My story begins with a blizzard. This blizzard dumped over a metre-and-a-half of snow on my hometown. This being Edmonton in the winter, we’re fairly used to this sort of thing. Those with big, heavy cars drive them into a road-shoulder snowbank and make their own parking spots. Those with smaller cars park behind them. My fiancée failed to remember she has a small car, managed to get stuck, and blew the reverse gear on her car’s transmission.
Thus began a quest for an A540E transmission for a 1993 Toyota Camry. Being a sysadmin, the first thing I did was ask Google politely if it knew about any used units living near me. Google was entirely unhelpful. I opened the phonebook and called around to the local wreckers ... no luck. I poked around every major city in western Canada and still came up with bupkus. I got so desperate I even tried eBay; no luck there, all the transmissions listed were from the US. They wouldn’t ship to Canada.
With a little digging, I discovered a fantastic website. www.car-parts.com is a service that – had I known about it – would have saved me about a week’s worth of searching and long-distance phone calls. Apparently, a goodly chunk of the auto-wreckers and used parts dealers in North America have signed up with this site. They list their inventory, condition of items, mileage, you name it.
My discovery of this site took a little work. It doesn’t exactly come up high in the Google search rankings when you are noodling around the internets looking for a transmission. Instead, I had started to notice that several of the auto wrecker websites I visited were using an identical interface to provide the ability to search their inventory. At first, I thought the reason was as simple as some brilliantly opportunistic web developer selling a pre-made package to shops across Canada.
After the 10th identical parts interface, I was starting to have my doubts. Small businesses do not actually update their websites frequently enough to have the full, complete and most importantly identical range of makes and models across so many sites. This had to be joined-up somewhere. I took a look in the source code. I went looking for any cross-site scripting calls and sure enough, there was car-parts.com. The website itself is terrible; the design aesthetic was dated by the late ‘90s and the implementation on the websites of the various businesses using it is a cross-site scripting nightmare. From the standpoint of a systems administrator, almost everything about it makes me cry.
From the standpoint of a guy looking for a transmission, however, it was an absolute godsend. As terrible as the interface and technical bits are, the website had the information I needed. Though primitive, the interface was simple to use and got me where I needed to go with a minimum of fuss.
This simple and obvious idea of a one-stop-site for used car parts served to remind me that even on the HTML5, Flash, AJAX and CSS-enhanced wilderness of the internet, content is still king. ®