As the witnesses described the scene, it was painful. Looking back, they said, the parents should never have brought their little girl with them. She was seven or eight, and obviously a sensitive child.

As soon as I approached the bonnet with a screwdriver and knelt down to take the number plate off, she started screaming and ran to her father to stop me, recalled crew-cut Franco Monarca, the articulate owner of a wreckers yard outside Rome.

The father tried to comfort her, stroking her hair and what not, his apprentice butted in. But then she started punching him in the leg and grabbed hold of his jacket to tug him towards Franco...

The father wouldnt budge and she started crying and howling, Monarca went on, the memory clearly still vivid. Then when I started unscrewing the plate, she jumped into the car and began heaving at the hand brake with all her might, poor creature, to try and keep us from moving it anywhere.

He added: Ive been in this business a long time, but I was really moved. God knows how attached she must have become to that car. I would have bought her another one just like it myself if Id had the money.

The yard Demolizione Italia was off a busy road snaking through semi-rural wasteland in Pietralata to the northeast of Rome, not far from Rebibbia prison, overlooked by tall reeds nodding in the breeze. They screened off an awesome graveyard of cars, which in their youth had skidded round corners and belted down motorways. Now having shed their wheels and doors they were stacked one atop the other, awaiting their executioner: a giraffe-like crane with bunched claws dangling from it. These were ready to snatch at a victim and swing it into a box-like press, the piston of which would quickly squeeze it to the size of a suitcase.

Some cant bear the sight of the crane, disclosed Monarca. They leave their car with us and say: Treat it well.

Saying goodbye to a car, apparently, is always a highly emotional business. Its a family affair, explained a corpulent friend of Monarcas sitting in his pre-fabricated office. For them, its like going to a funeral, or visiting someone in hospital Theyre grave and sad.

Many are all the sadder because they give up their cars against their will, obliged to do so under regulations banning vehicles without catalytic converters from the city, even though they might be in excellent nick. Others have sacrificed their cars even quite new ones because government incentives between January 1997 and July 1998, meant to stimulate a flagging industry, proved too tempting to refuse. Then the car makers themselves offered inducements.

Thats why there are so many new cars on the road and why for us business is bad, bad.

Marco Perugini of the Automobile Club Italia (ACI) bore them out. Its not only because there are no more incentives but because the used car market is enjoying a boom again. So if people can make a bit on their old car, theyre not going to demolish it.

Once, car demolition cost nothing because manufacturers paid, but today Monarca and his kin charge some 50 for the process, a fee that, however, includes all the paperwork. A 1998 law, in fact, put the smashing business into the hands of authorised wreckers only and obliged them to assume responsibility for officially certifying due demise. A likely snag for the owners of candidates-for-death, however, is that they must produce the cars so-called foglio complementare or supplementary page to the logbook, which many people lose or never receive from the original retailer or previous owner. The tedious remedy is to report the matter to the police.

Nando is the owner of another yard tucked away under a small, wooded cliff-face in a surprise hidden wilderness off Via Gregorio VII, near the Vatican. A wiry man in his early 40s wearing a baseball cap, he was answering his cell phone non-stop as a stream of enquiries came in from clients looking for spare parts. He had a lot of them, with innards ripped from dead cars neatly piled up everywhere from bumpers to axles, whole engines to mysterious knuckle joints. An American journalist met by chance the same night said: I have a friend who makes his living rooting out spare parts from such places.

Sitting in a brand new white Fiat 500 in Nandos domain was Rosanna, a middle-aged lady who was polishing the dashboard with a tissue as she waited for her white-haired husband to collect their old cars death certificate. It was terrible, she said. We left the house keys in it but when we came back it was already too late.