Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ford farewell: Rest in peace, loyal clunker

ST. CLOUD — So long, 1FTRW07L61KA12455, and thanks for your eight years and 178,662.7 miles of service.

That's the Vehicle Identification Number for a 2001 Ford F-150 SuperCrew Lariat pickup — one of nearly 700,000 vehicles traded in under the federal government's "cash for clunkers" program that ended last month. As a result, the truck must die.

The F-150 was one of about 40 clunkers acquired by Starling Chevrolet in St. Cloud. Under the rules of the Car Allowance Rebate System, a consumer traded in an older vehicle on a new one and received up to $4,500 toward the down payment.

The government has been slow in paying dealers, so most of them, including Starling Chevrolet, have been storing the clunkers, waiting on the individual payments to arrive before sending the cars and trucks to the salvage yard.

Last week, Starling received the government payment for the F-150, so its number came up.

Starling mechanic Chris Moon drove the truck, which still ran remarkably well, from its spot on the last row of the dealership, between two other clunkers, a Chevrolet TrailBlazer and a Chevrolet S-10.

It would be the second car "killed" today, the first being a yacht-sized Lincoln Continental that, Moon says, "did not go down without a fight."

Moon pulls the F-150 into the service bay, raises it on a lift and drains the oil. He lets it back down, opens the hood and pours in the engine-killing poison — two quarts of sodium silicate, or "liquid glass." He drives the truck to a separate spot on the back row, and the process begins.

Regulations say that Moon must keep the engine running at about 2,000 rpm, about double idle speed. After a few minutes, the liquid in the sodium silicate begins boiling off, and the remainder of the sandlike substance gets hotter and hotter, bonding itself to the internal moving parts that oil would normally lubricate.

Soon, a half-dozen other mechanics come to watch. Moon has spent 10 years at Starling trying to save ailing vehicles, and the idea of destroying a healthy one makes him and the other mechanics uncomfortable.

After six minutes, the big V-8 engine is laboring. But, Moon says from behind the tilt steering wheel, "The air conditioner is still blowing cold air."

After seven minutes and 51 seconds, the engine seizes. A wisp of smoke rises from the custom K&N air filter.

1FTRW07L61KA12455 is dead.

"And another one bites the dust," Moon says. "That was a nice truck."

The next day, a flatbed wrecker arrives from Preston's Auto Parts and Salvage Yard in Kissimmee. The F-150 is delivered to a holding area. Preston's co-owner, James Glover, looks it over.

If Moon is the reluctant assassin, Glover is the undertaker.

He pays Starling and a couple of other dealerships $50 each for the clunkers. After plucking off a few nondamaged powertrain parts, such as the alternator and air-conditioning compressor, he will remove the locked-up engine and place it in a pile with other clunker engines, and they will be crushed.

Then the truck will be rolled to the back of the yard, put up on a lift, and several workers will disassemble it.

Tires and wheels? Worth maybe $125, Glover says. Catalytic converter? $65. Transmission? $125.

And there are the doors, fenders, windows, rear axle, leather seats, air bags — all told, Glover says, he might be able to get $1,000 out of the truck, though that could take months, even years, of waiting for people to show up wanting all the right pieces.

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