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Hot Deals on CHP Wheels : Cars: Highway Patrol sells used pursuit vehicles at a considerable discount from market prices. For buyers who don't mind some mileage, the bargains abound.

September 30, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking for a clean, late-model, one-owner used car? Don't mind a little mileage on it?

OK, how about a lot of mileage on it--say, up to 120,000 miles or so on a car that's only a couple of years old?

If you're still game, then California Highway Patrol Used Car Sales in Torrance may be just the place to look. There, $8,000 or less--a lot less in some cases--will buy you a 1- to 3-year-old Ford Mustang or Crown Victoria that until recently was chasing down speeders on the freeways.

"I think it's a heck of a deal," said Jay Dennett, a CHP program manager and the department's chief used car salesman. "They're nice, one-owner used cars. And the mileage isn't really too bad. Remember, those miles are freeway miles."

Dennett added, "Hey, we just put some 1992 Mustangs on the lot, 12 to 14 months old, have about 95,000 (miles) on them, and we're going to get $7,995 for them. I defy anybody to go to a blue book and tell me that's not a good deal."

Every year the CHP sells about 700 to 1,000 former "pursuit cars" at its two official used car lots, one on Hamilton Avenue in Torrance; the other in Sacramento. The CHP also sells its used motorcycles.

Although most law enforcement agencies auction off their old vehicles, usually their cars are mixed in with other government-owned cars and sold. Dennett believes the CHP is the only law enforcement agency in California that operates its own used car lots.

Says Dennett: "We try to get the taxpayers' buck back as much as possible."

CHP black-and-whites become eligible for sale after hitting 95,000 miles on the odometer, which usually takes about two years, although some stay on the road for 120,000 miles or more. The cars receive routine maintenance--oil change, brake check, etc.--every 5,000 miles.

Prospective buyers who imagine themselves driving down the highway in a black-and-white and avoiding speeding tickets are in for a disappointment. Before being sold to the public the cars are stripped of all cop gear, from flashing lights to two-way radios and shotgun racks. They're thoroughly cleaned of any coffee stains, doughnut crumbs or other cop detritus, then detailed. Then they're painted in various un-cop-like colors: bright blue, maroon, green or white. They have air conditioning but no stereos--not even AM radios.

Contrary to popular belief, the pursuit cars have standard engines--302-cubic-inch V-8s on the Mustangs, 351s on the Crown Victorias. The only special equipment are engine oil coolers and beefed-up suspension systems. Sales are by bid--a minimum bid of $6,995 for a '91 Mustang, $6,495 for a '91 Crown Victoria, and so on.

There are a couple of drawbacks to shopping at the Torrance CHP lot, where, on any given day, about a dozen cars are lined up for sale. You're allowed to start the engines, but for insurance reasons you can't take the car around the block, or move it so much as a foot. There are no warranties on the cars; all sales are in cash or certified check, and are final. So who buys all those old CHP cars?

"We sell a lot to other (police) agencies," Dennett said, adding that in those cases they don't necessarily strip off the police equipment. He said CHP has also been selling cars to the Mexican government for use as police vehicles.

"And we sell a lot of them to cab companies," Dennett said. "They've been some of our best customers. And we sell an awful lot to just the general public--anybody who wants a good car."

Two people browsing at the CHP used car lot recently were Bill McGuire, 73, and his friend George Smith, 63, both of La Puente.

"One of the main attractions here is the prices," said McGuire. "You figure $6,500 for a '91 Crown Victoria, you can't touch that price. Oh sure, there's a lot of mileage, but you figure even if the motor goes out in a couple of months you can buy another motor for $1,500 and you're still ahead."

McGuire added that although he has visited the lot several times in the past, he hasn't yet bought a CHP car.

"Thing is, before, I always had two cars already, but now I don't," McGuire said. "This time I might just buy one."

Said Mario Rivas, foreman at the CHP Motor Transport yard in Torrance: "We don't get a lot of drop-in buyers. Most days you could count the number of people coming into the public lot on one hand. But a lot of people like these cars. They're good cars. People who've bought them before keep coming back."

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