Volume 12, Issue 32 ~ August 5-11, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Car Culture Goes to the Dogs — Junkyard Dogs, That Is
One person’s junk is another’s treasure.

Since humankind first coveted anything other than his/her mate, one person’s junk has been another’s treasure (which often includes spouses). Long before currency, discards were goods to be bartered, bought or sold.

You name it, if it has outlived its usefulness among your possessions, it’s something somebody else can use. In my memory, it was first rummage sales, later to be garage sales. Now it’s lawn sales.

The traffic in second-hand stuff might not be good for the economy, but it is for the environment and the pocketbook. And for both buyer and seller.

Yet even as the citizenry becomes more environmentally conscious, there are still more than a few who look upon things as disposable: Just get rid of it; it’s not worth fixing.

How times have changed.
Several decades back, the owner of a hardware store I visited griped about a company that has since become the biggest manufacturer of home power tools in the world. He said he was continually harassed by customers who bought an electric drill, or perhaps a power screwdriver, only to have it malfunction within a couple of years.

It wasn’t worn out, he told me, just one little part was — and that defect could easily have been avoided had the maker invested a pittance more in upgrading the particular component that always seemed to wear out first — but not until after the warranty expired.

It was a matter of pennies, he said, but if the faulty part had been upgraded at the beginning, no one would need buy a new tool; the old one would have lasted for years, as was the case in the good old days. Longevity in other than expensive items, he said, wouldn’t be good for the makers of anything from power tools to countertop appliances. It also wouldn’t be good for the economy.

Throw-Away Driving
I was reading in the Wall Street Journal the other day a long article on, shall we say, stretching the disposable society much further. Among us common folks, the biggest expenditures we make in our lives are, of course, our homes. And, these days, we all know that among those with kids, higher education ranks second. Third is no secret either.

The automobile, whether it be an SUV (even a pickup truck), or a serviceable second-hand compact doesn’t come cheap. But the WSJ informed its readers that in these days, insurance companies increasingly look upon the things we drive for work or pleasure as disposable. Egads! No wonder it costs so much to insure our means of transportation.

As late as 1995, only seven percent of vehicles involved in collisions were declared a total loss. This year, that figure has more than doubled to 17 percent. I’ll bet auto manufacturers like those comparisons. So do their stockholders, and so does the United Auto Workers. So do economists.

But you and I shouldn’t — though there are some who might appreciate being seated in a shiny new vehicle at no great expense. The bottom line: collision insurance costs us a bundle more.

It seems that there is so much new and vulnerable gadgetry on many cars today, along with more advanced safety fixtures such as air bags, that the ordinary not-too-serious accident jacks repair costs beyond what insurers want to bother with. Just junk it.

The chief operating officer of a national repair chain says “we’re moving closer and closer to the disposable vehicle.” Those air bags tucked into increasingly smaller nooks in our cars don’t come cheap, replacements cost much, not to mention the damage that can be done to the interior of a vehicle when they’re activated. Some cars now have six or eight of ’em.

Also, to save production costs and make for sleeker-looking vehicles, larger exterior components come in bigger sections. Often a handyman can no longer go to a junk yard and repair his auto by buying a fender or a side panel from a junker. Also, you need special — and not cheap — tools for installing such replacements.

Adding to the picture, the second-hand car market is in the doldrums so dealers can’t offer such attractive trade-ins as we once enjoyed. If they can’t find quick and interested buyers for what they take as a trade-in, they have to offer less in trade. A used car parked on the lot for months doesn’t contribute to the balance sheet.

End of the Road for Back-Yard Mechanics
All of which reminds me of the days of yore — and not just during the Great Depression when many families ran a car for as long as it did likewise. Drive by a home in the country, and you’d see an operative car in the driveway (few families had more than one back then). Out back somewhere there’d be another car or two of the same make several years older or perhaps newer and ruined by a collision.

The excess vehicles would not have been intended to go back on the road; instead they were kept for parts. ’Twas said a car like the Model T or Model A Ford could be fixed up with a coil of baling wire, a hammer and a pair of pliers. That’s not far from the truth, though a monkey wrench and socket wrench were sometimes needed. The parts came from the junkers in the back yard.

In today’s sophisticated vehicles, about the only thing we can do to our autos to avoid paying a dealership $50 or more an hour is empty the ash tray. If we’re mechanically inclined, perhaps we can change a windshield wiper blade or a headlamp bulb, which at many shops today can cost 20 bucks.

Motors that now lack non-electronic carburetors, points, condensers and such are squeezed into engine boxes so small it can be difficult to even check your own oil. Things are so tight under the hood with some cars, the entire engine must be removed to replace something inexpensive that could be done not too long ago by you or me bending over the hood with a few wrenches in hand.

All of which rings cash registers of repair shops and dealerships, and the citizenry grows less mechanically oriented. Boys and girls can’t learn mechanics by sitting in the waiting room of a repair shop.

Boats Built for Trouble
I envy the skippers of the old traditional Bay boats. Something goes wrong, up comes the top of the engine box, they bend over — tools and spare parts, which they always seem to have aboard, in hand — and we’re trolling again in a jiffy. But as the newer class of boats appear more on the scene with their make-every-inch-count motor boxes and electronically dictated engines, that too might change. On-water repairs or towing can max a credit card with one distress call. Will the only alternative be a sailboat?

And we wonder why we see so many abandoned derelicts out there on the water? It might get worse.

Meanwhile, shoreside, we’ll be wondering if auto junkyards and their dogs will take over the nation. Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.