When your old beater has made its last commute, there’s a better than fair chance it will end up at Lon’s Automotive, a salvage yard, mechanic shop and used-parts dealer near Bayfield.
The shop, now mostly run by Sean Parmiter, son of founder Lon Parmiter, just crushed 300 cars, bringing the number of cars in the yard to 700.
“Once we get 1,000 cars, we start running out of space,” Sean Parmiter said on a tour of the 14-acre vehicle graveyard.
Despite its size, Lon’s Automotive is actually a scaled-back operation. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Parmiters operated salvage yards off of Sawmill Road as well as Bodo Industrial Park in Durango before consolidating to the sole lot near Bayfield.
Lon Parmiter remembers planting 3-foot-tall saplings near the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory that are now 60 feet tall to create a sight barrier for the Bodo salvage yard.
“My dad sold the lots off as he got older,” said Sean Parmiter, 34.
The business traces its roots to a Chevron station Lon Parmiter, 68, bought in 1972. The Bayfield lot once served mainly as a storage site for cars coming from the Sawmill yard, Lon Parmiter said.
When finding employees to operate all three lots became difficult and paperwork started placing too many demands on his time, Lon Parmiter said it was time to simplify and consolidate at the Bayfield lot.
Picking cars for crushing is a bit like a rancher picking cattle to cull from the herd.
“I have my managers do it because it is too heartbreaking,” joked Sean Parmiter, who admits to a fondness for Fords.
In reality, there’s a science to selecting cars for the crusher, cars that are “pretty stripped out” and the glamor boats of the road: Mercedes, BMWs and Jaguars go to the crusher quickly after they arrive.
“There’s no market for used parts for Mercedes and Jaguars,” Sean Parmiter said.
If the Parmiters learn a car had been involved in a fatal accident, they also send it to the crusher. Sean Parmiter said he would not feel right selling parts from a car that had been involved in a fatal crash.
Depending on market prices, the salvage yard gets about $100 per ton of steel from cars, but the rate went as high as $300 a ton in 2008 when China hosted the Olympics and was buying recycled steel for gigantic construction projects.
Some odd-ball road warriors can carry more value than one might imagine.
Sean Parmiter remembers a call from Canada from a man desperate to get a rear axle for an all-wheel-drive ’93 Ford Tempo.
Nirvana at Lon’s Automotive often begins with a blown head gasket.
“You get to take a car off someone’s hands who doesn’t want it. You fix it up and sell it. Everyone’s happy, and it keeps my guys busy,” Sean Parmiter said.
Demand for used parts and the occasional refurbished auto keeps five employees working.
In 2003, Lon’s Automotive stopped its tow-for-hire operation, which means the Parmiters don’t know the stories about how cars end their lives at the salvage yard.
But like people, Sean Parmiter said, “Every car’s got a story to it.”
Now, the process of vehicle acquisition is more sterile. Most cars are bought from insurance companies, and the Parmiters have limited information about how vehicles come to rest in their yard.
The Parmiters often obtain their cars from auctions at an insurance holding yard in Delta.
Driving a tow truck, which Sean Parmiter did for his dad from ages 16 to 19, is a bit of a wild ride.
The account of how one S-10 Chevrolet ended up in Lon’s salvage yard is still vivid to Sean Parmiter almost 20 years later.
In the late 1990s, a young Sean was called to La Posta Road (County Road 213) for a crash involving two pickups. He remembers arriving to find in one of the pickups a woman crying – terrified after just escaping her S-10 – which hung precariously on the edge of the road over a ravine.
Sean Parmiter said he tried pulling the S-10 back on the road from the front and from the side, and when both failed, he tried pulling it from the rear.
Instead of pulling the car up, a rock holding the pickup, broke sending the truck, which Sean Parmiter remembers as being new, tumbling down the ravine.
“I had to knock on the window of the pickup and let the woman know: ‘Hey, ma’am, your truck, it’s fallen to the bottom,’” he said.
Even worse, Sean said, his dad’s insurance had to pay for the truck. “It was a horrible deal all around.”
Lon Parmiter can top his son, suffering hypothermia in the late 1980s after being called to Missionary Ridge to retrieve a Chevy Blazer that had fallen through snow.
“I broke a front hub,” Lon Parmiter said of his four-wheel-drive tow truck, “and I couldn’t even get downhill in two-wheel drive. I ran out of gas around midnight, and it had just snowed like 2 feet. It can get crazy out there.”