“It started as more or less a hobby”

How a Couple of Guys Got Into the Junkyard Business,
and Why They Got Out of It

Originally published in the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette, June 26, 1992

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 it’s 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 & Art’s on Reno Road, it’s 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.

Art Carkner
Carkner and a ’59 American

    The two friends started their salvage business as a hobby, officially opening in 1958 in the basement of Carkner’s mother’s 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 & Art’s stock originally came in to Canaday as trade-ins.

    “In those days,” he says, “If you took in a ’49 Hudson in ’57, let’s say, it normally wasn’t worth retailing, so you’d 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 didn’t 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 & Art’s 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, can’t be found in auto parts stores, and the dealers no longer exist.

    I’m hoping somebody’s going to be smart enough to realize that here’s a ’70 Ambassador, a ’75 Matador, that there’s going to be desirability down the road,” says Carkner. “I don’t know if anybody’s astute enough to have thought much about that yet. If not, we’ve 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.

    That’s when Bob & Art’s state dismantler’s license, normally renewed for two years, expires. Insurance runs out at year’s 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. “You’re not supposed to handle a titled car if people don’t have the papers. They may want to give you the car, they may even be willing to bring it, but it just isn’t 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 & Art’s, it may not be worth it, especially considering the vehicle’s scrap value. “You’re only going to get 20 dollars for a carcass, if you’re lucky,” Carkner says. “It’s a very fickle market; they’re paying about $26 per thousand [pounds] now. It makes cars not worth much more than 20 or 30 dollars on the hoof, so you don’t 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, it’s more difficult to make a living.”
    And then there’s 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.

    “It’s the trend that unfortunately society has taken, and it has killed the do-it-yourself junkyard. It’s 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 aren’t visible from the road and noise and odors haven’t 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 group’s 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, It’s less capital-intensive, but it does require more land. So you’re 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 dismantler’s 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: They’re not making them any more. And the alternative are few.

    “There’s going to have to be an awful lot more reproduction parts made, probably,” says Carkner. “But let’s face it: Particularly with smaller companies like AMC, things that were prone to breakage, like some taillights, are virtually impossible to find. And it’s probably going to be a cold day you-know-where before anybody reproduces them, because they’re complicated and there’s 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.

    “I’d 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 doesn’t mind taking the stuff to flea markets. You can make money with it, but it’s a whole lot of work. I put a lot of labor into parts removal already; I hope some of it pays off.”

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