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Notes from the road in a tailspin economy

Notes from the road in a tailspin economy

As with so many of my drives across the country in the past, I began in the northwest corner of South Carolina, where Wilbur, an old friend of mine, owns a small trailer park, across the road from the acres where he used to have his inventory of mostly ’60s Imperials and Chryslers, before the value of land went up and the price of scrap went through the roof. It s why these days you see fewer junkyards with old cars in them than you used to. Back last November, when I was staying with Wilbur and his wife in Landrum, you could take a 4,000-pound car to the shredder and get $12 a pound, around $500, with the metal shipped off to China. Now, with the recycling business in China at a standstill, the price has dropped to $2 per pound. Mind you, car manufacturers have always hated the junkyards. Ford used to buy them up just to put them out of business. What the manufacturers want is for people to buy new cars, drive them 100,000 miles or so, and turn them back in to their dealers ­— often as substitute downpayments against new ones. Anything to keep the customer loyal. Commonly the dealer will shred the old one so the junkyards won t have any customers for their replacement parts. The less old inventory in circulation, the better the manufacturers do. They d like to make any older car an expensive proposition, the way the Japanese have with high taxes, insurance premiums and especially the safety inspection/registration fees, which can top $2,000 a time. One of the first acts of Harold Wilson s 1964 Labor government in Britain was to introduce the seven-year Ministry of Transport test, which wiped out the cheapold-car market. I had two cars when I was at Oxford just before Wilson got in, a 1937 Riley and a 1946 Wolseley. Both cost me less than 50 pounds. These days, in the United States, you see a fraction of the old cars I used to see on the roads when I began driving around America in the late 1970s. Back then, the highways were vivid with the sheens of the ’50s and ’60s, the fins, the chrome, the concave body lines of Elwood Engle, the tumid degeneration of ’60s lines as we headed into the ’70s. There were three-tone color packages in the ’50s, paisley roofs. The options on a mid-’50s Bel-Air were virtually infinite. These days: nothing but monotone Honda Accords, Subarus and Camrys as far as the eye can see. So these days, Wilbur devotes the time he used to spend packaging up molding strips and engine parts for the UPS man to fixing things in his trailers, approaching late payers at the start of the month, sometimes with one hand hovering near the .32 he keeps in his back pocket in case — as has happened more than once

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