Project Auto Recycler Part I: Not All That Goes “Clunk” Is Junk

Recycling an old car by restoring it and keeping it on the road is the ultimate future car project. Amanda Savercool details her recycling of a Datsun 510 wagon.
datsun 510 wagon
Datsun 510 Wagon - photos by Eric Simpson
by Amanda Savercool

Out of The Past, A Future Car

Most everyone has finally grown a conscience when it comes to the car they drive. The collective groan at the first spike in gas prices was followed immediately by the quick and easy swap of SUV for anything smaller and lighter. Now look at us—alternative fuel combinations, and even ditching gas altogether, is a trend. The trend has resulted in a race for automakers to produce the best and most efficient end-all solution to our petrol dependency. Like Willy Wonka's, we can imagine their factories billowing from research and development, shrouded in mystery, churning out one after another little plastic box which runs on the newest battery, or maybe fizzy lifting drink.

Nobody knows how to study an automotive trend like SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association), and they've had their eye on the the “Cash For Clunkers” program. These kinds of programs, first offered in Europe, sounded smart enough: people surrender their old vehicles in exchange for some kind of rebate or offer which would go toward purchasing a new vehicle. Taking gross polluters, as some old cars are, off the road is of course a step in the right direction; however, not all old cars are bad for the environment. As SEMA points out, the program singles out cars for their age rather than emissions, and here in the U.S., bill proposals to the Senate intend to make scrap out of any car old enough to be exempt from a smog test. This is, of course, based on the assumption that old cars stink.

Truth is, if an old car is stinky, it needs to be fixed, and oftentimes the fix is easier than any on a modern production vehicle. Take, for instance, my 1971 Datsun 510 wagon. I bought the car two years ago for $2500 from a Datsun swap meet, and it came with a Slayer sticker in 12-inch lettering plastered across the back windshield.

datsun 510 slayer

The car sounded as mean as that sticker looked, which ended up being because of a leak in the exhaust pipe that was emitting noxious fumes under the car at the driver's seat. Though dizzying and somewhat mind-altering, it was bad for the air and myself, and so I immediately stopped at a muffler shop and paid $30 for a quick weld. Thus began the trip down the road of a recycled car, which in the long run has proven to be less expensive, and dare I say better for the environment, than purchasing a modern production vehicle.


Remember, the traditional process that goes into the making of a car involves the use of a lot of raw materials: steel, aluminium, plastic, rubber and iron. The production of these materials produces a lot of bad by-products, including sulfur dioxide, coal, lead, CFCs, and overall use of energy, to start. In addition, the disposal of old cars, involving tires, batteries, and oil, contributes further to the waste production of one vehicle; all cars are constantly in a state of being reclaimed by the earth. More than likely, the steel collected in the proposed U.S. scrappage program will probably be sold to China. So, before crunching that clunker into a cube for sales overseas, why not let me have a few parts to keep my car running? After all, it's likely that my old car produces less waste in its lifetime than that which is produced with a new car.

The first step in making a car's recycling worthwhile, though, is to choose the right one. I first bought a Datsun when I was in college, with $2000 saved. I flipped through the auto trader, looking mostly at Honda's from the '80s, when I came across the ugliest car I had ever seen: a Datsun F10 (called a Cherry in Japan). I had to see it in person to know that it was even real, and when it showed up, it made me laugh so hard that I bought it. Turns out it really was cherry—the car was owned by an elderly woman husband who had passed away, and the car sat in storage ever since. I drove that car for 4 years until it was hit while parked on the street, which totalled it (compared to it's worth, a shopping cart could have totalled it).

So, with the money I received from that Datsun's demise, I went out and bought another one. This 1971 Datsun 510 wagon was not in as good of shape as the first, since obviously the engine was leaking oil from every possible seam in the engine, as you can see in this “before” photo

datsun 510 oil leaks
Oil leaks galore

and exhaust fumes were overwhelming. This model of Japanese car, however, is the best sort of example for the “tabula rasa” needed to recycle a car. Engine models that came after the cars from the '70s only get more efficient, and the car's engine bay is big enough to accommodate pretty much any power plant. Plus, the Datsun/Nissan's engineering doesn't get any simpler—it's the textbook definition of “car.” Small, made from steel, and sturdy, these cars were built to last. So why not give them a chance?

Pros - the benefits of reusing an old car

This is the first benefit of an old car—you can do anything with it. Keep that small frame out of the junkyard, and the junkyard becomes your thrift store for accessorizing. For my Five and Dime, I've chosen an engine from a later-model Datsun (an L20B), with the same five-speed transmission from that Datsun, so it has plenty of power to hang with the big boys on the freeway, and it's only a stock Datsun motor from the '70s (people put late-model Nissan engines in this car). But wait—there's no need to be intimidated by the phrase “engine swap”—I know a thing or two about cars, but truth be told, I paid someone to do it.

The truth is, with the internet being the vast resource that it is, there's nothing about a car you can't figure out on your own, and experts are easy to find. The good thing about many old cars is the group of people that still drive them. They are fiercely proud, and incredibly knowledgable, so if you find a few of the “members” of your car's “club,” you can ask them questions, and eventually learn new things. Before long, you have new friends, a new hobby, and with each improvement you make, your car is more eco-friendly. Let's admit it, everyone's car has become a small extension of their identity, and an old car isn't like every other car on the road looking like a melted bar of soap.

Those cars, even at their most affordable base level, are still more expensive than the cost of revamping a used car. If you know enough to do the repairs yourself, it can be as easy as a stop at the Pick Your Part for some obscure piece off a newer car for your old one. But even if you pay someone to do all the work for you, it's still less expensive. I'm not ashamed—I paid an expert Japanese engine mechanic $1200 to completely rebuild my Datsun's engine. This means he re-bores the pistons to make them pretty, and cleans out all the gutty works to make the engine as if it were new again. Keep in mind you are not paying a montly car payment, and say you saved the amount of a car note every month to put toward rebuilding your car. It would end up being reliable, with low mpgs and emissions, in probably less than a year. Even the most economical model on the market can't compete with these savings.

Cons - the downside to hands on car recycling

datsun 510 front seats
Aged Upholstery

Of course, all this takes more time than stepping on to a lot, pointing at a car, signing a paper and driving home with a brand new vehicle. DIY auto recycling takes time to gather parts and do research. It proves to be a very rewarding feeling, but nonetheless, requires constant work, since most repairs happen over time if you are not rich enough to drop your car off at a mechanic with a big fat check. Also, the “creature comforts” are lacking in an old car, and these repairs usually come last, after important things like engine, brakes, and suspension. Take a look at the condition of my seats on the 510 when I bought it. I eventually located a guy local to me who had his seats re-uphostered, then decided to swap them out for seats from a recent-model Nissan. I bought both for $75, but it took a few weeks before I found the guy.

So now that you've heard the first and worst about “Project Auto Recycler,” I will next show you a few “after” photos with some details of repair in the story to come. So take a good look at this

datsun 510 no engine
The Datsun of the future will have an engine

while the engine is at the shop getting a model makeover. It's not as hard as scary as it looks—I'm a lady, and I swear to you, automotive recycling is a better hobby than sewing. In the end, I will give you some numbers, and show you a car that better in the long run for the environment, with a low-cost in maintenance, plenty of room for four people and baggage, and lots of style.

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