Thousands of clunkers line up to be poisoned and killed

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thousands of clunkers line up to be poisoned and killed

Don Babwin / Associated Press

South Holland, Ill. — They were waiting down at Gibson Chevrolet near Chicago for a couple of five-gallon cans of sodium silicate — liquid glass, they call it — to poison and kill the clunkers when the latest condemned car pulled up.

The 1999 Ford Explorer with 140,000 miles was still sturdy. It had some body damage, including a mangled front bumper, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

Gabrielle Pulce wasn’t thinking about that. She wasn’t sentimental about all the trips taken in the Explorer or about how in a few days the SUV will be squished until it’s about as tall as a toaster.

"I like new stuff," said Pulce, 19, of Chicago.

She is among the thousands of people across the nation who have taken advantage of the government’s "cash-for-clunkers" program. One after another, they’ve pulled up to dealerships in gas guzzlers and pulled out in gas sippers after getting rebates up to $4,500 for a new car — like the more efficient Chevy Equinox SUV bought for Pulce by her mother.

The program has breathed new life into the dealership, which sold more vehicles since the program began than in all of June. But for jalopies like the Explorer, it’s the end of the line.

Out back at Gibson Chevrolet south of Chicago there’s a growing conga line of clunkers — 17 in all this week.

All of them made it here under their own power — a requirement of the program is that they all be drivable. But if this were a hospital, their conditions would range from good to critical.

Among those in better shape is a maroon 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, with matching maroon velour seats. It is the kind of land whale that once dominated the roadways. It is also a reminder that while $4,500 off on a new car is enticing, it also means losing an old friend.

"I cry before I came out here, I cry," said Clorinda Tomasi, who just before her 83rd birthday traded the Caprice for a new Malibu. "I been thinking of this since a few years ago, but I always got cold feet."

One vehicle in Gibson’s waiting line is beyond a clunker: a 1987 Ford Econoline van. Road salt has left its lower edges looking like a voracious animal chewed on them. The driver’s door stays closed only with help from a latch like those used to lock garden sheds. And it’s unclear what would fall off if not for the yards of duct tape along the windshield and throughout the interior.

"He said his wife was celebrating already," said Dave Gibson, one of the dealership’s owners, clearly impressed with the efforts to keep the van alive.

All the clunkers face the same fate.

"We’ll drain the engine of oil and pour in two quarts of the sodium silicate and run the engine until it seizes," said Gibson, whose grandfather opened the dealership more than 50 years ago.

Then it’s off to one of two nearby wrecking yards owned by Vito Mistretta.

But Mistretta isn’t quite ready for the new batch of cars. The program has triggered an avalanche of work.

Tow truck drivers have been picking up vehicles at dealerships all over the Chicago area and dropping them off at his scrap yards in Gary, Ind., and Calumet City as fast as they can hook them up.

Once there, a forklift picks up each vehicle and impales the gas tank on a spike, causing the gasoline to spill into a large bowl below.

The vehicle is then put into what looks a like a bathtub where the forklifts stab at the engine, plucking out the radiator and other parts, which are later recycled or turned into scrap.

Finally, the car reaches its final destination: the mouth of the crusher.

The vehicle is placed inside what looks like a motorhome as a massive slab of steel descends. What happens next sounds like a slow-motion car crash: Glass shatters. Metal bends and snaps. Tires pop, letting out a whoosh of air.

The crusher "flattens a car into 8 inches to a foot," Mistretta said.

After three or four cars are flattened, the fork lift picks them up and stacks them in another part of the yard, where they will be loaded into trucks and taken to a facility to be shredded.

Mistretta said workers are pulling off a few things like headlights and hoods to be sold later, but, "There’s so many, there’s no time to really do that."

"We’re keeping everybody here until 8, 9 at night," he said. His two machines at each of his yards crush a total of about 100 vehicles a day.

The clunker crushing isn’t going to let up anytime soon.

"We’ve got about 700, 800 cars out there," he said of the cars still parked at Gibson and other dealerships.

One car the yard may not get is another Caprice Classic that Gibson’s Chevrolet took in.

This one is a 1988 model with just 37,000 miles and not so much as a dent or a torn seat or any sign of wear in the plush tan carpeting.

"The older employees, they lost sleep at night thinking this car is going to get cubed," Gibson said.

So, while they push through documents on the other vehicles, this one sits among the used cars, an American flag on the antenna, the word "Clean" on the windshield.

No cash-for-clunkers paperwork has been submitted on it. The hope is that somebody will pay something close to the $4,500 the dealership gave the owner toward a new car so it can be sold simply as a trade-in.

As of Thursday, they had no offers. But employees did spot people outside taking pictures of the car.

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