It’s been 50 years since Charlton Recycled Autoparts Ltd opened for business. Owner Terry Charlton takes a walk down memory lane to provide ATF Professional with an overview of his vehicle recycling industry experience since the early 70s.
Where did it all begin?
My father, Ron went into the motor trade in 1944. As a family, we have been in the motor trade for 75 years. He left school and went to work for a garage. He then went to work for another garage connected to my grandfather on my mother’s side.
We lived in a house at the garage, and he was always working on cars. He was dismantling cars. And back in those days, he would get, for example, a Ford Anglia 105E or Austin Cambridge, and with no telephones. Because of the location on the main Cambridge to London road, he would put up a blackboard showing prices for parts – Boot lid 15 Shillings, Engine £2 and so on, and people would just come in off the road.
He then started a taxi company and looked after the 24-hour recovery accident service for the garage he worked at. The insurance engineers would come in to inspect the vehicles to decide on their repairability status. He started to buy more of these badly damaged vehicles and soon discovered that he had plenty of parts left over to sell by purchasing a vehicle for repair and another for parts. He had a good relationship with the insurance engineers, and they needed him as much as he needed them. The business worked well and was done professionally. It was the relationships that made it work.
The start of Charlton Recycled Autoparts
The next step came when he was chauffeuring an owner of a breakers yard; after dropping him off, he noticed the breakers yard next door was for sale. So my father bought it. On the 15th February 1971 (also the day the UK’s currency went decimal), we put our own padlock on the place, which made it officially ours. The following day, my father had to do a chauffeur job, and for me, it was half term. At 7:30 in the morning, some guys were banging on our house door demanding to get into the yard. It transpired that they had been contracted to empty the yard but had not finished yet. So I went to the yard to open up and spent the whole half term there. I learnt a lot from these people.
After this, I spent all my weekends and school holidays down there. My grandfather, an ex-policeman, worked there and did admin and answered the phones as my father couldn’t as he was hard of hearing.
With my father’s contacts in the business already in place, buying the yard was a natural progression, and we needed more space. Instead of dismantling vehicles at the garage, we were now on a two-acre site, with some small buildings and which held about 500 cars.
Within two years, my father and uncle bought the yard next door (the owner was the man my father chauffeured two years previously). We carried on doing recovery accident work, picking cars up for the police.
When comparing our business with other car breakers around the Cambridge area back then, we were different; we didn’t deal in old cars, we always dealt in newer ones with better parts. Although they sold some parts, other businesses were mainly picking up mot failures and scrap cars for their metal content. From the beginning, we always sold parts. Today we still have the same principles.
Ideas from America
In 1973, I went to Vauxhall motors at Luton to do an apprenticeship as a mechanic, and there I learned a lot about how a company operates. Then I went on to do a management law and accountancy course, run by the Institute of motor industry, and in 1977, I joined the family business full-time.
The first year I started in the business, I remember the winter. I thought, ‘I can’t deal with working outside dismantling cars’. And after a failed attempt at gaining planning to put up a building, the following year, we managed to get the planning permission to erect a 6000 square foot, three-story warehouse for parts storage which went up in 79. In the same year, I travelled around the US with my then-girlfriend, and near the hotel where we were staying, there was a yard, so I decided to take a look; it wasn’t great. The owner told me to find Marv Chevy Only, a yard in Sun Valley, California.
Marv Chevy Only was a two-acre yard with only ten cars there. Every part was dismantled; there was a massive building filled up with parts. The car park was heaving with customers, and people were queuing up to be served, and all they supplied were Chevrolet parts. At the yard, I talked to some Australian dismantlers who were on a trip to look at yards around California; they suggested I visit Lakenour, a Chevrolet and Cadillac dismantlers. I went along and looked around the yard, and it was like a new parts shop – parts were polished and put on display. Herb Lieberman, the owner, remains a good friend to this day.
I then visited a yard in San Francisco to look around. Here they reconditioned radiators and rebuilt starters and alternators. As I was leaving, I got talking to a guy called Russ MacKinnon. He was the chief executive for the automotive recyclers Association in America – AVRO – Automotive Vehicle Recyclers Organisation. He provided me with a lot of information, and later, we joined Avro.
In the UK, I went to one of the original motor vehicle dismantlers association meetings (MVDA) and told them about what I’d seen in America. I told them how fantastic these yards were, how they’ve got hotlines to talk to each other so they could interchange parts, and how 30% of their business was to insurance companies to repair cars. But the old hierarchy of the MVDA said that would never work here.
After the meeting, one of the guys there, Arthur Pilgrim (who went on to become Chairman of MVDA), contacted AVRO, and they put him in touch with Barry Eisenberg, who ran profit for partnership. He provided training to automotive recyclers in America. He came over to the UK in the early 80s and did a series of seminars up and down the country. He taught people about inventory, customers, techniques and all sorts.
From what I had learned in America and from Vauxhall, I was able to apply this knowledge to our business. We were one of the first to be looking at inventory, customers and new techniques. And from here, by putting the building up in 79, we went into pre-dismantle. We would remove the parts and put them on a shelf ready for customers to come in and buy. And with the two-part TAG system, a basic inventory control system that I brought back from the US, we used it as a stock control system, and nothing went into that building unless it was labelled.
By the early 80s, I was running the business; my father was as good as retired. I introduced a numbering system for the vehicles. Every vehicle coming in was subjected to an inventory, something we copied from the American dismantlers. It was clear that the more information you had about the vehicle, the easier it was to sell a part.
We started buying vehicles from insurance companies, but we lost a major insurance company as it went to contract. So Jeff Hill (Hills Motors), who I met at an MVDA meeting, said, ‘why don’t we get a group of dismantlers together and see if we can get a contract from an insurance company?’ We got a group of 15 like-minded dismantlers together. We had a meeting, and we started NSG National Salvage Group in 1984, and we got our first contract. We went on to handle more than 150,000 vehicles between 30-40 members of NSG.
Business had been good; then, in 1993, we bought a five-acre concrete block manufacturing site with a 36,000 Square foot warehouse. By now, trading was low due to the financial crisis, and at this time, costly insurance contracts. We were getting too many of the same sort of cars and trying to sell parts from them.
The cars were getting more expensive. There was a lot more competition – chasing after those same cars, the contracts, and the profit margins were reducing. The timing of buying this new yard was not the best; it was just too big a beast. We had to spend a lot of money on the infrastructure. We just didn’t have the market to sell the parts to; there was no eBay then; we were trying to make national sales at a local level. But there just wasn’t enough out there to cover the overheads. Fortunately, in 2000 we were able to sell the site, and we came out of it very well in the end.
A change of direction
In the early 2000s, the auctions were taking off and whilst at these auctions; I noticed that the buyers driving the nicest cars were the ones that specialised. They bought exactly what they wanted. They didn’t buy volume; they picked and chose the best cars.
I decided to start a hobby business specialising in Jeep, Mitsubishi and Mercedes; I set up in a smaller one-acre yard. And after a couple of years, we were able to buy the yard next door with a 9000 square foot warehouse. Around the same time, we took in what was Bedfordshire Salvage Limited. The owner had passed away, and his son in law brought his business to us. His son-in-law, Nick, ended up working for me, and he’s still working with me now.
By specialising, from 2001 to 2008, the business was great. But in 2008, the financial crisis happened – Jeep Chrysler’s market share diminished, and Mitsubishi pulled out all but their pickup trucks. We carried on, and at this time, we purchased the remains of one of Trent’s businesses in South London. My son, Simon, also joined the company, and we turned the South London site into a self-service yard, and Simon ran it successfully for almost ten years until we sold it to Recycling Lives in 2017.
Looking back – how does the industry differ from 50 years ago?
For me, looking right back to the earlier days, this was a business that had never really been exploited to its full potential; now, it is perceived as a professional, viable business for many companies. Fifty years ago, most people didn’t choose to be a dismantler, people either joined by accident or entered the family business, like me. Today, people are choosing this career because they can see the potential in it.
In the old days, the perception of our industry was of a dirty yard, oil spilling out of the gate, cars stacked up three or four high and the guy working there wearing a coat tied together with string, today the impression is very different, and the more we can show how good we are, the more it improves our image as a being a professional industry.
Looking forward – how do you see the future of vehicle recycling?
Although, fundamentally, the function of a vehicle is the same, technology is changing. Cars are being designed to have parts with a longer life; even so, replacements will always be needed, cars will still need to be processed. But as technology changes, dismantlers will need more technical information from OEMs about the cars they are dismantling. They are going to need to know about superseded parts, about reprogramming specific components. More parts will be seen on vehicles that you can’t fit on another vehicle because it’s programmed to that particular vehicle only.
I think we’re going to see more vehicles needing to be repaired by companies with specialist equipment and specific skills, and not carried out by smaller repairers. I believe we will also see less and less major structural repairs on vehicles as newer vehicles will not be designed to be taken off and rewelded, but this means there should be more cars available for dismantling.