Be your own scrappie - how to dismantle a car for spares

If you plan on keeping your car for a while, one of the best ways to keep costs down is to acquire another car as a source of spares.  Thanks to ever-tightening environmental legislation, most scrapyards will now charge £50 or more to dispose of an old car, which means that you stand a good chance of picking one up for free.  If your car needs a new engine or gearbox, getting hold of a complete car for spares can make far more sense than paying a breaker £100 or more just for the one component you need at that moment.

However, there are a few problems you need to be aware of.  Firstly, you need to be sure that the donor vehicle is the same model and specification as the vehicle you already own.  For example, if you have a Fiat Uno 45S, and are offered an Uno 45 Formula of the same age, it is not going to be a lot of use to you.  The engine and gearbox are totally different.  Likewise a 1985 Sierra 2.0 (single cam) will not help you keep your 1990 Sierra 2.0 (twin cam) on the road.

Rotten body, sound mechanicals.  Just imagine how much this old Roller would be worth in bits

Next, you need to be sure that the major mechanicals are all in decent condition.  Structural corrosion is still the number one reason why old cars are scrapped, but there are plenty of cars now being taken off the road because the cost of mechanical repairs is too high.  Look for a donor car which has been well maintained, doesn't have too many miles on it but where the body is too rotten to be worth welding - not difficult to find if you are looking at Fords, Vauxhalls or Fiats, a bit trickier with VW or Saab.  You should at least hear the engine run before you agree to take the car away - it may be free, but breaking it for spares is going to cost you time and money.

Legal considerations - the car will have no tax, MoT or insurance, and may be structurally dangerous.  Don't even think about driving it home, and remember the police can still do you for having no tax disc even if the car is on the end of a towrope.  Unless you have your own vehicle transporter, your options are:  hire a trailer (assuming you have a towing vehicle), use one of those little recovery dollies (you may be able to hire one from a used car dealer), or pay someone to transport it for you.  Ring round for quotes - try smaller garages that do vehicle recovery, and also a few local scrapyards.  Vehicle breakers always have flatbed trucks, and will probably do you a good deal for cash.  However, their preferred method is to lift the vehicle using a chain through the side windows, which will wreck the door frames - so if you want to reuse the doors, make sure you know in advance how the vehicle is to be lifted.

Right, you've got it home, what now?  You might be tempted just to park it in a far corner of the garden and pick bits off it as you need them, but this actually isn't a very good idea.  Firstly, if you start turning your garden into a scene from 'Deliverance', most likely your neighbours will report you to the Environmental Health department.  Secondly, as soon as you remove the first mechanical component from your parts car, you will immobilise it, which can be a real pain when you want to mow the lawn.  Thirdly, most people don't have a big enough garden to hide a rusting old Cavalier without it getting in the way.  And lastly, if you leave it parked up like that, everything will seize solid or be destroyed by damp.  So don't dump it - break it.

Get a friend to help you.  Two people can totally dismantle a car in a weekend.  You will need the following - a good selection of axle stands and jacks of various sizes, an engine hoist or gantry (you can hire one for about £20 for a weekend), hacksaw with spare blades, a power drill, an impact driver for loosening stubborn crosshead screws, and either oxy-acetylene cutting equipment, or a 9 inch disc cutter (again you can hire one).  Also the usual assortment of spanners, sockets and screwdrivers.

Start by planning which parts you are going to keep, how you will remove them and in which order.  The best plan is to break the car up in the largest possible lumps - so keep the engine, gearbox and ancillaries together, likewise the rear axle, brakes and suspension.  Some cars (especially front drive ones) have all the mechanicals bolted to a detachable subframe - think about removing this complete.  Doors are worth saving complete even if they are rotten - it saves you having to strip them to salvage the glass and winding mechanism, which you might need in future.  Basically, the less dismantling of components you have to do at this stage, the better.  If you don't need to save a component, don't worry about destroying it.  It may be quicker to cut the engine out of the engine bay, by slicing through the inner wings and chassis legs, than to lift it out. 

Safety first - make sure that the bodyshell is adequately supported at all times.  That means axle stands, not piles of bricks.  If the shell is rotten, be extra careful about where you put the stands - an axle stand will go straight through a sill or floor if it is rusty enough.  Treat glass especially carefully - it might be worth removing the front and rear screens before you do anything else.  And watch out for sharp jagged metal edges.  Probably the most serious hazard is from the fuel system.  You really ought to drain the petrol tank before removing it, but most cars don't have a drain plug so you will need to siphon the fuel out into an appropriate container.  A five gallon jerry can is an appropriate container.  A bucket is not.  Don't tip the fuel into your own car unless you are sure it is OK - it may be old and stale, or contaminated with water.  Use it in your lawnmower, or light bonfires with it (carefully!).  Once the fuel tank is removed, strip out any fuel lines and ensure there are no patches of spilt fuel or pockets of fuel vapour, before you start using any power tools or cutting equipment.

Reader Mark Porter adds the following:

"May I suggest that you STRONGLY recommend that a large foam fire extinguisher is handy, and that the fuel tank is filled with water, after pinching off the pipe in a suitable manner. After all you're unlikely to use the feed pipe and the fuel tank with only gas in is about a 100Kg bomb if set off.

"While it isn't likely that you would buy a fire damaged car, it might be worth mentioning the fact that they should not be touched as many of the plastics, especially the ones in the engine, degrade into toxic chemicals including one which while I can't remember the name require amputation I the limb is contaminated with the acid resulting from the burnt seals."

Environmental considerations - make sure that any fluids are drained into a container and disposed of properly.  You might as well leave the engine and gearbox oil where they are for the moment, although if the engine is in really nice order I would think about running it until thoroughly warm, then changing the oil.  Old engine oil can contain corrosive elements which will not do the engine internals any good over time.  Be particularly careful about collecting brake fluid, and watch out for cars (such as Fiats) where the inner driveshaft joints are lubricated by gearbox oil.  As soon as you remove the driveshafts, the oil will flood out, so drain it first.  The same goes for the front propshaft to gearbox coupling on rear-drive Fords.  Antifreeze mix can be disposed of down the drain, but oil and brake fluid should be tipped into a container and taken to the local council 'recycling centre' (a.k.a. tip) where there will be facilities to dispose of it.  They will also take dead car batteries.

Once you have the major components off the car, make sure you strip out any wiring, relays, switches, fuse boxes, bulbs and other small fittings.  These take up little storage space and cost a fortune if you have to buy them from Halfords.  Consider whether you want to keep any interior trim (seats, carpets, dashboard top).  This stuff takes up a lot of space and goes mouldy.  If the trim on the donor car is better than on your own vehicle, swap it over;  if not, just junk it.

So, at the end of the first day you should have:  a pile of reusable mechanical and electrical spares, and possibly some body panels, a hopefully much smaller pile of components which are not worth keeping (leaking shock absorbers, worn seats, cracked light units), and a bare bodyshell on axle stands.  So what now?  You have two choices - you can either pay someone to take the shell away, or you can chop it up and dispose of it yourself.  Personally I would go for the first option if possible.  Breaking up a bodyshell is time-consuming and potentially dangerous.  It is also very noisy, and your neighbours will be unhappy enough already, with a very dead car standing in your driveway where they think a carefully polished Daewoo should sit.

However, if you decide to go ahead, what you are looking to do is reduce the car to small enough lumps that you can lift it onto a trailer, or in the back of a van, and take it down to a scrap metal dealer to weigh it in as mixed scrap (for which you may get a couple of quid).  To do this, the shell needs to be stripped as far as possible of non-metal items (which you will have to get rid of separately - a trip to the council tip should do the trick).  Then attack it with the disc cutter, or oxy-acetylene if you have it.  Take the roof off to start, and keep cutting until you are finished.  Remember to wear goggles, thick gloves and ear defenders if you are using a disc cutter.  Remember too that as you remove more and more metal, the shell will become progressively weaker until it folds up, so make sure you don't put yourself at risk of injury when this happens. 

You will be surprised how easy it is to cut up a car.  Most of the steel is very thin - the shell relies on the shape of the steel panels for strength, not their thickness.  Only the chassis legs will take any effort to cut through - you can slice through the rest in no time.  I once broke up a Mini bodyshell using only a hammer and chisel, but it was very, very rusty.

It is worth looking into the cost of hiring a skip to get rid of the body and unwanted parts, especially if you have some household rubbish to clear out as well.  Make sure the hire company knows what you will be putting in the skip - you don't want them to refuse to take it away on the grounds that it has the wrong sort of rubbish in it.

Finally, sweep up all the rust and rubbish, and clean up any fluid spills.  You now have enough mechanical parts to keep you going for years, and the whole exercise should not have cost you any more than a second hand engine. 


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