Dismembering old cars

I know, I know. What is this post doing on a paddling forum? Because p-net is my community and because we have a lot of experts on a lot of things besides boating in this community, that’s why. Plus, it’s sort of related, since the cars to be dismembered are sitting on the banks of the river I paddle the most.

So there are these cars by the bank of the river that we want to get out of there. The County guy did not jump at my suggestion to ask the National Guard to remove them via chopper. He liked the idea, but I think he’d like to save it for another dump he is working to remove that is far worse than the one immediately at hand. We think it will be easier to remove these old vehicles if we can half or quarter them.

What is a practical method for cutting up old autos?

Ox-Acytelene is the favorite of those who have seen the site, but none of us know WTF we are talking about, and it is a remote and wooded site, so fire will be a concern.

There is no electricity on the site, but I think I could borrow a generator. Sawzalls for the sheet metal seems practical, but would they be able to cut the frames?

Anybody have experience with the chain-saw type cutting tools?

Advice appreciated.


Gas powered circular saw NM

“sawzall” or reciprocating saws
Will do it. You can use Dewalt demolition blades to cut the sheet metal, and metal up to 1/8 inch thick. Trust me, they will shred through it with ease. For thicker or hardened metal you may have to use specific metal cutting blades, and plenty of lube(oil) on the blade to keep it cool and not lose it’s temper. Battery powered saws will do ok, until the battery run out.

BTW, Sawzall is made by Milwaukee, and is the standard for all other reciprocating saws.

I don’t think . . .
. . . it is practical to cut them up. One of the engine powered saws (think chainsaw with circular blade) that fire departments use to cut into vehichles would probably do it. If cars are there, there has to be some sort of nearby road access.

cutting cars

– Last Updated: Mar-13-09 11:37 AM EST –

In our fire department training we've found that a cordless reciprocating saw(Sawzall) with the appropriate blade does a surprisingly good job on sheet metal and plastics. It's not so fast on the heavier stuff.

Oxy-acetylene cutting has the advantage of not needing electrical power -- if you can haul the tanks to the site, you can work. With a cutting torch you use an oxygen-acetylene flame to preheat the edge of the steel and then hit the hot metal with a jet of pure oxygen to burn it away.

The problem with cutting cars with a torch is that they're not just steel -- there are usually lots of flammable materials that would have to be removed to cut safely.

I kind of agree
But those kind of saws have little margin for error, and they are heavy. I’m assuming that ‘weekend warriors’(no offense, I’m one of them) will be doing the cutting, a recipro saw is the safer way to go.

Were these cars put along the bank to
protect against erosion? Is it an old junk yard that happened to be near the rivers edge? Are there drivelines and interiors in the cars? I would contact a metal scrap company who might come out with a bulldozer and chains/cables and pull the wrecks to a flatbed hauler who would take them to the yard. If there are enough of them it could be worth it for them. If there are useable parts on the cars, you might get a used parts business to do the same. What is the point of cutting them up? So they can be carried for removal? You will use a bunch of blades and it will take forever to do. I would drag them out with a dozer and have them trucked. These are my thoughts without knowing many facts. Also, if they are there for erosion, what will go in their place?


The NPS won’t even allow solvents to be
used to remove grafeete from the rocks.

auto extraction

Cutting them up is going to be difficult, but I guess it’s possible if you’re willing to work hard enough. I’m curious, though, if you do cut them up, what method do you have to remove 1/4-cars that can’t handle whole cars? Are you thinking of the canoe-top rafts?

“Cutting up” a car actually involves more disassembling than actual cutting. Most of the weight is in the engine, transmission, drive train and wheels, rather than the body. If you simply cut the car in 3 pieces - say front (from firewall foreward), middle, and back – the front piece is going to retain 60-70% of the original weight, because it will include the engine and transmission. And you can’t cut an engine block or transmission housing, not easily anyway.

A further difficulty is that the various bolts are likely frozen, so you’ll need to break off the bolts more than to unscrew them. The best tools for breaking off bolts are a big crow bar and a BFH (big effing hammer) and 3-4 young, strong guys who like to tear stuff up (recruits from nearby military base?). It would be a huge help to have someone familiar with car repair along who knows what comes apart and where, but basically you want to flip the car on its back, remove wheels, disconnect axles, separate transmission from drivetrain and from engine, and separate the engine from the engine compartment. Then you can take the sawzall to the body to cut it into handy size pieces.

Very, VERY roughly, the weights might work out something like this:

Total midsize car 4,000 lbs

Engine 1000 (one piece)

Transmission 800 (one piece)

Axles and drive train 1200 (3-4 pieces)

Wheels 200 (4 pieces)

Body and everything else 800 (cut into 3-4 pieces)

I gather the cars are pretty old, but they could still contain some harmful chemicals that you’ll want to remove before you start tearing stuff apart. Plastic jugs will work to carry the fluids out, even milk jugs, as long as you’re careful not to puncture them after they’re full of fluid. You can mix all the fluids together for disposal, they won’t react with each other. Bring several 4-5 foot flexible tubes to siphon the fluid out, as the normal drain procedures won’t work – an automotive siphon pump would be a big help. Places to check for toxic fluids are: gas tank, radiator, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid. Also, have someone who can recognize it look for an A/C compressor and mark it so you don’t accidentally cut the hoses and release the A/C charge – disconnecting the A/C from the engine only requires removing the fan belt and so doesn’t release the A/C charge, but you’ll need to cut the radiator hoses away from the engine and it’s possible you might cut the compressor hose by accident if you don’t mark it. Also, the battery could still contain some battery acid - don’t remove the acid but check the battery to be sure it’s not leaking, and use duct tape to seal it if it is leaking or if it looks like the caps might get knocked off easily.

Quite an undertaking!
I agree that a Stihl saw with a circular metal-cutting blade will probably be the fastest way to go. Battery-operated Sawzalls (reciprocating) will work if and only if you have a very good supply of spare batteries or a way to fast recharge. Stihls are rentable at the usual locations. Make sure to take a spare blade - they cut through abrasion, and will wear. Training is important as they are wicked tools. PPE is a given.


1000 words
A picture of one of the automotive removal challenges:


Overview page:


No, this trash was not put there to stablilize the banks.

Angstrom, thanks for the link to the blades article. Very useful info, whether we go that way or not.

I probably need to make another trip out there specifically to survey the old cars. I’m not sure how many even have the engines, and the questions about potentially harmful fluids seem like they warrant investigation.

The car that is pictured, I’m wondering if we could put a winch over the top to the downhill end and roll it end over end up the hill. Dragging it will be a problem unless we can get some skids under it. I think it would dig into the bank and catch on roots, etc.

We need to get it up the bank. From there we can get it on vehicles.


Probably best
to leave things as they are. We have the same thing where I paddle, they were commonly put in the rivers to prevent bank erosion in the 50’s - early 60’s. Usually engines removed but transmissions and diferentials usually left on. They could probably be removed with a large crane but I doubt you could get permits and it would be very expensive. Besides being eye sores, they have probably done all the ecological damage they are going to do already. Let them return to the earth whence they came.

The ones I’ve seen placed to control
erosion are stacked, front or rear end outward, on the outside of river bends. I haven’t seen any used for riverbank erosion control where there was any doubt that was what they were for. Because of the stacking, and earth and rock piled around them, they would have to be dug out and lifted out by crane. Then they could be trucked out or cut up.

Regarding wayward car bodies in general, it’s a good argument for keeping records on VIN numbers and owners, so something can be recovered from dumpers.

Yes, now I see. The one car is mid 50’s
sedan that appears to have some of its stainless trim intact. Depending on the vehicles, you might be able to recover some of your costs from the parts you can salvage(good stainless trim for some models is big$$). The tires, washing machines, and the like will have to be humped out by some motivated lads with good backs, or drag them with a winch. Try flipping the cars on their roofs and dragging them out tail first. I would hire a tow truck to come to the area and use his winch to drag the heavy stuff up to the road. Where his cable is not long enough, add chains, straps, or more cable and work the stuff up the hill. A scrap yard should be happy to come pick up whatever you can get to the road. I would not bother cutting stuff up. A nice heavy duty tow truck should do the trick if the land owners won’t allow a dozer. I watched a medium to smaller sized tow truck winch my Ford Excursion with a 24 foot enclosed car hauler containing a 5,000 lb car up a 100 ft embankment that was too steep to walk up. Good Luck!

p.s. Is this near the Brandywine River in Wilmington?

It’s a dump site
This is the latest question about this situation, but previous posts make it clear that this is just an illegal dump site. I commend him for taking on such a project. I like the idea someone suggested about using the VINs to track down the original owners and try to attach some financial responsibility to them.

(By the way, here’s grammar peeve of mine: It’s “VIN”, not “VIN #”. Which makes more sense, “Vehicle Identification Number” or “Vehicle Identification Number Number”?)

You really need some skilled help

– Last Updated: Mar-13-09 4:23 PM EST –

You mentioned that no one in your group has experience with a torch. You also mention that winching them out will be impossible without putting them on a skid. I know this is a tall order, but if you could find willing helpers with the experience and enginuity, amazing things could probably be done.

Since you mentioned the difficulty in dragging whole cars up the hill, I'll toss out an idea I had which is only food for thought at this point. Chop up two cars to the point that you have two empty frames. Leave one frame intact, and cut up the other one into parts that are welded to the first to make a skid. The skid would need a couple extra cross pieces which might even extend outward far enough to also serve as chain-down points. Other pieces of the cut-up frame would be used to weld slanted "sled runners" on the front of the skid. Then, using a portable gas-powered winch and a big tow truck farther up the hill (and probably a few guys with picks and shovels), you yank a car free. Then, with the gas-powered winch, you pull the skid up onto the roof of the car and chain it down. Then, with the winch, you roll the car over so it is sitting on the skid, and the big tow truck drags it up the hill. You would use the gas-powered winch to pull the skid back down the hill using successive trees as anchors.

The first time you brought up this problem I mentioned the tow-truck idea (the big ones have 100s of feet of cable and can drag a loaded semi through deep mud), but chances are, the equivalent of a D-6 or larger crawler tractor would be able to negotiate the whole hillside with a car in tow, and it could also make it's own skidding path, and it would eliminate the need to have a straight-line pull to the top of the hill or the need to use snatch blocks to run the cable around corners. How you might find someone to donate the working time of such a machine might be a much bigger problem than getting the cars out once that method is available, but I mention it because it seems like a good way to go.

Hmmm…any loggers in the area with a skidder?


Local volunteer fire dept
It seems the volunteer fire departments love to cut up cars.

They also need training in rigging recovery lines and winches.

Get them involved.

That’s Great Idea
The great thing about a log skidder is that the point where the cable leaves the machine is quite high. If you back the skidder right up to an embedded car, there’s a good chance that the upward pull of the winch would yank the car free. Certainly there’s a much better chance of getting it loose than when pulling horizontally. Even a small skidder would be able to drag a car with no problem, but combination of stationary winching and mobile dragging with the same machine would be a huge asset on difficult terrain.

Kind of like “ATM Machine”.