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.

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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!

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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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Roofaloof
Roofaloof
5 months ago

It’s truly amazing wrenching on a car that isn’t rusty! My first brush with this was when I moved to Seattle about 10 years ago.

Although we’re quite rainy, cars here are nearly rust-free. This is because they don’t salt the roads here.

I’ve seen an unrestored Studebaker parked on the street here like it ain’t no thing. I buy old Japanese motorcycles that totally dissolved 20 years ago in the rust belt. They’re just starting to corrode a bit and all the fasteners break loose easily.

It’s fantastic

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
5 months ago
Reply to  Roofaloof

Ooh, yes. The PNW is *gold* when it comes to carspotting. Cars that sit turn green, not brown.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
5 months ago

Former Michigan resident, here to present you with my favorite conspiracy theory…

The State of Michigan collects a *bunch* of money via the automobile industry, directly and indirectly. Therefore it is in the best interests of the state government to ensure the continued health of the industry. One way to ensure ongoing sales is by making all the cars rust out in 5 years, so people need to buy new ones. The state makes sure this happens by applying excessive amounts of road salt every winter.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
5 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

Sorry to break it to you, but it’s not a “conspiracy theory” if it’s actually PLAUSIBLE.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
5 months ago

I ended my MT On Demand subscription because they canceled Dirt Every Day and Tony Angelo left HR Garage (though I think Alex Taylor is doing well). I am using that money for Autopian. Win?

M K
M K
5 months ago

My 1970 Jeepster spent its entire life in the desert SW before coming to Michigan. Aside from being full of red clay sand, it was WONDERFUL to work on and nothing was permanently rusted in place. Michigan is a truly awful place to work on cars. Outside of the 6 months of winter, it’s either windy or you’ll get eaten by mosquitos. I remember growing up as a garageless kid how much I hated the wind and using a sled for a creeper. David, live your best life for those of us left behind.

Adam Al-Asmar
Adam Al-Asmar
5 months ago

I’ve lived (and wrenched) in Wisconsin for 20 years. the latter decade was spent in the shop with my dad, a mechanic, working on all manner of things. Rust is a special cancer that I had learned to deal with and make accommodations for.

That said, I moved to North Carolina after my daughter was born in 2020. Shortly after getting settled, I decided to offer my services as a neighborhood mechanic. one of my first clients was a 2014 Subaru forester. Rear brakes and hub bearings. When i tell you that i nearly cried when the hub bearings FELL OUT of the knuckle after being unbolted, and i didnt have to fight a rusted cv joint/hub interface and the axle just sorta… slid out? i was in disbelief

fast forward a few months, visitng my family in wisconsin, working with my dad at the shop and a 2014 subaru forester shows up for…. rear brakes and hubs.

we had to remove the knuckle from the vehicle (with the axle still attached,) use the hydraulic press to separate the axle from the bearing, and the bearing from the knuckle. it was an all day affair taking care of that repair

my dad still doesnt believe that i got the whole job done on the same car in under 3 hours. so yeah, DT, wrenching in the midwest sucks and its traumatizing, but if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere

Minivanlife
Minivanlife
5 months ago

I can show you the junkyard
Shining, shimmering, rustless
Tell me, David
Now, when did you last let your wrench decide?
I can open your eyes
Take you wonder by wonder
Over, sideways and under
On a magic junkyard ride

Huja Shaw
Huja Shaw
5 months ago

A pound puppy that has recently found a forever home will instinctively sleep on newspaper before eventually choosing the comfort of the soft bed over the Sunday sports section. You too will adapt, Mr. Tracy.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
5 months ago
Reply to  Huja Shaw

COTD fer sure.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
5 months ago

Fred’s advice is exactly what everybody was thinking when you were writing about which rusty hulk to bring along on your move. The answer should have been none of them!

Turbotictac
Turbotictac
5 months ago

Living in the Southern US there is a reason there are so many technicians that moved from up north. I worked at a speed shop for about 2 years and all 3 techs had come from New York.

Once we got a ~2015 GT-R with 70kish miles on it that had moved down from NY and it had holes in the floor and the subframe bolts all had to be cut off. The transmission pan was so rusted we were afraid if you removed it then it would crumble. It was essentially totaled and he was asked not to return or told it would be double labor rate because EVERYTHING on that was nearly impossible to remove.

Duke Woolworth
Duke Woolworth
5 months ago

From NE Ohio lake effect snow/salt belt: A mechanic friend used to dip every bolt he used in grease before he used it because he knew if the car came back later, he’d have to torch it off if he hadn’t done this first. I had bought a 20YO Florida car that needed some work. First thing he went for was the torch, only to find fasteners that came off by armstrong. He gave me a huge break on the estimate.

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
5 months ago

Just chiming in to say I absolutely loved this article. I read the part about removing the axle from the rusty Jeep in my husband’s voice. The number of times y’all go to the hardware/auto parts store during any given project is incredible. Why doesn’t someone open a store with garage stalls so you can work on your car AT THE STORE?

InTheBackround
InTheBackround
5 months ago
Reply to  Pupmeow

insurance probably. Around my area their are literally cash only mechanics that work in the autozone parking lot.

PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
5 months ago
Reply to  InTheBackround

Huh, that may be why the Advanced Auto near my workplace is plastered with signs forbidding any kind of auto repair in their parking lot. Closer to where I live, it’s practically a rite of passage to conduct some kind of repair (no matter how small) in the parking lot of a car parts store.

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
5 months ago
Reply to  InTheBackround

Yeah, you’re right. Having people working on site like that would up liability. Otherwise it’s a genius business idea!

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
5 months ago

Careful with the lifting, man. You may not have to deal with vehicle rust, but you-rust is starting to set in.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
5 months ago

This is analogous to marathon runners training at high altitude, so they are better conditioned for a long race closer to sea level.

If you could remove and replace frozen, rusted parts on Michigan cars, you can expect your repair speed – and ease – in California to increase by orders of magnitude.

pizzaman09
pizzaman09
5 months ago

I’m jealous that you live in places that have junkyards with more than 15 year old vehicles and junkyards that let you pull your own parts. There are several where I love and they are all they pull it type of places.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  pizzaman09

All the pick-and-pull places in my area went to counter service only 20+ years ago. What a disappointment!

Jj
Jj
5 months ago

Everyone told you to leave your rust heaps in Michigan.

I bought an S13 from FL with 100k miles on it and every bolt operated as it should. I had a Honda Civic also at the time with ~20k northeast miles on it when the tailpipe fell off of the muffler from rust.

I decided then to buy any cars I want to keep for a while from a warm state – and to not get attached to any daily driver that sees winter use.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
5 months ago

That rust procedure read like a standard manual to me. Northeast rust is terrible. Someday I’ll do a bucket list thing and buy a rust free western car and drive it home.

Nicole
Nicole
5 months ago

Further proof that California is the greatest state?

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
5 months ago
Reply to  Nicole

Did you miss the part where he said that the price of the axle was decidedly California?

Rob Stercraw
Rob Stercraw
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Asa

How much is your time worth though? It’s not the greatest state, that’s for sure but as far as junkyard wrenching goes – lack of rust FTW.

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
5 months ago
Reply to  Rob Stercraw

Kinda a bad metaphor to use, my friend. Traffic is my time. My money is literally my time, as that’s how I get paid. Everything is time.

Also, I’m in Florida. We also don’t have rust. Junkyard wrenching is great here as well. You get a snowbird’s car every now and then, but they are easy enough to avoid.
:shrug:

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Asa

The cost of everything and the traffic will become too much at some point. It did for me.

Man, I miss splitting lanes on the motorcycle I could ride every day though.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
5 months ago
Reply to  Nicole

Also very Californian: forgetting other states exist (that have the same weather as so-cal)

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
5 months ago

It’s kind of a shame you have all this talent and skillz disassembling rusty piles of crap and turning them into ‘gems’

And now you’re squandering all that talent working with perfectly brand new looking parts that have to fight at all in them.

There is no sport in this.

This is like shooting deer at the zoo.

I hate rusty bushing bolts. I’ve done that spin the bushing and bolt on the Sawzall blade or grind out the adjustable camber bolt in the rear control arm game. It truly sucks. Men smarter then me use torches

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
5 months ago

You’re not the Wrenching King, you’re the Wrenching God.

That said, a Superbowl party at your gf’s parents, that’s a tougher challenge.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
5 months ago

(David walks in, only a little dirty) “Hey everyone, thanks for inviting me! How are the Lions doing?”

Otter
Otter
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

No Detroiter would expect the Lions to be playing in the Super Bowl.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
5 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

As you should. It’s the weekend. Weekend schmutz.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
5 months ago

The bigger thing to me is that he’s….he’s….met the parents.

We’re through the looking glass here, people.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
5 months ago

Charging for every little nut and small bit? Hope that isn’t a trend. In my favorite self help used parts emporium when I show them stuff like that they just wave past and charge for the bigger bits. Proper procedure is to grab every relevant fastener or clip you can.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
5 months ago

So say you aren’t in California, you go to the U pull it, get halfway through the pick and you need more sawzall blades or a bigger hammer or a 3 and 5 eights neiderheimer puller or whatever. You go home, get the tool, grab a slurpee at the kwikee mart on the way back, and, tooled up an re-energized, you show them your hand stamp at the door and leap back I to the fray…and find some dude just about to loosen the last bolt on that rear subframe you were pulling.

Do you have any rights? legally or by the unwritten code of the junkyard? Ask nicely? plead and cry? Slowly recount your morning toils while casually whapping a pry bar in your hand until it draws a little blood so they know you are a special kind of crazy?

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

No rights I found a set of wire rims but was told 50% off this weekend. Left them lost them

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Yeah, kinda what I figured, but it was fun speculating

Eslader
Eslader
5 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

This is why you go with a friend. If you have to run off to get something, your friend guards the part.

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
5 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

You lick the part you’re putting dibsies on. Like cookies.

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

Remember you are now holding a sawzall with blades.

Loren
Loren
5 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

That deal has actually worked in my favor…so somebody did all the easy parts and left me with the one hard one, what am I going to do, leave it there? And when 50% off day is coming and you know there is going to be a race to grab that -whatever- Ford part, go ahead and remove it then hide it in a Toyota. Law of the Jungle, friends.

With that, if somebody left a note saying they would be back, I’d probably respect it.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
5 months ago
Reply to  Loren

I’d respect it if they dated the note. There are too many rednecks and tweakers around here who are “totally coming back to finish” too many things. If you’re coming back, leave a note. If the note is more than a couple days old, I’ll assume you’re not actually coming back.

Rob Stercraw
Rob Stercraw
5 months ago
Reply to  Loren

I bought an E30 door once – got it home and started stripping it down to swap my manual window regulator over and when I removed the door panel there were at least a dozen parts stuffed inside. GM ECMs and smaller control modules mostly. Made about $150 off of the lot on the ‘bay.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
5 months ago

After almost 30 years in Oregon I have forgotten how bad rust can be. I also need to visit a salvage yard so I can try and find a Buick LeSabre door panel.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
5 months ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

As an Idahoan I always assumed rainy Oregon would have no classic cars. I was surprised when I looked on Oregon craigslist that there were actually a ton of them, and in pretty good shape too… I guess it really all has to do with whether the roads are salted. Here in Idaho it’s pretty dry most days with just a bit of occasional rain and a few weeks of snow each year, so there are a ton of older cars still on the road… but I had to go and buy one that had spent decades in a different state before Idaho so I’ve dealt with rusty seized bolts anyway :/ Still, at least it ain’t Michigan bad…

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
5 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Salt is a much bigger issue than rain, although moss becomes an issue in the rainy areas. You also get rare cases of top down rust along the coast where salt spray will make cars rot from the rain gutters instead of the rocker panels.

JurassicComanche25
JurassicComanche25
5 months ago

Speaking form the northeast, this is so true!!! I bought my 88 MJ from down south, for this reason. I swapped the front D0 faux-axle last year to get the newer wheel bearing/brake/balljoint setup (unit bearings are frustrating). Every bolt was so easy- almost makes me want to sell my first car mustang that was from the NE. Almost.

pizzaman09
pizzaman09
5 months ago

Nice! I had purchased an 88 MJ from Los Angeles and drove it home to northwestern PA. I pretty much lost it when I whipped my finger on a brake line and the dust came off yielding a shiny clean factory line. I ended up selling that MJ and getting into a 90 Eliminator from southern PA. It isn’t perfectly rust free, but way closer than most, I’ve never come across a bolt on it that didn’t just come off.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
5 months ago

If anybody deserves a break, it’s the Rust King. Unfortunately, I am dealing with some rust with my current project that shouldn’t be a project. I replaced the front pads and rotors on my TSX with zero problems, then broke my hand impact tool trying to remove a rusty rotor screw and ran into a seized caliper on the rear wheels. Ugh.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
5 months ago

You absolutely will be the king of wrenching in California! You’re like a runner that trains at 10000 ft for a race at sea level.

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