Home » I Went To A California Junkyard After Spending A Decade Fixing Cars In Michigan. Here’s Why It Blew My Mind

I Went To A California Junkyard After Spending A Decade Fixing Cars In Michigan. Here’s Why It Blew My Mind

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“Son of a! I left my Sawzall at the house!” I exclaimed on Sunday as I drove to the local junkyard just a few hours before a Super Bowl party I’d been invited to. I was on my way to yank a 200-pound front axle assembly from a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and I was now debating turning around. “There’s no chance in hell I’m getting that axle out from under that Jeep in just a few hours. Definitely not all by myself,” I thought. But I was already halfway there, and a Jeep-friend was actively telling me over the phone that he believed in me. “David, you’re stuck in the Michigan mindset. Wrenching in California is different. You’ll be fine!”

The friend in question was Fred Williams, legendary Jeep journalist and host of the greatest off-road show of all time, Dirt Everyday. His knowledge of Jeeps and wrenching is astonishing, but more importantly, he’s a good friend. He’s been a California resident for a long time, and prior to me moving here from Detroit last year, he chided me about bringing any of my vehicles west. “What are you doing? Just sell all that rusty junk and buy new Jeeps here!” he told me.

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Before I made the move, Fred painted California as a Wrenching paradise. “Whatever Jeep you want to bring out west, trust me, you’ll find a better one here, and it’ll be way easier to work on,” I recall him telling me. In yesterday’s phone conversation, which I instigated to get a bit of advice on how I was going to yank this axle in such a short amount of time all by myself and without my Sawzall, he told me: “Oh, uh, what do you need a Sawzall for?”

“To cut the control arms off,” I told him. “That way I don’t have to try to zip all those bolts out.”

“What do you mean? Is the Jeep from out of state?” he replied.

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When I told him it appeared to be a local car, Fred told me I need to remember that I’m not in Michigan anymore. “Dude, you don’t need the Sawzall. Just take the bolts out. They’ll all come right out, easily! You have an electric impact wrench? Ok, you’re good.”

I appreciated the faith Fred had in me, but upon hanging up and arriving at the ‘yard, I remained skeptical that I could remove an entire axle in just a matter of hours. You see, I’ve got a lot of trauma.

Yanking An Axle In Michigan Is Miserable

 

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A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

In Michigan, here’s how I would remove an axle from a Jeep:

I’d get to a junkyard, I’d start trying to undo a control arm bolt, and the bolt would be seized into the bushing, which would just spin, preventing the bolt from actually coming out and releasing the arm.

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The track bar bolt would probably break just below the head, and when I tried to pull the nut out from the back side, it would hit the axle before the broken bolt-shank was completely out of the track bar hole, making removing the track bar impossible.

The wheels would be so corroded onto the brake rotor hat that I’d have to sit on my butt facing the wheel with all lugnuts removed, and kick the edges of the tire as hard as I could dozens of times, alternating left and right, while spinning the wheel. The brake rotors would be so stuck to the wheel hub flange that removing them would require dozens of full-strength whacks with a sledgehammer. The little driveshaft-to-axle-yoke bolts would break, and I’d probably find myself calling it a day and coming back the next morning with a cutoff wheel and a Sawzall so I could just brute-force my way through the job.

Sawzalling the track bar would kill all my blades, so I’d have to run to the store, and then I’d strip the nuts that hold the shock to the axle, and I’d have to try to hold the nut with a Vice-Grip to keep it in place as I spun the bolt. But the bolt would be rusted to the nut, so the Vice Grip would slip, and I’d likely have to do another auto parts store run to get a bolt extractor to handle the rounded nut. In the end, the bolt extractor would hold the rounded nut in place, and I’d snap the bolt with a socket to release the shock.

All the while, I’d probably be freezing my ass off, carefully trying to avoid cutting myself on rust and worrying that the rotted-out hulk I was yanking the axle from was going to fall on me due to a collapsed unibody rail. And when it was all over, and I had scrapes and bruises and early-onset-frostbite, I’d end up with a horribly Fe2O3-covered piece of junk, which I’d have to use electrolysis to try to clean up:

 

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A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

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For younger me living in Michigan, this job would be a multi-day affair, and though I’d get the axle for dirt-cheap (probably $120 or so), it’d be rusty as all hell.

Watch the video at the top of this section to see an actual example of a friend and me removing a Jeep axle from a Michigan junkyard.

What It Was Like Removing An Axle From A California Junkyard

Upon arriving at the California junkyard, I got straight to work. I had a Super Bowl party in 2.5 hours at my girlfriend’s parents place, so I didn’t want to be late. I put my socket on the lower control arm, popped the electric impact’s half-inch drive onto the end, put an adjustable wrench on the nut on the inside of the unibody rail and hit the button. “ZIPPPP.”

“PING!”

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The bolt had come right out and fallen onto the ground.

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My eyes widened. “What the hell?! That was unbelievable!”

I got down on the ground and shoved my socket onto the upper control arm bolt, and put a combination wrench on the inside nut.

Screen Shot 2024 02 12 At 12.30.27 Pm

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“ZIPPPP! PING!”

Holy crap!

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“Oh but this is going to be impossible,” I thought as I looked at the sway bar bolt, which had a torx that I didn’t have a socket for on hand. Sure, there was a nut on the back side, but if I tried spinning it, the torx head was just going to spin, and there was no way I’d be able to hold that head in place with just a Vice grip.

I tried it anyway. I clamped the vice grip to the head of the bolt, shoved a 15mm deep-well onto the nut.

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“ZIPPP! Ping!”

The nut fell to the ground, and the sway bar end link just slid right off the bolt!

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Even the shock nuts came off without issue,  dropping the axle far enough to let me pry out the coil springs (you can see me doing that above). I undid the drag link, the ABS wires, slid off the calipers and watched the rotors literally slide off on their own, and before you knew it the axle was disconnected from the Jeep!

Screen Shot 2024 02 12 At 12.34.16 Pm

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The 200 pound chunk of cast iron was a bear to drag along the ground and out the passenger-side wheel housing. Lifting one end up onto my wheelbarrow was also awful. My back still hurts from it:

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Getting the whole thing into the wheelbarrow just wasn’t going to happen, but luckily someone from the junkyard agreed to help me out:

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And boom: I had the final major part for my “Holy Grail” five-speed Jeep Grand Cherokee project. 

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I loaded the thing up into my Trade-In Tuesday truck (you’ll hear more about that soon!), and made it to the Super Bowl party only a bit late.

I Think I Might Have Seen The Wrenching Gods

 

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A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

Honestly, aside from the pricing, which was very California, the whole thing was a borderline-religious experience. How the hell did this whole axle come out in just a couple of hours? Every single bolt came out easily — not one fastener broke, not one was rounded, not one was seized in place. I didn’t have to cut anything. I didn’t have to sneak a MAPP-gas torch in. I didn’t have to make any car parts store-runs. I didn’t cut myself on rust. The Jeep didn’t almost fall down on me due to a crumbly frame. It was… almost fun! 

Scroll up a few paragraphs and watch that Instagram video of me yanking an axle in Michigan, and tell me how fun that looks to you.

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My mind is blown, and part of me wonders: Given how easy wrenching is here in California, and given how experienced I am fixing the rustiest piles in Michigan…is it possible that I’m the Wrenching King of California?

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Mike F.
Mike F.
5 months ago

You’ll need to talk to Dave Alvin about re-working his song to the Wrenching King of California.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
5 months ago

I miss Dirt Every Day. Fred and Dave were great. I keep hoping to see more of their work here.

Also, the best junk yards I’ve experienced were in South Texas. Lots of wrecked cars, little rust (usually only flood cars that got salty water in them), and relatively cheap. I remember needing a new window for a door. Buying just the class was $80, but buying an entire door was $60 and it gave me all the glass, a spare window switch, and a new window regulator I didn’t know I needed until I got the window in. I then sold the rest of the door on Craigslist for $60.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
5 months ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

Yep! I went to school in Houston, and man do I miss those salvage yards!

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
5 months ago
Reply to  FloridaNative

In high school and college it became a ritual to make a run down to the salvage yards off of North Shepherd Rd. It was a game of ping pong going back and forth down the street from yard to yard trying to find the parts you needed, but you could always find them.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
5 months ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

Yup! BTDT. Exact same yards, I’m sure.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
5 months ago

Michigan fact: Long ago the UP used to be connected to the Mitten, but the land bridge between Lakes Michigan and Huron rusted away.

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
5 months ago

Born and raised in Michigan and went to college in the UP. I cannot BELIEVE I have never heard this joke!

Torque
Torque
5 months ago
Reply to  Pupmeow

Michigan Tech. University eh?
Old colleague went there for a masters in mech. engineering

AlterId
AlterId
5 months ago

You’re lucky they were serving food at the party so you could wait until you got there to shower.

Ford_Timelord
Ford_Timelord
5 months ago
Reply to  AlterId

Pasta shower?

Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
5 months ago

How come the jerk taking all the pics didn’t help you load it in the wheelbarrow?

D-dub
D-dub
5 months ago

My thought exactly. It reminded me of the old Sam Kinison standup routine about commercials for helping starving children in Africa – “I bet the cameraman could give that kid a sandwich”.

AlterId
AlterId
5 months ago

Maybe it was the same cameraman that David kept referring to as “Cameraman” during the Trade-In Tuesday segment on the BMW 850i two weeks ago.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
5 months ago

Suffering is the path to Nirvana. One does not find faith in the easily achieved. Only while doing a position out of the Karma Sutra staring down the business end of a Sawzall can you hear the call. What you’ve found is a Kingdom of the Damned. The dead due not die, steel is not oxidized. Forever burned by the sun. Be strong and carry your breaker bar with the passion of your first day. And my son, Forgive them, they do not know what they’re missing out on.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
5 months ago

Karma Sutra
thats downright poetic

CSRoad
CSRoad
5 months ago

Why did the donor Jeep end up at the wrecking yard?

I’m used to the red iron oxide killer tipping the scale of repair costs and bringing vehicles to the yards about 100 miles from the Motor City in Canada.

That bit of wrenching seems crazy. I’d be pinching myself to check for dreaming. I hope it is not a dream for your sake, ’cause it seems you are having a good time.

Tagarito
Tagarito
5 months ago

The California axle might be heavier because all that metal hasn’t rusted out. You’re actually getting more for your money on the weight alone.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
5 months ago
Reply to  Tagarito

Funny bit of pedantry, but unless it’s actually shed material, rust makes steel heavier. All that extra oxygen adds up!

That said, breaking off chunks like he was in that Michigan video up above, yeah he’s coming out ahead.

Chewcudda
Chewcudda
5 months ago
Reply to  Tagarito

Also, the California pricing is partly mitigated by not having to go to the parts store and by not having to buy sawzall blades.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
5 months ago
Reply to  Chewcudda

Or a $300 ski outfit

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
5 months ago
Reply to  Chewcudda

And not having to do the job again and again every time the new parts rust away.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
5 months ago

“Must. Be. Nice.”

– a poor Midwest slob

Tetatdo
Tetatdo
5 months ago

also, that junkyard has gotten so ridiculously strict and expensive. they will charge you for EVERY nut and bolt. They used to have 10 ZJ’s at any given time, now youre lucky to find maybe 2….

Mike Dris
Mike Dris
5 months ago
Reply to  Tetatdo

I’ve been going to one chain in the San Francisco Bay Area that charges crazy prizes for misc bolts and things. I’ve learned to only grab what I need. Ocassionaly a bolt or two falls in my bag but I pay for most of the items.

Also learned to have EVERY item marked by them in case I change my mind. I only get store credit but it is better than nothing.

Der Foo
Der Foo
5 months ago

My friends say I’m prejudice about buying cars that have spent more than a couple years up north. I tell them I got nothing against Yankee sourced cars per se, but if they ever need help repairing a car that has lived up north, I will deny our friendship ever existed. This even goes for my NY brother in law that is actually a really good guy.

Tetatdo
Tetatdo
5 months ago

i really need to upgrade to 3.73s in my jeep.

Aznriptide859
Aznriptide859
5 months ago

You mirror my experience going to the junkyard in Texas vs the junkyard in Minnesota. Trying to find an example of my project car for parts in MN was miserable, because almost every single one had some sort of rust on it. Pulling parts meant grabbing the biggest ugga dugga I had to loosen everything.

Meanwhile in Texas the only thing I need to watch for is actual accident damage, everything comes apart easily. Granted prices here are much higher than they were in MN, but at least there’s no rust to deal with.

Cal67
Cal67
5 months ago

I’ve been in wrecking yards in California and Arizona and seen cars with less rust than cars on used car lots in Ontario. I am envious.

Querty
Querty
5 months ago
Reply to  Cal67

Remember this bro passed a Diesel Chrysler Caravan in Germany.

CSRoad
CSRoad
5 months ago



Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
5 months ago

Every time you write about one of your vehicles you’re pulling something out of a junkyard. I don’t even want to imagine where you buy condoms.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
5 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Salvation Army Thrift Store

Phuzz
Phuzz
5 months ago

The soak them in rust remover for re-use.

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
5 months ago

I’m waiting for the inevitable article about getting the a jeep with tons of missing engine parts to pass smog though

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
5 months ago
Reply to  Rabob Rabob

Temu. 100 for 99 cents, everyday…

Last edited 5 months ago by Col Lingus
Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
5 months ago

The touchscreen on our ’21 Pacifica stopped working last night. I pulled fuse F74. started the van to confirm no power to UConnect, turned it off, stuck the fuse back in, and voila, fixed.

I think I shared a similar feeling of accomplishment as you. Although, the fuse definitely weighed less than the axle so maybe not quite.

Andrew Daisuke
Andrew Daisuke
5 months ago

West Coast Best Coast

Parsko
Parsko
5 months ago

How much was it?
Michigan – $120
California – $XXX

The extra cost was probably well worth it in time. I have a feeling you are never going to leave.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago

Oh my,
My thoughts
1. Why is it so heavy? Things you can say when working on a car but not while making love to your girlfriend.
2. California land of no rust and probably the smallest percentage of people who work on their own cars. No disrespect to the vary talented small percentage who do.
3. David missed his calling or at least revenue source. Can you imagine DT spokes model for winter mechanics gear? Hey I spend a day removing stuck parts from destroyed cars outside in the winter. No outfit keeps my junk warmer than THE CARHART BALL WARMING JOCKSTRAP. However I work on cars in sunny California and when I do you can bet I wear Speedo the European swimsuit for men, won’t provide the attraction to the audience in the same manor.
4. I tried to work that guy who wears the funny swimsuit and plays like a foreigner but couldn’t remember the name or work it in.

Last edited 5 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Yeah, hot rodding was born here in California. Lowriders were born here. We have mountains for rock crawling, sand dunes, flats and everything in between. Sure, maybe based on percentage its low, but we have likely have more people working on their own cars than many states have in their population.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago
Reply to  JaredTheGeek

Dude I mentioned and said no disrespect to the historic leaders. What’s your problem? Most California’s don’t work on cars. Oh hotrod started in Detroit. And car remodeling was done inCuba before California. Most car guys in the beginning started elsewhere and moved to California. And the true hotrod was all over the USA BY soldiers returning and hotrod ing old cars from prewar. Don’t be stupid thinking the first store was the start. Hell people were flying in the Minnesota Salt Flats way before Barris was creating custom bodies on regular cars.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Minnesota salt flats? I lived in MN for 12 years but I never heard of those.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
5 months ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

And car remodeling in Cuba…. Look at the user name!

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

Oops don’t know where my brain was

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
5 months ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

That’s what they call the highways about 25 minutes after the plow truck goes by

Last edited 5 months ago by Rollin Hand
Pupmeow
Pupmeow
5 months ago
Reply to  JaredTheGeek

No use arguing with someone who thinks California isn’t part of “Real America.”

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Wow. That is some, vivid, imagery. I believe you were looking for Borat.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

Yes thanks

A. Barth
A. Barth
5 months ago

Non-rusty stuff is definitely a joy to behold.

One thing I’ve learned about a wheelbarrow: sometimes you can tip it forward until the nose is on the ground, and then wrangle an awkward, heavy item into it without doing as much heavy lifting. My model has a straight bumper sort of thing in front of the wheel, so bumper + nose = the wheelbarrow standing on end with the handles pointing upward.

Use ratchet straps to attach the item to the wheelbarrow. Depending on weight distribution, you might now be able to tip the ‘barrow back into its normal mode (two feet and a wheel on the ground) and go on your merry way. If the load is too front-heavy, you can ratchet it into a more reasonable position.

If the wheelbarrow does not have a usable front bumper, you should be able to tip the thing in the opposite direction so it is sitting on the two feet and on the ends of the wooden handles. This is a little more awkward than the first way – since the item needs to go over the rear lip of the cargo bucket and the center of gravity will be in front of the pivot point – but it can still allow moving a heavy thing to be a one-person job.

I’ve done this with partial motorcycles but it should work for an axle. 🙂

Parsko
Parsko
5 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Yeah, you use the wheelbarrow as the fulcrum. It should just pop right on like a using a hand truck, but you keep going over 90deg.

A. Barth
A. Barth
5 months ago
Reply to  Parsko

That’s a much more succinct way to put it – thank you 🙂

Although not using ratchet straps has bitten me on occasion.

Mike Dris
Mike Dris
5 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

I bring my own Radio Flyer with upgraded tires from HF. I haven’t pulled a whole axle yet but I’m sure it could handle it.

Eric Schliffka
Eric Schliffka
5 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

I have a 90’s Little Tikes Step 2 wagon that has hauled kids, yard waste, rear end, etc. from here to Disney and back. Damn thing is still on the side of the house and sees duty each summer.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
5 months ago

Hail to the king, baby!!

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
5 months ago

I think I told you how easy this is when we spoke for a bit at the LA auto show in 2022. If it weren’t for the prices, it would be junkyard nirvana!

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
5 months ago

Is this the part where the we wall say, “Told ya so!” about not dragging rusty junk to California?

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
5 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

This, and many other times as well.

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