- Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past by David N. Lucsko
Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson wrote in 2012 about “makers,” ordinary people who are using their hands, minds, and tools to create or modify consumer products, some of which are now rendered by computer-controlled machine tools and 3D “printers.” Elsewhere, hackers have figured out how to peer into proprietary software to make their cell phones and computers do things their manufacturers never intended. Increasingly, also, there are among us re-purposers, and “up-cyclers” who create new things from old. Then there are those who want to repair technologies that were designed not to be easily repaired, but disposed of when they break. They raise their fists to demand the right to fix their own gadgets (https://www.ifixit.com/Manifesto).
Countering the idea that all this “making,” hacking, and doing-it-your-self is a new phenomenon, Auburn University historian David Lucsko writes about a segment of American business and a subculture of consumers whose interests center on used car parts and their re-use. The industry is surprisingly large and complex, and its customers—“gearheads”—are deeply embedded in a particularly interesting form of consumption. He tells their story as a century-long rummage through the stocks of automobile junkyards in search of the parts needed to keep older model cars running or to modify them. These enthusiasts do so not only for rational economic reasons such as the cost savings realized through buying used parts, but also because of their commitment to the role of junkyards in the preservation and creation of material culture. Their patronage enables multiple outcomes, from simply keeping old cars running to the restoration of “classics,” and the creative destruction of transplanting parts between different models for the purpose of customization and individualization.
Part of this book is a profile of an industry in the United States that spans the course of the twentieth century, with attention to the effects of legislation that was intended either to enhance or restrain the market. The used auto parts business in America emerged almost as early as the mass-produced automobile in the early 1900s. Throughout the twentieth century, selling used parts was a profitable, usually local enterprise that contended with the related industry of metal recycling, with the two sometimes competing for access to the same “raw materials” in the form of used cars (both aging models and wrecks).
But even in this era of “makers,” the industry seems to be in decline. Ordinances aimed at preserving neighborhood aesthetics have reduced the viability of the long-term, open storage of junk cars, and the increasing reliability of new automobiles has undermined the demand for parts. [End Page 285] Compared to other consumer products, around which have grown vibrant secondhand markets at various times and places (e.g. audio and video recordings, computers, and clothing), the history of used parts sales is distinctive, especially in terms of the legal and regulatory environment.
Other parts of the book map this business and regulatory history against the birth, development, and eventual fragmentation of the culture surrounding the search for and re-use of used parts. For example, during the national scrap drives of World War II, it was more likely for a discarded auto to go directly to the metal “shredder” without passing through the junkyard, where usable parts would have been stripped off and sold. Enthusiasts were outraged. But sometimes, often in out-of-the-way places, cars remained in the junkyards for years or decades. There, in numbers that grew smaller every year, they often became the focus of enthusiasts’ treasure hunts, either to obtain rare parts or simply to admire and adore the hulks. The junkyard became something of a museum or a place for inspiration, in addition to its more pedestrian commercial identity.
Lucsko makes good use of relevant secondary literature ranging from the older works on automotive history by John B. Rae and David Flink to more recent studies of auto mechanics...