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The Original Recyclers : Don't Say Junkyard -- Salvage and Dismantle Are Key Words


The Alpha Auto Salvage Park in Irwindale may be at the top of the heap of its field.

The 28-acre cluster of 14 auto dismantling companies will sell bargain hunters everything from a fender bolt to a completely restored used car.

But it is the attitude of the owners and operators, not their inventory, that at first surprises visitors to the park, on a cul-de-sac off Buena Vista Avenue.

In conversations, owners refer to their businesses as salvage yards instead of junkyards. Their employees dismantle rather than scrap cars. These entrepreneurs run a business, not a wrecking yard.

"The days of the old-style wrecking yard are gone," said Tom Jones, manager of A-Abar, showing only a trace of grease under his fingernails. "In the old yards you had to wade through mud, oil and sludge to get what you needed."

In his yard, three acres of concrete cover the ground. Oils are drained and recovered in a large dismantling pit to trap any spillage. Freon is recycled.

Car parts are inventoried on a computer, tagged and hung from racks.

"The thrust of the modern dismantler is that he is the only qualified professional to take apart a car, recycle the recyclable parts and properly dispose of the approximately 300 pounds of contaminated material in each vehicle," said Patrick McLafferty, executive director of the State of California Auto Dismantlers, of which A-Abar is a member.

Added Maureen Daggett, president of Environmental Compliance Management in Sacramento, which helps small companies such as A-Abar comply with air, water and soil regulations: "People tend to forget that auto dismantlers are the original recyclers."

The Alpha Auto Salvage Park itself is an act of recycling on a grander scale. It is located on what once was a rock quarry that the city turned into a landfill.

Then, in 1991, Irwindale used redevelopment funds to buy the salvage operators' old yards and move them to the reclaimed landfill.

"The whole idea," said Carlos Alvarado, director of the Irwindale Community Redevelopment Agency, "was to move the junkyards from the city's residential sections to one of Irwindale's many reclaimed land quarries."

Although the salvage park is promoting a cleaner, more environmentally responsible image, many shops on the avenue retain an unmistakable junkyard charm.

During business hours, stray dogs and cats come and go on the street as freely as pedestrians. More ferocious Dobermans and Rottweilers stay penned up until their night patrols. There are pinups of grease-smudged women wielding the ratchets and wrenches of major tool companies.

In front of one shop, three boys were mesmerized by a rainbow in a puddle, which was really a floating pool of green oil and transmission fluids.

"There's always room for improvement," Jones allowed.

One thing that has not changed is the operators' capitalistic spirit and instinct to make a dollar. Operators, who obtain damaged cars at a huge discount from towing companies, finance agencies, insurance auctions and private sales, sell the parts for at least half of what they would cost new.

"We try to turn a dollar on every scrap of metal we haul into the yard," said Mike Vanzandt, who manages LPD Auto Wrecking.

Because of the competition on the street, shoppers can go from yard to yard looking for the best price.

"We always tell 'em, 'You're welcome to shop,' because that's the American way," Jones said.

Most yards require a $5 minimum purchase, but even that can be negotiated.

At one auto dismantler that specializes in Volvo parts, Terry Colquitt of San Dimas left with a $3 string of fuses and lights, which the owner told him how to install.

"It's cheaper to get parts here than paying full price elsewhere," said Colquitt, already at work under the dashboard of his 1980 GL-model Volvo.

Most electrical parts at Alpha Auto Salvage Park come with a 48-hour guarantee. Warranties extend from 60 to 90 days for engines and other major mechanical parts. At Pick A Part, a popular chain of salvage yards in the Southland that competes with the Alpha park, consumers remove and buy parts "as is," or buy insurance to cover part failures.

Although operators in the park guarantee what they sell, they also protect themselves by marking each sold part with an indelible ink.

"You'll get people that will go home and take the part and exchange it, and come back and want their money back for the old part," said Steve Barrile, owner of Arrow Auto Salvage.

If consumers can't find the part they are looking for, their order goes out over a hot line to which hundreds of salvage dealers subscribe. There are about 2,000 auto dismantlers in California.

In winter, increased calls go out for windshield and wiper products; in summer, air-conditioning parts are popular.

Private auto mechanics and even auto dealers are some of the salvage yards' best customers. Insurance companies often insist that mechanics install used parts to reduce costs.

"We use the 'bone' yards for a lot of interior setups, such as seats, carpets and interior trims," said Les Sanders, auto parts manager of Rogers Toyota in Covina. "When we ask the customer whether they want new or used parts, they usually go used."

Customers also bring in their own used parts to be installed. "We do it," Sanders said, "but it's a little like a customer bringing in his own eggs to a restaurant."

Still, despite the savings available at salvage yards, many consumers may not be ready to erase the stigma attached to the "used" label.

"You have to remember that every car on the street runs on used parts," Adam Secor, manager of Fast Inc., said over the rat-a-tat-tat of a rubber mallet hammering a like-new rear windshield into place.

"Our motto is, 'Why buy new when guaranteed used will do.' "

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