How To Find Used Car Parts

In a perfect world, your car would never break, and if it did, magic fairies would fly into your car with a stack of fresh parts and fix it for you. But the world isn't perfect. Your car will break, and if you want to a) save money and b) be awesome, you'll fix it yourself.

So you'll need to beg, borrow, steal or buy parts somehow. You could go to the dealership or an auto parts store — and there are a lot of parts that you'll want to get there. But maybe they're too pricey or don't have the part you need. If so, it's time to go to the junkyard.

It's best to have a plan when you're on the lookout for used parts, so you'll need to figure out what you need, where best to get it, and who has it. There are definitely things you don't want to get at the junkyard: timing belts/chains, accessory belts, hoses, filters (unless they happen to be brand new ... you can score from time to time if someone's car was sent to the boneyard right after a tuneup), ignition tuneup parts, etc. But there are a ton of parts that are great to get from a salvage yard:

  • body parts
  • glass and mirrors
  • trim and interior parts
  • durable suspension parts, such as springs, control arms, and axles
  • engines and transmissions, in some cases
  • intact door and window rubber
  • screws, weird fasteners, blade fuses
  • cool emblems (hey, why not?)

That perfect world I mentioned earlier is nonexistent, but in the real perfect world (the one I live in, anyway), you would have an extra or two of the car you own, just for parts. But usually, there's no place to keep stuff like that. You don't want your house to be that house (unless it already is, in which case, good for you!). So you go for someone who has all that stuff: the auto recycler, the specialist, or, well, the guy who lives in that house.

How To Find Used Car Parts

If you live in a pretty developed area, there are all kinds of junkyards to choose from. Rural folks don't have as many options, but there are some online services available, plus forums and enthusiast pages, that can help you get the parts you need.

So here's a breakdown of the different types of used parts outlets to look for (feel free to let me know if I'm missing any):

  • Pick and pull DIY recycling yards: As far as junkyards go, these are the crème de la crème. They're well organized, constantly rotate out old, picked over carcasses and rotate in fresh stock, they organize vehicles by make and often have an online database so that you can find the position(s) of the model(s) you're looking for. Their prices are usually pretty low to boot. No checkout calculations here. If the list says an engine is $150, it doesn't matter if it's a rare 426 Hemi or an '84 Toyota four banger with 300,000 miles on it. It will cost $150 (they make most of their money selling the scrap metal, so parts are just icing on the cake). The ones I've used in Virginia Beach, Sacramento, and Denver have hand washing stations, as well as free wheelbarrows and engine hoists for you to use. You can find these all over the country, so if you're lucky, there's one near you.
  • Online used auto parts suppliers: These are great, too. Most of these websites have a prompt where you can enter in the year, make, and model of the car you want to find parts for. If they have it, they'll actually mail you the part. This is less than ideal for larger parts, but for trim pieces, smallish engine parts, etc., they can be a good option, especially for people who live a bit off the beaten path (these were a godsend when I lived in Telluride, Colo., which is at least two hours from anything). There are quite a few out there, including Junk Yard Dog, Car-part.com, UNeedAPart, Parts Hotlines, and so on. Google is the place to start, and it isn't a bad idea to check for consumer ratings online before you feed your money into the internet in return for a part. I've had good luck with Junk Yard Dog, but some of the others are probably pretty good, too.
  • Specialty salvage yards/repair shops: If you have an older car, a foreign car, or something that's just plain weird, you have to do a little bit of research to find out where all the geeks who like your strange ride are hiding out. Some cars are hopeless, but for a lot of them, there's some weirdo who lives in a remote desert enclave hoarding old cars and parts. I've seen this for old Toyota FJ40s, Volvos, VWs, and here in Boulder, Colo., for Subarus. Though they're getting harder to find, you can also count on a few places to have a pretty good stock of rusting Detroit iron (more and more of those cars are pretty well picked over). The best place to start is Google.
  • A neighbor with a derelict [your car here]: We've all seen them: that guy down the street with a collection of old [your car here]s. Growing up, there was a guy down the street with anywhere from three to four old (non-running) Mustangs in his driveway. My dad had a friend with not one, but four 70s/80s Ford Country Squire estate wagons. There's a guy down the street from me now with at least three mid-80s Subaru wagons. Don't be shy. Ask if you can buy a few pieces, especially if the cars have been sitting there for a while.
  • Enthusiast forums: Chances are good that your car has some kind of fan club or forum dedicated to it. The more popular brands like BMW and Porsche have several each, but even Yugo has a few fans here and there. You'll definitely be able to find forums for old GMs, Fords, and Chryslers, I am addicted to the Subaru forum (sometimes I wonder how I'd be able to keep my car running without it), and I even saw one, once upon a time, dedicated to Toyota Camrys (although it doesn't seem to work anymore...maybe CamryMan bought a cooler car).
  • Craigslist/eBay: Lots of killer deals can be found on Craigslist and eBay, although I've found better ones on the former. Craigslist, although reviled by some for its clunky web layout, is a real gem, a holdover from the days when you could walk into the local convenience store, pay $1, and get a print classified paper. The best one I've ever used was the Tidewater Trading Post. Not only did I buy and sell all kinds of interesting parts (paid my rent with an '87 4Runner my friend left me when he joined the navy), but I'd get the most hilarious calls from people (usually from Norfolk, Va.) trying to bargain with me on a part I was charging $10 for. Good times.
  • The old fashioned auto salvage yard: These run the gamut from well-run establishments with the parts already removed and ready for you to purchase to disorganized piles of greasy/rusted slag with trees growing through floorboards and convertible tops. Sometimes they'll let you come in and get your part, sometimes you have to wait for some guy to get it for you. You should really shop around for these yards if you can, particularly because some of them feature greasy coverall-clad owners/staff who, bitter at the failures their lives have been, will look sourly at the part(s) you've just selected and think up a price on the spot, which is usually too high. It's tough for these guys to make money, and they'll tell you so, so you're their bread and butter. That said, sometimes these places are better than nothing. Plus, since some of them don't get rid of stuff, you might be able to find something really old that you can't find anywhere else (if it hasn't rusted to pieces by now).

How To Find Used Car Parts

So there you have it. If you already knew all of this, great. If you didn't, you're now armed to the teeth with useful information about how to get used parts to keep your pile beloved car on the road.

Even if you don't need parts, get out there and familiarize yourself with the choices available. There's something Zen-like about strolling through a junkyard in search of parts (or not). Personally, I've always found visits to the junkyard to be as interesting as trips to a museum. Even as an 8-year-old, I'd pester my dad until he took me to our local boneyard (I obviously didn't need parts for anything at that age), content to look at the old cars and the little vestiges of human life and engineering dreams they still contained.

Happy hunting!

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston