How America's Totaled Cars End Up Driving Again in the Third World

NPR's Planet Money traces the journey of a nearly-new Lexus from New Jersey to Turkmenistan via salvage-title auction.

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Vehicles stranded in floodwater in the Bronx, NY, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Sept. 2, 2021.
Vehicles stranded in floodwater in the Bronx, NY, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Sept. 2, 2021.
Photo: Craig Ruttle (AP)

What happens to your car after it’s totaled? Most American car owners never really find out. The insurance company takes the damaged vehicle, cuts a check, and for most of us, our attention turns to finding a replacement ride. NPR’s Planet Money took a deep dive into the global market for salvage-title vehicles, and it’s a fascinating read for anybody who’s curious about where good cars go when they die.

Reporter Scott Gurian got curious about the global trade in cast-off American vehicles via a delightfully roundabout turn of events. Back in 2016, Gurian drove in the Mongol Rally, an 11,000-mile slog through 18 countries, from the United Kingdom to Mongolia. Gurian’s Nissan Micra broke down numerous times across the 52-day journey, and through one of these breakdowns, Gurian befriended a mechanic in Turkmenistan named Oraz.

Fast forward to today. Gurian is back at home in New Jersey. Oraz sends him a message from Turkmenistan, showing a curious vehicle that showed up in his shop: A 2021 Lexus RX350. Aside from some small cosmetic damage, a little rust, and some wonky electronics, it seemed to be in excellent condition and nearly new. One thing caught Oraz’s eye — the New Jersey inspection sticker on the windshield.


You might be able to piece together part of what happened here. The Lexus was flooded in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in September 2021. The insurance company declared it a total loss, and the vehicle — now carrying a kiss-of-death salvage title — went to auction.

Gurian and his fellow reporter Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi dove deep into the story to figure out exactly what economic influences lead to a salvage-title Lexus being exported from New Jersey all the way to Turkmenistan — a straight-line distance of more than 6,000 miles.


If you pay attention to the global car market, you probably have a grasp of the broader influences at play here: A salvage-branded title doesn’t necessarily follow a vehicle sold in the U.S. once it heads to another country; in many parts of the world, it’s far cheaper to import and repair a damaged vehicle than it is to buy a new one locally, even after you account for transport costs spanning a huge chunk of the globe. For a certain type of buyer, a U.S.-market luxury vehicle is a very appealing status symbol, even if it arrives with write-off-level damage.

The full story takes a ton of unexpected twists and turns. Planet Money always weaves fascinating tales together with economic information you’d probably never come across anywhere else. Download the full 30-minute episode here, and enjoy it on your next commute. You’ll get a better understanding of the second life many cars find after they’re abandoned by their American owners.