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A clunker breathes its last so a Soul can hit the road

NEW PORT RICHEY — The killing started just after 4 on a hot weekday afternoon at Friendly Kia.

The white four-door Jeep Grand Cherokee La­redo sat in the eight-bay service garage Monday at the Pasco County car dealership on U.S. 19. The paint on the outside was white, the upholstery on the inside was black, and some faded letters on the front bumper said MARDI GRAS.

Mechanic Mike Cox put on clear safety goggles and a pair of blue plastic gloves.

The Cash for Clunkers program gave automakers a much-needed boost in sales in July. Tens of thousands of people around the country have taken the government incentive to turn in their bigger, older cars and get $4,500 toward a new and more fuel-efficient model. The older cars are then destroyed.

Here that's Cox's job. He grew up on a farm in Illinois. His first car was a '70 Chevy Nova with no engine or transmission. He made it run. His current car is an '81 Ford pickup. He keeps it going. He is 41 and he has spent all his working life fixing cars. Now he is killing them.

He did 16 last week. No. 17 was the Cherokee.

Cox drained the oil out of the engine and into an orange waste drum. He took out two plastic quarts of sodium silicate solution. "Liquid glass," he said, cyanide for cars.

He took some white grease paint and on the windshield painted an X.

He poured the sodium silicate, a foggy, gel-like substance, into the engine, glug glug glug. He got in and turned the key. The engine roared. He pushed the gas with his right foot and revved it to 2,000 RPM.

What happens is that the sodium silicate hardens with the heat of the engine and makes the engine seize. It's the execution of an automobile.

"When it kills it," he said, "you'll know."

• • •

The Cherokee was born, say the people at Chrysler, at the company's Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit.

Virgel Kelly, 54, of Dunedin bought it used in 2002 from a friend who bought it from St. Pete Jeep Eagle, which is no longer in business.

"It was a workhorse," Kelly said Tuesday morning matter-of-factly. "It was just for hauling stuff. Sam's runs. Yard trash from rental properties. A work car."

There were splotches of paint on the sides of the tires. The ceiling liner was falling apart. The AC didn't work.

Every February, the Cherokee was in the Dunedin Mardi Gras parade. Kelly owns Kelly's restaurant downtown, the Chic a Boom Room bar and the nightclub Blur. For the parades, he decorated the Cherokee with paint, glitter and big concert speakers wired to the top of the roof. It pulled his float.

"A huge float," he said.

This last Mardi Gras, though, turned out to be the Cherokee's last hurrah.

The odometer read only 116,254 miles and it still ran fine, Kelly said, but the Cash for Clunkers deal was too good to pass up. The Cherokee's Blue Book value was only about $1,500, and the government was going to give him $3,000 more than that. So he headed to Friendly Kia and bought from a salesman named Ed Smiley a brand-new denim-blue Kia Soul. The Soul's fuel efficiency, 24 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway, is nearly twice as good as the vehicle he turned in.

He drove it off the lot and left the Cherokee behind.

• • •

Cox, the mechanic, still had his brown work boot pressed down on the gas. Sometimes, he said, it takes as few as two minutes to kill a vehicle like this, and sometimes it takes a little longer. Depends on the vehicle, the quality of the build, the care it has had.

The Cherokee's engine kept running, even with no oil, even with the liquid glass. The Cherokee fought.

One minute, two minutes, three minutes. Four minutes. Five.

"It doesn't want to die!" Cox said over the noise of the engine.

Six minutes.

"There's the death rattle," dealership president John Gilliss finally said.

"Start hearing that," Cox said, "it's about over."

The sound of the engine of the Cherokee got a little raspier, a little slower. Then it just stopped.

Seven minutes.

Cox turned the key again. An awful metallic sound.

Eeeeeeeee.

Eeeeee.

Eee.

Sweat dripped from his arms. He opened a cold can of Mountain Dew.

The tow truck driver showed up not long after that. He pulled the Cherokee out onto U.S. 19 and up to Pasco Auto Salvage in Hudson. Sometime in the next six months, the junk yard manager said, it will be stripped for parts, crushed to a height of about a foot and a half, then shredded and sold for scrap. But on Monday evening, as the sun started to set, Virgel Kelly's white '98 Jeep Grand Cherokee sat under a tall pine, backed up against a fence, the latest in a row of dead clunkers.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

By the numbers

157,000

Trade-ins of "clunkers" by Tuesday morning.

25.4

Average miles per gallon for new vehicles bought in the program.

15.9

Average miles per gallon for the trade-ins, more than 80 percent of which are trucks and SUVs.

700,000 tons

Amount of carbon emission that could be avoided if 250,000 gas guzzlers are replaced, as is expected under the original $1 billion program.

6.4 billion tons

Amount of carbon emissions by the United States last year.

Top 5 buys

• Ford Focus

• Toyota Corolla

• Honda Civic

• Toyota Prius

• Toyota Camry

Times wires

Extension of 'clunker' rebates expected

The Senate cleared the way Tuesday for a vote giving eager car buyers until Labor Day to cash in on rebates up to $4,500 for trading in their gas-guzzlers for new, higher-mileage models. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declared he had the votes to pass a $2 billion "cash for clunkers" measure already approved by the House. It would replenish the all-but-exhausted $1 billion program and provide rebates for up to a half-million more Americans in the next month.

Despite reservations, Reid's GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, predicted his party would not block a vote. As they wait for Senate action, many dealerships have stopped selling cars and trucks. In some cases, dealers are only taking deposits and not letting customers drive new vehicles off the lot.

A clunker breathes its last so a Soul can hit the road 08/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 3:48pm]

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