Thirteen years ago, Cash For Clunkers offered a unique venue. Help save the troubled domestic auto industry, inject much-needed capital into an economy ravaged by the Great Recession, and replace aging guzzlers on America’s roads with more efficient cars. The federal scrapping scheme, which destroyed nearly 700,000 suspected gasoline-guzzling vehicles, had basic criteria: no car could be 25 years old or older, the cars had to get 18 mpg combined or, worse, be roadworthy, and its discount and salvage value must be applied to a vehicle that will be registered and insured for one continuous year after purchase.
Hopefully what’s been taken off the road has been recycled a few times, but the truth is not lost as we’ve unearthed a little-known, long-lost full account of every CFC car destroyed. With talk of a new buyback program to convert people from internal combustion engines to electric cars buzzing in Washington, it’s a perfect time to review what happened the last time we cashed in on our cars.
We found the report in the Wayback Machine archives of CARS.gov, the website of the car rebate scheme known as Cash For Clunkers. The site has now been down for more than five years, but a complete record of each of the nearly 700,000 destroyed cars has been preserved. Although there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about CFC claiming several exotic products, this coverage was not based on an audited list to eliminate incorrect entries, duplicates and other errors.
Now we have definitive data that tells us what was destroyed under CFC — and yes, it includes a number of cars that will truly make you cringe. We’ve got a few stories to go over it all in detail, including stories about the classic, rare and powerful cars that met their fate on those blustery days of summer 2009.
But first, here’s a complete list of scrapped cars and trucks. We’ve embedded a PDF below, sorted alphabetically by manufacturer. We’ve also set up a public Google Spreadsheet, which is linked here in case there’s a problem with the PDF. Take it all:
I wanted to start by saying that I destroyed the CFC majority. But because of the formatting of the report, it is not easy. Vehicles are separated by year, make, model and transmission configuration, splitting individual models into multiple entries. Even so, I was able to skim the cream off the top by finishing only the top 150. It still gave me a pretty good idea of which cars CFC is most likely to claim. And here they are:
- 1995-2003 Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer: 46,676
- Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivans 1996-2000: 23,998
- 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee: 20,844
- 1992-1997 Ford F-150: 20,222
- 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee: 18,329
- 1988-2002 GM C/K Pickup: 17,202
- 1995-2005 Chevrolet Blazer: 15,668
- 1999-2003 Ford Windstar: 12,157
- 1991-1994 Ford Explorer: 11,612
- 1994-2001 Dodge Ram 1500: 8103
While the list is a neat cross-section of the most popular cars in the US at the time, popularity alone isn’t why these vehicles were the most crushed. They were destroyed because CFCs were intended (at least ostensibly) to improve the poor fuel efficiency of American drivers’ cars. No vehicle above breaks 18 mpg with the automatic transmission, and combined they average just under 16 mpg.
This is almost the average value for all CFC revs, which the Department of Transportation estimates were 15.8 mpg. Because CFC operated on a rebate system where dealers received cash for receiving rebate vouchers, the federal government could track the margin of increased gas mileage for each sale. In doing so, it found that the average mpg of replaced vehicles under the CFC program was 24.9 mpg — a 58% improvement.
But while 700,000 vehicles getting more than 9 mpg sounds like a lot, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has not noted any improvement in fuel economy for the nation’s vehicles as a result of CFCs. If anything, he wrote down the margin decline from 2009 to 2010. The impact of CFCs on the fuel consumption of the US fleet was further mitigated by subsequent years of record car sales: more than 185 million new cars were sold in the US since 2010, Axelwise.
The program’s impact on our gas consumption was ultimately negligible, and that doesn’t acknowledge the other disadvantages of CFCs. It cost the US government $3 billion, some of which indirectly supplemented the bailout given to American automakers, although much of it went overseas. Apocryphally, CFCs have also been blamed for rising used car prices. But this can be explained as a result of the increase in demand for cheap used cars during the recession.
Economists are again talking about a “recession,” as is a proposal to revive CFCs, sometimes aimed at electric car adoption — the latter has been proposed in DC according to speculative reports. If the U.S. is indeed entering another recession and a CFC-style program is returning, then its proponents should consider what happened when we first tried to cash in on scrap cars, not to mention the difference in market conditions between 2009 and 2022. Then demand was the problem; today it’s a proposition, and EV CFC can quickly turn into a windfall for car dealers and some others.
We can speculate whether the CFC has achieved what it set out to do, and we will. But what went down is not up for debate, and here is the final list.
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