Wednesday, July 8, 2015
The Aluminum Piston Story
The Aluminum Piston Story
How I beat the scrap yard crooks at their own game
Written 1/2014 rewritten 7/2015 unedited
By the end of 1963, my good friend Lou Gladstein had closed down his auto wrecking business on
NW 46 St. in Miami, and that also closed down my job in Florida.
Helping Lou by managing the auto wrecking business had been the primary reason I came to Florida in the first place.
At the time, I had just gotten married in Connecticut, and Lou had convinced me that coming to Florida to manage his business would be like having a Florida honeymoon for me and my new wife.
It just happens, that at the same time, my mother had just leased a tiny hotel on Collins Avenue on Miami Beach, and that was another good incentive for my coming to Miami.
My good friend Lou Gladstein, was in the used car business (Which I learned later was possibly also a stolen car business) and he was working out of Stamford Connecticut. Lou as he had promised, had given me a nice 1959 Plymouth to make the driving trip to Florida. Lou said that he suspected that manager of his auto wrecking business in Miami, was stealing most of the company’s money and by doing this, had put the place heavily in debt. So Lou wanted me to go there and try to find out what the hell was going on, and possibly save the business for him.
Upon our arrival in Miami, my wife and I stayed for a while in my mother’s hotel on Collins Avenue on the Beach, but after a few weeks, we rented a house trailer located in a trailer park on NW 79th Street in Miami, The trailer park was much closer to the auto wrecking yard that I had come to
Miami to manage.
As soon as I got to Lou’s Auto Wrecking business, I tried to get things in order, but every day a new and unknown debt appeared, and I soon realized the full extent of what the manager was embezzling. He was stealing everything, he had even failed to pay the wrecking yard rent for more than six months.
In a way it was fascinating to see how bold the manager was. He had even lied to the landlord, telling them that I was coming down from Connecticut to pay all of the back rent.
Once I found out the extent of his embezzlement, I knew that straightening out all the problems was almost an impossible task, so my recommendation to Lou, was that he close the yard down, and that was exactly what he did.
Once the yard was closed, I had to make a decision about staying in Florida or returning back to Connecticut. It was a difficult decision to make, because if we did stay in Florida, how would I earn a living?
Being in Miami back in 1963, was an extremely novel place for me, having come from the colder climate and the snowy winters of Connecticut, so everything in Miami was just so nice, and tropical. It was before the coconut palm blight and there were tons of coconut palms everywhere. The sun was shining every day, and best of all there was no snow to shovel. It was really like living in heaven compared to the New Haven climate where I came from, so now all I had to do was find something to do, to make a living.
Our living expenses were small, and we found living in a trailer park was a big novelty, it was more of an adventure for us. We met people I never would have otherwise met in Florida, as it seemed like most of our neighbors were either just going to jail or had just been released from jail.
As I remember it, we were only paying twenty dollars a week rent for the semi furnished trailer, so to make our life more comfortable for us, I bought a good used television for only fifty dollars. It was a nineteen inch black and white television that still had the holes drilled in it for a coin box that had originally been attached. I assumed that it had formerly been a pay TV from some bankrupt motel.
I was still driving Lou’s 1959 Plymouth automobile, it was the same one Lou had given me to make the trip to Florida, and the Plymouth still had one Connecticut “Junk Dealer” license plate on it, from the set Lou had given me.
That license plate that always created quite a bit of conversation in Miami from anyone who saw it. Everyone that ever saw it wanted to know what it was all about, as I don’t think anyone in Miami had ever seen a Connecticut junk dealer’s license plate before.
Once Lou’s Business in Miami was closed, I did what I knew best. I started driving around looking for used auto parts, and I bought things like used engine crankshafts, and old starters and generators. I would buy them and then re-sell them to Miami auto parts rebuilders. To do this, I was using Lou’s 1959 Plymouth. I used it every day, until the Police confiscated it.
I was stopped in traffic, and the Police noticed the Connecticut junk dealer license plate, and then he questioned me, and found I also had no registration papers, and I also had a Connecticut driver’s license as well. He said that since I was obviously working in Florida, everything I was doing was illegal and he impounded the 1959 Plymouth on the spot.
When I tried to recover the car, the Police told me they thought it was a stolen car. They said it appeared someone had ground off the engine serial numbers, can you believe that.
When I called Lou up in Stamford Connecticut to tell him what the Police said, he simply said the cops in Miami were crazy and not to worry.
Lou told me where he had parked another car, a 1958 Ford station wagon and I could use it. Lou said the car was parked at his boat dock on the Miami River. I suspected it was probably also another of his stolen cars he had brought down from up north.
Lou, then calmly told me to find out where the Police had parked the 1959 Plymouth, and he said that I should go there and remove the junk dealer license plate from the car. Lou said I should be very careful as the license plate on the 1959 Plymouth had the same numbers as the plate I was using on the Ford station wagon.
I did just as Lou told me, and I never heard another word from the Police about the so called stolen 1959 Plymouth, I guess the Miami police didn’t have computers back then.
While I had been managing Lou’s auto wrecking yard, I had met a Cuban fellow named Renato Cepero, Renato was a sharp Cuban who owned an auto parts store on 27th Avenue in Miami. He was buying used automotive engine crankshafts, and rebuilding them for export.
I loved Renato, because he needed a steady supply of used engine crankshafts, and he paid me $15.00 for each good one that I brought him.
Now, finding good crankshafts for Renato wasn’t as easy as it sounds. (See the Crankshaft Story). The crankshafts, all had to be the certain models that were, popular in Cuba, because that’s where he was smuggling them into.
So now, I was using Lou’s 1958 Ford station wagon just like it was a truck, and once I found that the rear seats were folded down, I filled up the back of the car with lots of used parts just like a truck.
I was really surprised at how much space I had in the back of that car as well as how much weight the Ford station wagon could carry. I could have done an advertisement for Ford.
The only complaint I had with the station wagon was that it was obviously a stolen from New England and that meant it had no air conditioning, which was not a good thing in the Miami heat.
One day while I was driving around Miami looking for crankshafts, I saw a sign in front of a building, it was called National Motor Exchange Company. The sign said that they were an engine rebuilding and installation company.
The business was located just off NW 27 Avenue near 71st Street in Miami. So as soon as I saw the sign, I stopped to see if they had any good used crankshafts to sell.
While I was in the front office, I met the owner of the company, his name was Irving, and after talking to Irving for a few minutes, I realized that he was no engine rebuilder, He was too well dressed. Turns out my assessment was correct, Irving was a money man, an investor, who had put in money in the failing engine rebuilding business, and then ended up owning it when the original owner ran away.
I was amazed at watching how well Irving ran the company, which was not an easy thing to do.
I told Irving that I was in the market for buying used crankshafts, and he told me to walk around inside his building to see if there was anything I could buy from him, he seemed happy to meet me.
Irving’s building was pretty big, and he had over thirty employee’s all working there rebuilding engines.
But, everywhere I went, the building was loaded with a lot of scrap engine parts that had accumulated there over the years. Most of the junk had been there from long before Irving had taken over the company.
The next day, I asked Irving what he was doing with all the scrap metal in the building, and he told me that a junk man came by every now and then and picked up some of the scrap. So I asked Irving how that worked out, and he told me how the scrap man did it. Irving said, “The junk dealer had a scale on the back of his truck, and he paid for the scrap he picked up in cash”.
I was pretty familiar as to how junk dealers worked, and I knew right away that the junk man was stealing as much as he could from Irving, but Irving didn’t know it.
So I sat down and called three of the largest scrap yards in Miami, I asked them how much they would pay me for scrap cast iron if I delivered it right to their yard. I already had a pretty good idea of what the Miami scrap prices were, but I wanted to confirm it before I said anything to Irving.
All the scrap companies I called said they were paying around $23.00 dollars a ton for automotive cast iron if it was delivered to them.
I had already calculated that all the scrap yards were located about four miles from where we were, and that meant that hauling the scrap to them could be done using my 1958 Ford station wagon.
That having been done, next, I sat down with Irving and offered him a proposition, I said that I would pay him eighteen dollars a ton for all the cast iron he had in his building. I told him that would give me five dollars a ton profit.
Now, five dollars a ton wasn’t much profit considering all the work involved, but I needed to be fair to Irving and show him that I was honest.
But when I first made the proposition, Irving looked at me and laughed, so I said, what is it you think is so funny? Irving said, “You must think I'm a pretty dumb guy, I'm already getting $28.00 a ton from the local junk dealer that comes here with his truck.”
I said, look Irving, the junk dealer can't pay you $28.00 a ton because he is only selling it for $23.00 a ton. He is lying to you, and is probably stealing a few extra tons from you each time he comes here.
I told him that all I want to do was make $5.00 per ton profit, and I will do all the work. I will load all the cast iron junk in my station wagon and take it to the scrap yard myself, and then I will show you the receipts from the scale when they weigh the car, I will show you exactly how much money they give me.
I remember Irving tapping a pencil on his desk while debating with himself if I was lying to him or not, so I picked up the phone book and found the yellow page with all the scrap dealer phone numbers on it, and I told Irving to call one or more of the big Miami scrap dealers and find out if $23.00 per ton was the top price they will pay for scrap cast iron.
Irving called two scrap yards, and they both said they paid exactly $23.00 dollars a ton for scrap cast iron delivered to them, so now, Irving knew I wasn’t lying to him. Irving then hung up the phone, and told me to start hauling all his scrap cast iron any time I wanted to.
I spent the next several weeks hauling Irving’s cast iron to the scrap yards, and eventually I cleaned up his whole building of all iron scrap.
Once the building was clean, of the cast iron, I saw that there were about 30 or 40 large barrels full of old used aluminum engine pistons.
Now I knew that scrap aluminum was worth good money, probably around 12 cents a lb.
The problem was, all the aluminum pistons Irving had, still had the old piston rings on them, and
That made them contaminated aluminum, worth much less than clean aluminum.
I studied the situation carefully, and I found that if I removed the piston rings myself buy hand, the aluminum piston scrap would be a higher quality of aluminum and worth more money.
I took a dirty piston out of the barrel, and with a little practice, I found that I could remove the steel piston rings, so then I started cleaning all the pistons by hand.
I found that taking the piston rings off was labor intensive job and really hard on my hands, but I could do it.
Next, I took a sample of one cleaned piston, and went to one of the largest scrap yards in Miami called Metro Iron and metal Company, I chose them because I knew they had an aluminum melting furnace, and they would pay the highest aluminum price. Also I chose them because I had met the two fellows that were running the place, and I felt they would treat me fairly.
I took my sample aluminum piston, and caught the attention of one of the managers. I knew him, his name was Arthur Pepper, and he was the quieter of the two managers.
I told Arthur that I could bring him about five thousand pounds of clean aluminum pistons, the same as the sample that I had brought him.
Arthur was as friendly as can be, and said he would pay me 12 cents a pound for the clean automotive pistons as per the sample.
I went back to National Engine Exchange and told Irving that I could sell the aluminum pistons for 12 cents a pound, so I could pay him 9 ½ cents a pound, leaving me with a 2 ½ cent a pound profit, Irving agreed to it, and I started to remove all the steel piston rings off the pistons in the barrels.
By late afternoon, I had filled up the back of the Ford station wagon, and I headed to the scrap yard to sell the load.
When I got to the scrap yard, I pulled the Ford wagon onto the weighing scale, and got out of the car to get my weight receipt. As I did that, I was approached by another one of the partners, his name was Nordy, Nordy, walked out of the scale house office, reached into the back of my car and took out one of the cleaned pistons. He said, “We are only paying you 8 cents a pound for these pistons.” My heart nearly stopped, hold on, I said. Your partner Arthur told me he would pay 12 cents a pound yesterday, and I have 9 ½ cents invested in them, I can’t sell them to you for only 8 cents a pound, I would lose money. I didn't mention that I also spent the whole day cleaning the pistons and cutting my hands to shreds while I was doing it.
Nordy Blum knew he had me, and he gave me a nasty look and said, “8 cents a pound is all I will pay, and I don't care what Arthur told you, you can take it or leave it.”
Needless to say, I was shocked, Nordy knew that I couldn't drive the car away, because it was late in the day and I was so overloaded. Even if I did drive off, where would I go? Nordy knew he had me over a barrel, and he was determined to take advantage of me.
So, here I was, broken hearted, with tears in my eyes, and I reluctantly agreed to let them pay me the 8 cents a pound. It was pretty obvious to everyone there that Nordy Blum was cheating me.
They instructed me to drive over to their aluminum smelter to unload the pistons.
I drove the station wagon off the scale and backed up to where their aluminum smelting furnace was, and I unloaded all the pistons out of the car, piling them off to the side in between two large metal drums. Needless to say, I was very depressed, I had lost money that I could not afford to lose, and I felt cheated by this guy Nordy, who I thought was a friend.
When I returned to National Motor Exchange, I saw Irving, and told him what happened. Irving looked at my receipt and saw that I had received 8 cents a lb. He said he felt bad that they had cheated me, so Irving told me to lower the price I was paying him, he didn’t want me to lose any money.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night, I didn't understand how I could have been cheated so badly.
The following day, I started to clean more pistons, but now I had an idea.
Near the barrels of pistons, were neatly stacked, several piles of giant, and very heavy Mack truck engine flywheels. Those flywheels were solid steel and very heavy, some of them must have weighed over two hundred pounds apiece, and they were only worth about 1 cent, a lb. in scrap.
So with super human strength, and some help from Irving’s men, I put six of the flywheels, on the floor inside of the station wagon. I think that they must have weighed way over twelve hundred pounds, then I covered them all up with the clean aluminum pistons that I had prepared.
I went right to the scrap yard and drove onto the scale, and after weighing up the car, I backed up to the secluded area where the aluminum smelter was, and there I unloaded all my pistons.
Once the pistons were out of the car, I then I unloaded all the heavy steel flywheels. I couldn’t lift them, so I rolled them out of the station wagon and onto the ground. I then drove the station wagon back on the scale, and got my weight receipt, and payment for 8 cents a lb.
I did the same thing on two more loads, until the aluminum pistons were all gone, and so were all the heavy Mack truck flywheels.
The heavy flywheels were now leaning against some metal barrels, right near the aluminum smelter. The row of steel flywheels was about five feet long. I counted them twice with great pride and satisfaction, there were eighteen flywheels there.
I estimated that they weighed about thirty six hundred pounds in total, which I had been paid 8 cents per lb.
Scrap yards are notorious for cheating their customers, they all do it all the time, so it gave me great satisfaction to beat them at their own game, and when I told Irving what I had done, we both had a good laugh. Then I gave him the full 9 ½ cents per lb. as I had promised him. He was so happy he sent out for pizza for everyone.
About fifteen years later, when I had reason to visit Metro Iron and Metals Company. I heard that the managers, Nordy and Arthur had been fired. So I took a nostalgic stroll down to the old aluminum smelting area, which, by then, it was no longer being operated, and there they were, my thirty six hundred pounds of steel flywheels, still leaning against metal barrels, just as I had left them so many years before.