- - Sunday, June 26, 2016


By David N. Lucsko

Johns Hopkins University Press, $44.95, 263 pages

This unexpectedly interesting book is all about cars — after they die and go to automotive purgatory to await the crusher. The author, an assistant professor of History at Auburn, who confesses to a lifelong passion for both cars and junkyards, is a man who never met a junkyard he didn’t like. Bias aside, he covers a lot of new and interesting ground in describing America’s car culture, both its history and its technology.

In a recent interview, he called this book “a story of creative reuse and adaptation: of customizers using metal from wrecked cars in their endeavors, of hot rodders using engines pulled from wrecks in their projects, of restoration enthusiasts searching for elusive ‘holy grail’ parts for their project, and so forth”

The author does a good job of surveying the historical arc of how we have dealt with the problem of useless cars. In the first decades of the 20th century, he notes, cars only lasted for two or three years. After every working part had been salvaged, they were taken off the road and repurposed (often as stationary power plants in shops and on farms). But eventually, thanks to Henry Ford et al, there were simply too many worn out and wrecked cars dotting the landscape.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, both Chevrolet and Ford had their own salvage and scrappage operations, but once the price of scrap metal dropped during the Depression, they shut them down, and the inventories of salvage and junkyards soon reached pre-war levels. And when, in “The Best Years of Our Lives” decade, Americans began buying new cars every several years, yards became packed with car carcasses.

In the beginning, junkyards were located on the edges of towns, but as gentrifying developers brought the suburbs to the country and new home buyers looked out their windows and saw acres of decaying metal hulks, they cried foul. Clearly, they didn’t appreciate what the author describes, in a chapter titled “Not in My Neighbor’s Backyard Either” as “the sublime yet forlorn aesthetics of rows and rows of rusting relics in open salvage yards,” and they appealed to their elected officials.

Mr. Lucsko provides an excellent overview of the attempts, often ham-handed, of governmental bodies to solve the problem of old and unsightly cars — called “ruins porn” by some — by passing punitive legislation in the name of environmental protection. The legislation they produced was met with grateful approval from most citizens who lived near junkyards, but with fierce opposition on the part of gearheads (car enthusiasts who modify their vehicles for added performance), collectors, and the owners of junk and salvage yards.

Similarly, some governmental bodies took their opposition to very great lengths. In Fairfax County, Virginia, in a case championed by this newspaper editorially, Eugene Mixon owned half a dozen old cars, all of which ran and all of which were properly registered and licensed, and no one objected. But when some new neighbors complained, the county sent an official to investigate. An aggrieved Mr. Mixon would not allow access to his property, so the government rented a helicopter, did a flyover inspection, and ruled that Mr. Mixon was operating an “illegal junkyard.” He was forced to clean up his property.

As the author notes, “‘The Washington Times’ came to the Mixons’ defense in an editorial denouncing the waste of taxpayer dollars represented by the flyover itself as well as the trumped-up charges.’”

Mr. Lucsko writes engagingly, though he does have excessive fondness for certain terms. In describing what gearheads do in assembling their beloved cars, he leans heavily on the word “bricolage,” which means “a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things”. (Yes, I had to look it up.) And he describes one of his academic sources as a “social anthropologist and rubbish theorist.”.

Mr. Lucsko does a particularly good job of describing the various attempts on the part of big business and big government to get old cars off the road, including Union Oil Company of California’s program to scrap and crush what it considered (wrongly, according to the author) “gross polluters” rather than clean up its own smokestack emissions. He also writes about the current administration’s 2009 Cash for Clunkers program.Asked by an interviewer what he hoped would be “the lasting impact” of his book, the author replied, “If it leads even a few people to think again when they see a car on the road with faded paint, or to think again when they pass a junkyard, or think again when they see a nicely restored car in a parade — if it leads even a few to a deeper understanding of how these are interrelated, or to a deeper understanding of the longstanding culture of creative reuse, repurposing, and — dare I say it? — recycling that is involved, I will be happy.”

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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