Sunday, October 30, 2011

In Praise of Parts Cars

Can you be considered a true automotive enthusiast without owning at least one parts car? Also known as donor cars or spares cars, these saved-from-the-scrapyard vehicles help keep many a classic car on the road and serve as a source of barter goods and make many goodwill gestures possible.

Naturally the best parts cars are the ones that can be had for free. It's not often that you run across a freebie but from time to time "just haul it off" stories surface. Even if the object of your envy is not available for free removal it may get the conversation started that could lead to a fair price agreement. Not surprisingly, many people with obviously unloved older cars think that they are much more valuable than they really are, especially if you've come knocking. It's difficult to negotiate a reasonable price in one visit when the owner thinks it's worth four times what it really is.

A Typical Parts Car - Photo Courtesy William Huggins
It's best to let the owner know that you have no intention of restoring the car (if you truly don't intend to, that is) and that your interest is strictly for the parts that you can harvest for your own project. If you have a photo of your restoration project - or better yet, you're driving it - show it to the owner and let them know what parts you need. If you can't buy the entire car, maybe you can get some choice pieces off it. If you still cannot come to a reasonable price, thank the owner for his courtesy but leave your name and phone number along with a written offer. Then wait a time with patience.

Richard Cunningham and I followed up on a lead for a Triumph Stag that we planned to part out. While it was a solid, complete car, it had an American engine and transmission transplant so we didn't think that it was a candidate for restoration. The seller was emotionally attached to the car and asked exactly three times what Richard and I were willing pay. We explained our intentions for the car, justified our offer and then left her with contact information and a standing offer. About six months later, events in the sellers life changed and she was willing to take the offer. At this point we had lost interest in the Stag, but one of our club members was in the midst of a Stag restoration so we brought the two parties together and a deal was done. Happy buyer, happy seller.

My brother and I renovated our 1976 MGBs during the late 1990s. In that time, we came into ownership of two '75 MGBs in derelict condition. My car needed body panels and trim items and my brother Alan's car needed engine bits. The first car we dismantled provided the engine pieces Alan needed and I picked up a fine bootlid. We kept gauges, driveline parts and other choice pieces for barter or future use and scrapped the remains of the body. The second parts car was much more complete. Alan picked up some useful interior pieces and I got the rest of the body bits I needed - namely front fenders (wings), doors and a better windscreen frame. As with the first car, we stripped out everything that could be sold or traded and scrapped the remains of the bodyshell.

Keeping a parts car is challenging in most locations. It is highly unlikely that your neighbors will see your new parts car acquisition with the same rose-colored view that you have, and in more and more cities code enforcement officers will make their presence known with a citation or cease and desist order. Unlicensed vehicles  - even those not visible from the street - are prohibited on your property in many cities. There are tales of properly garaged projects coming under official scrutiny, too. Some self-storage facilities will allow you keep a parts car in a unit while you dismantle it, but keep in mind you have to have space to get a truck in to haul off the major bits you do not want.

Me - The Day the 1969 E-Type was Delivered
Ideally, you could have a friend with property outside the reach of the code Nazis and that friend might not mind having a partially disassembled car on their property for a minimum period of time. You may even ignite some old car hobby interest in your bud as part of the deal. Alan and I swapped a rebuildable engine from parts car No. 2 for a spot to park the rest of the car while we finished the strip-out. Parts car No. 1 occupied the driveway of a friend who had found himself suddenly sans wife and there was no prohibition on old cars in the city of Mobile, Alabama at the time. He thought it was cool to have an exotic Brit in the drive for his buddies to admire. Needless to say, we moved quickly to strip the car and keep the neighborhood irritation to a minimum. 

As documented in other entries in this humble blog, the aforementioned Richard Cunningham and I bought a 1969 Jaguar E-Type for our amusement and mercenary intentions. Thankfully, Richard has a spacious garage outside the city limits where we dismantled and sold off bits to E-Type owners looking for original pieces to keep their cars on the road. It even worked out that Richard found a few pieces he needed for his 1964 restoration project. By the way, we still have some nice body bits available. 

Tearing into a parts car can be a bittersweet experience. The car you are working on was someone's pride at one time. For me it's difficult to not wonder about the chain of ownership, the conversations (or other activities) that took place inside and when it became obvious that this vehicle was no longer worthy of repair. The personal items that you run across occasionally add their own bit of poignancy to the story. Once in a while actual cash money is found in the seats, carpets and various cubby holes making your cost of acquisition even lower! Richard and I found quite a few interesting items in the E-Type some of which include:
  • A matchbook from the Sands Casino in Las Vegas
  • A DIY repair manual (obviously unread...)
  • A 1971 California road map
  • An assortment of spare interior bulbs
  • Pens and pencils from various Vegas casinos
  • The ugliest hammer we'd even seen (dubbed the BFH on discovery)
As the years pass, usable parts cars are getting ever more thin on the ground making the few left more valuable for restoration spares. Let people know about your hobby. Mention that you are always interested in hearing about opportunities to check out any potential parts car. If it's not exactly what you are looking for chances are someone else you know would be thrilled to know about it.

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