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Loaner Cars : A Pawnshop Where the Owners Drive In, but Usually Walk Out

June 17, 1993|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PICO-ROBERTSON — So you live in Beverly Hills and you're worth $6 million--or you will be when your uncle dies. The limit on your Visa Gold Card is $10,000, and you've never been turned down for a loan in your life.

Tell it to your accountant, but don't waste your breath on Bruce Singer.

Singer, owner of the only licensed pawnshop in Southern California that deals exclusively in motor vehicles, doesn't care about your credit history. Or your net worth. The only way to get a loan from Singer is to hand over a car, a motorcycle, Jet Ski, tractor-trailer--even an airplane if you have one.

"If it has wheels and an engine, we'll take it," Singer said.

Battered by bad times and strapped for cash, normally well-off Westsiders are beating a path to Singer's 14-month-old business on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, the only one of its kind in the region, according to a statewide pawnbrokers association.

Far removed from the seedy image often associated with pawnshops, Singer's operation, run by a courteous, professional staff, is a clean, well-lit office near Beverly Hills. After that, it's like any other collateral lending store. Singer writes a check and keeps the car until he's paid back.

Sometimes people don't get it. The Westside, after all, is still a place where people see their cars as extensions of themselves and where loans are brokered by signing on a dotted line. As a result, a lot of Singer's customers believe they can get a loan just by signing over the title--not by literally surrendering two tons of glass and steel.

"The concept of parting with a possession is totally alien to the average Westsider," said Singer, who along with partner Martin Jacobs owns RPM Lenders.

It's a concept some are learning to accept out of necessity.

As of last week, Singer had 400 cars, 100 motorcycles and three airplanes in his stewardship, all sequestered at locations that Singer refused to reveal for print. He says his inventory has included a 1954 Bentley RI, ($38,000 wholesale value) a 1991 Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible ($125,000) and one of the 1966 Chrysler Imperials driven by Bruce Lee in the television series "The Green Hornet."

Among his clientele, Singer counts celebrities, bank presidents, high-stakes gamblers and rock musicians, RV owners and even long-haul truckers, though he refuses to identify any of them, citing strict customer confidentiality.

Most of his customers, he says, are ordinary people--an unemployed aerospace worker with a daughter in Catholic school, a Mercedes owner mired in costly repair bills, or anyone else who, for whatever reason, can't get credit through other means.

"By and large, the people we help are the little guy," he said.

He's also helping himself, of course. Sipping Diet Snapple and wedded to a phone that almost never stops ringing, Singer doesn't flinch from the fact that the worse off people are financially, the better his business does.

"It's unquestionably good for us," he said of the sour economy.

Even so, Singer operates within strict limits--some set by the state, others set by his own sense of fairness.

As a licensed pawnbroker, he is required by the state Department of Justice to hold on to a vehicle for at least 4 1/2 months before initiating foreclosure. That's far longer than the 31-day limit favored by a growing number of used car dealers who masquerade as pawnshops, offering cash advances on the value of a car. Those establishments, Singer said, sidestep state regulation by charging so-called storage fees based on the amount of the advance instead of interest. The dealers, looking to acquire cheap inventory, make the cash advances hoping that customers will be unable to claim their cars in time.

"They specialize in taking advantage of people who they are relatively sure won't be coming back," Singer said.

Sacramento also sets interest rates at an average of 18% for loans of less than $2,500, the lion's share of Singer's business. Loans greater than $2,500 are unregulated, but Singer said he generally adheres to the state-mandated limits.

For example, a motorcycle pawned for $275 for four months costs $28.63 in interest plus $60 in storage fees. A $40,000 loan on an $80,000 Mercedes works out to $2,400 for four months plus about $90 in storage fees.

The redemption rate on vehicles is close to 100%, Singer said, and about a third of his business consists of repeat customers who pawn the same vehicle again and again. Weeknight poker players take it to the extreme, sometimes coming in during a break in the action to pawn their cars. Later in the evening, if their luck improves, they call up to reclaim their vehicles. As long as it's before midnight, an RPM employee will be paged and dispatched to the office, which closes at 6 p.m. most nights. As for the customers, "They'll take a cab here," Singer said.

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