DADE CITY — One employee called Sunray Bugs the Disney World for Volkswagen enthusiasts. People trekked from all over to check out acres and acres of the vintage quirky German cars. They looked like junk to the lay person, but the cars were a veritable warehouse of valuable original parts for a customer's old Beetle or split-pane bus.
For some VW lovers, Disney has closed.
After a protracted legal battle with the county, most of Sunray's 10 acres of Volkswagens have been cleared. Owner Leroy "Corky" Yager has been ordered to move what's left inside or sell it as scrap.
"These parts are gone forever," said Yager, an 83-year-old man with wisps of white hair, dusty work pants and gnarled hands that have seen years of working with cars. "You won't be able to get them anymore."
So why does he have to clear out? Blame a zoning violation.
The site of the business, on U.S. 301 just north of Dade City, is zoned commercial and can accommodate an auto repair shop. But Yager's junk yard — his family prefers the term "VW graveyard" — is prohibited.
The fight began in February 2009 after a neighbor complained that Sunray Bugs was an eyesore. County code officials discovered the zoning problem.
Sunray was founded in 1986. Why cite a business that had been operating for so long?
"We never received a complaint on it before then," said Pat Phillips, a county code enforcement supervisor.
By August 2010, it was clear that Yager would not win his battle with the county. That's when his lawyer and the county attorney's office signed an agreement that Yager would clear the property. But he continued to fight. During the lawsuit, Yager had two heart attacks and was hospitalized four times.
Over the past few months, he began clearing out cars. Cars that could be restored were sold. Others were stripped, then scrapped. But the process went slower than Yager expected. He tried to save as many old parts as he could; selling used parts is his livelihood, after all. He missed two deadlines for clearing up the property and the county went to court Dec. 16 to get permission to clear the parcel on its own.
Over six days in December, a county contractor removed an estimated 200 tons of metal. The county cleared away roughly half of at least 800 cars on the property. The company didn't charge the county or Yager for the work, it simply kept the scrap fees.
"Their expectations and what he could do were two different things," said Yager's daughter, Tina Mazzara. "I don't think he understood that the county could come take his property."
The deadline for clearing the remainder of the property is Feb. 15. The family set a personal deadline for two days earlier and expects to meet it. Yager, employees and volunteers are feverishly stripping cars and piling old parts on haphazard piles inside the shop.
For the love of Bugs
One of nine children who grew up southern Illinois, Yager is a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. After a career in the trucking business, he settled in Dade City and began collecting Volkswagens.
He used to drive only Cadillacs. But one day on a construction site in Miami he bought a beat-up '72 Super Beetle. "It was nothing but a wrecked car," he said.
He and a friend were able to get the motor started. He liked the turning radius — much sharper than a Cadillac. He also liked being able to park in small spaces.
He's still got that first car, though he farmed it for parts and never rebuilt it. Customers come first, he said.
Back when Sunray still had its Bugs, you couldn't drive a truck through the yard to retrieve a part. Yager used a golf cart. He would find an old part, sandblast it clear of rust and ship it anywhere.
Now, the yard is mostly barren. Instead of rows of cars, there are piles of parts that employees are sifting through and organizing. There's a collection of old engines. A stack of Beetle hoods. The front end of a Thing.
During a tour on Monday, general manager Paul Zappulla picked up a dusty piece of a car's heating system. "This is actually very rare," he said.
That's when Yager arrived on a forklift, carrying a rusted pair of wheels.
"This is going to Oregon," he said. That's nothing new to Sunray, which gets calls from all over the country and visitors from all over the world.
Yager was filling an order for a customer who called Monday morning, looking for a left-front spindle for a '74 Super Beetle.
Pointing to the wheels on his forklift, he said, "This is about the only one we've got left."
The loss of the junk yard is a blow to Volkswagen fans like John Ferlita, a Dade City gynecologist. He praised Yager for securing a hard-to-find distributor and carburetor for his '71 Beetle. Collectors praise the original German parts as much more reliable than what you can buy new.
"For enthusiasts this is important," he said.
"He's a very nice man," Ferlita said. "He doesn't harm anybody. He's just got a million cars, that's the problem. I guess that's looked down on these days."
Some people are circulating an online petition to boycott this year's Pasco Bug Jam, a Dade City gathering that has become the largest VW show in the Southeast and the second largest in the country. The aim is to deny revenue to the county that cleared Yager's cars. Yager wants no part of that. He plans on attending the November festival and encourages others to do so as well.
But not everyone in the Volkswagen community is upset. Several posts on a VW message board fault Yager for not clearing out the yard earlier and for keeping hundreds of cars that should've been scrapped long ago. One person said he visited Sunray Bugs from Orlando in the days before the county's contractors showed up. Most of the cars were "either wrecked, rusty, and generally beyond repair."
It's not clear exactly what Yager will do next. He is scouting property across the highway that could serve as a scaled-down used parts shop. But many parts went to the scrap heap, and the fields of Bugs are gone.
"His dream was to keep doing what he wants to do, which is to be out there in his field of Volkswagens," Mazzara said. "We were just hoping Dad could finish out the rest of his years doing what he loved."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.