Why Crushing Old Cars Is Like "Making" Money


  • 1968 Ford Mustang

    1968 Ford Mustang

    Ford sold millions of Mustangs before 1970, but each time one is crushed, they become a little harder, and more expensive, to restore. | July 01, 2010

2 Photos

If the government tried to solve the budget crisis by simply printing more money, would you support that move?

I suspect that some of you might actually like the idea, because the reasoning seems rational enough...at first. But anyone with an understanding of economics would see that this simple-minded approach is destined for disaster. Without getting mired in a discussion of macroeconomics, suffice it to say that the government's printing extra money to deal with its spending problems would only serve to devalue the U.S. dollar, causing massive inflation and, ultimately, far more harm than good. In fact, this same action was tried by the Confederacy during the Civil War in an attempt to raise money in the fight against those damn Yankees. It succeeded only in making Confederate dollars worth less than the paper they were printed on.

Fast-forward 120 years, and we find various state governments using this same philosophy to solve our air pollution problems. While bad air is a result of several factors, including industrial activity, vehicle exhaust and even geography, state legislatures, like those in California, Maine and Texas, are considering bills that promote the destruction of older vehicles. The thinking goes something like this: Older vehicles had little, if any, emission controls because they had minimal, if any, emissions standards to meet. If you destroy these vehicles, logic suggests that vehicle emissions would decrease. Like the Confederacy's printing extra money to finance the war, the logic seems sound...at first.

But dig a little deeper, and you see that this program not only doesn't reduce air pollution, but very likely raises it. How is that possible? Well, to understand this conundrum, you have to examine the forces at work behind such legislation. In this case (as is often the case), it is the automakers themselves that are pushing California's A.B. 1390 in an attempt to get around the state's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) laws. These laws require automakers to sell thousands of ZEVs in California by 2003. For those who don't know, vehicle emissions count for approximately one-third of all air pollution and at least 50 percent of the pollution that causes smog in the Golden State.

As you might have guessed, it's going to take a lot of R&D money to come up with ZEVs by 2003. What's worse (in the automakers' eyes) is that such vehicles don't hold the promise of massive profit. I mean, sure, the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are clean and all that, but those cars don't have nearly the profit margin of a Lexus LX 470 or Acura MDX. In fact, Honda has basically admitted that it's losing money on every Insight sold. And GM's EV1 wasn't exactly a cash cow, at least not compared to the Suburban and Tahoe.

So you have the government on one side telling automakers to clean up their act, and you have in-house accountants on the other side screaming "Dammit! The economy is slowing down and you want us to pour money into producing low-profit, clean vehicles!" So the automakers hire a few lobbyists, who then meet with a few legislators, and bam! A new proposal to give ZEV credits to carmakers for every old car they obliterate. Essentially the bill says, "If you guys crush enough smelly old cars, you don't have to produce any ultra-clean new cars."

Once again, the thinking seems rational, right? I mean, if car makers can help nuke those gas-guzzling, air-polluting automotive dinosaurs, then maybe they should get a break on their own ZEV requirements, right? Get ready, because I'm about to tell you why this program's value is worth less than those old dollar bills sporting Jefferson Davis' portrait.

Issue #1: First, ask yourself how many pre-1970 automobiles you see driving around everyday. Then ask yourself how many pre-1970 automobiles you are even aware of. My point? Pre-1970 automobiles make up a small fraction of the cars that exist on the planet today. Additionally, they make up a teensy-tiny fraction of the vehicles that actually produce emissions on a regular basis.

How do I know this? Because I've grown up owning and "driving" old cars, and I can tell you from experience that even when I owned two Plymouth GTXs (a 1969 and a 1970) while in high school, I didn't use either for commuting to school or work. Instead, I drove a 1976 Plymouth Arrow. Why? Because it had a four-cylinder engine and got much better fuel mileage (remember, I had two GTXs to support). My "hot rods" only came out on the weekends, if at all. In recent years, I've driven my 1970 GTX even less frequently. In fact, I stuck the old bomb in the back of my garage last Labor Day Weekend and didn't dig it out (or even start it up) until mid June. This means that someone driving a Honda Insight regularly between September 2000 and mid June 2001 did more harm to our environment than my 1970 GTX did. I know plenty of fellow auto enthusiasts who treat their pre-1970 cars in a similar fashion, while I know hardly any who actually drive them on a regular basis.

Issue #2: Even "pre-1970" cars aren't automatically gross polluters. The truth is that since the majority of these cars are only being kept around because of their collector value, people who own them are either in the process of restoring them or have finished restoring them. If they are in the process of restoring them, they aren't being driven (see Issue #1 above), and if they are restored, then their fuel systems are restored, too, meaning they likely run quite clean. (I remember when my older brother had his 1969 Olds 442 smogged in Denver, and the guys running the equipment said it would have passed 1985 standards.) And, again, even if they're restored, they likely aren't being driven much, if at all (see Issue #1, again).

Think about it. You have vehicle emissions making up one-third of our air pollution. Within that one-third, you have busses and diesel trucks. You also have taxicabs and airport shuttle vans and other vehicles that run constantly for eight or more hours a day. Then you have all those privately owned (or leased) cars that range from 1970 to 2001 (along with some early-release 2002s already on the road). And then, somewhere in there, you have pre-1970 cars that are still in existence and that are actually driven...occasionally.

We've all heard about that drop in the bucket. Think of the pollution generated by pre-1970 automobiles as one of the oxygen atoms that is attached to two hydrogen atoms to make up a water molecule that exists somewhere in that drop that has just fallen into the bucket. They just don't matter! In fact, I'd be willing to bet the title of my GTX (had it since I was a junior in high school; lots of sentimental value in addition to its collectible value) that if someone (like Al Gore) could snap his fingers and make every pre-1970 automobile disappear tomorrow, the drop in total air pollution would be too small to measure by any means currently available.

Issue #3: It's funny how you can say "recycle" and everyone assumes it's good for the planet. Let me tell you something — if you want to see a truly wasteful use of resources, take the time and energy needed to crush a running vehicle. Then haul what's left to a new location. Then dig through what's left to locate the reusable stuff. Then go through the trouble of forming it into a new vehicle. Talk about a waste! You could turn 500 1965 Chevy trucks into 1,000 brand-new Chevy Cavaliers, and you'd never get back the resources lost in the process.

OK, so the crushing cars program doesn't help reduce air pollution or even constitute an efficient use of materials. That's bad. But because it gives automakers "credits" toward their pollution output, effectively allowing them to continue selling those high-profit trucks and SUVs, the program actually encourages air pollution.

See, if A.B. 1390 passes, it will offer $2,500 toward the purchase of a new car for every vehicle that drives into a salvage yard under its own power and is offered up to the gods of scrap metal. Does this mean a bunch of daily-driven pre-1970 cars come rushing into the salvage yard and are subsequently turned into nails or horseshoes or some other non-offensive metal product? No, because anyone who has to drive a pre-1970 car on a daily basis probably can't afford anything better. Do you really think that a $2,500 credit is going to make that person run out and buy a brand-new Toyota Prius? How are they going to pay the other $17,500?

Instead, people who need their pre-1970 car for daily transportation (all 17 of them) keep driving their cars, and people who have pre-1970 cars sitting around (the important word here is "sitting," as in "not driving and not contributing to air pollution") go through the trouble of driving their cars to a salvage yard and having them crushed so they can get $2,500 off the price of a new vehicle (like maybe an Excursion or Hummer). And if one of those crushed cars is a Satellite or Charger or Coronet or any other midsize Chrysler produced between 1966 and 1969, then a whole bunch of parts that might have helped me in the restoration of my 1970 GTX (the one that gets driven about 200 miles a year) get obliterated in the process, making my job tougher.

And you thought this was a completely self-less Carmudgeon?

The truth is that these car-crushing programs make it harder for enthusiasts, like me, to restore our cars. But the other truth is that they don't cut air pollution. In fact, they have the opposite effect. If you'd like to help fight this bill, please visit this page at the SEMA Web site to find out what you can do.

Now, where did I put my Confederate dollar bills? Oh well, I'll just go make some more.

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