Fun Stuff

Dumpster Diving and YouTube: How to Save Hundreds on Fixing Your Car

For most folks, a green activity might include a nice walk in the woods. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a brisk nature hike, but for me, the ultimate green pursuit involves beating a path to the post-apocalyptic automotive landscape that is Mike’s Auto Parts, where I take a blissful stroll through the acres of wrecked cars. Tools in hand, I’m scavenging parts to keep my beloved 2001 Volkswagen GTI on the road. Forever.

Good for the Environment – and Your Wallet

What’s so green about this? Keeping a car operational for as long as possible (providing it’s not a gross polluter) is an environmentally sound practice. It takes a lot of energy and resources to produce a new car, so amortizing that environmental burden for as long as possible is a good thing. And, of course, reusing old auto parts instead of buying brand-new ones is a highly noble pursuit.

According to Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC), no other product is recycled more than the automobile. More than 80 per cent of a vehicle by weight is reused, remanufactured, or recycled. Additionally, the amount of toxic oils and fluids safely reclaimed by auto recyclers in North America is equivalent to eight Exxon Valdez disasters every year, ARC says.

Want more green? Let’s talk money. One can’t ignore all the cash left in one’s pocket after a bit of dumpster diving and YouTube searching to find out how to replace that mirror, hatch strut, or driver’s-side door latch module.

Granted, one has to have a modicum of mechanical ability and a few tools to tackle some of this stuff, although some tasks are dead easy. Take the GTI’s hatch struts, for instance. One or both are toast when the hatch won’t stay up. A Volkswagen dealer wants $59 plus tax for each. They are $10 at the scrapyard and held in with only a couple of clips. All you need is a screwdriver to pry them off.

There’s Golfs in Them Thar Hills

Recently, my driver’s door refused to stay locked with either the remote or the key. A brief online search found a malfunctioning and massively complex door lock module as the culprit – a not uncommon failure of Golfs of this age. This little box of wonders has a lot going on inside – gears, levers and springs that perform myriad tasks along with a circuit board and a bunch of micro-switches that tie into the car’s electronics. It really is an engineering marvel. The part from Volkswagen is $345 plus tax before installation. Mike’s Auto Parts wants $25.

After studying a YouTube video on how to replace this part, I figured I could pull it off, even with my limited experience tinkering with cars. I gathered all the necessary tools and headed to Mike’s.

On any given day, there could be a couple dozen Mk4 Golfs and Jettas in the Volkswagen row, so the pickings are good. Another given, at least when I visit, is terrible weather. Most of the time, it’s grey, dreary, possibly raining, and always windy up there on the mountain behind Stoney Creek, Ont. Climactic misery adds to this desolate landscape of picked-over automotive carcasses – mostly silent, eyeless husks that sometimes creak as the wind rocks them on their cold, concrete plinths. These End-of-Life Vehicles (ELVs) offer up their bits with sad resignation as we, the lonely parts vultures, pick away at them with our crude tools of the trade. The ground is a cocktail of muck, grease, and discarded car parts. God, I love this place.

I always look for the least-abused-looking VW, and on this visit, I found a nice blue City Golf that had its door card removed, making my job that much easier. There is no guarantee, however, the part you scavenge is in proper working order, so it’s all a bit of a gamble – and all part of the fun, I suppose.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

On a warm afternoon in my driveway I tackled the job, which entailed removing the GTI’s door trim, door card, the inner metal door skin, plus all the mechanical and electronic connections. After all of this, you can remove the two double-square screws that hold the lock module in place and wrestle it out of the door.

Through all this, I’m following a life-saving YouTube video. After about an hour and half, I have the new module in place and everything is almost buttoned up. Then, disaster. While manoeuvring the upper door trim piece over the plastic up/down button, I somehow managed to knock the button in a way that unhooked its metal connecting rod from the lock module. The only way to reconnect was to strip it all back again and remove the module. In other words, start from scratch again.

At this point, I may or may not have spewed a stream of novel and unprintable expletives that had squirrels scurrying for cover. At least the job was easier the second time around, and now I count myself as an expert. And it was well worth the effort. The part worked flawlessly, I saved hundreds of dollars and did my bit for the environment. The sense of accomplishment? Priceless.

Other parts I’ve sourced and installed from Mike’s include the driver’s-side seat belt receptacle, wiper mechanism, and wing mirrors. Plus some bits for my wife’s 2005 Volvo V70, of which there are many in this U-Pull wonderland.

Recycling and Upcycling

Once a vehicle is picked clean, it’s taken from the yard and crushed. Auto recycling provides about 40 per cent of the ferrous metal for the scrap-processing industry across North America, and substituting this low-sulphur scrap metal for high-sulphur raw ore significantly reduces a steel mill’s air pollution. And the pieces we rescue for our own cars? The ARC says recycled parts save an estimated 80 million barrels of oil annually that would be required to produce new replacement parts.

And bonus, my green excursions to Mike’s Auto Parts sometimes turn up the unexpected. Like a coveted three-spoke leather VW steering wheel for my GTI I scored for $50. Or the pristine front seat out of an ’80s Jaguar ($50 again, and with a flip-down veneered picnic table no less) that I made into an uber cool office chair. The last time I was there, the other seat was still in the Jag waiting to be rescued. Just sayin’.