Michael Lendo went shopping Saturday for a strip of molding for his El Camino. He didn't find his part. He found something much better: a junker with its soul intact.
Once a creamy yellow, the '58 Chevy had acquired the color of a drainage ditch. The aquamarine seats were shredded. The matching aquamarine steering wheel was like new.
Miles of Mysteries
"It's as old as me; I was born in 1958," said Lendo. He set his toolbox on the fender, and opened the door gallantly, as if he were about to usher a date into the front seat.
"I wonder what dealer first sold this car," he said, "and I wonder what plant it was built at. I wonder what happened to the owner. I wonder where this car's been. It's been a lot of places and it ended up here.
"If I could, I'd like to fix this car up, take it home and make it run again."
In the new-style wrecking yards that have become standard in the Los Angeles area, Lendo never would have found his treasure. In the modern yards, customers are not free to wander among the wrecks. They order parts at a counter and a parts puller disappears into the back and does the greasy work for them.
But some amateur mechanics prefer to hunt their own parts at the few remaining do-it-yourself yards.
U-Pick Parts in Sun Valley--where Lendo discovered the Chevy --charges half or a third of what full-service yards do for a part. Only parts, not whole cars, are sold at U-Pick Parts.
"If you can turn a screwdriver and use a wrench, you can save a few dollars," said Lendo, a parts man at a San Fernando Valley car agency.
Customers began arriving Saturday at U-Pick Parts at 8 a.m. They paid their $1 admission, pushed through the turnstile and began scanning the 12-acre jungle of 1,200 cars. Some shoppers did not re-emerge for six hours.
A couple of times each hour, U-Pick Parts employees Lars Mohler or Jeff King fired up a decrepit Honda motorcycle and made a run around the yard looking for thieves who shove parts under the fence to avoid paying for them. Sometimes, King said, they'll find remnants of a picnic lunch a parts hunter has spread on the tailgate of a junked station wagon.
Customers and Cars
From the guard shack/office, King and Mohler survey what sometimes looks like an uninhabited yard. Actually, dozens of customers--the yard gets as many as 1,000 visitors in a weekend--can be out there hunkered down around wheels or sprawled under front ends.
"Most do-it-yourself auto mechanics are kind of afraid to delve into this situation," said Mohler. Worried that they'll end up with the wrong part, injure themselves when a spring flies loose or damage an adjacent part while trying to free the one they want (all of these things do occur at a serve-yourself yard, said Mohler), they prefer to let a professional wrecker do the work.
The customers who come here rely on older cars for transportation, but can no longer obtain parts at a dealer. Many of the customers are regulars.
"A man named John basically goes after radios, speakers, the electric goodies," Mohler said. "We have another guy, Arnufo, who goes after tires. Al looks for the hard-to-find General Motors parts; Dave and Alan want Pontiac parts."
Mohler, 27, of Pasadena, said he was employed for a couple of years as a biomedical technician at UCLA, but found sitting at a desk soldering electric boards was boring. He went to work for Sam Adlen, who in 1936 opened his first wrecking yard on Ford Boulevard in East Los Angeles.
"This is my life's work," said Adlen of the junkyard business. He operates five wrecking yards in Southern California, but only one, U-Pick Parts, is self-serve.
The do-it-yourself yards have been phased out, largely due to higher insurance costs and space considerations, Adlen said. Because they are set up for browsing, with 5-foot walkways between the rows of cars, self-service yards demand lots of space.
The Merchandise Moves
Lars Mohler prefers the wrecking yard to lab work. With 10 to 30 new wrecks promenading in on the forklift every day, the cars and characters are always changing.
Mohler is married and has a 2-year-old daughter and three cars at home: a Toyota Celica, a '63 Chevy Nova and a '41 Plymouth sedan.
"If you know where I can get V-8 motor mounts for a Chevy Nova, let me know," Mohler said to a visitor. "That's my holy grail.
"Everyone's looking for that one golden part off an old Barracuda that he can buy for $10 dollars and sell for $100," Mohler said.
The customers looked more like they were going to work than holy-grail questing. Every man toted a toolbox. The shoppers grabbed coffee or a doughnut at the catering truck parked outside. Some claimed a shopping cart ditched among the wrecks. One man even brings his own heavy-duty shopping cart, with an umbrella attached for shade, Mohler said.
Ken Kessler, 21, comes to U-Pick Parts once a week for Mustang parts. "All I'm looking for today is a 14-inch rim and it's gotta be off a '67 Mustang," he said. Kessler was all business, with no eye for unexpected finds.