Up In Smoke

Photo by Tenaya HillsThis side of another Liza Minnelli beat-down, nothing gets the people's attention like a burned-out car. Sure, maybe it's not the kind of attention you'd actually want: a mixture of mild pity, barely suppressed mirth (Fire! Hehheh! Fire!) and relief that the charred, stinking, now-toxic lump is someone else's ride.

Some of us at OC Weekly world headquarters rode that rollercoaster recently when a white 1997 Dodge Stratus from the INS motor pool next door caught fire and burned. It was an exhausting experience for many of us, and we had good reason not to just let it go and move on to the always-salient subject of Ben Affleck's bloat.

The good reason appeared shortly after Santa Ana firefighters extinguished the flames: two large “For Sale” signs that no one understood. Why would anyone sell a burned-out car? And more, who would buy it?

The answer to the second question was easy at first: it took weeks for someone with a wallet to step up as the car languished on the edge of the 99 Cent Store parking lot two doors down. The answer to the first question was where it got complicated and you had to know stuff. Car stuff. Stuff like condition.

Much of a car's worth, particularly if it's a newer car and not a classic, is predicated on condition. If a car's condition is dire—as with the Stratus, which had two broken windows, a burned-out engine compartment, a crumpled hood and interior water damage—it's not worth fixing. Not any more.

In the long, long ago, when we weren't so fixated on the bottom line, more damaged cars got fixed. Today, insurance companies have fixed that. If they decide it will cost more to fix your car than it's worth, they'll “total it out” and pay you what they figure it's worth.

At that point, the insurance company owns the car—but if your sentiment gets in the way and you buy it back, they've fixed it so you can't fix the car then either.

Buy back a totaled car, and the insurance company will make you get a salvage title. This declares the car's had major damage in the past; it can make the car's resale value lower—and if you should fix it, then wreck it again, it also means the insurance company won't pay you nearly as much money the second time. Because they don't think the car's worth as much—even if you've fixed it.

All of which is a long—some editors might say, tiresome—way of saying that like many, many marginal vehicles, this Dodge Stratus is worth more dead—in pieces—than alive. That's probably how it'll earn its keep for whoever ends up buying it: as replacement parts for a twin that's been severely rear-ended or for a Stratus victim of the recent Garden Grove Freeway flood. Like a dead steer on the range, it'll be picked clean by vultures with wrenches, one door latch, one wheel, one taillight at a time.

And the circle of life will go on.

Classic-car enthusiasts, for whom the choice is often heart-wrenching, have a saying they apply here: some must die so that others may live. Over the years, they've applied it to everything from borderline-mundane '55 Chevies to such rarities as the remains of James Dean's 1955 Porsche Spyder 550, perhaps the most infamous parts car of all time.

After Dean died in it, the major components were sold to a Los Angeles doctor, who also raced Porsches. Racing with the actor's parts, he died when his car ran off the course. Custom-car king George Barris bought what was left of Dean's car and sent it on a cross-country tour to promote safe driving. It never returned. True story: somewhere in the Midwest, it was being wheeled onto a California-bound car trailer when it fell off and crushed a mechanic's hip—and promptly disappeared.

There was nothing so glamorous in store for the crispy Stratus—unless it got itself stolen. Turns out the Stratus is tied with the Chrysler Sebring as the fourth most frequently stolen car. Just as people will sell anything, they'll steal anything, too.


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