On a recent Saturday, Mark Greenwell, 29, visited Marv's Chevy Only Auto Dismantling in Sun Valley in search of a dashboard gauge for his '78 Chevy van. But, instead of prowling around acres of old cars, toolbox in hand, Greenwell simply told the man behind the counter what he needed.
Brian Kesberry punched the information into a computer terminal, which emitted a couple of high-pitched beeps, and the gauge was on the counter a few minutes later.
Marv's is one of about a half dozen of the 120 junkyards--or auto recyclers, as they prefer to be called--in the Valley to have brought the business of selling auto parts into the 20th Century.
"I've been to those junkyards where you pick through the cars. You couldn't find a dash gauge if you went through every Chevy van on the lot," said Greenwell, who is a mechanic for the J. M. Carden Firesprinkler Co. "I could look in five a day, and I'd never find one."
Unscientific Inventory Systems
Squawk-box and Teletype hot lines for locating used auto parts have been around since the 1950s. In fact, until recently, the junkyard business was run with index cards and thick reference manuals. Junkyard owners say they used to mentally keep track of what cars to stock by answering hundreds of phone calls a day for parts.
Now, however, computers keep track of inventory and its location on many lots. Auto wreckers also use computers to tell what kinds of cars to buy at salvage auctions and then what parts to take from those cars, scrapping the leftovers and saving precious space and expensive labor.
And a new breed of customer is being drawn into the once-disdained junkyard, lured by efficient computer cataloguing and cleaned parts packaged in plastic.
"We're looking to achieve a clean-type operation," said Nick Pavich Jr., president of the Valley Automotive Dismantlers Assn. and owner of Nick's Auto Dismantlers in North Hollywood. A rusty, pink-and-white '57 Ford Ranchero--the word Ouch spray-painted on its driver's side--loomed on a rack above him.
Computerized junkyards are more expensive. Any fender--for a '67 T-Bird or a '79 Impala--sells for $22.95 at Pick Your Part in Sun Valley, a traditional find-it-yourself junkyard. At Marv's, the salvaged-by-computer front fender for that '79 Chevy costs $125. It runs $245 new at Jim Bess Chevrolet in Canoga Park.
Jeff Jones of Saugus was in Marv's helping his pal, Pat Mintey, find a right door and sway bars for a '68 Chevy. Jones and Mintey were preparing the Chevelle to race in street stock. Jones, a big guy with braces, had dripping-wet hair.
"We were at the Pick Your Part down the street," he said, "We found the door, but then it started to rain, and we said, 'Forget it. It's too wet and dirty.' We walked in here 10 minutes ago, and already we've got what we need."
Insurance companies prefer to deal with the computerized lots on collision claims because price comparisons are easier, said James McKinnon, head of the claims department for the Farmers Insurance Group in Los Angeles.
Marv's scraps eight cars a week, and, although 70% of its business is to consumers, co-owner Judy Schmidt said she hopes to sell more to wholesalers within five years because that business is becoming more profitable.
Guenther Theilkuhl, assistant manager of the service department at Merlin Olsen Porsche Audi in Encino, said he looks for used parts only when a customer "in a financial bind" requests it. He doesn't like to rely on the word of the junkyard owner that the part is good.
"Before computers, I used to hunt day-in, day-out. I'd make handstands, you know, 52 phone calls to find one used part," Theilkuhl said. "Now it's quick and easy."
Herb Lieberman, operations manager of Lakenor Auto Salvage in Santa Fe Springs, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the most modern yards in the United States, says his "supermarket techniques and a showroom atmosphere" make people comfortable.
"They want the car to run, and they don't want to crawl through dirt and mud to get the part that will make it go," he said. Car owners can go to a computerized junkyard, get the part in five minutes, and walk out, he continued.
The public tends to confuse junkyards with scrap yards, said Pavich, who is in the process of installing a computer system. Instead of good, recyclable parts, people think of piles and piles of rusted, burnt-out cars, he said.
The spur toward beautification and modernization goes back to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society, Lieberman said.
The 1965 Highway Beautification Act required that all junkyards within 1,000 feet of a federal highway be removed or disguised.
"Lady Bird said, 'Look at yourselves. You look lousy.' And we did. So we put up fences and buildings," Lieberman said. "Naturally, it followed that we'd take a look at how we were operating too."
Despite such efforts by junkyard owners, there are those weekend mechanics who prefer the old, dirty, do-it-yourself yards. At a traditional-style junkyard, like Pick Your Part, customers don't seem to mind the grime and the tedium of hunting down a part. There, cars are arranged on racks of steel about two feet off the ground, and the owners don't use computers because customers walk on the yard with their toolboxes and simply scavenge the parts they want.
The pick-and-pays have lots of older cars because most customers at those places "are middle- to lower-income people who drive junks and have to get to work," said Linda Allen, who heads the advertising department for Pick Your Part.
"This solves my grease problem," said Stuart Richman, holding up a can of lanolin-fortified hand cleaner. The 20-year-old Northridge computer-science major said he got tired of waiting for parts for his red '78 VW Rabbit and paying high dealership prices.
But, he advised, "Don't wear nice clothes."