After every last bit of fun and charisma has been squeezed out of your car it will go on to live another life. Maybe it will be lovingly picked to the bone in a scrap yard. Maybe it'll be thrown whole into the gnashing jaws of an industrial shredder. A car has value until the very last day of its existence. That's by design.
When I get good and frustrated with a car I like to imagine its worth in pieces. I imagine my rolling cocoon of irritant parts to have attached dollar signs, as if defining and ascribing value allows me to rule my car again. My numbers are cheeky and unscientific. They're mostly based on mood, complexity, and metal density. As it turns out, they're mostly right.
If assigning value gives you domain over cars, Lenny Longo is a king. Longo presides over Harry's U-Pull-It Auto Parts. The massive self-service operation in Pennsylvania claims to be the largest salvage yard in the world. Whole engines, transmissions, rear ends, that's the expensive stuff, Longo tells me. Complex and heavy car parts sell for $100-200 at Harry's, and once the big expensive stuff is sold off the value of a scrapped car decreases dramatically.
Convertible tops go for $100. Whole doors sell in the $40's. Airbags, once a target of thieves, are now so ubiquitous that they sell for $38. Instrument clusters go for a little over $20. Weather stripping sells at a dollar a foot. I find that, if anything, my valuation of the parts that rankle me is a little higher than Longo's is for the parts that put food on his table.
The breakdown continues with few surprises. I figured on a hot market for second-hand catalytic converters, but selling them is illegal in Pennsylvania. As hybrid cars start to show up on salvage lots a new big-ticket item has shown up with them. Massive first-gen battery packs sell for $300-500. "They're huge, the size of a back seat." Longo tells me.
"A car is one of the most recyclable consumer products." Says John Cangany, Sustainability Communications Manager for Ford. As such, reuse is only part of the equation. Steel and aluminum bodies are easily recycled, and always have been. Plastics and fabrics for seats and carpeting are increasingly recyclable and are often born from recycled materials. The latest F-150, for instance, has seats made of recycled plastic bottles and insulation made of recycled cotton.
"Our sustainability program looks at the vehicle lifecycle from cradle to grave. We'd like the vehicle to be infinitely recyclable." Says Cangany. That same F-150 might be as much as 85-90 percent recyclable. If all those can drives of our youth taught us anything, it's that recyclables are worth money.
That's the last step. The final assignable dollar sign before a car no longer has value because it has ceased to be a car. For the average steel car, a recycler like SA Recycling in California would offer $120 per gross ton. Exotic stuff goes for more. While they're not yet routinely dumped into the shredder, the aforementioned aluminum F-150 would net a ton of bucks at a recycler. The 5000 and 6000-series alloy used in the new truck sells for between 80 and 90 cents per pound. Even aluminum wheels bring in solid prices of around $/lb. Winding up on the scrap heap isn't such an ignominious end after all.