Junk Yard Tours
The Little Valley Auto Ranch, Belton TX.
If you're after a 50's or 60's series classic Chevy project car, The Little Valley Auto Ranch in Belton Texas, 30 miles north of Austin, probably has what you're after. This is what they're known for. Selling classic car parts is a very small portion of their business.
I couldn't resist this beauty of a classic car special interest salvage yard. LoL! Magic Mike set me right with this description. He let me get away with calling it a junk yard a few times first though.
Finding the Little Valley Auto Ranch...
The Little Valley Auto Ranch is located at 1151 S. Wheat Rd in Belton, Texas about 35 miles north of Austin Texas, just a couple miles west of highway I-35. They are at the corner of Wheat rd and route 190. You can call them at 254-939-8548.
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Finding them was a bit of an adventure, but that can be blamed on the typically poor highway signs in Texas. For some reason you won't find too many advance warnings of an exit coming up while driving on Texas highways. They just put the exit sign right at the exit. If you're in the wrong lane when you see it, you'll fly right past it and have to circle back around. Hmmm...maybe that's why they have U-Turn lanes in Texas.
When you first drive up you'll find the front yard full of classic cars. Some of them you can drive home, others might need some work. You'll find what you expect at most salvage yards, the front office in a trailer at the end of a long fence. The old automotive signs on the fence do a lot to make you feel like you've stepped back in time.
A Labor of love.
I introduced myself to the lady behind the counter. Her name is Lee. For someone who defers to her husband or son's knowledge of classic cars, she certainly knows the salvage business well and is a pleasure to talk to. I learned more from her in 10 minutes about where these classic cars come from than I could have learned in a long time on my own. Judging by her enthusiasm she loves the business too.
Her husband and son were working offsite. I came unannounced so I couldn't have expected them to be there.
Lee confused me at first when she was talking about her Husband and son's specialties. They're both named Danny. Danny, the father, is the 55, 56, 57 Chevy specialist and Danny the Son is the Camaro specialist with a taste for 67-69 Camaros. Magic Mike is the parts man. They call him Magic Mike cause he can fix just about anything.
So where do all these classic cars come from?
The Little Valley Auto Ranch has been in business for 20+ years and have moved at least once already. Urban sprawl and ongoing land development seems to have both helped and hurt their classic car salvage business. When a municipality grows and swallows up surrounding countryside they impose their laws and regulations on their new constituents. They even rezone the area they're in and force them to pay higher taxes.
Someone living in this area for generations might have a classic car in their yard but the new regulations say they need to insure and garage it, or get rid of it. If they can't afford to do either, the municipality will grudgingly tow it away for them, and take it straight to The Little Valley Auto Ranch. On the flipside, the same municipality wants the The Little Valley Auto Ranch to keep their array of classic cars in order and out of sight too.
Danny, her husband, isn't going to take that kind of forced regulation sitting down though. He bought some land further down the road and moved all the old cars and parts, selling the old lot to the developers who were more than willing to pay a premium for the land.
Other classic cars come from unfinished projects. We all know that too well. You start working on a classic car restoration project, it takes a lot more time and money than anticipated. Maybe you have to let it sit for a while so you can save a few bucks, and eventually nothing gets done. The wife talks you into getting rid of it so she can afford new drapes and carpeting. The little Valley Auto Ranch is at your service. They come out to look at it, give you a price and take it away.
Where are they going? Who's buying these classic cars?
The Little Valley Auto Ranch holds swap meets a few times a year, the first is in March, the July 4th weekend, and the big one is in early December. These classic car events bring in a lot of business with collectors, resellers, and classic car restoration specialists from all over the world. Some buyers come from far away places in Europe and Southeast Asia. But more on that later.
This raises memories of discussions I've had with other classic car guys who feel that America is being stripped of it's national treasures when foreigners come over and pay outrageous prices to ship them back home. I'm sure you have your own opinion of the matter. But, do you really think they're stripping America of it's classic cars? When you think about it, the cars and parts they are buying are from salvaged classic cars. We don't seem to be doing anything with them! They're sitting there rusting away so what's the big deal. They're taking them home and restoring them. Some of the foreigners are doing the American cars justice because they have classic car laws in their country that says it has to be restored to original. By comparison most Americans are fixed on hot rods and customs.
If I were a speculating man I'd say most of the buyers were expatriots. How else would they know the American classic car market so well?
Roaming the yard
Lee said I was free to roam the salvage yard so I set out with camera in hand. Like most special interest salvage yards, they kind of just happen so you won't find these old classic cars organized by year or make. Some of them were in scattered groups, like the 55, 56, and 57 Chevy's, or the 60's Chevy's. There are others here to, 50's Buicks, Pontiacs, even a VW and an MG.
I ran into some cars that looked to be worthy of restoration material. By today's standards, with reproduction floor pans, quarter panels and other mechanical parts, this 63 Impala is a good candidate. The small block chevy motor was badly rusted and should go to the scrap heap. However, out here in Austin Texas where it doesn't rain very often, this 63 Impala might last a while.
Factory air conditioning must have sold well in texas in the 60's. There's plenty of classic cars you could pull the factory air conditioning parts from in this yard. I saw a few, a 59 Chevy Impala, 62 Biscayne, 63 Impala, and a 64 Impala.
There are plenty of old Chevy's in this yard. Some of them, to an easterner like me, look to be in better shape than others I've seen selling upwards of $3000 in the Baltimore area. You don't see the typical rust on a classic car in the southwest that you see on the eastern seaboard. The rust you don't see here is the rusty seams. They still get surface rust, but most of it looks like it could be sanded or soda blasted off. My opinion is that if you want to do a classic car restoration, it would pay you in saved time and expense to buy one from the southwest and ship it back home. Provided you don't let it sit for too long, the humidity shouldn't be much of a factor.
After making my way thru the parts yard I found Magic Mike working on a hood hinge for a 56 chevy they were preparing to ship. Mike is also a wealth of information on the classic car business. He describes how they ship cars all over the world. He said buyers come from European countries like Denmark, Norway, and England. They bring their families over for vacation, tour the car shows for a while and fill shipping containers with American classic cars and parts to send back home. They can fit 3 cars, and all the classic car parts they can cram into a shipping container. When they get back home they sell the contents for 4 times what they paid for them.
They have to sell them for a whopping markup like that. The duties and customs fees for foreign cars entering European countries is often 100% of the purchase price. Interest in American classic cars and American muscle cars is not for the young or anyone that doesn't have a lot of money to throw around. You can do the math. If someone spends $5000 each on a project car to restore, and they ship 3 of them plus hundreds of parts, and then pay that price again in duties when they get home you can imagine how much they get for the container load. It's not easy money though. Mike said that these guys tell him it can take the best part of a year to sell off the cars and parts.
The backbone of their business is selling whole or partial classic cars for restoration. The parts business is a small percentage of total sales. Since their priority is to spend their time on selling cars or piecing them together to order, you can't expect a fast turnaround on parts orders. It takes more time to remove some parts than it's worth so there are some parts they don't want to be bothered with. The parts yard in the back is more of a resource to them than it is a sales inventory. It's a business strategy that sets them apart from other classic car junk yards.
Everyone at the Little Valley Auto Ranch has their own personal project car too. Here is Mike with his baby, a V8 57 Chevy in complete factory original condition. It's a bit dusty in this picture cause it's been sitting for a while, but I checked it out, he popped the hood to reveal the original 283 Small block with the oil bath air cleaner on top. You don't find `em like this too often.
Of course the reason they got into this business is for the classic cars, and trucks in this case. Their personal classic drivers are parked waiting for the next Sunday cruise.
There's an infusion of emotional excitement about restoring that classic car making it difficult to just leave it parked there. You could stand there looking at it or gaze at the dash while sitting in the drivers seat, forever. You feel like it's a family member. If it could just talk...
February 22nd 2008