Junk Yard Tales

Colorado auto parts

I first encountered Colorado Auto and Parts at the age of 14 or so, when my folks let me buy a running-but-not-driveable ’64 Valiant to faff around with for a few hundred bucks; the seller pointed me at the yard. At the time I had neither a driveable car nor a licence to drive it even if the transmission weren’t burned out, so—believe it or don’t—my mother drove me there from time to time. Later, I would come to drive myself there daily not to buy parts, but to sell them.

Mom would bring a book and sit in the front office while I frolicked around with Dad’s wheelbarrow in the Chrysler section. I found yardin’ very recreational. Partly it was the fascination and power, however empty, that comes with taking things apart (with tools; I never got any jollies smashing and ruining stuff). Partly it was the access to this metal-and-glass database of what fails—and when and how—in what vehicles. It was also much like fishing: You load up with tools and gear, bring some drinks, and go trawling through the rows, not knowing whether you’ll find zero or twenty examples of what you’re after or knowing exactly one example of something scarce is in there and hoping you get there before the other fifty people who want it. A small spray can of black paint was a useful bring-along to cover up the X spray-painted on a car you wanted parts from but lacked the tools or time: that X meant the car was soon to be crushed and shredded; de-Xing it granted an unofficial stay of execution.

Colorado Auto and Parts is a very large self-serve auto wrecking yard of the traditional model now nearing extinction: you bring your own tools, walk out into the yard, remove the parts you want, bring them to the office where they’re priced, pay and leave.

Colorado wrecking yardLegend (in the mid-1990s; it’s changed some now):

A: Office, cash counter, wheel/tire mounting and demounting, and primary pulled-parts warehouse. Engines, transmissions, driveshafts, wiper motors, used windshields, and manifolds downstairs. Taillamps, headlamps, header panels, tail panels, new windshields and mirrors upstairs. Plus and minus a whole lot of et-cetera upstairs and downstairs.

B: Customer parking areas.

C: Storage and quarantine area for vehicles with shady or missing paperwork, vehicles with state or other “hold” or “destroy” orders, and other vehicles from which no parts are to be sold.

D: Whole vehicles for sale.

E: Drive-on scale and main yard driveway. Tow truck weighs in, drops off junked car, weighs out. What the driver gets paid is calculated from the in/out difference. This is also where incoming cars are checked for concrete in trunks and other such weight-increasing tricks. The yard’s tornado contingency plan is that the office staff will get under the scale slab, though I was never told how; perhaps I was the designated redshirt.

F: Front end assembly (“front clip”) and truck bed storage racks. Every front clip had a card on the Rolodex in the office.

G: Dismantling and yard prep shop. Especially desirable (or bought and paid) whole engines, transmissions and other large parts removed and fluids safely drained prior to vehicles being placed in yard for parts.

H: Short-term pulled component storage (pulled engines, transmissions, etc. held for customer pickup)

J: Vehicle crushing area. Cars, trucks, vans…anything parked here is soon to be a subcompact.

K: Special-interest whole vehicles for sale—the nicer, more expensive cars that need eyes kept on them from the adjacent office. Also parking for the yard cars, those undead vehicles no longer roadworthy but good enough to drive around the yard.

L: Fluid storage. Large aboveground gasoline and diesel tanks filled from the tanks of incoming junk vehicles. When they’d get close to full, yard employees could fill up on the cheap with gasoline(?) that smelt of plastic. Top Tier Gas™ this was not.

M: Door assembly storage racks. Need a left front door, preferably blue, from an ’80-’89 Lincoln Town car with power locks and power windows? If it was on these racks, it had a Rolodex card.

N: Wheel storage racks—mostly fancy alloys in complete sets, each with a Rolodex card. There were also Rolodexes for pulled engines, transmissions, and so on.

O: General Motors passenger cars for parts.

R: Trucks and vans for parts, all makes.

S: Foreign import passenger cars for parts, all makes.

T: Ford, Lincoln, Mercury passenger cars for parts.

W: Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler, DeSoto passenger cars for parts.

Z: Not part of Colorado Auto and Parts, this was Svigel’s New and Used Auto Parts, which had been there since the 1940s and still had plenty of vehicles from that time. A ’62 Valiant I bought an aluminum-block Slant-6 engine from in 1992 had been there since ’81 and was still there the last time I checked in 2001.

Not shown: Directly above area “W” in this photo was a serious full-scale scrap metal shredding operation. The shredder stood about five storeys tall, and had a massive inclined conveyor belt that carried metal biscuits (from area “J”) to the top of the shredder. They toppled end-over-end into the hopper, there was a noise like god’s own garbage disposal, and shredded metal and miscellany came flying out the bottom chute like shaved cucumbers from the cosmic Salad Shooter.

The dark, curving, wide line at the left of the photo is the Platte River.

One day, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign on the door when I went for some recreational yardin’. Having had more than enough of being kicked around as a cater-waiter, I approached one of the counterman, who said “I remember when yer mom used to bring you down here! Hawhawhaw…lemme go get Dan.” Dan, the head counterman, said “I remember when yer mom used to bring you down here! hawhawhaw…when can you start?” Bing-bang-boom, now I was a counterman. My primary task was to price parts presented by shoppers, write up an invoice, take the invoice and the money or credit card to Amy, the cashier sitting at a desk on the other side of the window in the wall behind the counter, get change or a credit card slip from her, walk back to the counter, give the customer the invoice and change. Boring as hell if that’s all there were to it, but there was much, much more.

For starters, even by the standards of a motley crew one might reasonably expect to find working at a wrecking yard, Amy was…well…exceptional. Within seconds and without warning, she could (and frequently did) go from courteous and pleasant to insulting and abusive and foulmouthed. And back again. Or not. It was mood-swing roulette every time I approached her window in the wall with a coupla twenties on a $32.19 invoice.

Now, most modern U-Pulls work on a prix fixé basis, wherein every different kind of part has a price. Carburetors: 1-barrel, $40. 2-bbl, $50. 4-bbl, $60. Taillamps: Under 5″ wide, $15. Over 5″ wide, $20. Chrome trim: 60¢/inch—these price examples are probably ludicrously outdated—all in non-negotiable block letters on a big yellow menu on the wall; y’want fries with that? That’s not how it was at C.A. and P; we countermen priced parts on the spot. Customer loyalty was generated and maintained by dint of the-more-you-buy-the-more-you-save pricing, and problem-child customers were discouraged by when-are-you-gonna-get-the-hint numbers at the bottom of the invoice. Obviously, it was understood there were to be no ridiculously special deals for friends, and there were appropriate general prices for various kinds of parts—especially if Dan was nearby—but beyond that, the broad discretion came in very handy. I’d been a customer long enough to remember when the office area was thick with blue cigarette smoke, so whenever some jerk decided the NO SMOKING signs didn’t apply to him, he paid as much of an asshole surcharge as I could get away with charging given the parts he was buying.

But outside of this kind of social-engineering application, pricing discretion had more important and useful purposes. We got the full spectrum of society coming in to buy parts. I gave very friendly pricing to the single mother of three, living hand-to-mouth and foregoing lunch for a month to afford a repair to her dilapidated old car so she could get to work for another week until something else broke. The zootsuited MBA who threw a tantrum when told we wouldn’t pull a trip odometer reset button for his BMW, he’d have to buy the whole assembly for a number of dollars he’d never notice missing? That guy got much less of a break; in fact he got a negative-break.

And when someone would try to steal parts, that was another matter altogether. One of my responsibilities was theft interdiction; this was one of the things that made the job interesting. People tried all kinds of scams. The basic “wear loose clothes, stuff your pockets, and smile a lot” method worked okeh so long as all that was attempted was little nameplates and turn signal levers and other piddly little shit—though whenever this stuff got put on the counter as part of a larger buy, it earned the customer an honesty discount, and if it got put on the counter as “This is all I need”, often we’d just wish the customer a nice day and send ’em on their way with the part priced at $0.00.

But you did have to keep a tight lid on the size of pocketed parts, lest they advertise themselves. Regrettably, I never got to use a California acquaintance and longtime counterman’s technique of spotting an obvious pocket bulge, writing up an invoice including “that taillamp I’m going to need you to remove from your left pocket”, accepting the customer’s money and watching him sheepishly put the purloined part on the counter, retrieving a sawed-off sledgehammer from under the counter, smashing the stolen-but-paid part to smithereens and saying “That one’s defective; sorry, no warranty”.

Bigger attempts tended not to work out very well. There was a big sign all customers had to pass:

STOP!
ALL CUSTOMERS MUST REPORT TO COUNTER BEFORE ENTERING YARD!
YOU WILL BE CHARGED
FOR ALL PARTS NOT DECLARED ON YOUR WAY IN!

So it was also my job to check incoming customers’ toolboxes and use a yard pen (very useful ballpoint bottle of quick-drying paint, would happily write on greasy, dirty or wet parts) to mark whatever car parts were found. This way, people could bring in their own parts to match up, and it would be clear who owned what when it came time to pay. Nevertheless, it happened again and again: customer would put a couple parts on the counter, I’d ask him to open his toolbox or backpack, and—lo!—there would be a smattering of parts therein. You never saw such wounded looks as when I would add them to the invoice and charge for them (the more strident and ridiculous the argument put forth, the more those parts cost).

One busy Saturday morning, a large family—mother, father, and at least five sisters and brothers—came in from the parking lot with a handtruck and several large tool boxes, which the wife and kids were handling with the greatest of ease. Not much to see there, so I waved ’em into the yard. Five hours later, covered with grease and dust, they came back in from the yard. They glanced furtively around as they tried to sidle around the crowd pressing towards the counter; it was almost closing time. Their efforts were hampered by the obvious struggle to drag the heavy toolboxes…two plus two equals five. I grabbed one of the walkie talkies and as soon as they crossed through the doors to the parking lot, I sprinted after them. “Stop,” I called, “I need to check your tool boxes.” Came the response: “We didn’t find anything we needed.” I said “Okeh, but I still need to check your toolboxes. You were supposed to stop at the counter.” Came the response: “No speak English”.

Oh, uh-huh. “Well, we have two options, one of which is going to happen right now. Either you can open all your toolboxes, or I can call the cops. What’ll it be?” Inexplicably, they understood me perfectly and opened his toolboxes. Holy cats, it was a regular NAPA in there. CV axle shafts, an alternator, most of an entire ignition system, a carburetor, I think there was an exhaust manifold…the parts just went on and on and on. I reported it on the walkie talkie, but didn’t really have to; One of the many perimeter video cameras was recording the whole thing.

Now, yard policy was to offer thieves a choice: they pay triple in cash for everything they tried to steal and they agree never to come back, or we call the cops and play the videotape. Without fail—every single time—thieves had the cash on them to pay 3× a price I was going to make up on the spot in the first place. On the other hand, the hand-to-mouth types who genuinely couldn’t ever afford anything not absolutely necessary never stole so much as a cigarette lighter knob. It was an excellent lesson in applied market sociology, only instead of paying tuition for it I got a paycheque.

So yeah, we got the whole spectrum of customers. Then again, we had the whole spectrum of staffers. There was Norm, older than dirt, who had owned the place since before Jesus got his learner’s permit. Norm always drove new Cadillacs and Yukons. Never really worked much, that any of us saw—just sort of showed up, looked around and left every now and then. Oh, and handed out paycheques. There was the little Mexican guy we called Lumpy, who sometimes worked out in the yard and sometimes behind the counter. One busy day, the phones were ringing off the hook. I answered one line, “Please hold,” answered another, “Colorado Auto and Parts,” and handed it off to Lumpy. He took the phone, said “Meow?” into the receiver, and hung it up. There was Calvin, the perpetually hung over tire-and-wheel guy. You could smell him coming long before you saw him. There was Marvin, whose facial expression made him look for all the world like Garfield the Cat. There was the torch guy, who looked scary as hell (Like “Animal” from The Muppets come to life) but wasn’t. Every morning he’d get on the walkie talkie and broadcast to all of us in a dead-flat deadpan, “Voices…I hear voices…” (a lyrical reference to the the Russ Ballard song). There was Gary, the forklift operator—more about him later. There was Amy, already described. There was Russ, who liked to sneak out into the warehouse when he thought nobody’d miss him for awhile and smoke joints and, ah, “read” the magazines he kept “hidden” between two alternator shelves. For the articles, no doubt.

The most dramatic theft I remember involved an attempt on Gary’s life. It started calmly enough: Someone in the back office, watching the video monitors, saw two someones park (area “B”) and walk into the quarantine yard (area “C”), which was off-limits to customers and posted as such. Gary got on the public address system and said “Attention, you are not allowed in that yard, please exit and come to the office immediately.” They didn’t comply, so Gary went out to fetch them. Seeing Gary approach, the two trespassers bolted for their car, scrambled in, and started forward—straight for Gary. The forklift tire company driver, who was in his idling truck filling out the paperwork for the tire he’d just replaced, saw what was happening in his rearview mirror. He threw his truck into Reverse, nailed the gas, and pinned the miscreants’ car between his heavy duty angle iron bumper and a brick wall. Had he not been there, Gary would likely have been hit. The two criminals bailed out of their totalled car and began to run…straight into the arms of the cops who’d been called at the beginning of all this.

So what had been worth all the trouble and expense they’d managed to rack up for themselves in just a few short moments? What had they removed from the off-limits yard? It was a headlight bezel from a Ford Escort. Probably thirty of them in the main yard on any given hour of any given day. Three bucks at the counter for a primo example, buck-fifty for a passable one. Oh yeah, we got the strange ones, all right.

The forklift Gary drove was not one of the cute little compact models you see on warehouse floors. Oh, no. Each of this forklift’s tires was a little over six feet tall. One day, I had driven a customer from the office out to the back of the Ford section (“T” above) to retrieve a bumper, a hood and some other unwieldy parts he’d removed from an older Mustang or something. We got into one of the yard cars—the blue Ford LTD with the electrical system so screwed up you had to turn on the headlamps and push in the cigarette lighter to start it, then turn off the headlamps or else the starter would keep trying to spin after the engine had started—and off we went to the Ford section. We’d just put the last part into what remained of the back seat when the engine stalled. Outta gas. No matter, I had a walkie talkie with me. I radioed in for someone to please bring a can of gas out to the Ford section, and the call was acknowledged. Customer and I waited in the front seat of the car.

About 45 seconds later, the walkie talkie crackled and I heard Gary say “Attention occupants of the blue Ford yard car: Please hold onto the bar.” I was puzzled until I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the forklift approaching, with Gary’s usual cheshire-cat grin way up in the operator’s cab. “You, uh, may want to hold on…” I said to the clueless customer. Gary skillfully slid the 20-foot-long forks under the car from the rear, gently lifted the car about 2 or 3 feet off the ground, and without so much as a jerk, we were travelling through the Ford section. The customer said “Heheh, this is kinda fun.” At that moment, from the walkie-talkie came Gary’s voice again: “To view the yard from a raised position, say ‘up.'” The customer blanched and said “What’d he say?” Well, of course, I couldn’t resist. Adopting a cheshire-cat grin myself, I thumbed the mic and said “Up, please…”. On command, Gary raised the forklift, and suddenly we were 15 feet off the ground. It was great fun, and there was no danger; the car couldn’t possibly tip over or fall off the long, broad forks. The customer didn’t know that, though, and he clawed at the dashboard, frantically saying “Say down! Say down! “. By that time, we’d reached the fluid storage tanks (area “L”), and Gary gently set us down right smack in front of the gasoline pump, politely bid us good day, and trundled off back to whatever he’d been doing with the forklift before.

That Ford wasn’t the only screwed-up yard car. Not by a long shot. The granddaddy of them all was a gray ’82ish Buick Skylark. That car had a million miles on it, and its exhaust smelt of inscrutable evil (seriously, it was not a smell any car on this planet should ever put out). All of us tried—unsuccessfully—to kill it. Dan usually drove that one. Then there was the short-lived ’77 Toyota, which I hated. There was something wrong with the carburetor, so while the engine ran fairly well, it would not idle. This was especially problematic because the car had a manual transmission, necessitating a tapdance on the pedals to keep the car running and go and stop with some semblance of safety. One day I was sent up the hill to Svigel’s (area “Z”) to pick something up. I’d had enough of the Toyota. I got in it, managed to tapdance it out of the yard and onto the dirt road, and got it up to about 10 mph. I floored the clutch, put the transmission in 5th gear, floored the accelerator and slooowwwwwwwly eased out the clutch. The engine raced, the car crawled, the clutch cooked. I did make it to the top of the hill, but there was a wretched smell of fried steel on the wind. The car did not make it back down the hill. There was a steady enough supply of incoming yard cars that one more or less didn’t make any difference on any given day. My favorite was a sky blue ’77 Volaré (or maybe Aspen) coupe. It had a Slant 6 engine, my favourite kind, that ran well and a 3-on-the-tree. It was perfectly serviceable and quite presentable, and really too nice to be a yard car, but that’s what it was until one of the other staffers decided it had to die and left it in the crushing area (“J”).

Working at the yard also afforded me more-or-less first crack at parts off incoming cars. I was heavy into Mopar A-bodies, and scored some choice bits including two more aluminum Slant-6s. But the realities of the place called for prompt pickup of plucked parts; I waited a day or an hour too long and the 3.23 drum-to-drum 8¾” rear axle assembly I’d ordered yanked from a Duster or somesuch went missing.

There was some amusement to be had (beyond Lumpy’s kitty cat noises) with customers on the phone, too. When someone would call and say “Hi, I have a Taurus/Sable, and”, interrupting them to say “Sorry, we don’t have a good 3-litre engine for you” would usually result in “…OK, thanks”, end of call. The same trick, mutatis mutandis, worked for Chrysler automatic transaxles. And at least once when the phone rang after 5:30, I picked it up and in my best porn voice said, “Colorado Auto and Parts…after hours…!”.

I’d love to be able to finish this post with a flourish, but I’m running out of good stories to tell. I had some surgery, missed a couple days’ work and didn’t bring them the doctor’s note they wanted, so the office staff fired me. That was pretty much OK…it was almost time to go back to school, and while I worked well with pretty much everyone, I really kinda didn’t belong. I knew it, they knew it…it was probably best for everyone that the job ended. I remained a good customer of the yard until I left Denver; some years later I encountered Amy in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette in her Datsun. Unbidden, she said “I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you when you worked here”. Very fine, then.

The yard’s days are surely numbered; Denver-Metro’s sprawl is devouring land in that area. Svigel’s got sold to a developer for some eye-watering sum of money, and it can’t be long before the rest of the scrapyards in that vicinity are paved to put up a parking lot 10-storey parkade with a pink hotel condo tower, a boutique Wal-Mart, and a swingin’ hot spot Starbucks. Don’t it always seem to go?