Arm Yourself for a Parts Safari

I’ve been going on parts safaris at flea markets, swap meets, garage sales and car shows for quite a few years now and, in that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to maximize the experience. Much of that has to do with being properly equipped.

Before you embark, it’s a good idea to do a bit of homework first. If you have a particular part in mind, let’s say a starter for a 1949 Dodge Club Coupe for example, it’s a good idea to know a fair price for this part as well as what other starter(s) would be interchangeable. I recommend the Old Car Parts Locating Guide from Garden of Speedin’  for finding sources of parts I’m looking for. By contacting them, I get an idea of cost from several sources to establish a fair price range. Published in both print and CD-ROM formats, I prefer to use the disc version and print out the info I need.

I also frequently use Hollander Interchange Manuals to find out what choices I have for alternative parts that will work for my purposes. Hollander has a number of comprehensive (albeit somewhat expensive) generic manuals that cover all makes and models through a range of years. For information on alternative choices and what fits what, Hollander is definitely the source.

Once you’ve done your research, make a list of parts and other items you are looking for, since it will help you to stay focused when hunting for parts. Also make sure you have a pen in case you want to take down a vendor’s phone number, an address or other information.

A cell phone is another piece of gear you should have with you on your parts safaris. And make sure you have the number of your local garage, parts store and other mechanical specialists in your phone if you have a tech question about something – two heads are often better than one, and a cell phone makes accessing that other person’s head a whole lot easier.

Parts hunting can be thirsty work, so have some bottled water along to wet your whistle. More often than not, used parts are greasy and grimy, so a pair of disposable latex or nitrile gloves is a good thing as well. You might opt to have some heavier work gloves with you if nitrile or latex isn’t your preference or you expect to be handling parts that would warrant thicker gloves.

A magnifying glass or pocket magnifier is handy for close-up inspections of parts, seeing stamped part numbers, casting marks and for detecting cracks or other flaws.

A digital camera can be useful for several purposes. When comparison shopping, it’s great to have a picture of one vendor’s offering when looking at a similar item from another seller. Having a picture of another seller’s item often gives you some bargaining leverage if the vendor knows he has some real competition only an aisle or two away.

And, if you’ve had the foresight to take a picture of the broken part you need to replace, or where the part is supposed to go, having such visual reference may help to jog a vendor’s mind to something in his inventory that isn’t conspicuously displayed.

Taking a shot of a potential purchase is also a good thing if you’re not totally convinced you want to buy it on the spot. Again, taking the photograph gives you a little more leverage when you tell the seller, “I’ll have to think about it” – he may drop the price a few bucks more to make the sale immediately rather than risk losing it when you walk away.

A digital multimeter is great when shopping for automotive electrical items. Virtually all multimeters have a continuity function built in, and many of them have audio feedback as well. So, if you’re interested in purchasing a switch, for example, attach the multimeter to the switch contacts, set it for continuity, and you should hear it beep when you turn the switch to the “on” position, denoting a completely closed circuit. Likewise, the beep should stop when you turn the switch to the “off” position.

If you’re shopping for an alternator or generator, have a 3-foot length of heavy twine or light rope along with you. Wind the twine or rope around the pulley like it’s a child’s top and, with a digital multimeter attached to the terminals, pull the rope and watch the meter to see if any voltage is being generated. Now, while this won’t guarantee that it’s working perfectly, at least it will let you know if it’s as dead as a doornail or if it’s putting out any current at all, so you can make your purchase decision based on that.

Schlepping parts around gets old in a hurry, so bring a cart to tote your stuff. I prefer to use a lightweight, compact, folding luggage cart. It’s quite small and only weighs a couple of pounds when folded so it’s easy to carry, yet it does an admirable job of transporting my treasures comfortably and easily. Having a couple of extra bungee cords to secure your booty to the cart is a good idea, too.

Speaking of schlepping, a battery lifter is another good thing to have with you when you’re shopping for a battery. While you certainly wouldn’t want to traipse around for hours carrying a battery, a battery lifter makes toting one a whole lot easier than carrying it with both hands until you get it back to the parking lot.

A digital caliper is essential for wear examination when tolerances are crucial, such as with disc brake rotors. You can also use a pincer-type analog caliper as well, although I personally prefer the digital units for easier readouts.

If you need to check out some larger items, a big 24” aluminum caliper is light weight and can also be used for measuring everything from brake drum diameters to bumper height or other larger-scale measuring tasks.

Paint hides a lot of things, so when shopping for parts like fenders or trunk lids, for example, it’s good to know where the metal ends and the bondo begins beneath the paint. A magnetic paint gauge is just the tool for this job and it fits easily into your shirt pocket.

You may need to check if something is out of round – items like wheel rims, brake discs and pulleys, to name just a few – and a dial indicator that measures runout is just the ticket for doing this. Bring one along if these or similar parts are on your list.

If you buy an engine block without checking it with a dial-type cylinder bore gauge, you’re asking to be taken to the cleaners. Remember that cylinder bores wear unevenly due to power stroke crank rotational thrust and ring momentum, creating out of round, tapered bores. You can measure the severity of this condition with a good cylinder bore gauge.

If you’re looking for wheels for your ride, then you should have a bolt circle tool available. These are easy to tote and accurately measure 5 lug bolt patterns from 4” to 5½” diameter. It takes the guess work out of buying wheels that will fit.

A set of universal thread gauges fits easily in the pocket and it makes identifying nut or bolt thread sizes easy. They’ especially useful when looking for a special-purpose bolt, an odd-sized stud or you just want to stock up on fastening hardware in sizes you’re likely to use often.

So remember to do a bit of forward thinking before you set out on your next parts safari, take along the right tools and remember to have fun – because that’s what this hobby is all about!

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