In 2009, I worked at a major car dealer that was part of one of a large network of car dealerships in the Northeast. I was responsible for making sure the lot was in order, preparing newly purchased cars for delivery ,and explaining to customers the features of their newly purchased vehicles. It just so happened that during the summer of 2009, the U.S. government also implemented its notorious "Car Allowance Rebate System," C.A.R.S., better known as "Cash for Clunkers" — which used a credit worth up to $4,500 to incentivize the public to trade in old gas-guzzling vehicles for brand-new fuel-efficient models.
The stated goal of the program was to get these old vehicles off the road and replace them with newer models that were less polluting and more technologically advanced, all while supposedly jump-starting an auto industry that was still reeling from the great recession of the year prior. This didn’t quite work out, as postmortem studies have shown that the program was a bit of a clunker itself.
Regardless, the old vehicles that were traded in were immediately tagged as property of the U.S. government, making them ineligible for resale and destined for the scrap yard. There was always a week or so of downtime, though, after the customer handed over the keys — during which the vehicle just sat around, awaiting its fate. What ensued was exactly what you might expect for a bunch of old, valueless vehicles sitting around at a dysfunctional car dealership.
Here’s an honest look back at what it was like to work at a dealership during Cash For Clunkers:
Chaos. It felt like everyone under the sun came out to turn in their old F-150 or Buick Riviera for a new, fuel-efficient car. This led to a massive influx of old vehicles, which meant chaos in the parking lot. It was already hard enough to keep track of the keys to every vehicle on the lot — but with around three times as many vehicles being traded in every day, it became nearly impossible.
Demolition Derbies. One morning I came to work to find a coworker busily wedging newly traded clunkers onto a small concrete pad on the back lot. I mean this in every sense of the word — he was literally holding a one-man demolition derby, ramming these cars against each other just to fit as many as possible into this small area. I stood there in disbelief as he then proceeded to hop out and punt the passenger side mirror off of a Mercury Grand Marquis before climbing onto its hood and stomping on it in a brief, inexplicable fit of rage. I can say with confidence that more than a few vehicles underwent this torture from more than a few dealership employees. Burnouts, misuse of the clutch pedal and other drivetrain experiments: What a remarkable ode to the American auto industry.
Looting. For whatever reason, customers would leave accessories and aftermarket parts on the vehicles when they traded them in. Many of these parts would have been important for the resale prospects of the vehicle — shift knobs, stereo head units, tool kits, etc. But in this case, nobody seemed to care, since everything was being crushed. Right or wrong, that meant anything that wasn’t bolted down was basically up for grabs once the car was signed over, and salespeople descended upon these things like hawks once the keys were handed over.
Lobotomies. This was tough to watch in some cases, but also highly entertaining. Eventually, every vehicle would be driven over to a big storage lot behind all the car dealerships on the property, where a few technicians would pop the hood, drain the oil, pour sodium silicate into the engine and then wail on the accelerator until everything seized up. The whole process usually took less than two minutes. Afterwards, the remaining vehicle carcass was pushed off to a nearby car carrier and hauled off to the scrap yard.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I also worked at a car dealership during Cash for Clunkers, and I, too, witnessed every single thing described here! –Doug)
In the end, Cash for Clunkers was really kind of a bleak concept, and it’s a shame that a better program couldn’t have been implemented instead. I remember that shortly after it ended, a number of automotive publications came out with lists of iconic vehicles that were rumored to have been destroyed under the program. Ultimately, most of these rumors turned out to be untrue, but it was still disheartening to see so many vehicles succumb to the wrath of sodium silicate. Nonetheless, I found it fascinating to be part of such a big ordeal at the time, and it was a chapter in my automotive career I won’t ever forget. Find a used car for sale
Update: After the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn, there is speculation that Cash for Clunkers could return.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.