By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
When they first appeared in the mid-’70s, gearheads in search of more power wanted to get rid of catalytic converters and often replaced them with sections of straight-through tubing — the infamous “test pipe.”
Now cats have become hot commodities — for thieves, anyhow.
Nogoodniks with power tools are making off with peoples’ catalytic converters — cutting them off the exhaust systems of parked vehicles with the same speed and efficiency formerly devoted to snatching expensive stereo systems.
They’re definitely not out to save the planet. Like thieves everywhere, they’re out to make a buck.
Catalytic converters are convertible into cash because of the small amounts of precious metals — especially platinum, palladium and rhodium — they contain. These precious metals are the key to the “catalytic” chemical conversion of harmful byproducts of internal combustion that would otherwise make smog into less harmful things like carbon dioxide and water vapor. They are the reason why late-model cars produce a fraction of the lung-choking effluvia that pre-converter cars did.
They’re also worth a surprising amount of money — for the scrap or the whole unit.
Recyclers are currently paying as much as $150 per converter for certain models because the street value per ounce of the platinum, palladium and rhodium has been rising sharply — from around $400 per ounce in 2001 to more than $1,000 currently.
In bulk, that can add up to a nice little pile for a night’s mischief with a Sawzall.
It’s also a lot cheaper to Midnight Auto Supply someone else’s converter than it is to buy a new one over the counter. A factory-original converter can sell for $500 or more.
“Anything that’s not nailed down, and in some cases stuff that is, is being stolen,” Gary Bush, director of theft prevention at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries recently told USA Today.
According to the USA Today piece, at least 20 catalytic converters were cut off cars in a four week period earlier this year in Davis, CA. Similar episodes have been reported all around the country.
Many late model cars have at least two catalytic converters; some as many as four (V-8 model with dual exhaust, for example). With the right tools — such as a battery-powered industrial saw — it only takes a couple of minutes (or less) to cut one off a parked vehicle’s exhaust system.
The same thing has also been happening with air bags, by the way.
Thieves break into a car — and leave the stereo. Instead, they’ll abscond with the entire steering wheel — which contains the driver’s side air bag. It then gets sold to shady body shops that use the stolen air bags to repair cars without paying full ticket for a brand-new air bag. They charge you (or your insurance company) for a new bag – and no one’s the wiser.
Converter thefts present an unusual problem, however, because you’re dealing with a part of the vehicle that’s outside and pretty much unprotected. Most vehicle alarm systems are designed to keep thieves from breaking into your car — or driving away with it — not keep them from crawling around underneath it and cutting parts off of it. High-riding vehicles such as pick-ups and SUVs are particularly vulnerable. Not even a floor jack is needed to get at their guts — and make off with a converter or two.
The good news, at least, is that if someone steals your vehicle’s converter rather than cuts off the steering wheel to get at the air bag, you’ll still be able to drive it. And it won’t hurt anything — other than your standing with environmentalists — though you should get it fixed (and a new converter welded in) sooner rather than later. Probably your “check engine” light will come on as the computer senses the absence of the converter. It may also put the engine into “open loop” mode, which (again) won’t harm anything but will probably decrease your gas mileage until the exhaust gets fixed.
Bring some earplugs — because it’s going to be a noisy ride.