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Spinning Its Wheels : Commission Stalls Decision on Future of Its Broken Down Checker Aerobus Limousine

April 21, 1988|DONNA DOWLING | Times Staff Writer

For years, it was a chariot for the elderly. It then became a limousine for the homeless. But now, the only service provided by an enormous 1963, eight-door Checker Aerobus is free baby-sitting for dogs that doze beneath its rusting 25-foot-long frame.

Permanently parked in a lot on Laurel Street in Ventura, the lengthy limo--owned by the Ventura County Commission on Human Concerns--has become a snoozing ground for a yipping Yorkshire terrier and a bashful mutt, which are often left roped to two of the car's eight door handles by a homeless woman, who returns for them at day's end.

The problem with the 25-year-old car is the engine. It has a rattling rod and needs a complete overhaul. Repairs, which could run as high as $2,500, might be too much for the commission, whose responsibilities include job training for the homeless and the distribution of government surplus food.

Commission officials are debating whether to sell it, junk it or just let it be.

At a board meeting April 14, the commission inconclusively debated the fate of their limousine--one of 6,000 Aerobuses manufactured by the Checker Corp. from 1958 to 1974--and stalled a decision until at least May 10.

"We had some different ideas as a P.R. tool," said Lee Riggen, the commission's executive director.

Flashy Face Lift

If the commission keeps the car, it will be painted purple or bright yellow, and a logo will be slapped on the side.

"It would be a good parade vehicle if we painted it," said Riggen, "and if it ran."

Donated in 1985 to the commission by Ventura Townehouse, a retirement home, the 12-passenger limousine, with its four rows of seats, has never been viewed as an extravagance by its riders--homeless families needing a quick lift to and from cheap hotels or shelters.

"To them it's a mode of transportation," said Maia DeCamp, a member of the commission. "It's the difference between walking and sitting."

More mundane vehicles have served that purpose as the limo fell into disrepair.

Still, seedy as it has become, it's not your ordinary set of wheels.

In 1982, the Checker Corp. stopped making cabs. Over the years the cabs have been transformed into collector's items.

The Aerobus, however, has not made the leap, said Rodney Walton, an official with the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Checker Corp., which now is a manufacturer of sheet-metal stamps and a contractor for General Motors and Chrysler.

Few Aerobuses Left

"Most are pretty well gone," Walton said of the company showpieces that sold brand-new in 1974 for $12,000. "I haven't heard of one that's been kept in good shape."

When the commission received its limo, it was running fine. The folks at the Ventura Townhouse had just grown out of it.

"Oh my God, it's a monster," said Michelle Spellins, assistant administrator at the retirement home. "It just wasn't large enough to accommodate all the people that wanted to go on trips. It could only fit 11 with all their shopping bags. It just didn't fit our needs anymore."

Steve Adams recalls chauffeuring senior citizens to doctor's appointments and stores in the limousine.

"I loved that thing," said Adams, a Ventura resident who drove it for 6 1/2 years. "It was really nice to drive. It's just like driving any car or bus, and I've driven everything."

But nobody has gone for a spin in it in some time. Its front seat is torn and the interior is littered with old paperback books, empty jars, a straw basket, some tattered clothes, a wooden candleholder, empty plastic bags, assorted trash and a week's supply of spilled rabbit food.

"It sort of sits there," said a commission official, "sits there and grunts."

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