One Man’s Treasure — The Love of Junkyard Engines Is A Curse

As a car enthusiast on a tight budget, I love junkyards. It can’t be just any junkyard, but one that allows you to pick your own parts. We have several Pull-a-parts in the Midwest, and one just happens to be located nearby. It’s been a godsend for people like me who drive older cars as a daily or occasional road warrior. Not to mention a fun way to kill an afternoon what I feel like browsing. 

My love affair with junkyards moved up a level or two when a Pull-a-part opened in my hometown in the mid-2000s. My MK4 VW GTI with the VR6 engine combo began having issues soon after I purchased it. After driving home from work  one night, a P0171 system lean code blinked on the dash. I grabbed the scanner and determined that the Mass Airflow sensor was not working correctly. It was affecting the idle and had no power. So I ordered a generic MAF sensor on eBay, thinking that would solve the issue. 

My nearly stock GTI had a cam solenoid failure that would've cost $1,600 at the dealer or $1,200 on eBay for a new cam bridge. Instead, I got what I needed at a junkyard for around $100.

The new MAF seemed to fix the trouble code, but something still didn’t seem right. The engine didn’t idle very well, and it looked like the fuel trims were erratic. Then, a short time later, another code popped up. This time it was a cam timing code. That seemed ominous, so I spent some time diagnosing the problem. What I discovered was going to require a timing chain replacement or a new variable cam timing solenoid (or two). It turned out the intake cam solenoid had failed. But the only replacement was to order the entire cam bridge from the dealer, which would’ve cost a hefty $1,200 at the time. I thought there had to be a better solution: Pull-a-part to the rescue.

A friend who also owns an MK4 GTI was at Pull-a-part when he spotted a VR6 24v Jetta and gave me a call. He said I should check it out and thought it had the needed parts. The Jetta was a 24-valve BDF VR6 and had both cam solenoids! I removed the cam solenoid in about 20 minutes. I took the ignition coils, too, since they were the updated versions, just for insurance. I also snagged the ECU, just in case. 

This is the donor BDF VR6 I found at the junkyard with the parts I needed to get back on the road. I removed the parts like a surgeon but wished I took more.

The whole lot set me back about $100. I should’ve snagged the MAF also, but I had already purchased a used factory MAF sensor on eBay for $50. I wanted to try a factory MAF to compare with the generic sensor. That woke the car up! With the cam solenoids now working and the factory MAF installed, the engine pulled unbelievably well.

One Man’s Treasure Hunting

When I need parts for my GTI and other cars, I usually start at Pull-a-part to see what’s available and to look around. My driver’s side window stopped working recently, so I paid another visit to the yard. But this time, I was also interested in other cars to see what engines were available (for research, of course). I asked the manager how much an engine would cost, and he replied that they are about $280, depending on if it’s a gas or diesel or bigger than ten cylinders. It’s not a bad price, but you’ll want to carefully examine the engine’s condition. After all, there’s a reason the vehicle wound up at a junkyard. 

While searching for a suitable window switch for the VW, I noticed quite a few engines that would make good project builds for someone (Not me, I swear. Well, maybe…). Walking into the yard, I saw a couple of Saabs in the first row, so I moved in for a closer look. I’ve owned a few Saab 900s but never got into the GM-Saabs. There was a Saab 9-5 with the 2.8-liter GM-built V6 turbo. Not bad, but this low-pressure model didn’t make much power. The high-pressure V6s can easily produce over 300 horsepower with a mild tune. 

The GM/Saab 2.0T is based on the Ecotec 2.0-liter and has loads of tuning potential. With some moderate tuning and modifications, these can put out a reliable 270-280 horsepower.

Next to the 9-5 was a 2007 9-3 2.0T based on GM’s Ecotec engine. The 2.0Ts can also make good power with a tune. The big “T” 2.0T can supposedly crank a reliable 270 horsepower with a more aggressive tune with only minor hardware mods. I’ve seen a few 9-3s in decent shape for under $4,000. I am constantly thinking about my next car/project and whether I should sell the VW for something more mature for my age. As a Gen-Xer, it may be time to get a grown-up car. But I can’t break the bank on my freelancer budget. 

This Saab 9-5 with the 2.8L GM-built V6 turbo is the low-psi turbo model that didn’t make much power. The high-pressure V6s that produce 12 psi can easily make over 300 hp with a stage 1 tune. 

The junkyard engine that intrigued me the most, since I love VWs, was from a 2001 Passat. It was a 1.8T 20-valve mated to a 5-speed transmission. I have visions of an engine swap in my dad’s ‘74 MGB. He tore the head off to install hardened valve seats so it could run unleaded fuel but never finished it before he passed away. It has been sitting in the garage just waiting for some love. The stock 1800cc engine is somewhat sluggish, but I bet a 1.8T would wake it up. 

Volkswagen's 1.8T 20-valve is one of the most ubiquitous and tunable engines in the company's history. It essentially helped launch the popularity of turbo four-cylinder performance.

I have also debated replacing my VR6 with a 1.8T and mating it to my six-speed transmission. The VR6 sounds great and runs well, but only a few bolt-on performance parts exist. The usual intake and exhaust upgrades don’t make significant gains. The beauty of a 1.8T is that it is easily swappable like an LS motor, and there are many parts in the aftermarket. I’ve seen 300-horsepower engines with not much more than a remapped ECU. But any engine from a junkyard will need torn down and rebuilt, regardless. You can also swap a forged 2.0L TFSI crank to bump the engine to 2,008cc. Doing that, along with the bigger turbo, would make for an exciting 2,300-pound car. 

Photo gallery


The Bad Idea Fairy

Some honorable mentions from my trip to Pull-a-part were the sheer number of LS engine combinations. There were Avalanches with 5.3s and 4L60E transmissions (LS swap-ready). I spotted Silverados with 4.8s and even a heavy-duty Silverado with an LQ4 6.0-liter LS. I dug the 2000 Grand Marquis with the 4.6-liter Modular engine in the Ford section, thinking about our Boring Project 4.6. There were also a few 5.4-liter Triton engines and an old Ford 300 straight-six. More people are building these sixes to do something different and stand out from the crowd. We even saw a guy cut some LS heads to fit the 300 for some exciting results. 

Junkyards are for budget-build dreamers like myself. My head was spinning with possibilities the more rows I walked through. But eventually, reality calls and says: “Stick with your projects, bro.” However, that won’t stop me from my recreational trips to the junkyard for internal-combustion inspiration.

A list of some of the vehicles/engines from my most recent junkyard visit:

  • 2000 Grand Marquis – 4.6L V8
  • 1992 F150 – Ford 300 Straight-Six
  • Chevy Express Van – LS 5.3 or 4.8
  • 2002 Chevy Silverado – LS 5.3 Vortec
  • 2002 Chevy Avalanche – LS 5.3 Vortec
  • 2009 VW Jetta S – 2.5L five-cylinder; turbo kit?
  • 1988 Honda CRX – 16-valve SOHC; nostalgic
  • 2007 Saab 9-3 – 2.0T GM Ecotec 4-cylinder turbo
  • 1998 Acura Integra – No engine, but had the cylinder head and cams laying out
  • 1978 TR7 – 2.0L 4-cylinder; 8-valve engine, slow. The car was intact and could be swap candidate
  • 2005 Mini Cooper – 1.6L N/A; Turbo kit candidate? 
  • 2006 Toyota Tundra – 4.7L iForce V8; Timing belt, interference motor. Be careful. 
  • 1997 Mercedes C280 – 2.8L I6
  • 2005 Honda Element – KA24?? Supercharger or Turbo Swap; S2000
  • 2006 Honda CRV – I-VTEC 2.4 DOHC (K24)
  • 2008 Audi A8L Quattro – 4.2L V8 – Timing chain problems, rear-facing chain…Stay away.
  • 2009 BMW 3-Series – 2.8L I6; reliable, torque monsters in RWD
  • VW Passat 5-Speed – 1.8T; highly tuneable and can bolt into almost any VW

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About the author

Brendan Baker

Brendan Baker is an automotive writer who lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife and two dogs. He started racing and building cars at a young age, building his first "racecar" at age 12 (a quarter-midget), which he put on pole position in its first race.
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