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The saying, "One man's junk is another man's treasure" has never been more true than it is with old car parts. Several times I have stopped myself short of throwing out what I considered to be useless parts, just so later on I could stuff them in the back of my truck for a trip to the local swap meet. For the most part, I ended up selling what I planned to throw away; you never can tell what others may see as a gem.
My father handed down his knowledge of finding parts and picking up bargains to me at a young age. A veteran himself of thousands of swap meets and countless hours in wrecking yards, he possessed vast parts knowledge. Each trip was a learning experience for me, and we would always come home with something interesting and valuable.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Past treasure-hunting experiences taught me that there is no real science in finding parts, but rather it's a step-by-step process. And that process starts by understanding what it is you're looking for. Now, that many sound dumb, but looking for something that doesn't exist -- say, a four-barrel intake for an engine that never came equipped with a four-barrel carburetor -- is even dumber. This is an obvious example, but you get the point. Do your homework before you start your search.
One way of educating yourself is to pay a visit to your local wrecking yard and look through their inventory. Many times, I have gone simply to look or take a measurement. A recent example: I was looking for a certain style of power-steering pump case. I was able to find what was left of a pump that had the style of case I was looking for.
I noted the year and make of the vehicle, and called around to other wrecking yards to see if they might have the part. Using the information that I gleaned at the wrecking yard, I was able to make a knowledgeable request.
As it turned out, a used part was not available, and a new-parts source was my only option. Again, using the information I had gained from my visit to the wrecking yard, I knew what to ask for when speaking to the counter person. This is particularly helpful, unless you know a parts vendor that doesn't mind dragging out his entire inventory for you to examine.
DON'T GIVE UP. If you know what it is you're looking for and you think the part is too old to get through your local discount parts store, you might be surprised. Once, while looking for a dimmer switch for a 1954 Chevrolet, I called around to a few stores and was told that the part was too old for them to carry. A trip to the wrecking yard revealed that Chevrolet used the same switch up to at least 1967.
The switch was available from the parts store for a 1967 Chevy, but not for a 1954. Most discount parts stores have computer inventories and are limited to about 25 years. So when asking for parts older than this, a trip to the wrecking yard might be a good way to learn the last model year that used the part you're looking for.
Local car clubs and club-sponsored swap meets offer another option for locating new and used parts for older vehicles. Swap meets are your best source for hard-to-find parts for a particular make and model. Each year, our local Edsel Club has a swap meet that's open to the public. Members and nonmembers alike bring their parts to sell and trade.
While parts from other makes and models are available, Edsel parts are available in abundant numbers. During this year's swap meet, I ran across a gentleman who had a large collection of new old stock (NOS) Edsel parts. Where else could an owner purchase a new clock for his Edsel? NOS parts are offered primarily through swap meets and through classified advertisements. Don't ever give up on locating a hard-to-find part. It's out there...somewhere!
SWAPPING KNOWLEDGE. The swap meet offers more than just used parts. They offer information -- used, that is. Old books, manuals, and brochures can be found at most meets. I have a fairly complete set of Hollander Interchange Manuals that I have picked up over the years at meets. These used manuals are a great source for parts information. They catalog and cross-reference thousands of parts, showing which parts for certain makes, models, and years interchange.
Original factory shop manuals that are not in reproduction can be found at swap meets and through specialty vendors that deal in this type of material. The same is true for owner's manuals and sales brochures. Sales brochures are an excellent source for paint-color information, and to find what options were available for a particular make and year.
Garage and estate sales are excellent sources for tools and parts. A few years ago, I picked up a very fine example of a 1967 Lincoln and a ton of NOS parts at an estate sale. Car covers and tools are the type of deals you can find at garage sales. Many times sellers will advertise in the newspaper if they have tools or auto parts for sale.
WEB WATCH. The Internet is quickly becoming the largest source of new and used parts information in one location. Online classified ads and auctions present themselves as the future key to locating and purchasing hard-to-find parts. More and more of the larger wrecking yards are going online. Many offer locator services and worldwide shipping of parts.
Online auctions present sellers and buyers alike a forum that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making it easier and more convenient to search for and purchase hard-to-locate parts and literature. Searching for treasure is fast becoming a stay-at-home process.
In the end, you still need to know what it is you're looking for, and doing your homework is the best way to get started looking for the parts your need.