DADE CITY — Two years ago, Leroy "Corky" Yager said goodbye to about 1,200 friends.
They sat in rows, fender to fender, spread across 10 acres north of downtown off U.S. 301.
The county said Yager's business, Sunray Bugs, didn't meet zoning regulations. So on a December morning, after a three-year legal battle, officials ordered Yager's cherished Volkswagens towed off the lot and taken to a scrap dealer. The work took about a week.
"It was a loss for the whole industry," said Yager, 85. "A lot of these parts aren't being produced anymore."
The vehicles' removal should have provided the final chapter in Sunray's 27-year history.
But it didn't. Sunray is hanging on — like its owner.
The business exists now in a smaller incarnation across the street about 200 yards south of the old location, which now sits vacant.
"It's been tough because everybody has this idea that either Corky is dead or we're out of business," said Bruce Bratcher, one of two employees. "We're still hanging on."
But there's no denying the move has taken a toll. Only a dozen vehicles remain and countless parts are gone. The county's contractor removed 200 tons of metal.
And finding the place can be tricky. Two orange Volkswagen bugs just north of the entrance denote the business.
"That's my sign," Yager said, referring to the vehicles.
Sunray once employed 14 to 18 people, but it is down to Bratcher and Dwight Clark, who go back more than 20 years with Yager.
On the other hand, Sunray still has tons of parts — enough for the most ardent collectors — and Yager sees the potential.
The parts sit piled in dozens of four-foot-high wooden crates and in stacks around the property. More parts are piled in three tractor trailers around back, near a graveyard of front fenders cocooned against each other like big colorful spoons.
Yager is waiting to occupy a metal building out back, which he can easily fill.
The building is currently full of machine parts that belong to the previous tenant. The parts were supposed to be auctioned this month and Yager is waiting for them to be removed so he can use the building for storage.
For years, Sunray thrived at repairing and refurbishing Volkswagens and shipping parts nationally and to foreign buyers, including those in Germany — Volkswagen's home.
Then in 2009, a neighbor complained that the business was an eyesore.
The county investigated and uncovered a lingering zoning violation. Officials ordered the cars and parts removed, but Yager hired an attorney to fight the order. The following year he agreed to clear the property, but the work was slow. After he missed two deadlines, the county went to court to get permission to clear the land on its own.
Now, Yager concedes business isn't what it used to be. But, he said, he's gradually re-establishing a customer base.
"Business is word-of-mouth," he said, adding that he also runs an ad in Hot VWs magazine to entice collectors.
Yager moves slowly and with a limp from a bad right knee. He uses a golf cart to scoot around the compound. His hands are thick and gnarled from arthritis and decades of work.
But he's still sharp when it comes to the cars he loves and can rattle off reams of Volkswagen trivia. He doesn't complain and says he has no plans to retire.
"Why should I?" he said. "I love what I'm doing."
Then he added with a laugh, "Look where it got me last time."
Yager started collecting vintage Volkswagens after he retired from the trucking business. His hobby eventually grew so large that it morphed into a business. In 1986, he launched Sunray.
As he spoke Monday, Clark worked on a lime-yellow 1974 Karmann Ghia, smoothing out bumps by hand after the car's former owner, a 90-year-old woman, got into an accident.
Yager doesn't see a beat-up old clunker, though. He sees what the vehicle once looked like and could eventually become. Many vehicles at Sunray are rarities and can be difficult to let go of once restored — like the Karmann Ghia.
"I'll probably sell it," Yager said. "I could probably get $10,000 to $12,000."
A minute later he shook his head: "Maybe I'll keep it. Who knows?"
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.