Journey to the U-Pull…

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One thing that I often recommend is to go to the U-pull yard for parts. But I have found people often have an aversion to junkyards. Bad experiences I’ve found to be rare. I’ve had far more good ones. There are many benefits and myths about junkyards and I hope to touch on most of them. (I will use junk and salvage interchangeably, I know ‘junk’ offends some proprietors, but I think it should be embraced)

One thing I’ve found is that people are afraid to go to a junkyard. Junkyards are often located in industrial areas or in bad part of town or in some other place where they can exist. This is just the nature of the society we live in. It hates junk, but given the number of shows about “junk” on TV today the junker undercurrent must be far stronger than I ever expected it to be. I suppose Fred Sanford said it right, “It’s a world full of junk”. But I digress. Because of this people think junkyards are full of unsavory people. I’ve found the opposite to be true. By and large I’ve found salvage yards to be very friendly places. If there are unsavory people, they are then on their best behavior at the yard. Most people will help each other (within reason, don’t ask someone to spend an afternoon helping you pull an engine) in self service yard as well.

Unhelpful staff and owners… well I’ve run into them. One yard, the first I ever visited, had been in business since they were neighbors to my great grandfather’s business back in the 1930s. They were a full service yard and really had no desire to sell me the part I needed. I sometimes think they might have become a front for some other not so legal operations over the years as well. Both because of their unfriendly counter manner but old family stories. They have since been bought out by an insurance yard, no longer open to the public. But in most cases I’ve found junkyard staff to be friendly so long as you, as a customer, know the rules. But what are the rules…

First, no cash refunds. No yard I know has cash refunds. Only store credit. If you get the wrong part it doesn’t work they’ll give you a credit. I’ve had this happen. Got a credit, used it. Never had a problem that way. What’s in the lot? Self serve yards do not keep track for the customer. Not even by make and model. That’s just the way it is. The first yard that innovates here will probably get some extra business, but part of the self serve is that it’s a hunt. Full serve is on-line. Go to and find the part you want anywhere in the US or Canada. The way to deal with this is to go when you have parts for a variety of cars on your list. You’re more likely to find one this way.

Don’t go to the self serve looking for things for your 5 year old car (unless you can use the same parts from a 12 year old version of it). Junk yards keep the most recent model years in their full serve businesses where they can get maximum profit. If a car is ten years old or more and a domestic then you’ll have decent chances in the self serve. Imports, more like 12-15 years. Popular cars like Mustangs, expect them to be mostly stripped before they got to the yard or because someone got to them before you. Know your interchange. In my most recent trip I took the part I needed for my Mustang from a Cougar. I came prepared with the Ford part numbers I was looking for and found a match on the same year cougar.

Admission. Yes. Many self serves charge $1-2 admission. I am not sure why. It’s trivial if you find what you are looking for, it stings if you don’t. It’s their rules. If you can find one that doesn’t go there instead if you don’t want to gamble with $2. Understanding these things and the price list will prevent problems.

There is also some junkyard etiquette, but it is simple. First, behave yourself. Most everyone understands this. The one some people don’t understand is… Do not destroy parts you don’t want. Someone might be looking for that. I’ve found the part I wanted or could use destroyed too many times because someone busted it to get to another part. That’s about it.

Haggling…it’s allowed at some yards some of the time. If it’s a special day, forget it. They’ve already reduced pricing. I’ve had some luck by when parts were more than I expected (largely because I found more than I expected) I asked if they took a credit cards. He came down in price to make it a cash sale. If it’s an old time yard where you had to go back into the weeds and it’s been run by the same guy for the last 50 years, haggle. It’s part of the business. Be willing to put the part back where you found it.

Now the benefits of going to the self serve junkyard.

The biggest benefit is price. Self serve yards sell parts by what they are, not what they came out of. There is no premium for hard to find parts. An alternator is an alternator. A side window is a side window. My recent trip yielded me a Ford service intake manifold with the aluminum cross over for my ’97 Mustang, price list for a plastic manifold, $25. But I went on half price tuesday, more on that later. This part is now essentially very hard to find new. Dealers want $500 or more for it, which is why my mustang currently wears an aftermarket manifold.

Special days. If you can swing it, you can really save by going on the day of week business is slow. Self serve yards often have days where prices are reduced or there are various other specials. Yards in my area usually have once or twice a year events where it is all-you-can-carry for a set price. These are fun days just to watch people at the yard. See someone do a Philo Beddoe and carry an entire engine across the line to get it for $40. Ok, it’s usually two people, and the charge doubles for that. I have occasionally scored well at all-you can carry days. I have an inventory of spare parts for my Maverick from all you can carry days. I even got a set of disc brake spindles off a Monarch on one such day.

Spare little parts is what is really great about the self-serve. I’ve learned over the years that the yards have absolutely no concern for small items like fasteners and such. Things that don’t even make it to their price list. I keep every fastener I remove from parts I buy. They’ve come in handy many times. Sometimes I put them in my tool case/box/bag but mostly I just thread them into the holes they came out of and put them on the counter with the part. I’ve never been charged for them.

Practice is a big benefit. In pulling the part from the junkyard car, you’ve just learned how to do it on your car. You’ve learned the hard parts and if you accidentally broke something, it didn’t cost you anything.

Surveying to find the right thing for your project. Looking to modify or customize a car? There’s a yard full to look to see what has something you can use. Measure to your heart’s content.

The negatives… well there aren’t many. Some yards are disorganized. Others stack the cars or let them sit in the mud. These are yards of last resort. All of them I have never been back to a second a time. Just not worth it. The good yards sort the cars and put them up on jackstands made of old steel wheels or at least have them sit on their wheels on solid ground. Ground that has been compacted and covered with gravel. Working out in the weather… this can be bad if you have to go in bad weather. There isn’t anything else I can think of here.

Oh, I did forget one last thing… By going to the junk yard you are now greener than most self identified environmentalists. The junkyard is a place where nearly everything gets recycled, much of it for full value. Not just the material, the entire part goes back into service. The junk yard, the place attacked from so many directions is and will continue to be one of the greenest businesses around.

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  1. I’m in the Chicago area. The yards I refer to are in the south suburbs. It’s typically been a spring or fall thing. The last one was at the end of Sept for the yard I got the manifold at.

    The 70s and 80s cars were getting harder to find at the yards years ago. But on my last trip there was a Pinto Wagon and a 60’s Tbird. The Pinto wagon was largely there, the Tbird was pretty picked over already. I didn’t venture into the GM and Chrysler areas or pay much attention walking by them.

  2. Good article. One thing I need to know: where are the U-Pull-Its with the all-you-can-carry or “Pull-a-Thons”? I’m from a suburban NJ town 5 minutes outside of Philadelphia. There used to be one that had a pull-a-thon every month, but no more. I know scrap is up and whatnot, and prices for parts are still much cheaper than anywhere else, but if I go to a yard, I need something. If I can’t find it, I don’t want to leave empty-handed, and would really love to splurge on things I want as opposed to need.

    I once made out with 2 77 Lincoln Town Coupe bumpers, 4 aluminum rims and tires, three buckets of miscelanous parts, and a steering wheel. That was the longest 50 ft I ever had to walk. But I skipped away after that having only paid $25 plus my entrance fee. I heard shortly after my shopping spree, the yard upped the fee to $40.

    Also, gone are the days, at least in my realm, where yards are froth with real cars from the 70’s and 80’s. Again, the price of steel led to the premature death of probably thousands of eligible donors.

    I feel I may just be getting crotchety in my rip old age of 28.

  3. Great article! Reminds me of the times I’ve been to a u-pull-it. I replaced my Maverick’s broken door pulls from a identically-coloured Pinto found at one such place. BTW- you have a Maverick? I salivate with envy… Mine succumbed finally, to rust. Locally (well, closest large metro area) is a place I’ve not been to yet- but looks like one of the better ones, cars neatly categorised by make, inventory online of makes models and years (not the individual parts, of course, but still that’s very helpful)… in contrast to one of those weedy places, last time I was at one- man dropped me off at a Pinto to see if the windshield wiper switch matched while he drove off in search of a Maverick. Then the dobermans showed up. It’s true, when you are not seen, you CAN keep perfectly still without breathing… just like a prey animal, in fact…

  4. Two of the best U-Pull-It yards I’ve ever been to were in Virginia: Circle Automotive Recycling near Petersburg and Chesterfield Auto Parts near Richmond (I was told they were owned by the same folks). They not only had the cars arranged by make (the imports were mixed, but in their own section), they even had a rudimentary database with model & location data (no guarantees on what would be left when you got there though). They did puncture and drain every gas tank (oil pan too as I recall) but not the tranny pans. They had a coarse gravel yard, all the vehicles were on jack-stands made of old wheels and you had to pay a dollar to get in which was also rental on a wheel barrow (they didn’t allow vehicles past the gate).

    They also provided these cool A-frames with chain hoists that rolled on giant casters made of car tires and spindles for engine pulls. Engines were $75 and trannies $35. I saw a guy pulling an LT-1 out of Z-28 and asked him if he was doing a project. He said no, he just couldn’t pass that engine up complete for $75. All I can say is I wish I’d seen it first (and I’m a Ford guy!).

    We were pretty poor, so my wife would go along with me and search the vehicles for change while I worked. She always got my dollar back and then some. One time she even found this tiny sterling silver spoon with a demon on the handle and ring to hang it on a chain….hmmm?…..I wonder what that was for? 😀 We may have been scaping bottom, but we sure had a lot of fun at the junk yard back in the day.

  5. One of my biggest gripes is junkyards that are difficult to explore because of the haphazard way some of them stack cars or just scatter them about in the weeds. Before my last venture looking for parts I did an internet search of all yards within about 20 miles. Then using Google Satellite view zoomed in on each one and eliminated the small and disheveled yards. I think it made for a more efficient search than it otherwise would have been. Didn’t find the exact part I was looking for but did find some I could use.

  6. Great article. Its been a while since I’ve been to a salvage yard but I’m fixing up an old Suzuki and your article got me thinking…

    I’d like to see a follow up article about the toolkit to bring to the U pull it yard. I don’t see me lugging my full collection (wanna see the back end of a Sidekick sagging? : )

    So what are the essentials?

    • When I go to a pick-a-part I bring:

      * Jack
      * Jack stands
      * breaker bar
      * rotary cutter (portable)
      * PB40 (best rust penetrant I know of)
      * multiple sizes of vise grip pliers (excellent for dealing with rusted/rounded-off nuts and bolts)

      And of course, a full socket set, multiple screwdrivers – and a big/thick towel (to put greasy parts on so they don’t ruin the car’s interior/trunk on the ride back home).

    • I try to pack the car with all the tools needed for what I can hope to find. I usually only carry in bare minimum I need for what I am looking for. I just got tired of carrying way too much weight into the yard. The yards I go to will allow re-entry without an additional fee for the entire day. Once or twice I’ve gone back home to get something and returned. Multiple yards owned by the same people allow entry to all (on the same day) by paying at one, so I’ve done that as well.

      When I got the manifold I only carried in an old truck-kit set of sockets and wrenches and pliers. I better tools in the car but when I found nothing was rusted in on cougar I just took the entire thing off with the tools in hand. The tricky part was getting the alternator off without a breaker bar to release the tension on the belt… but it took me less time than going back to the car.

      What I would add to Eric’s generic list is a set of combination wrenches, channel locks, and perhaps a small and large adjustable wrench.


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