CC Road Trip: Abandoned Cars of Hawaii

As I mentioned in Part 1 this series, the Big Island of Hawaii is a relatively closed system of cars. The primary source of autos is in the form of new cars that are shipped to the island (either to dealerships or as rentals). Given that it costs upwards of a thousand dollars to ship a car between the mainland and Hawaii, it doesn’t make financial sense for most individuals (or dealerships) to ship a used car to or from the islands. As a result, almost the entire population of used cars for sale on the Big Island are those that were originally sold on the island as a new car.

Since it is only cost-effective to ship new cars in, but not used cars out, simple math says that the Big Island should be drowning in older cars. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Most cars seem to disappear from the road by the time they are about 15 to 20 years old. To solve this riddle, I decided to do some asking around with some local junkyards.

Junkyards in Hawaii are very different from those we encounter on the mainland. For starters, there are no pick-and-pull junkyards. Everything is dismantled by the recycler, for two main reasons: Space (land is very expensive, and it is more space efficient to vertically stack dismantled parts than entire vehicles) and pollution (being located by the ocean, they are very concerned about stray fluids (oil, brake fluid, coolant) making their way into the ocean).

Local junkyards are very selective in what vehicles they will take for dismantling, both for the space reasons mentioned above, and because they only take in what they think they can resell. There is no point dismantling and storing parts for a 15+ year-old car, only to have the parts sit around unsold essentially forever because there is virtually no demand. For this reason, dismantlers in Hawaii typically only deal with cars ten years old or less. Cars that are older get sent to the shredder, with the remains being sent back to other countries as raw material to make new cars. The circle of life.

 

1996 Toyota Corolla, defying the odds after 22 years.

 

What this means is that any car still on the road older than about 15 years is essentially living on borrowed time. Even a minor repair at this age (like a broken window or shattered headlight assembly) can be terminal. There are no replacement or recycled parts available on the island for cars of this age, and the cost of having parts shipped from the continental US will likely cost more than the car is worth (not to mention that the car will be out of commission for several weeks waiting for said parts to arrive from the mainland). Just like on the mainland, cars of this age are owned by people of the bottom economic bracket. These people have little time or money to do what it takes to keep a car of this age going in this environment, nor can they wait several weeks for parts while their only way to get to work is laid up. So if anything goes wrong, it is off to the shredder.

Any car that has survived 25 years or more is basically a unicorn, having been fortunate enough to avoid any major mechanical maladies, or having been owned by an extremely dedicated owner.

There does exist a third possible fate for old cars, beyond shredding and dismantling, since both these options require a clear title to the car. If circumstances has left you with a broken down car with a misplaced title (or perhaps a title named to a long departed ex, or for a car that has a lien on it), you really have only one remaining option to dispose of your broken down car: Abandonment.

The back roads of the Big Island are littered with cars like the one in the hero picture of this article.  Cars that by and large would be easily repairable on the mainland. Or at least presumably were before being picked over by scavengers and spray painted with graffiti.

Abandoned vehicles are easily recognized by the missing plates and the letters AV emblazoned across their windshield or sides in tape or paint. Many also have a notice applied to them by the Hawaii Police Department, one that almost always goes unheeded.

 

Ford Panthers like this abandoned Crown Victoria are prized on the mainland for their durability, size, and ample supply of replacement parts. Ironically, the situation is quite reversed here on the Big Island, which is why this decent looking Crown Vic is in its current dire straits. These Panther platform cars were likely never big sellers here even when new, due to their size and non-Asian origin.

 

This abandoned Ford Escort wagon last turned a wheel in 2015, according to mandatory registration sticker that all vehicles in Hawaii must carry. It appears to be completely intact, and would likely be easily repaired and still running on the mainland. However, here in Hawaii it is likely easier to find a snowboard than parts for a 25-year old Escort.


W220 Mercedes-Benz are expensive cars to keep running anywhere, but especially so in Hawaii. A broken air suspension whose parts and labor will likely exceed the value of the car means that this 2001 S430 has moved under its own power for the last time.

 

 Lastly, we have this 1997 Honda Accord, which at 19-years old is a veritable senior citizen in Hawaii. Again, other than the missing wheels, it seems to be remarkably intact, and could probably be put back on the road under better circumstances.