Safety Council


Remember When


If you remember stripping brass ring gear and pinions, aluminum crankcases, scrapping Pierce Arrows, Marmons and Chandlers, this story is about you. With a new generation taking over, we're going to take a little time to reminisce about the early times and tell them how it really was.

Our industry is growing into a sophisticated and complex business. With all the new tools and handling methods, we are truly a modern industry. But, it wasn't always that way. It all started from very humble beginnings. The business as we know it today, came into being around World War I. Scrap was needed for the war effort and the parts for the cars of the era were not available. Thus, necessity was the mother of invention and a new industry was born.

Many of the yards were started on small plots, on or near the owner's residence in the metropolitan areas. Only a few cars were handled as a sideline until it was discovered that a living could be made through this type of operation. Soon it was found that the more cars that could be handled the more profit could be made. The big rush for expansion developed and lasted into the late thirties in the metropolitan areas. Most of the parts business was centered in the larger cities until the hot lines came into use in the early sixties.

In the beginning, the dismantling of the cars was completely done by hand, with hammers, chisels and wrenches. The cutting torch did not appear until the early thirties. Many cars had aluminum bodies that appeared until the late thirties. It was a difficult job chiseling the aluminum away from the wood frame that supported all the early model auto bodies.

Snapshot of Nate's Auto Parts first tow truck. Nate's is the oldest continuous dealer in the state.

Picture courtesy of Morris Mesonznick.

Steel was loaded by hand into wheelbarrows, moving it to trucks or rolling it up narrow ramps to be dumped into the railroad gondolas. Motors were slid up steel skids by two men, dumping them into the trucks or railroad cars. I get tired just hearing about it.

The early autos, unlike today, had many valuable metals in their structures. Brass ring gears and pinions, aluminum crankcases and pistons, connecting rod babbit were common. These were all removed and separated for shipment to the scrap processors. In many cases it was a family operation. Can you imagine having a babbit-cleaning project with your family? Steel car bodies didn't present too much of a problem because they were burned before shipping them off, but they were still loaded by hand.

In those early years and even into depression times, sales of $25.00 a day were reason to celebrate. Two and three dollars a ton for scrap steel was a strong market. Prices for metals were always good and worth a while of "digging" them out.

Bringing in the late ones!

This photo courtesy of Len Aizman.

Tow trucks didn't appear until the early thirties and usually consisted of a converted auto. Boom trucks followed some time later, but were not prevalent until the late forties. Hauling cars in before the tow truck is a story of its own.

If you've ever driven a pre-hydraulic brake car, I'm sure you will agree the brakes weren't the best. In fact if the car had any stopping power at all, it was considered to have good brakes, even if all the brakes were on one wheel. These cars were towed, one by the other, with a rope or a chain. When the word got out that there were cars to be hauled in, the kids in the neighborhood would volunteer their services just for the driving experience. Usually, on care would tow and the driver in the rear on would just steer. One wrecker tells the story of when they hauled a column of five cars from Lake Street, through the Lyndale bottleneck, to their yard on the North Side. It must have been a harrowing experience because the only car that had any brakes was the lead one. I can imagine all the banging and clanging that bunch must have made.

Winter in the northern climate was another story. If you wanted to get to work on time, you had to get up an hour earlier, take hot coals out of the stove and put them under the oil pan to heat the oil enough so the engine would turn over. This was the original pre-heater of which the tank heater is the successor. Most people put their cars on blocks (so the tires wouldn't develop flat spots from setting) until spring. This slowed the business considerably, so cleaning of copper in the generators and starters was a primary project.

World War II presented different problems for the Industry. The Defense Department and the Office of Price Administration (OPA) were the Agencies that were the controlling factors of our group. Although new replacement parts for autos were not available, the Auto Wrecker was the only one that could keep the home front wheels rolling. But, the Defense Department had other ideas. They placed all the emphasis on obtaining scrap. They would walk into a mans yard and demand that he turn all his merchandise into scrap or face penalties. This would have put him out of business, because he could not replace his merchandise.

This would have been the case, except a group of Wreckers got together and formed the National Auto Wreckers Association (NAWA now NATWA). This group went to Washington to plead our cause before the controlling Agencies. As an outcome, the Federal Government agreed we had a larger role in the defense of the Nation than they had ever suspected. They declared us an essential industry and worked fairly with us. For its war effort, the industry received an E for excellence for its cooperation.

With all the hardships, pressures and road blocks, we seemed to have survived stronger than ever. Depressions, wars, disasters, Lady Bird are experiences to be remembered and should be learned from. Possibly in years to come, some one will write about our industry as it is now, but then we will all be ancient history.