COLUMBIA — Wearing a cutoff T-shirt that reveals tattoos on both arms, 23-year-old Zach Boots reaches into the front of a 2002 Chrysler Sebring and pulls out a handful of cables.
“Most mechanics have to be very careful when they work on a car,” Boots said. “But I can just rip it apart as long as I don’t break the part I’m trying to get at. I love it.”
Boots, who built the engine of his first car when he was 16, now earns a living tearing them apart. The dismantler for Sorrels Auto and Truck in Columbia is about to get busy.
Sorrels and other automotive recycling businesses are on the receiving end of the federal Cash for Clunkers program. The program, which ended last week, provided rebates on trade-ins of used vehicles for new vehicles that are more fuel efficient.
With thousands of used vehicles filling lots across the country, salvage dealers are preparing for the rush.
So far, local salvage yards have only received a fraction of the vehicles they are expecting to process as dealers wait for the government reimbursements.
“The dealerships aren’t going to let go of them until they are compensated by the government,” Mitchell Sorrels, owner of Sorrels, said.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation show that $61 million in vouchers have been requested in Missouri. But Gary Drewing, president of Joe Machens dealerships in Columbia, said on Monday that his dealership has been compensated for 38 of 375 claims.
Drewing said he didn't know when the money will come. "We have no idea," he said.
The Machens dealership is storing some of its vehicles waiting to be towed and recycled in a lot at the defunct Old Chicago restaurant on I-70 Drive Southwest. Walking around the lot, it’s easy to identify typical clunkers. But some vehicles, with new leather and shiny exteriors, don’t seem to fit in.
Chad Slate, manager of A-1 Auto Recyclers in Columbia, said some of the vehicles he has received from dealerships such as Bob McCosh Chevrolet, Albert Buick GMC and University Chrysler are also in better condition than the vehicles that usually come to his business.
“There’s a few that I would consider to be clunkers, but most of them are nicer,” Slate said. “In all honesty, they should have gone to the used car market. They have a lot of life left in them.”
Once the vehicles are turned over for salvage, those businesses have 180 days to gather parts, excluding the engine, for resale before the vehicles must be crushed.
Under the clunkers program, Slate said, dealers are required to disable the engine by giving it a lethal injection of a sodium silicate solution.
“Prior engine disablement reduces the likelihood that a trade-in vehicle will be returned to use as an on-road automobile,” stated the Department of Transportation in a release.
“I think its kind of stupid they have to blow up a perfectly good engine that we could sell,” Boots said.
Salvage yards are also forbidden from selling a vehicle's drivetrain unless the parts are sold separately.
Once all of the cars are delivered, the salvage yards must work efficiently to meet the 180-day deadline.
Yancey Auto in Perry, which sells new and used parts at a store in Parkade Plaza, expects to handle 500 to 600 vehicles traded in under the program.
“We process, on average, 50 cars a week without the program,” Jason Yancey of Yancey Auto said. "This will be a lot of added work.”
Sorrels, which by Monday had received 19 of an anticipated 150 to 175 vehicles, is also gearing up.
Boots, who can usually dismantle a car in half a day’s work, expects to pick up extra shifts. “But it’s worth it," he said. "I get paid hourly.”
He has his own system for tearing down a car.
The first order of business is draining any parts with fluids so he doesn't make a mess, he said. From there he removes the radiator and air-conditioning condenser — they're made of aluminum and easily damaged — before taking off whatever parts he can reach with his hands. Wires and hoses are next, followed by the engine and transmission, which he said are the most difficult.
Although the value of a car’s parts varies depending on its make and condition, Boots said automotive recyclers will probably get the most money from the clunkers’ transmissions.
Yancey Auto looks forward to the surplus of parts about to come its way.
“Clunkers gives us a lot of the parts that we wouldn’t have already had,” Dean Yancey said. “We’ve got more of a mix now — new and old.”
While the parts and the scrap metal will boost business in the short run, some salvage dealers worry about the program’s future implications.
“The more used cars they take off the road, the less need for people like us,” Sorrels said.
“They were trying to boost the new car market, which is great,” added Corrie Sorrels, Mitchell's wife and Sorrels Auto bookkeeper. “But in the long run it hurts the used car market, which eventually hurts salvage yards.”