Roatan’s Car Cemetery
One Man’s Junked Car is Another Man’s Livelihood

July 1st, 2009
by Courtney Morgan

[private]

Nelson at work on an engine

Nelson at work on an engine

When there is a car accident on Roatan, first a person calls the Transito Police and then the police call Nelson. Nelson Ritten-House owns Roatan’s only towing company and largest junkyard. In an effort to keep the streets clear, cars involved in accidents are towed to Nelson’s junkyard and stay there while police determine fault and owners make arrangements for repairs.

When cars are totaled or the owners don’t have the money to fix them, Ritten-House buys them to repair or to sell for parts. He said that taxis are involved in most of the accidents on the island and taxi drivers are his primary customers for parts such as tires, rims and shocks. He said the car accident rate seems to be going down and attributes it to the slowing economy and a decrease in tourism.

Nelson prefers to focus on cars that can be repaired and resold on the mainland, as the parts business has been slow. “The island is small for selling parts,” he said, “and I might have a car for years.” He pointed out a white, weather beaten car that looked more like a planter box as vines crawled over its windows and brush grew from the trunk. It has been in the junkyard for six or seven years.

Ritten-House moved to the island 10 years ago and continued his father’s family business of towing, repairing and junking cars. He sends three to four cars a month by boat to La Ceiba and from there his father tows them to their hometown of Siguatepeque to repair. Nelson can purchase a car for anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 and make up to $3,000 on the resale. Many cars on the island are American and are hard to resell on the mainland, where Japanese cars are in higher demand.

In the past, about 60 percent of car accidents occurred at night, but now the night and day accident rates are more equal. “Maybe people are partying less,” he said. The time of year could be a factor as well, as car accidents increase in the rainy season and at times of high tourism. December 2008 was one of his busiest months with about 12 accidents.

He currently sees an average of two accidents a week, whereas a year ago it was more like three per week. He charges 1,200 Lps. for a typical tow and more for cars that are hard to get to, far away from Coxen Hole or need towing at night. That kind of income is not enough to pay his eight employees, he said. In response to the downturn he has expanded to renting construction equipment such as back-hoes to reach other markets.

His yard can comfortably hold about 60 cars, so when it gets too full Ritten-House cuts up the old and rusty cars to be sold for iron scrap. He gets about one hundred dollars per ton on metal scrap.

Nelson used to also be in the business of importing salvaged cars from the US, fixing and reselling them, but stopped because there was a lot of competition. He feels that repaired salvage-title cars are safe, but said that “about 90 percent of cars on the mainland do not have airbags.” Many are older models that never had airbags, but others had airbags that inflated in previous accidents and were not replaced. [/private]

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