Feature Story

HOW TO BUY CAR PARTS

by Bob Hagin

January 24, 1997

If you suddenly decided that it would be a great weekend project to duplicate that car or truck that's in your garage by assembling another out of a complete pile of new parts, you'd be in for a big surprise. It would probably cost you three or four times the price of the original vehicle and that wouldn't include the labor of putting it together. You'd have to supply the elbow grease yourself.

But regardless of their cost, parts are a necessity. I've never encountered a car or truck that didn't eventually need replacement parts unless the owner sealed it up in a time capsule, got rid of it before it's first oil and filter change or didn't drive it enough to wear out the original tires. And if you depend on someone else to take care of your vehicle, you still qualify as an auto parts buyer - but through a third party. But where to get the right part at the right price can be a problem.

Needless to say, auto parts and accessories can be purchased from many sources and some of those sources may come as a surprise to you:

GROCERY AND DRUG STORES - While cruising down the aisles of your favorite food market or pharmacy, you may pass by a display of motor oils, air filters, automotive chemicals and some driver's aids like ice scrapers, etc. They have recognizable brands as well of off-beat names that may or may not be of very good quality. Just don't expect the clerk at the checkout stand to perform an oil and filter change for you.

AUTO PARTS CHAIN - The aftermarket auto parts business is multi-billion dollars in scope and some heavy hitters are in the game. Several of the "small" auto parts chains around the country are actually owned by huge corporations that market them as separate entities. They offer fairly good quality parts at reasonable prices but very often their sales people aren't "car folks" since the pay is usually very low. Most times they can't help you with what ails your vehicle and simply supply the part you ask for. It's been my experience that often the part is wrong because the clerk picked up the wrong box or the wrong part was put in the right box at the off-shore factory. When you buy here, know what you need and take the old part with you for a visual comparison.

MASS-MERCHANDISER - You can also buy auto parts and accessories at the same place you buy clothes, appliances, bedding and shoes. And when you buy them, you can put the purchases on your credit card. These retailers usually restrict themselves to fast-moving items like tires, batteries and ancillary items like snow chains and such. The merchandise they sell often carries their own names but is usually made by a quality manufacturer who puts its buyer's brand name on the product. Good quality but don't expect much personalized service.

SMALL NEIGHBORHOOD PART STORES - The place where I usually buy my parts is typical. It's been in the same place for 30 years or more, has always had the same name and many the same guys have been there the entire time. They've "matured" from smart young enthusiasts to crotchety old guys, but they really know their parts and if you go very often, they get to know you by name. They sell "hard parts" (pistons, valves, bearings, etc.) but often have accessories and hot-rod parts as well.

NEW CAR DEALERSHIPS - The place where you bought your car obviously knows the exact part you need and the people behind the counter have gone to factory schools and been certified for their proficiency. Their stock of parts can run into millions of dollars and they always have the latest information on updates. If they don't have the part you need, they usually have one-or-two day delivery from a factory warehouse.

DISMANTLING YARDS - They used to be called junk yards but when it began to involve seven and eight figures, the business went upscale. Body sections (called "clips" in the trade, I'm told) are the main money-makers for these recyclers but they also have perfectly usable low-mileage engines, transmissions, alternators, etc., that are usually guaranteed as long or longer than the average rebuilt part and at very reasonable prices. And unless you're dealing with an old-time yard, you don't have to wallow in the mud to pull the part off yourself.

CATALOG SALES - Like all catalog businesses, those that deal with auto parts have proliferated like toadstools after a rain storm. Most are put out by specialty houses that deal in race car equipment, vintage auto restorations or special auto tools. They sometimes provide the only source of parts for rare cars and trucks. The one exception I can think of is the J.C. Whitney & Co. catalog that has been in publication since shortly after World War II. It still contains everything from engine rebuild kits to fuzzy dice to hang from your rear view mirror.

SWAP MEETS - The parts you find at auto swap meets (we aficionados don't like the term "flea market") range from those sold by professional rebuilders to rusty trash brought out by their owners as an excuse to spend a day with old friends. Some meets are held on an anything-goes basis (as long as the items are auto-related) to very specialized events that target parts for VW Bugs or for British cars. They're as much a spectator event as they are serious business ventures and I always attend. I rarely buy anything but I always have a good time.

There are lots of places where you can buy parts and accessories for your vehicle. Some are better than others, some easier and some cheaper. In coming weeks, we'll explore how to learn to install them yourself.

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