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Tips & Tricks for Finding What You Need at the Junkyard

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on January 8, 2018
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We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. We love the junkyard. Somehow, despite the dirt and filth (and there is plenty of both), we love the idea of finding new life in parts that someone else has relegated to the smelting furnace for pennies on the dollar. We find the junkyard to be healing and calming, like a day at the spa—nay, a day on the trail.

OK, maybe were spreading it a bit thick, but truly the junkyard, if you know how to use it, can be a great place to get a great deal, find really durable parts, and even make a dime or two with your spare time. We’re always willing to learn and always willing to share, and we have plenty of darn good ideas about how to spend a day or two scrounging for hidden gems. From what to bring to what to look for and when to go, here we tell you what you need to know.

Everyone knows about the venerable GM Gen III and IV V-8s commonly (yet incorrectly) called LS engines. Chances are this Tahoe has a 4.8L or 5.3L, and its mileage determines the value. This is a good candidate (assuming the mileage is under 150,000) since it is clearly in the junkyard, having been wrecked. You want to avoid any cars that don’t have dents because they were probably scrapped due to engine failure or other major drivetrain problems. Other good “LS” engine donors would be lower-mileage 2500 and 3500 GM trucks and vans as well as Cadillac SUVs. Many of these 3/4-, 1-ton, and luxury vehicles will have the more desirable 6.0L or 6.2L engine. Don’t forget the computers, wiring harnesses, and viable auto transmissions for your project.
Some but not all vehicles at junkyards might have stickers like this that contain important information about the vehicle. This one says this 2003 Tahoe has about 220,000 miles, and that’s a lot. The engine or transmission might be good for cores, but you can bet they will need a rebuild at best. You can also check the manufacturer’s data plate inside the driver’s door to get year, make, and model, but it won’t necessarily tell you what engine is in the car and won’t tell you the mileage. Since most newer cars and SUVs have digital odometers you may be left guessing what the mileage is.
There are basically two kinds of junkyards. One dismantles cars themselves and you tell them what you need and they tell you if they have it. Prices are generally a little bit higher here because they know what they have and must pay people to dismantle them and stock the parts. The second kind of junkyard is our favorite to visit, the pick-a-part. You pay a small fee, usually under $5, to walk the yard. You have to bring tools (although some places sell or rent tools), and you pull your own parts. The key is to know what you want and what you’re looking at. This is a GM Dana 44 front axle. It can be built for 35s, 37s, maybe 38s depending on the weight of your rig and amount of power it will have. Someone has taken this one apart, which makes it not ideal unless what you need is still there.
We usually pay our entrance fee and walk the yard without tools to see if what we want is there. Then depending on what we find we can leave the yard (with the receipt or a hand stamp to reenter) to get the required tools for the job. Otherwise you’ll end up walking miles with heavy tools you may not use. We usually bring our trail tools. Don’t forget a hammer. Recently we discovered battery-operated handtools, so our JY toolkit now includes an 18-volt impact and sabre saw with a fresh pack of blades. Some yards will also lend or rent an oxyacetylene torch, but others forbid anything that could cause a spark or fire like a torch or grinder.
If you’re pulling an engine or a 3/4- or 1-ton axle, you’re going to need help. We mean probably a friend or two and some sort of a hoist. Most yards near us have these A-frame hoists. Like everything else in the yard they’re probably misused, so check the thing out before you hang an engine off it. Notice how the engine is hanging by a seatbelt? That’s because most people don’t remember to bring a chain. Fact is you can cut the webbing out of a seatbelt and, with a few knots, use it to relatively safely hold several hundred pounds. Just don’t get under it.
Our hearts always go pitter-patter when we see a solid front axle with eight lugs. We hope it will be a kingpin GM or Ford Dana 60 or at least a ball joint Ford Dana 60. This is an eight-lug Dana 44, a decent axle but not as desirable as a Dana 60. Still, it has a nice set of Warn Premium Locking Hubs. Those would be great for trail spares, or just to sell on the internet for a small profit. Just for reference these hubs sell for $130 new. Chances are the junkyard will charge $30-$40.
This is a junkyard Dana 60 front axle but not the most desirable one. It’s in a Super Duty F-350, so it will have ball joints and not-so-desirable unit bearings. It is still probably a $500-$600 axle on Craigslist and $350-$400 at the self-service wrecking yard. Also know that almost all you-pull-it yards have monthly or yearly specials (normally on holidays when traffic would otherwise be slow) when parts are 25-50 percent off. If you get really lucky you can get great deals on a part like this Dana 60.
A commonly overlooked rear axle option is this Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport Dana 44. These axles are a little bit weird but are utterly modifiable with a little research. The 1998 and newer axles with link rear suspension are a little harder to modify, but the 1997 and older axles are leaf-sprung and easier to modify with standard Dana 44 parts.
This is a rare find and something we definitely should have scooped up. Some Jeep XJs came with an optional Dana 44 rear axle. They seem to be more common in 1988 and 1989 XJs, especially the ones with “woody” siding. Either way, XJ guys love them because they are the strongest factory XJ rear axle offered. Chances are if we pulled it we’d use it in the not too distant future, and if we didn’t we could probably turn around and sell it for a $300 profit.
Here’s another possible hunk of junkyard gold. This is a GM 14-bolt, an incredibly strong rear axle that would be at home in just about any off-road truck or buggy. This one was already loose (which makes it easier to get home) and also had a tag that said “core” on it. That probably means it was a core exchange that someone pulled and returned. It could have a bad ring-and-pinion, but that might not matter to you if you plan on regearing the axle. Since it’s a core you might get it for a song. It’s worth a try!
This is the underside of a desirable 1999 and later “U-shaped” Jeep 4.0L intake manifold. These manifolds came from the factory on the last few years of the 4.0L, and some folks want them because they supposedly help the 4.0L make more power. We’ve done some inconsistent dyno testing against the older, squared-off, log-style manifold, but since this intake and engine were in the core bin we are betting you could talk the folks at the yard down a little bit on price if a part like this is something you just must have.

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