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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE / OUT HERE

A pushover for a clunker

January 05, 2008|Tim Cavanaugh

If your daily commute ever includes the No. 10 line from West Hollywood to downtown, you may get lucky one of these days and grab a ride on bus 1409, a way-back machine that joined the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's fleet in 1990 and is still rolling. The diesel-powered 40-footer offers a wheezing, effortful journey without Transit TV, ergonomically molded plastic or even appreciable speed. But its boxy look and quietly rattling ride got me wondering about the circle of life in L.A.'s bus ecosystem. After months of waiting and watching, I got a chance to see what happens to old buses when they die.

At an MTA facility in Long Beach, scores of retiring city buses are periodically auctioned off. As the agency's environmental goals require vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, that means nearly all the units at auction are of the old diesel variety; 198 of those remain in service among L.A.'s nearly 2,500 public buses. Few if any of the buses at auction are roadworthy. That's a credit to the MTA, which is required to keep buses running for at least 12 years and maintains 24-hour service at many of its district facilities. (L.A. public buses average one road-service call every 3,000 miles.) By the time these babies reach the auction block, they're pretty well kaput, loved by nobody.

Well, almost nobody. Surveying the inventory at the 57-lot MTA auction in December, I refused to believe that I'm the only person who treasures the stylistic blast of the '80s and early '90s these vehicles provide. Aren't there production designers and prop masters around town looking to pick up the dozen or so vintage vehicles that will eventually have to be destroyed in the making of "Die Hard 7"? There must be aging hippies hoping to discover America all over again in a re-purposed urban boat, right? According to Dale Van Wagner, regional sales director at Gardena-based Ken Porter Auctions, 44 of the units at auction contained engines and transmissions and could theoretically be made roadworthy.

But Van Wagner assured me that the MTA auction is attended mostly or entirely by scrap dealers. I started hatching a scheme to use L.A. Times money to rescue one of the buses. (A rolling, multimedia, live-blogging Opinion Lab that would crisscross the nation throughout the election year!) I considered moving my family into a mobile apartment with more square footage than our actual apartment -- mine for the taking with a bus driver's license and a few thousand dollars in smog work. I held out hope that somebody might recognize the artistic potential of one unit -- a tin-roofed L.A. Motor Coach that was commissioned in 1938, ran for many years afterward and to my eye looked like the perfect ready-made set for a "Bus Stop" remake or a Rosa Parks biopic.

As it turned out, at least one bidder was there for more than just the scrap. Scott Richards, president of Riverside-based Regional Transit Service, provides buses and police cars for film, television and still shots. He showed me a 1936-vintage vehicle he was scouting on behalf of a trolley museum. But even he dismissed my fondness for the post-1980 buses, saying, "These things are a dime a dozen."

Not quite, as we learned amid the spite, suspense and deception of the auction itself. The opening lot sold for $2,200, and the vast majority stayed in that range. The lowest close of the day was $1,900 for a 1982 General Motors vehicle, but Richards narrowly missed buying another 1982 model that closed at $2,200 (one whose enticements I had noticed myself, though it turns out that he had it in mind for other reasons).

Most of the bidding came down to a struggle between two scrap dealers -- one of whom, Nathan Adlen of Aadlen Bros. Auto Wrecking, struck me as exactly the kind of unsentimental character who would see no beauty in an old bus. (While there's plenty of friendly banter at the auction, these men are not, generally speaking, softies.) But I was surprised when the bidding came around to the two 1930s vehicles, both of which were being sold with the stigma "scrap metal only." Richards quickly bailed on the contest for the 1936 model (the trolley museum had unwisely set a $1,000 ceiling), but it was Adlen who appeared to go gooey on the 1938 unit, setting the day's record-high close of $2,900. When I asked why he had splurged on an old wreck, he first offered to sell it to me for an additional $1,000, then assured me he would get his money's worth out of it -- without offering specifics.

This tight-lipped approach is common at the auction. I hunted down Richards to find out what he'd seen in that 1982 GMC bus he'd dismissed as "dime a dozen" just before the bidding. He graciously pointed out that it boasted the only fully analog engine on offer. "That means you can get this running without having to buy a bunch of electronics," he said.

For the scrap dealers -- and for the taxpayers who will enjoy some microscopic benefit from the $125,000 infusion to the MTA budget the auction provided -- it was a day well spent. For the bus spotter, though, it's a bit sad to see all those beauties headed for extinction. So plunk down $1.25 and hop on the old 1409 while you still can; it's scheduled for auction in April.

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