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USED JEEPS : Letter Carriers : The Postal Service's retired, rugged vehicles may not be comfortable, but the prices are.


He drives through rain, sleet and snow to deliver your letters. You may be grateful, but think about this: Would you buy a used car from that mail carrier?

Down at the Oxnard post office's transportation yard, they hope so. Since last month, U.S. Postal Service officials have been quietly opening the department's biggest sale of retired delivery jeeps in more than five years.

"Yes, they will drive at freeway speeds," said Fleet Transportation Manager Robert Ruppel recently, throwing a glance over one dust-bathed model in the Oxnard lot.

"But they're not real comfortable," he continued. "They have a high center of gravity."

Despite such salesmanship, the jeeps are moving. By May 10, records show, the Oxnard office had sold at least 35, most of them at prices between $700 and $850. Forty-eight more jeeps--"the good, the bad and the ugly," in Ruppel's words--lined the periphery of the maintenance yard, waiting for buyers. Further sale models are expected late this month, and again in late July.

Sporty they're not. The jeeps are 15 to 20 years old, with 30,000 to 90,000 miles behind them. They seat one comfortably--the driver--and their steering wheels are on the right-hand side, the better to reach mailboxes. Postal officials, who are used to seven miles per gallon in stop-and-go occupational use, guess that the jeeps will get only about 16 m.p.g. at more conventional speeds.

Another caution: Similar jeeps sold by American Motors Corp. in the early '70s were named in several lawsuits, which alleged that the vehicles' narrow shape and high center of gravity made them vulnerable to overturning.

The sudden surplus, postal officials said, is the delayed effect of a decision in the early '80s to overhaul the basic unit of postal transportation. While plans for a new kind of jeep inched along, mail carriers nursed their vehicles far beyond their normal life span of eight to 10 years. Now that new jeeps have begun to dominate the transportation yards--engines by Chevrolet, rust-free aluminum bodies by Grumman, room for half a ton of mail--the old jeeps are at last dispensable.

How do they test-drive? One 1975 jeep lived up, and down, to Ruppel's billing. It had 58,168 miles on the odometer, next to the "LOOK BEFORE BACKING" sign. Lots of headroom. The turning radius was tight, but the engine rattled, and reverse gear produced further sound effects. Still, it ran, and next to the "NO WARRANTY" sign, the price tag read $825.

The jeeps were made for the federal government by AMC, and are said to be virtually identical to the CJ-5 jeeps the company marketed to the public in the early 1970s: six-cylinder, 232cc engines.

"Good, basic transportation," Ruppel said, throwing a foot onto a heavy black fender. "These things are built like tanks."

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