Life After Death: A Look at What Happens to Totaled Cars

Subaru accident
Subaru accident | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While looking over an article in The Wall Street Journal, an interesting thought arose: What happens to all the totaled cars you see in movies? For decades, action flicks have been responsible for the destruction of thousands of automobiles, and with the most recent Fast and Furious installment racking up a staggering 230 vehicles on its kill list, the stakes are higher than ever before. So who takes care of these cars when the director yells cut and the film stars return to their trailers? More importantly, what’s done to these vehicles once they’re no longer road legal?

Years ago, movie studios would typically call up a local scrap yard, say “Hey, we’ve got some totaled cars for you,” the vehicles would get hauled off for salvaging, and that would be the end of it. But when Steve McQueen’s wrecked Mustangs from the classic film Bullitt were listed as collector items even after being totaled, people began flocking to junkyards to see what they could salvage. One of the most interesting incidents involved hordes of rednecks trying to salvage whatever they could off of 300 damaged “General Lee” Dodge Chargers from the TV show Dukes of Hazzard.

But in recent years, things aren’t as simple as just calling up the local salvage yard for a quick deposit. There are now strict rules and regulations in place regarding the proper disposal of a vehicle, and as an action film’s budget increases so too does the number of cars a director will want to destroy. From The Blues Brothers and its 103 crushed cars, to Transformers 3, which demolished 532 flood-damaged vehicles, there’s a constant evolution in the destruction of cars for our entertainment.

To save money, a lot of the cars sourced are either flood-damaged but drivable, fully functional but aren’t worth anything, or completely kaput and serve nothing more than sitting targets on a set. What happens to these junkers after the tow truck comes and scoops their charred shells up for depositing at the local scrap heap?

Ford crash
Ford crash | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Most vehicles that are deemed un-drivable after a collision are sold to a local yard so that they may be combed over by scavengers looking for used parts, which is why they’re called “salvage yards.” Since some mechanics and do-it-yourselfers will source used parts to keep costs down, this remains a fantastic way of recycling a totaled car, and helps keep similar models on the road longer.

But there’s another side of the recycling process that goes widely unnoticed by the rest of the world, and that’s Hollywood’s purchasing of totaled cars for chase scenes. In the aforementioned article, there was an interesting bit of about the Fast and Furious franchise and its association with used car lots and salvage yards.

Car coordinator Dennis McCarthy said: “We’d wreck 25 cars a day, they’d come out at night, scoop ‘em up and bring us 25 more. It was a round-the-clock process, with multiple tow trucks and car carriers.” For instance, 2011’s Fast Five saw filmmakers working with the Puerto Rican government to transport used cars inexpensively from San Juan’s salvage yards to the set, where they would get demolished in a car chase, and then returned to the yard for compacting.

Once deemed too far gone, totaled cars head to the final stage of the “automotive recycling program,” which many refer to as the scrap yard. Here, the yard manager labels the vehicle as crush-worthy, and cars are turned into compact cubes after sitting for a while. Prior to being compacted, all of the fluids must be drained out of the car, airbags have to be either removed or deployed, the battery gets removed, and the fuel tank has to be dropped in order to eliminate the risk of fire. The car then is put in a compactor, crushed, melted down, and finally formed into a lamppost for a movie star to crash their car into, thus starting the whole cycle all over again.

But as cars evolve, so too do the issues involving proper recycling methods for them. Most modern vehicles are not made from as much metal as they once were, so scrap yards aren’t getting as much money as they used to. Modern hybrids carry precious metals in their battery packs, but not all scrap yards have the ability to recycle them, and getting a fair price for a damaged unit is tricky to say the least. So while car crashes still remain a common occurrence, and big budget movies will always need plenty of clunkers to crush, the advent of the autonomous car and the increased use of CG graphics in action films spells trouble for the future of automotive recycling as a whole.