Carini: Parts cars have been good to me

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Sometimes parts cars just make the most sense for a project. I’ve certainly had a few winners over the years.

In 1969, for example, I found a completely stripped 1968 Pontiac Firebird sitting in the parking lot of a local bank. The owner had bought the six-month-old pony car with a lot of help from the bank. It was originally fitted with the six-cylinder over-head-cam engine, but the guy immediately gutted the interior and pulled the engine, transmission, and rear end with plans to build a drag car. After he sold off the major components, he defaulted on the loan and the bank repossessed the Firebird. My dad knew the bank president and approached him to negotiate buying the car for a few hundred dollars.

I soon had a nice-looking hulk of a car that couldn’t even roll. That’s when I heard about a body shop nearby with a 1967 Pontiac GTO that had been hit hard and totaled. The best part was that it had a low-mile 400-cubic-inch V-8. I bought the wrecked GTO and stripped it before I had the carcass towed away. I kept the strong engine, four-speed transmission, and rear axle, as well as a bunch of other really good bits and pieces. It took a few weeks to install the new drivetrain, but we got it running and sounding fantastic thanks to a pair of Cherry Bomb mufflers. It also looked fantastic, with big rear tires and smaller fronts in the best drag-racing tradition. To keep those big rear tires in touch with the pavement, we fitted traction bars. I never did bother to install carpets, insulation, or a headliner, which meant it was really loud inside.

I probably shouldn’t admit it, but I used that fast Pontiac to drag-race at night. The stakes were usually $50, and I won most of the time. The car that consistently beat the Firebird didn’t look like much: It was a former State of Connecticut four-door Dodge Dart painted primer gray. The guy had stuffed a 426 Hemi into it, though, and that car just ran away from what I thought was an unbeatable Pontiac.

When I rebuilt the wrecked VW Super Beetle I drove from my parents’ house in Connecticut to college in Idaho, we found a similar Beetle at Camerota auto recyclers in Massachusetts. It had a good nose, fenders, bumper, and lighting. It even had the same silver-blue color as the Beetle I had. We bought the whole car so that we could remove the front clip at home without damaging it. Once we had it stripped, we were able to use the components to assemble one good car. And using the parts car meant we paid less for parts than if we had bought them individually.

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Dragging away a parts car wasn’t always the answer, of course. In fact, most times it was more fun to spend a day wandering through a scrap yard with my dad looking for something specific. We usually went to Pandolfe’s Auto Parts or to Corona’s in Hartford, which was the size of two city blocks and was run by the Corona brothers. The best way to tell them apart was by the cigar one of them always had in his mouth. Everybody knew each other, and when we’d pull in the lot, they’d come out to greet Dad with something like, “ Whaddyaneed today, Bob?” Despite the size of the yard, one or the other of the brothers would know where everything was. If Dad said he needed a nose for a ’69 Pontiac, the reply was immediate: “Go to row 16.”

My father would go look and pick out the nose he wanted, then we’d go back and pull the part. If a car was hit in the front, we’d buy a full nose or a 3/4 nose (with only one fender). We’d bring our own tools and go and take it off the car. If the junkyard guys removed the part, they would tend to scratch or damage it. We took great care and would wrap it in blankets so it wouldn’t get battered in transit.

Whether we bought the entire car for parts or just the parts we needed, we always chose used over new. They usually fit better, they always cost less, and sometimes they were even the right color.

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