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Beddy-Bye for PJs

Dumped by the USPS, postal jeeps find lovers elsewhere

September 10, 2000|Nelson Handel

They're awkward looking, climate-control-challenged, uncomfortable and have a disturbing tendency to tip and roll above 40 mph. Yet in vehicularly unimpressible Southern California, everyone sneaks a peek when a customized postal jeep rumbles past. If you don't own one yet, though, you're plumb out of luck; environmental and safety concerns forced a halt to public sales in 1998. The U.S. Postal Service began decommissioning the remaining 450 in the L.A. fleet in July, replacing them with modified Ford Explorers and crushing these peppy little symbols of nonconformity like soda cans.

When the USPS introduced its model DJ-5 jeep in 1975, it quickly became the signature fleet vehicle. Beginning in the early '80s, the USPS slowly retired and auctioned off these aging warhorses to the public. A wide assortment of eclectics embraced PJs, as they're affectionately known, picking them up for less than $1,000 and often repainting their service-insignia-stripped bodies in an assortment of tropical colors.

Take John Apicella, an actor and artisan mask-maker who lives in North Hollywood. "I laughed out loud when I first saw it," he says of his bubble-gum PJ. "In the end, though, I just had to buy it." Though he felt conspicuous at first, Apicella quickly became accustomed to the curious stares. "It's like walking around in your own face," he says. "You forget how silly it looks."

PJs have their drawbacks, including lousy gas mileage and a 10-gallon tank. "My gas gauge broke," says PJ owner Howard Gindoff, a Silver Lake artist, painter and inventor of the "Elvis Buddha" doll, "but I've developed something like a sixth sense for when to fill it." Prescience notwithstanding, most owners carry a spare can of petrol in the back, right next to the spare tire they had to buy. (In case of a flat, the owner's manual suggests you "call your supervisor.") But with their wrong-side steering, sliding doors and bouncy disposition, PJs represent the ne plus ultra of California car cool.

As the scrap-yard compactors work overtime, PJ owners persevere. The 300 members of the Postal Jeep Club of America (http://www.PostalJeep.com) promote the PJ as "a true American icon" (it's in the Smithsonian) and are lobbying the USPS to reinstate it as its official vehicle. But the weather-defying days of the noble DJ-5 have come and gone, and prospects for members' efforts seem slim. Then again, perhaps tilting at windmills is easier when you steer on the right.

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