Flawed System Puts Wrecks Back on Road


Need a windshield wiper motor, a power steering pump or an axle assembly for your not-so-healthy car? Original equipment parts from dealers are growing ever more costly--in some cases hundreds of dollars for relatively simple but essential replacements.

In the past, repair shops, backyard mechanics and body shops have relied on junkyards to hold down the cost of fixing cars.

But the industry in California is under pressure from stricter environmental laws, cheap foreign aftermarket parts and the rising cost of scrap vehicles themselves.

Junkyards rebel against the very term "junkyard," preferring "automotive dismantler" instead and moving away from the kind of operations in which cars sat rusting in open yards, protected by mean dogs and surly office personnel.

These days, cars typically are dismantled as soon as they come into a salvage yard, parts are stored indoors, and the entire inventory is tracked on computer. The modern image of a junkyard can be found on the Internet, where dismantlers provide real-time search engines for parts hunters.

Although that's real progress, it doesn't help much if the parts aren't available.

I tried to locate various parts on the Internet without much success. Not a single blower motor for a 1996 Honda Accord, for example, was offered for sale.

This is not a freak occurrence. Used parts, particularly in California, are getting harder and harder to find. Why? Because so many junkyard candidates are being kept on the highways these days by the insurance industry and the underground economy of unlicensed body shops.

"We are not getting the number of cars we used to buy," said Terry Fiskin, executive director of the Auto Dismantlers Assn. of Southern California.

There are 1,184 licensed dismantlers in California, down from 1,800 in 1987, Fiskin said. Just 97 junkyards remain in Los Angeles and Orange counties. More yards are located in the Inland Empire, but they are facing the same kind of market forces. Not many people who aren't poor fix their own cars any longer.

"Cars being more complex today, they're harder for people to fix themselves," said John Beifuss, owner of Tri-County Auto Dismantlers in Santa Paula.

In addition, cheap knockoff parts are pouring into the United States from Asia and Latin America, often selling for less than used junkyard parts.

The supply of cars to dismantlers has been throttled down from the days when seriously damaged cars got a one-way ticket to the junkyard--sold by insurers for their parts value.

But increasingly, these wrecks are being fixed and put back on the highway by a system that has virtually no state or federal oversight.

When a car is wrecked and deemed a total loss by an insurer, it is put up for auction in a salvage pool. The original owner usually has an option to buy it, but typically it is acquired by a salvage repair specialist.

These operations are not licensed or inspected by the government. After the car is repaired, it is sold, often without any disclosure that an insurer had written it off as a total loss. The cars often are put back on the road with substandard repairs, according to investigators for the Bureau of Automotive Repair.

"They are piles of trash," said Bruce Shepard, owner of 5th Street Auto Salvage in Oxnard. "The work is shoddy. They're thrown back together. It's not good."

The insurance industry supports this system because it maximizes the amount of money an insurer can recover from a "totaled" vehicle. A damaged car may be worth more if it can be returned to the road than the sum of its parts sold through dismantlers.

Many dismantlers are angry, complaining that the system allows repair shops to operate with a fraction of the regulatory oversight that the junkyards must follow.

"We are a legitimate business that must comply with environmental laws," Fiskin said. "The guy working in his backyard doesn't have to do that."


Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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