We're all trying to save cash at the moment, but there comes a time when even the most faithful hooptie reaches the end of the road because of rust, damage, or just age and wear. All it takes is one big-ticket item – a clutch or a head gasket – to make spending the money pointless. Why splash $1200 on something that's worth $1000?
But there's no need to cut your losses and abandon it behind the Walmart. Some of its component parts may be worth a whole lot more than you think.
Of course, how much your car is worth depends on what ended its useful life in the first place. If it was the engine that gave up the ghost then you can cross this off your list of potentially profitable spare parts. And if it ended up in a ditch you’re not going to get much for the body panels. But most dead cars will have salvageable components, and someone else will be only too happy to buy them to help keep their own vehicle roadworthy for a little longer.
There’s a booming trade in used car parts on auction sites, from individuals, right through to industrial-scale salvage yards with high-tech warehousing and ecommerce-enabled websites. So we did a little research into the used part prices for a typical family car – a 15-year-old Ford Focus which Kelly Blue Book estimates would be about $1500 in good running condition – and found that the near-worthless (you thought!) hulk on your driveway could be worth as much as $1,400 in parts.
Under the hood
If the engine fails in an older car it usually means the end of the road because a new or professionally rebuilt motor will cost much more than the car is worth. That’s why there’s a ready market for a used-but-working engine, which could fetch as much as $350, with another $100 for a working transmission. So you may just want to pull out your Haynes Manual, find a used motor or transmission, and put your own car back on the road, if that's all it needs.
A strut, a-arm and steering knuckle off the front end could be worth another $75, while a used steering rack will typically sell for around $50. A new alternator on a modern car could cost you $150 or more, which is why people will happily pay $35 for a used but known working part, power steering pumps and A/C compressors (have a professional shop evacuate the freon first) are about the same, while a good condition second-hand radiator could fetch another $25.
So if your dead car is still a runner but consigned to the scrapheap through accident damage or rust through, there may still be plenty of value lurking under the hood.
Bits of bodywork
But not all old cars are good, mechanically. Imagine the engine in your Focus has thrown a ’rod, dropped a valve or let go in some other equally spectacular fashion, but the body is immaculate and rust-free. Let’s assume there’s nothing under the hood except a melted mass of metal and radiator hose. Now’s the time to turn your attention to the body panels.
For example, the hood, trunk lid, rear hatch, and front fenders could be worth more than $100 each if they’re in good condition. Your Focus has still got doors, right? Good, because those could go for as much as $75 each if complete and working and cosmetically sound, not even including the inner parts and window regulator mechanism or glass.
Alloy wheels with good tires with significant remaining tread depth, no matter the age, could sell for $50 each. Unbroken, working door mirrors can each make you $35 in spending cash – maybe more if they have motors/heaters. And don't forget those windows! While not easy to remove, they can easily make you another $25-50 each.
Inside the car
Maybe you aren't so lucky. Maybe it was the engine seizing up that spun you off the road and into the ditch. Even now, though, your car may still have some residual value in parts, so while you’re dangling upside down from the seat belts and waiting for the recovery truck, take a look around the car interior.
You take the seats for granted, right? But a set of seats alone could be worth $150 if the upholstery is good and they still have plenty of support. If you took care of the interior, you should have no problem selling the fitted carpets for $50 or more. The inner door panels are easily worth that much apiece as well, not to mention little things like switches and armrests.
There’s also cash staring you right in the face, in the form of a complete instrument panel, which could sell for $100. And if the airbags didn't deploy and are legal to sell in your state, they might as well be made of gold considering how much new units go for, so figure $100 each there too. Take care removing these, though, if you're doing it yourself.
And if you finally give up on the tow truck and head off home with nothing but your car’s steering wheel clutched in your hands, well there’s still $35 right there.
Don’t become a DIY scrapyard
Now, we’re not really suggesting you turn your front driveway into a small-scale scrapyard (we imagine your neighbors might have something to say about that), but you might be able to sell of a few major components before saying goodbye for good. It’s true that a junk yard might only offer you a tiny proportion of your car’s potential parts value, but unless you want to invest in a yard, a crane, tools and the time and labor to part it out, you’re better off leaving it to the experts.
But there are two things we can learn from this accounting.
First, it’s interesting to learn just how much your car’s parts are worth, even when the actual car's useful life as a vehicle is over – and how little actually goes to waste in an industry which most folk think is about as un-green as you can get. Because of the complex methods used to manufacture auto parts in the first place, cars have been one of the most recycled objects almost since the beginning. Why pay the labor and materials cost of manufacturing a new part when you can get the same part for little more than the value of the raw materials?
And second, is that if your car does suddenly present you with what looks like an uneconomical repair, you shouldn’t give up until you’ve checked the Internet for available cheap-but-working parts to get it back on the road. Play your cards right with a popular model or the correct vintage and you may never have to buy new parts again.