Last month I had occasioned to repair two rather old Toyota trucks. One was a 1987 Land Cruiser requiring a carburetor. This being a rather rare model I was surprised to find I could still buy a new carburetor from Toyota, and though it was expensive, I've seen worse. I also bought a new gas tank for an '86 Toyota truck. Both parts required no special orders and were delivered within 24 hours of the order. This is the mark of a company with boundless confidence in its vehicles and its customers.

I don't know what could be the incremental cost of supporting your vehicles and customers so well, but it must pay off, as Toyota just released a super earnings report. Sadly, this kind of support is rapidly becoming a thing of the past for carmakers and, more and more, we find ourselves turning to the junkyards because of discontinued parts, or parts priced so high as to discourage repairing.

The Cost of Outsourcing

In the rush to cut costs, domestic carmakers have turned to outsourcing much of their parts production. This trend really got going about ten years ago and, thereafter, parts support got increasingly less dependable -- Ford being the worst culprit of all, seeming to discontinue all parts for a car the moment the customer signed the sales agreement.

I think what happens is when a component is outsourced to a supplier in Mexico or Indonesia, the manufacturer orders just enough of those parts for their production run and a few extra for parts supply. When they're gone, they're gone. The supplier has moved on to something else and couldn't afford to reopen a line for a few thousand items anyway. In the short term it does save money, but leaving your customers unsupported is never a good long-term plan.

One Man's Junk

Junkyards are a contradiction in terms. What they sell is anything but junk, and although they are operated out of dilapidated trailers by guys named Dusty and German, they are probably among the best-run, most profitable businesses going. Long before you knew what a PC was, they had computerized and networked their inventories. They seem to have inconceivable cross-reference guides, knowing what parts interchange from one model to another. And although I receive a continuous stream of wrong parts from my new part suppliers, I almost never get a wrong part from a junkyard, and they really try to find what you need.

On a large item I can usually negotiate the price down a bit. My guess is that with airbags and lighter construction, more cars are totaled in accidents now than ever before, even though the occupants are unharmed. This gives the junkyard a steady supply of late-model wrecks to pull parts from. I think they are going to become a bigger and bigger link in our supply chain.

It Doesn't Always Smell Like Roses

There are some downsides. First, no matter how low the mileage of a car the part comes off of, I will not give more than a 90-day warranty on a used part. Interestingly, although I exchange new and rebuilt parts under warranty all day long, I rarely get a comeback on a junkyard part, but when I do it's a doozy -- an engine or transmission.

Second problem, if you are working on an odd model -- say a Mazda MVP van -- and you get a used transmission, the junkyard may not have another one readily available, even though you have a hundred-day warranty. They will find one but it may be several days to a week.

Third, there is the trust issue. I remember once I was promised a transmission for a Saturn with less than 15,000 miles on it. What arrived had a layer of grease an inch thick and was clearly not a low-mileage unit. Somewhere someone either dropped a zero or pulled a switcheroo. They did get me a low-mileage unit, but a lot of time was lost. But this is rare.

Upscale Resale

There are a couple of interesting innovations in "used" or, as they like to say, "recycled" parts. One is used engines and transmissions from Japan. Evidently, in Japan people buy new cars and polish them in their driveways for five to ten years. The traffic is too bad to go anywhere, and anywhere isn't very far away on a small island. And every ten years they buy another one because no car can pass their rigorous inspections, which were put in place by their government to help the auto companies. So a vast number of good engines and transmissions with very low mileage are available and some enterprising people are importing them. A used American engine or transmission for a 1995 model will likely have 80 to 140,000 miles on it, but the Japanese ones have less than 50,000 miles. Of course it has to be a model that was available in the U.S. and Japan , but there are plenty of those. Usually these engines and transmissions have a six-month warranty, and some even have a one-year warranty.

Catalytic converters are being replaced more and more because of more stringent emissions laws, but mostly because, since 1996, the engine control computer monitors the converter and turns the Check Engine light on if it doesn't work. Catalytic converters new can cost anywhere from $500 to $1500 (ouch).

Enter Brown Recycling -- a company that provides refurbished catalytic converters for most vehicles. Their converters sell for half the price of new ones and work so well I had convinced myself somehow they were opening and repacking the catalyst beds. Turns out they weren't. What they actually have is the facilities to test the performance of the used cats that they get. Apparently they select only the best ones, make sure the flanges and threading are good, put a coat of gray paint on them that can't be killed, and off they go. I've used them for five years without a single comeback in that time, and even the gray coat looks good after a couple of years, so I'll keep right on using them.

In the crazy Jac Nasser years at Ford I kept hearing rumors of Ford attempting to buy up large numbers of junkyards. He chased every unprofitable business strategy that came down the pike, so I guess he could have taken the profit out of junkyards too.

People speculated that Ford wanted cradle-to-grave control of their product. I have a different theory. He probably figured that by delivering the new Ford products directly to the junkyard, they'd cut out the costly dealer network and distribution system. He could also avoid dealing with those pain-in-the-neck old guys who actually bought Ford products and complained when they didn't perform right.

Doug Flint owns and operates Tune-Up Technology, a garage in Alexandria, Va.


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