Mass Production and a Visit to the Junkyard

Posted on Jun 19 2011 - 1:00am by Harrison

I’ve worked in the car business for the previous eight years and have sold a lot of people cars.  I’ve driven plenty of different types of vehicles from very expensive ones to deathtraps held together with duct tape and spray paint.  As many readers here may know, I own a 40 year old Volkswagen.  The junkyards were a great source of parts for me back in 1995 when I first got my car (then 24 years old).  I used to frequent boneyards every weekend when VW Buses grew on trees (practically) and you didn’t need to check first to see if there was something you wanted there.

That time (at least for VW Buses) is largely over.

I check Pick-n-Pull’s website occasionally for Buses and just a few days ago I went and visited a local yard to look for parts off one built May 17, 1971.

A lot of cars are built every year worldwide.  For 2008, the number was 52,940,559.

Including screws, bolts, lightbulbs, and other sundry items, there are over 10,000 parts required to build one car.  It takes an astonishing amount of technical sophistication to build a car well.  Most countries in the world do not build any cars.  It’s just too hard, expensive, or economically unfeasible.

The amount of shear knowledge, economies of scale, and production abilities possesed by First World countries mean that cars are simply treated as disposable goods when they get 5-10 years old.  In places like Cuba, however, because you can’t really buy a new car everything on the road is at least 55 years old.

People in America change televisions, toaster ovens, cell phones, iPods, and computers almost as often as they buy a new pair of shoes.  Some people, like my mother, keep their things until they simply break but most aren’t like this.

Cars are the second most expensive purchase a person will make in their lives but, even so, the average American gets a new car every 5 years even though modern vehicles are built so well they can easily last 4 times that long with proper care.

Looking through the junkyard I noticed the majority of vehicles there were domestic.  I spotted a Ford Tempo which was just like what a friend from high school had.  There were plenty of Chrysler minivans of which my father has owned several.  I did see some Japanese and German cars but there were perhaps fewer than 40 there.  Perhaps they were simply better engineered or the people who buy those brands value them more or take better care of them.

I have probably sold well over 1,000 cars during my brief career in the car business.  All of those cars were once shiny and new sitting at a dealer at one point and the owners of them undoubtedly sweated for hours over trying to negotiate a “good deal” or, after they bought it, how to make the payments.  Families were carried in those cars… children coming home from being born in the hospital, late night drives home from vacations, etc.

Now they sit there like discarded trash getting picked over by people like me.

The 1971 Volkswagen Bus I went to see was a Westfalia camper model.  It sold for a little under $2,800.00 when new.  It was built on May 17, 1971 (I decoded the M Plate).  It was shipped from Germany to New York and, judging by the stickers in it, spent a great deal of time in Vermont where it acquired its Rust.  Being a camper model it was probably owned by a family who took it on vacations and long roadtrips.

I have only owned three cars in my life.  My first was a 1983 Nissan Sentra which I drove in high school until the oil ran out and the engine cracked.  Then I got my Volkswagen Bus which I still own.  My third car was a 2003 Acura CL Type-S and it was stolen.

I have no plans to buy another car and have spent a great deal of time repairing and restoring my car which, when I found it, was 24 hours away from going to a junkyard much like the one I visited.

While I personally think people are extremely wasteful in how often they change cars, this greed and carelessness does keep me employed.  In my own tiny way, I am helping to make traffic, air pollution, and road fatalities worse.

It is a big responsibility.

I wonder what Americans would do if, like the Cubans, they could not simply buy a new car every 5 years.  What if they had to maintain their car and drive it year after year?  What would happen if this type of mentality was extended to everything we bought like furniture, televisions, clothes, etc..?

When was the last time you heard of somebody reupholstering their sofa?  The last time I heard of that was 25 years ago when my mother sent both sofas out to be recovered.  My sofa, which I bought 10 years ago, would cost about $600.00 to reupholster in San Francisco.  Since I paid $100.00 for it (a floor model from a furniture rental store) it wouldn’t be worth it… especially when I can buy a new one for only a few hundred dollars more.

The ability of the United States to manufacture, so cheaply, something as sophisticated as a car means we can all enjoy a high standard of living, have too much food to choose from at the store, and enjoy things like DVRs, 3D televisions, and heated and cooled homes.

But it also means we can be very wasteful and unappreciative of the tremendous bounty of prosperity, even now, we all enjoy.

When the Zombies take over the world, nuclear missiles are dropped, or everybody starves to death and the power plants stop working and the lights really do go out for good, the people who are left will wonder how such waste was possible.

Here are some pictures from the boneyard and remember, they all once were new and driven off the lot by a smiling owner:

6 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Jack Camwell June 19, 2011 at 8:21 AM -

    I’m with you on this sentiment. We often complain that our economy sucks right now, but it’s nothing compared to the hell that some people live every day in other countries.

    Take Liberia for example. That place is quite possibly hell on earth. Child prostitution and human trafficking are rampant, murder, drug addiction, and even cannibalism afflict the society.

    Yet we complain when the price of corn or bottled water rises. I’m able to sit here in my air conditioning and BS about stuff I can’t change, and play video games when I get bored. That’s why I tend not to complain too much about standard of living in America.

    • Harrison June 19, 2011 at 5:14 PM -

      Well Liberia is that way because of political corruption and oppression. While the price of corn might be at record highs (because of Ethanol subsidies), it all stems from the same source.

  2. fleeceme June 19, 2011 at 8:42 AM -

    I agree wholeheartedly, the Mustang II was a POS.

    • Harrison June 19, 2011 at 5:13 PM -

      This was exactly my point! Thanks for catching it.

  3. Dean June 20, 2011 at 12:07 PM -

    I don’t have AC at my place so it makes the beer I use for internal cooling taste that much better in July/August/September.

    Reducing my carbon footprint via IPA consumption. Damn, I feel good about myself.

  4. eots June 20, 2011 at 10:27 PM -

    I’m not sure owning the same car for 50+ years, like Cubans, is an option for Americans living in colder climate.
    I find it difficult to discard old items. I feel personally responsible for everything I take home. I either sell or pass on or at least use my old clothes as a rug, for instance. Best dresses I wore in my twenties are stored for my daughter…