make out too good on it.
David Schneider of the Automotive Dismantlers and Recyclers Association in Fairfax, Va., agrees: Sheetmetal has decreased on newer cars, he said. The use of plastics and non-ferrous metals has reduced the overall scrapping value. So unless you are aggressive in parts retail, its more difficult to make a living.
And then theres liability, which has not only raised overhead costs through insurance premiums, but has forced many yards to keep customers away from the cars. That increases labor costs, because yard employees, not customers, now have to retrieve the parts. It also puts some safety-critical parts such as brake and steering components off limits, Carkner says.
You can put all the disclaimers on things you want, but the right set of circumstances and the right lawyer can cause you trouble.
Its the trend that unfortunately society has taken, and it has killed the do-it-yourself junkyard. Its labor that kills the parts.
Though not ready to bury the self-service used parts industry, Schneider agreed that dismantlers are facing higher operating costs and must work harder to stay ahead. Businesses are being more aggressive in their sales marketing techniques. Those that are not as aggressive are finding it more difficult to maintain their market share, he said.
Add to that increasing regulation of industrial wastes. In the auto business, that includes used tires, motor oil, antifreeze, gasoline and chloroflurocarbons.
Cindy Howard of Binghamton, managing director of the New York Association of Automotive Dismantlers, said federal laws on freon recovery and ground water testing, in addition to stringent state regulation of rebuilding, increase the pressure on small independents.
Carkner, Jeannin and their business have been on Reno Road longer than most of their neighbors, with whom they have enjoyed cordial relations. The cars arent visible from the road and noise and odors havent been a problem, Carkner says. But not all parts yards are in out-of-sight rural locations, and some have taken heat from neighbors who consider them a nuisance or eyesore, he adds. As he puts it, everybody drives, but nobody wants a junkyard next door.
A decline in traditional salvage yards translates to fewer parts sources for collectors and drivers of old cars. A late model salvage dealer ... has no accumulation of old cars, nor do most of the surviving dismantler yards. And the few older guys that have gotten away without getting dismantler licensees will soon die off and the cars will go away, and the parts source will dry up, Carkner says.
Bozo, the insane junkyard dog
Howard of the state dismantlers association said most of her groups members rotate their stock regularly, and few have many cars more than 10 years old.
Schneider paints a brighter picture. He says the predominant trend in the industry is toward more progressive operations that dismantle a car immediately and take its high-demand parts, clean, test and store them in a warehouse and track them on computerized inventory.
Another trend, he says, is a return to the do it-yourself yard, where consumers pull their own parts, Its less capital-intensive, but it does require more land. So youre not likely to see that kind of operation in large urban areas. Schneider acknowledges that the number of businesses in the industry has been static. We estimate that the industry is shrinking at a negligible rate. We do think that the rate will increase in the next 10 years. According to New York state records, 945 dismantlers licenses were issued this year, compared to 920 in 1988, 944 in 89, 905 in 90 and 940 in 91.
Even as auto recyclers find better ways to supply the consumer, a basic problem remains, especially for older, less popular and defunct brands: Theyre not making them any more. And the alternative are few.
Theres going to have to be an awful lot more reproduction parts made, probably, says Carkner. But lets face it: Particularly with smaller companies like AMC, things that were prone to breakage, like some taillights, are virtually impossible to find. And its probably going to be a cold day you-know-where before anybody reproduces them, because theyre complicated and theres not high demand.
Members of car hobby clubs are already buying up stock from former dealers and getting the word out via swap and sale newsletters. For his part, Carkner hopes to sell some parts at the AMC convention in Glenmont in June.
Id rather do that than put them in the crusher. If I found the right person, I would wholesale at least some of the accumulation to somebody young and energetic who doesnt mind taking the stuff to flea markets. You can make money with it, but its a whole lot of work. I put a lot of labor into parts removal already; I hope some of it pays off.