The Public Policy

Clunker Killers

An engine is a beautiful thing to waste.

By 8.5.09

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I heard Uncle Pundit pull into the driveway and raced out to see his new car, the one he'd bought by turning in his clunker. "Surprise!" He was still in his old clunker! "What happened?" I asked.

Uncle Pundit turned off the ignition, got out, and said simply: "Couldn't do it."

Do what?

"Kill the thing."

What thing?

"Old Betsy here. Couldn't do it."

You mean you couldn't turn in your car for $4,500 in taxpayer money? And drive out in a new car?

"Not when I found out what they had to do with Old Betsy here. They were gonna kill her."

Okay, explain.

"Most people don't know it. They just think the old clunker is going on a used car lot someplace, not knowing what the National Highway Traffic Safety folks say the dealer has to do to the old thing."

I admitted I didn't know.

"The dealer has gotta drain the oil and fill the crankcase with sodium silicate, then start the engine."

What happens then?

"The engine heat dehydrates the solution and the solid stuff sticks to everything where the oil was. It destroys the engine. Part of the game."

You mean there's gonna be a few billion dollars worth of clunkers that are destroyed?

"Yeah. The engines, anyway. Like ripping the heart outta Old Betsy. You see, I figured she would wind up someplace, maybe takin' kids to school or some guy to work. An old used car, but still a car. Not a dead chunk of metal."

We're gonna have tens of thousands of clunkers that will never run? We're payin' for that?

"Right. An' I got to thinkin', do I want to do that to Old Betsy, tear her heart out? You see, she ran down to the dealer's okay. Then, when I asked 'em what they'd do with her, they told me. Five bucks worth of this silicon engine killer and it's all over."

You wouldn't have to watch.

"No. Just like I don't have to watch Iraq or Afghanistan."

But that new car, the one you were going to trade for, gets better mileage. That's the whole idea.

"They gonna give me forty-five hundred bucks for a couple miles a gallon better, an' a new smell inside, and I'm supposed to hand over the keys to Betsy and let 'em fool her into killin' herself with trying to run like she is supposed to?"

Well...

"The hell with 'em, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration too."

With that, Uncle Pundit pulled his clunker into the garage and I went in to make him a cup of coffee.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.