Junkyard Parts: When to Scrap and When to Save

You know the saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That sentiment most definitely extends to shopping for junkyard parts. Before we dive into the different gems you can unearth at the scrapyard, it’s important to keep a couple things in mind.

First, these may be areas where junk and scrap are sent, but they are far from a landfill. Generally speaking, most junkyards are actually quite organized. Depending on the size and success of the yard, cars and parts may be arranged by manufacturer or even vehicle type. Second, it goes a LONG way to have a good idea of what you’re looking for before you head in. We said they’re usually organized—that doesn’t mean you’ll magically find the needle in the haystack. It’s worth checking online or visiting an office on-site to see if your local spot offers a map (many do), as this will greatly help you on your search for quality junkyard parts.

Ready to jump into the junk? Let’s see what’s worth scrapping and what’s worth saving.

Intake Manifolds

Personally, the only performance intake manifolds I’ve purchased were aftermarket parts through the classifieds. The chances of finding a good one at the junkyard will be slim, but not impossible. And regardless of where you’re buying it, or whether it’s aftermarket or OEM, the process of looking one over doesn’t really change.

The first thing to look for is cracks or severe wear. You don’t want to work with a manifold that has serious leak issues. Hot Rod Network points out that, “It’s very common to see hashed threads or Helicoils in the carb mounting pad, as well as in other spots on the manifold. Pay special attention to threads for thermostat housings.”

Additionally, make sure it’s the right part to actually fit your engine. This includes looking for any signs that the previous owner may have modified the part.

Cylinder Heads

Buying used cylinder heads can be a touchy topic. A lot of the information out there either comes from forums supporting it or suppliers arguing against it. One thing that is definite though: used cylinder heads are not a cheap solution. Most times, scoring junkyard parts can save you a lot of money. And in some cases, used cylinder heads may be more affordable, but for the most part you will need to have them machined and rebuilt.

If you decide to go the junkyard route, there’s a few things to check. First, make sure the used heads are not warped beyond repair. A few thousandths of an inch is fixable, but you need to be aware of the exact head you’re working with and how milling the heads will affect the compression. Additionally, if a valve or bolt was in the cylinder, the head may be chewed up beyond all repair and you need to be aware of this possibility.

As far as what’s actually worth buying, it really comes down to the application and how much work you are willing to do to increase performance. Before heading to the junkyard, make sure you’re familiar with casting codes and designs. For example, if you are a Mopar big block builder, knowing the difference between 915 heads and 516 heads can save you hundreds of dollars at the machine shop. Similarly, small block Chevy builders will want to look for “camel hump” heads, while Oldsmobile rocket builders will need to know the difference between 5a and 7a casting codes, as this will tell you whether or not the valve seats are hardened.

Practice Makes Perfect

Even if you don’t intend to ever run cylinder heads from the junkyard on an engine, there is still a great value in purchasing scrap heads. Learning to port and polish heads is a great way to make free horsepower and improve an engine’s run quality. And what better heads to practice on than those sitting in a junk pile?


The days of heading to the scrapyard to buy a second gen Hemi or Chevy big block are over; however, the days of snagging a late-model LS, Ford 5.0, or a third gen Hemi are upon us. Ford performance engines are easy to spot in the yard, as they are tied to performance cars, but Hemi and LS platforms are abundant and may be hiding under the hood of a vehicle most would overlook. LS and Hemi engines are often pulled from trucks like RAMs, Durangos, Silverados, and Tahoes for muscle car builds.

When it comes to junkyard parts, knowing what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at are two different things. Each person’s demands of an engine from the junkyard is going to be different and because of this, standards will vary. For example, a person looking for just a block, won’t be concerned with many missing or damaged parts. As long as the block itself is in good condition, everything else is just a bonus. But the person looking for an entire engine assembly in working condition will need to be much more thorough. You need to remember that a vehicle is in the junkyard for a reason—and it can very well be because something went wrong with the engine.


The same holds true for transmissions. When a transmission fails, its replacement or repair costs may very well outweigh the value of the vehicle in the owners eyes. Often, it’s easier to scrap the car and move on.

This isn’t to steer people away from looking for cores in the yards, though. Today’s standards for transmissions are very high and a lot of people will go looking for these parts for repair jobs, as well as performance builds. But again, the standards will vary from person to person. Someone who is looking for a THM-350 for a usable core as part of a performance build will have a different standard then someone looking to get their Hyundai back up and running. In any case, you’ll want to do your best to look for any and all indications that the transmission you are after is in prime condition for your demands.

Like most other junkyard parts, when eyeing up a used transmission look for any obvious damage or missing parts, and pull the dipstick to look for any discoloration or bad smells. For a manual, check the clutch and shifter and see if there’s any binding or sticking. Ultimately though, transmissions can be tricky to assess so it’s worth looking whether or not your junkyard offers any warranties or returns.

Get Diggin’

Junkyard parts can save you a lot of money, especially when you’re wrenching on a budget. But despite where you fall in the debate over used OE parts vs new aftermarket parts, hitting the salvage yard comes with its own risks. Do your homework and make sure the parts you’re pulling are the actual parts you need. Bring your own tools and expect to spend a few hours digging. And most of all, bring a buddy. If you’re new to scrapping, you’ll want someone who understands the lay of the land. Plus it’s always nice to have a helping hand when hauling heavy parts.

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