How Could Anyone Scrap a Classic Car?
Do you sometimes have a thought that you just can't get out of your mind? Sort of like a song that keeps playing over and over? For me, one such thought occurred when I first became interested in vintage cars more than 50 years ago--"How could anyone scrap a great Classic car?"
Specifically, I was thinking about how a person could consciously scrap a car that, regardless of its age, was clearly a beautifully designed and constructed automobile. Did that person take a last look at that marvelous automobile and wonder about the original owner? Did he get inside, sit in the back seat and look at the handsome woodwork, beautiful upholstery and hardware and have second thoughts about destroying this automobile?
After all of these years, I still find myself dazzled by photos of interiors of the closed automobiles of the Classic era. Occasional liberties were taken with sales literature when it came to portraying these interiors, but the actual photos tell the story. Many were simply spectacular.
Over the years, I've heard some interesting stories from fellow vintage car enthusiasts about the old automobile wrecking yards. Many of the stories were secondhand, but I have no reason to doubt them. One fellow told me about a contest that a certain wrecking yard's workers used to have, to see who could crack a big aluminum crankcase with a single blow from a sledgehammer.
Many of these early Classics were a scrap metal dealer's dream come true. In addition to their aluminum bodies, many of the cars contained plenty of other desirable metals. For instance, the crankcase, carburetor and water pump in my 1923 Locomobile were made of manganese bronze. Bronze! There was also plenty of copper and aluminum in the car's engine and, of course, the body was aluminum.
Interestingly, there seemed to be certain items that were always saved from an old car before it made that last trip to the wrecking yard. I believe that there are far more owner's manuals surviving today than there are vintage cars! A choice salvage item for owners and wrecking yard operators alike were the radiator mascots--hood ornaments--particularly from the 1920s and '30s. Car owners and salvage operators also liked car vanities, clocks and similar interior items.
Years ago, at the Fall Hershey swap meet, a longtime Locomobile owner was telling me how he'd bought his mid-Twenties Locomobile in the late 1940s. Amazingly, the car had survived the World War II scrap drives, but wound up parked in a wrecking yard awaiting its fate. The collector had visited the yard seeking parts for a Brass Era car he was restoring (remember, this was in the late 1940s; those cars were still to be found in wrecking yards). He spotted the Locomobile and asked the wrecking yard owner if the car ran and what he was going to do with it. As he was finishing his question, he noticed a cutting torch nearby.
The wrecking yard owner replied that the Locomobile had been driven into the yard and that he was about to cut it up for scrap value, which he estimated to be $500. "If I give you $500, will you sell it to me?" asked the collector. The yard owner turned off the torch and told him to have the money there before closing. Dashing home, the collector grabbed the money, and the car survives today.
I once had a memorable photo of a beautiful Duesenberg sitting on weigh scales, minus its tires, about to be scrapped. I don't know where that photo is anymore, and I really don't care; I don't want to look at it again. I'm sure Hemmings Classic Car readers could tell plenty of stories about other Classic cars that were similarly scrapped.
There was a wrecking yard in my hometown of Richmond, Michigan, and I can remember the sight--and smell--of the car bodies being burned by the wrecking yard owner. That's how I learned that early automobile bodies were built with wood.
There's no question that dozens of the cars scrapped during the 1920s, '30s and '40s could have been easily restored today. Looking at vintage photos of cars resting in wrecking yards, it's obvious that some needed nothing more than a new set of tires.
The scrap drives that happened during the wars weren't the only culprits; the American automobile industry did its part to scrap the older cars, too. The logic was simple: Cars that didn't exist couldn't be sold. Scrapping eliminated a glut of used cars--and by the late 1920s, there was indeed a glut.
But how could someone scrap a luxurious Lincoln or Packard, particularly one that was custom-built for its owners? Actually, some of these cars did survive the wrecking era. They were very special to their owners and were often stored in a garage when a replacement was purchased. Some of those cars are still with us today. In some cases, the car was given to the family chauffeur, who cared for it for as long as he was alive. A few of those cars are with us, as well.
Unfortunately, most of the big Classics were traded in on their replacement and became "used cars," which commanded very little money in the 1930s. The reason: Luxury cars are expensive to operate and maintain. Too often, the second or third owner neglected maintenance on his Classic car, something eventually broke and it was parked. Some were purchased by teenagers and college students, who treated the cars to a different death.
Just about all of the vintage and Classic cars that survived the World War II scrap drives are with us today in some form or another--some are unrestored originals, some have been restored and others are parts cars. In recent years, I've seen restorations performed on Classics in such rough condition it would shock an old-time wrecking yard owner. But that's what happens as the supply of great Classics continues to dwindle.