What happens when a car dies?
To see what happens to a car when it dies, we speed a BMW 3-series toward its fate in the shredder.
If you wish to make it through this violent, ugly story, it's best to stop thinking of an automobile as a living thing with "personality" and a "soul," as we so often do in this magazine when we indulge in our pet hobby of gratuitous anthropomorphism.
Instead, look at our cheerful little 1993 BMW 325i — no, stop; it was not cheerful; it did not live, so therefore it cannot die — the way the auto-recycling industry sees it.
Once drivers are finished extracting the bulk of a car's value, the salvage industry steps in to milk out the final few dollars. To an industry that scrapped roughly 11.7 million cars last year, our BMW is just 3100 pounds of steel, aluminum, plastic, glass, rubber, leather, zinc, lead, silicon, oil, antifreeze, and refrigerant. Each component represents a positive value in material or a negative in disposal cost, all of which is calculated down to the half-cent per ton or gallon on a ledger that fluctuates almost daily with global spot commodity prices.
As in a slaughterhouse, the sorting of a whole car into its valuable cuts is not pretty, so keep reminding yourself that this is a natural, continuous, and highly capitalistic cycle of replenishment that is good for society and the environment. At least, we're pretty sure it is.
We found our BMW lurking in the back of the lot at Blok Charity Auto Clearance in Gardena, California. Blok specializes in liquidating cars that have been donated to causes. The prices are consequently modest.
This black 325i automatic showed 210,909 miles turned on L.A.'s pitiless streets and was branded with the scarlet letter of a salvage title, meaning it had already been crashed severely enough to have been written off by an insurance company and then rebuilt to unknown (and likely dubious) standards. The 189-hp, 2.5-liter inline-six ran evenly but percussively due to its tick-tickety valvetrain and loose, slapping pistons. The rear wheel bearings howled in despair. A battered front bumper hung by a few fasteners, the leather buckets were split, and black tape held the door trim together. After some grimacing, Blok let it go for $1300. (The salvage yard told us later that it wouldn't have paid more than $400.)
Nathan Adlen and his cousin Andrew run Aadlen Bros. Auto Wrecking (note the spelling difference) in Sun Valley just north of Los Angeles, where it was started by Nathan's dad in 1962 and christened with an extra "A" to move it higher in the phone book. With Hollywood as a neighbor, the 26-acre scrap yard has been used in many film shoots, and it has a funky, only-in-L.A. ambience supplied by a collection of decorative junk ranging from missile launchers to a sunburned Citroën SM to "Bruce," one of the mechanical sharks from the movie Jaws.
The place is all business, however, built around the notion that $400 crap heaps, acquired mainly through auctions and "Junk Cars Wanted" ads, can yield $500 to $800 in revenue through the punctilious salvaging of every morsel of their recyclable material, up to and including the license plates. At any one time, Aadlen's Sun Valley yard (it has another in L.A.) contains about 1500 derelicts. The spread includes an eerily clean and well-organized domestic-vehicle self-service lot and, as you'd imagine in L.A., a substantially busier and more lucrative foreign-vehicle lot, where citizens can come and scavenge their own parts.
Despite its age and Oliver Twist existence, our BMW made it into the yard still burning gas in most of its cylinders and still exhibiting faint traces of the endearing dynamics that made the E36 3-Series a Car and Driver 10Best winner from 1992 to 1998 — every year it was in production.
Aadlen manager Jorge Trujillo started our BMW on its final journey by filling out a "death certificate," a form that registers the car's scrapping with the state as well as the Department of Justice, which, since 2009, has required every dismantler to report scrap cars to its National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This was created to discourage theft and title washing.
One of Aadlen's 85 employees then came along with a cart and yanked the BMW's battery and drained the brake-fluid and coolant reservoirs. The battery will earn up to $15 for its lead, plastic, and acid. The brake fluid will be mixed with motor oil and other lubricants and sold to recyclers.
Trujillo figures Aadlen recoups about 95 percent of the oil that comes in the door, for which the yard is paid 30 cents per gallon by the recyclers and another 16 cents per gallon by the state as an incentive against dumping. The rest ends up in absorbent kitty litter or goes out the door still clinging to parts. Every month, Aadlen Bros. collects and ships out 5000 gallons of gasoline, 2500 gallons of waste oil, and 1700 gallons of antifreeze, and it processes most of its stock of car bodies.
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Eventually the public will win this fuel and pollution war we are waging with old school manufactured transportation, at least as far as getting a couple people around town without such an impact on everything.
I can hardly wait until my grandchildren ask me if I know anything about those 'old cars' that had so many moving parts and had to go to a special fuel station fuel to drive.