Where old clunkers go to die

BY ERIN PETTIT | AUGUST 24, 2009 7:05 AM

An old, gold mini-van sits at Ace Auto Recyclers in Iowa City, its various missing pieces having been harvested and sold as replacement parts.

This van is not alone.

It’s a “clunker,” or an outdated vehicle traded in through the government-sponsored Cash for Clunkers program, like those sitting next to it in a special row at the large salvage yard.

But for these clunkers, the program is a death sentence.

“That’s a pretty good word for it,” said Joel McCaw, manager of Ace Auto Recyclers, 2752 S. Riverside Dr.

Officially called the Car Allowance Rebate System, the billion-dollar program is intended to swap in more fuel-efficient cars.

The old vehicles’ hearts — their engines — must first be disabled by the dealer. The procedure begins by draining the oil, pouring in a federally issued water-sand compound, and then running the motor until it dies.

The lifeless vehicles, their engines immobilized, are then sold to salvage yards, where they’re picked over for parts.

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“They have control of the cars after that,” said Derrius Loveless, senior sales associate at Toyota Scion of Iowa City, 1445 Highway 1 W. a dealership that traded dozens of cars under the program since its start.

Many dealerships have arranged agreements with salvage yards, which then become responsible for deciding whether to sell the doomed vehicle parts or simply crush them, said McCaw, who expects to receive over 100 automobiles from the program.

After the cars are mangled and condensed by heavy machinery, they are sent to a another system which shreds them and separates the metal from the other materials.

Exiting the shredder, the gas-guzzling clunkers bear little resemblance to the brand- new beauties they were years ago — instead, they emerge as shredded metal and upholstery. The remnants are melted down and recycled at a steel mil, McCaw said.

While cars harvested for parts can escape the crusher for some time, all vehicles are required to be destroyed within 180 days from receipt.

Though the transactions are handled like most normal trade-ins, none of the vehicles are allowed to be resold.

As of Aug. 20, more than 457,000 automobiles — worth a total of $1.9 billion in rebates — had been traded in, according to a government release for the program. Cash for Clunkers will come to a close at 8 p.m. today, several months before it was set to end.

According to the government program’s website, around 10 local dealerships have participated in the national trade-in, which proved so popular that Congress approved an extra $2 billion in funding after the initial $1 billion was used up.

McCaw said the process of crushing vehicles has been part of his daily job for years and doesn’t bother him. But sometimes he’s uneasy watching the clunkers be destroyed.

“I talked to someone just the other day who has a son going to college. He said he’d like to get ahold of one of them for his boy,” McCaw said. “It’s pretty sad because there are some very good vehicles.”

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