A sturdy man, long of beard and hair walked before a lineup of American metal, wearing an insulated plaid flannel, reinforced work pants secured by a GMC belt buckle and dusty engineer’s boots.
A late model Audi pulled up and a man leaned across the console to call out the window, “Are you Dan?”
“I am,” he replied, and they began talking cars and parts.
“I have to keep a low profile,” said Dan Stafford after the car pulled away. “That happens a lot.”
Stafford is the longtime owner of Dan’s Garage in Kennewick. It’s tucked in alongside Twin City Metals and between two sets of railroad tracks in an old Union 76 Gas Station, fronted by a row of aging muscle cars spanning the decades.
After over 40 years of collecting an extensive repository of automobile history from around the Northwest and more than 4,000 vehicles passing through his yard, Stafford said it’s time to pass the labor of love on to someone new. He’s ready to sell the business.
Behind the unassuming old gas station stretches stacked antique and vintage car bodies and parts, some outside, some in outbuildings, all meticulously labeled and identified with wax pencil and organized by type of part.
Once upon a time, there were homes on the property. Their long-ago tree plantings now tower over, dropping leaves on the vehicles preserved by the dry climate.
It’s a 2.5-acre car restorer’s paradise, especially for General Motors enthusiasts.
“It’s kind of like an amusement park, except all the rides are broken,” Stafford quipped.
The 71-year-old said wrecking yards devoted to restoration are a vanishing species.
“Sometimes the property gets too valuable to stay in business. They sell off and the buyer usually has the cars crushed up and the ground cleaned up and that’s the end of it. Sometimes I don’t hear about it until it’s too late. A lot of great stuff has been lost that way,” he said somberly.
“If you want a wrecking yard, it’s easier to buy an existing one than to start a new one. Zoning has to be heavy industrial and there’s a lot of environmental regulation.”
He said a lot of specialty places move their parts indoors and break down cars in a warehouse.
He’s had a number of people interested in the property, but they aren’t interested in the wrecking side.
Stafford’s not in a rush to sell.
“The right person will see the value in this organized chaos,” he said. “It will have to be someone with a pretty broad knowledge of older GM vehicles, but I’m a pretty good teacher. For the right deal, I’ll stick around and help advise.”
Staying on might be necessary as the inventory system for Dan’s Garage currently exists only on Stafford’s mental hard drive.
“If you can identify what you have, you can sell it. If you’re buying someone’s barn full of car parts, you’ve got to be able to spot the nuggets in the gravel.
“It’s not a gold mine, you have to work at it, but you can make a pretty good living doing this. It’s a bit of an antiquated business model and that’s why I like it.”
The asking price for the property, buildings, inventory (cars and parts) and equipment (forklift, ramp truck, truck scale, functional antique crane) is $950,000.
A fascination with old cars and their parts runs in Stafford’s blood.
“My dad was an antique car guy, one of the founders of the local antique car club,” he said.
For Stafford, it started with an obsession for collecting license plates as a kid growing up in Kennewick.
“Back in the ’20s and ’30s, there was no city dump, so I used to go with my dad and find these old dumps scattered around the sagebrush.”
What gave Stafford his start in parts was an unexpected opportunity that arose while visiting his dad’s hometown of Whitehall, Montana, for his grandfather’s funeral.
He was still in high school and had recently walked away from a crash that totaled his ’41 Chevy.
“The Chevrolet dealer there my dad had worked for during the war driving a wrecker had closed. Used to be an auto parts store,” Stafford said.
Peering inside, he saw all the inventory still on the shelves. He got in touch with the owner, and, using his insurance money, bought the contents of the building for $700.
“There were new parts on the shelves clear back into the ’20s. Kind of a fluke,” he said.
Stafford said he’s proud to be one of the few in his Kennewick High class of 1969 to realize the career goal listed under his name in the yearbook: “Plans to own a junk yard.”
“A lot of what I’m dealing with now were new cars when I was in high school,” he said with a laugh.
His plans didn’t materialize right away, but after being laid off from a pipe company related to Hanford and restoring Camaros in his backyard, he realized it would be quicker money to part out cars.
A friend moved the 1954 Union 76 gas station building from Washington Street in Kennewick to its present location at 508 E. Bruneau Ave.
It had been where Stafford pumped up his bike tires before he had four wheels of his own.
Last Chance Wrecking, which had been located at the site since the 1950s, rented it out, then later let it go and moved to East Lewis Street in Pasco, which gave Stafford the opportunity to step in in 1981.
In 1983, Stafford bought the property and he’s been there ever since, with a few business evolutions along the way.
A big gamechanger was the advent of eBay in the early 2000s.
“I have an eBay store with 600 items,” he said. “A lot of it is stuff that no one ever comes in looking for, but it is valuable. You have to get it out there.”
Stafford acquires his inventory through word of mouth, visiting people with cars and parts to sell, buying old parts from auto part dealers ready to clear them out. He used to make the swap meet rounds.
He also sells whole cars. Current listings can be found on his website: dansgarage.net.
Until recently, he sold a lot overseas, from Europe to the United Arab Emirates, to Australia and New Zealand. High shipping rates have put a damper on the market.
A popular trend that he said has cropped up in the last 10 years or so is decorating man caves or garages with old car parts like truck grills, hub caps and the license plates he used to collect as a kid.
“Even the crappy stuff that no one would want for a reconstruction project, they’ll take it for decor,” he said. “So now I’m a decorator.”
Though he’s looking to retire, Stafford has an antique booth at Skye’s Finds in Richland he’s planning to keep up, as well as his long-term retirement investment: several of the best cars from among the many that populate two other lots he owns down the street and uses for overflow.
These he’ll work to sell over time. “I like buying and selling cars. It’s fun,” he said.
Back out front, another car pulled up and a man got out.
“How much for the Camaro?” he asked.
Dan’s Garage: 508 E. Bruneau Ave., Kennewick. Contact: 509-586-2579; dansgarage.net: Facebook.
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