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Car wrecks against erosion

River walls made up of car wrecks

19/01/2014 07:08 |  Comments: 
Today the sight will break your heart, but there was a time when these wrecks were worth peanuts.

While the concept of second-hand cars was virtually unknown in Hungary till the ’50s, the salvage yards for the superannuated vehicles kept opening up one after the other in the US. Sure, we too had totalled cars or ones riddled with bullets during the war, but the cars of the affluent citizens living in capitalism did not become, but were made worthless by a sudden urge to consume. The speed of obsolescence has accelerated, as a result of a thriving economy millions of families invested in new cars and did away with the old. Most of the discarded cars ended up on the junkyard to be smashed, used as donors, or simply to rot away in piece. A minor part had a better afterlife serving as a brick in the supporting wall along the banks of a river somewhere.  

There’s a number that says more than a thousand words about the swing of mid-century car production in the US: 59 million. That’s the number of cars made by local manufacturers between 1950 and 1960. That’s more than thousand times as many as the number of cars marketed in Hungary last year. Fords, Chevrolets, Plymouths, Buicks and a couple of other brands’ cars had the privilege of becoming members of families during the baby-boom, but it was also the era when it became clear that car wrecks post a huge problem. Storing and reusing them are both problematic, so as an interesting wildling of recycling they were used as bricks in walls.

Not just any walls, of course. The walls built to stop erosion on the banks of uncontrolled rivers. The name of the strange method is Detroit Riprap, named after the one-time capital of car production, motor city Detroit, and riprap, an English word for artificial riversides. Although the term generally refers to river walls made of stone or piles of stone, it somehow stuck to the method coming into general use in the middle of the century.


Using the car wrecks this way may be surprising but it was a logical move: it was far cheaper and easier to collect the wrecks than to break stone or dig slopes, and the continuous metal surface made of cars does a great job at holding soil in place. The interesting method was mostly applied in areas where something worth protecting had been built nearby, like a road, or a pillar of a bridge. The Detroit Riprap method spread fast and has been tried in many other states. In some places it was intended partly as a sight worth seeing, but their function was mostly real and justified by time. Many of the cars used in the ripraps are in exactly the same position as they were left in, leaning against the river wall with their floor pan or their side. Some ripraps have become one with the bank of the river, and although they’ve been weakened by rust during the last 50-60 years, they are still doing their job.

The method is gone by now. While it was acceptable to build oily cars, sometimes still having their tires and engines into river walls a few decades ago, thanks to the conservation regulations it is out of the question today. It’s difficult enough to collect the parts and sometimes complete cars that have been washed away by the backwash, which in some cases are the very signs that a Detroit Riprap had been built up-stream nearby.

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