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What is a core charge?

by | Apr 2, 2024

The article title is a question I asked when I was a young counterman, and most of you oldtimer mechanics and parts people of course know the story: the core charge is a way to be sure the smoked part makes its way back to the parts counter.

A core charge is a deposit held by a merchant to ensure the return of the used part, which is then returned to the rebuilder to ensure they have a steady supply of units to remanufacture.

But there’s more to the story. Here are a few nuggets I’ve picked up in my time through the automotive world that you might find interesting—I sure did.

You’ll often pay a core charge for a new part.

Sometimes rebuilt parts aren’t rebuilt. Odds are good you haven’t ever heard of seeded cores. See, when a company like Dorman wants to rebuild parts, we need to source them, and sometimes they can’t be found. Other times, we get to market so fast, the parts we need aren’t in the salvage yards.

So you’ll pay a core charge even though the part you unbox just might be new, not remanufactured, because the idea is to “seed” enough parts that rebuilding can happen.

See all that tire mounting compound? Getting sloppy here also helps when trying to index the valve stem; a slippery tire can just be held while the table spins to the correct spot.

Core charges aren’t always returned.

Ever see a “crankshaft with a view?” (Like, there’s a hole in the engine block?) That’s usually not rebuildable. The remanufacturer is gonna have to go source another block to rebuild because your customer’s is toast. The core charge your shop—and thus your customer—forks over isn’t coming back. (Or at least a part of it isn’t. There are other parts on there that are useful, like the cylinder heads, for example.)

The core charge is a fee the rebuilder charges to ensure they have a stream of rebuildable units coming back, and the money can be used to source them from salvage yards when needed.

A lot of stuff used to carry a core charge.

Especially if you’re a younger technician, the concept of a core might seem a little foreign, but traditionally, many parts of the car were saved and the offending items repaired, rejuvenated, and resold.

Rotating electrical (starters/alternators/generators) are still sometimes sold rebuilt, and other times they’re new. Engines, transmissions, heads, and other subassemblies are remanufactured in facilities that specialize in this work. But many parts used to be rebuilt in-shop. Brake shoes are a great example—specialty relining shops used to exist, and many general repair shops (maybe even yours!) that have been open for a long time still have a brake rivet press and shoe grinder gathering dust in the corner.

As times changed, companies began to gather cores to rebuild for parts stores, who would stock the parts on shelves to save mechanics the time of rebuilding failed parts. Units could be ready for hotshot delivery, and then the industry changed yet again to where we are today: new parts replace old. Here’s a few other items you might not have realized were rebuilt and thus carried core charges in the past:

  • Water pumps
  • Clutches
  • Turbochargers
  • CV shafts
  • Master cylinders and calipers
  • Carburetors

Some of these items are still rebuilt today, of course, at differing scales. For instance, OEM CV shafts are often prized by those subjecting them to high-horsepower hijinks. They’re also commonly rebuilt by either mechanics or smaller companies for hard-to-get applications, like side-by-sides or (in America), kei vehicles.

And there are also some outliers.

There are also quite a few parts that are rebuilt either by owners or specialty cottage industry suppliers. The old buzzer coils on Ford Model Ts come to mind, as do some mechanical fuel pumps. Brake shoes and clutch friction pieces still get serviced in shops around the country, and hydraulic repairs on older off-road or agricultural equipment are common. If a small shop wants to get up and running, acquiring a small stash of cores suitable for remanufacturing is table stakes—it’s a lot harder to sell parts if the customer has to wait for their part to arrive and be reworked.

It’s also increasingly common to see specialty coaters (like chrome or powder coat shops) charging cores on high-turn items, too.

Special bonus section: Nowadays, you might also see catalytic converters carrying a core charge. As with the core charges for batteries, converters aren't rebuilt. But the elements they contain are expensive to extract from the earth and a core charge can motivate a customer to return the items for recycling.

And there you have it—a few less-than-well-known tidbits about cores, rebuilding, and the costs associated with them.

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