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'Junkyard Dog' Ron Kowalke strikes again

Ron Kowalke, aka "The Junkyard Dog," loves salvage yards. We mean, he REALLY loves salvage yards. Frankly, he loves them a little more than a grown man should. So Ron was pretty much as close as he's going to get to heaven here on Earth recently when he showed up at Klinger's Auto Parts in Pine Grove, Pa.
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As many salvage yards as I’ve visited in my years of writing about them, you’d think I’d be over getting distracted when touring a yard. Me maintain focus? No such luck. I’m oohing and aahing like a little kid running wild with his first sparkler on the Fourth of July as the sky rockets explode overhead. My head snaps around so much while I’m walking among the rows of cars, my chiropractor threatened to stop adjusting me because I constantly ruin her alignment work.

My usual attention deficit is bad enough, but it went into redline territory when I visited Klinger’s Auto Parts & Recycling in Pine Grove, Pa. The main reason for this sensory overload? I’ll call it “the great wall” and we’re not talking brick and mortar, here. What we’re talking about is a wall — or in this case, a “beauty” fence — constructed of approximately 4,500 cars, stacked five to seven high, that nearly surrounds the 20-acre salvage yard.

Truth is, I couldn’t take my eyes off that darn wall. Four hours of touring the yard, which itself is filled with interesting vintage vehicles, but it was that patchwork car quilt of a wall that kept luring me back to the perimeter of the grounds to play “guess the model” for those 1950s through ’80s vehicles that compose this unique fence.

According to yard owner Dean Klinger, it took him the better part of 10 years to complete the wall of cars, which he started in 1981. It was the first time I’ve visited a salvage yard where the owner understood not only the business significance of his yard, but also the value of the yard’s make-up and its ability to draw new and repeat customers based on the word-of-mouth “buzz” it creates.

Klinger’s salvage yard is well-known on the East Coast. In fact, it was introduced to me by the wife of another yard owner (see Hoffert’s sidebar) who highly recommended my visit there.

Not having even made it totally up the inclined entrance to the yard, I already knew my visit to Klinger’s was going to be time well spent. Again, to generate buzz, Klinger has constructed a foundation of cars and trucks from the 1930s through ’50s, topped pyramid-fashion by a 1957 Ford panel delivery, on the hill overlooking the drive into the yard. It’s just a conversation starter. Once inside and the car wall comes into view, you’re basically left speechless.

Not having much to say is not a problem when speaking with Klinger. He’s been in the auto salvage and recycling business since he was a teenager, and has a lot of great stories to tell. (Fires starting in cars being flat towed back to the yard in the early days seems to be a favorite subject.) Being a good listener will net you interesting stories about cars, mixed in among savvy tips on how modern wrecking yards should be run to remain both profitable and good citizens within their communities. In that regard, it helps that Klinger has purchased all the large tracts of land surrounding his yard to avoid having to deal with neighbors who would not appreciate having a prime view of a wall of Detroit’s finest.

“I started in the scrap business in 1973 at my parent’s place,” Klinger explained. “I moved to this location in Pine Grove in 1977. I worked at other jobs [on the side] until 1981, when I went into business full time.”

As astute a businessman as Klinger is in the salvage industry, he admits that he “just stepped into it” as a career choice early in life.

“I worked at the Pine Grove gas station as a kid,” Klinger recalled. “I rode my motorcycle in the hills, and saw all this scrap metal lying around for free. I bought an old 1946 Chevy pickup and started hauling scrap for $50 a load. That was a goldmine for a kid.”
Wise beyond his years, Klinger re-invested his money into his thriving scrap business, or as he put it simply, “One thing led to another.”

He next bought a cutting torch to section the larger pieces of scrap in the hills that he couldn’t previously attack with a hacksaw. He then purchased a used tow boom to install in the bed of his Chevy pickup to haul whole cars. His next buy was a trailer to haul the cars that couldn’t be towed.

When he started operating the Pine Grove yard full time in 1981, he bought a roll-back hauler and things really took off. He joked, “I didn’t need to cut it up, and it didn’t need wheels. I’d just winch it up and go.”

In hearing about how his parents allowed him to operate a scrap business on their property as a teenager, it’s surprising to hear Klinger admit that his father never wanted him to go into the auto wrecking and recycling business. Klinger actually tried a different career path for a while, but it didn’t pan out. “I went to trade school to be a machinist,” Klinger said, “but I quit because I didn’t like school.”

Seeing the thriving business he built from scratch, Klinger appears to have made the correct career choice. When scrap metal reached a record high $14 per hundred pounds in mid-summer, Klinger relied on containers he made from former service station underground fuel tanks to get scrap hauling trucks in, filled and back on the road within 20 minutes. “Time is money,” is Klinger’s oft-repeated motto.

While current capacity of the 20-acre yard is 3,000 vehicles, Klinger said he crushed approximately 400 vehicles this past summer to take advantage of the high scrap price. He owns his own mobile crusher to, in his words, “Eliminate the middle man.” He estimates that his current inventory includes about 2,000 vehicles with approximately one-half of those being vintage.

The yard is well laid out, with large areas devoted to products from each of the “Big 3” manufacturers. Trucks are located separate from cars, also arranged in rows by marque. The aisles between the rows of vehicles are spacious, level and the grass is mowed regularly. In certain spots, the vehicles are wedged together tightly, but for the most part, access to them for parts removal is decent.

Klinger has relocated several dozen vintage cars and trucks into a separate fenced area near his home, which is located on the eastern perimeter of the yard. These mainly prewar vehicles, many rare models, are kept apart from the yard inventory to avoid having their parts removed. It’s not that Klinger is saving these vehicles for himself, as he reminded me often during my visit, “Everything is for sale.” Having these early vehicles remain as complete as possible just increases their value.

The yard’s vintage inventory contains lots of vehicles from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s with select prewar examples mixed in. Mustangs from 1965 to ’73 are prevalent, but many of these, especially the fastbacks, have been picked over. There are also quite a few popular Chevys from the early ’70s, such as Camaros, Chevelles and first-generation Monte Carlos. A sampling of the many uncommon vehicles in the yard include a civilian (non-taxicab) 1960s Checker Marathon sedan, a few Edsels, some war-era Willys Jeeps and Ford Pinto and Maverick and Chevy Vega compacts, although the car wall is also comprised of several dozen of these smaller models. A rare and complete late-1930s Federal Ace flatbed truck is also parked near the yard office, also to ramp up the buzz factor.

As previously mentioned, Klinger “gets it” that his yard is more than just a business, but also presents itself as a haven for car enthusiasts to experience feelings of nostalgia and enjoy aspects of automotive history. He encourages car clubs to call for appointments to tour the yard. For those old car enthusiasts who are also railroad buffs, Klinger keeps a pair of rare double-ended vintage cabooses on his home property for which he can explain their history. Due to lack of space, we’ll skip that, but the story of how they ended up in his backyard is worth the asking!

Klinger does allow customers into the yard for parts removal, but permission to take parts off vehicles must be granted first. No tools are loaned, and Klinger said he does not maintain a computerized inventory of vehicles in the yard. He also does not ship parts.

Hours of operation for the yard are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To contact the business, call 570-345-8778 or use postal mailing address: Klinger’s Auto Parts & Recycling, 107 Birds Hill Rd., Pine Grove, PA 17963.

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