This isn't your run-of-the-mill used car lot: There are cops all over the place and in the background you can hear the crackle of small-arms fire.
Actually, it's the California Highway Patrol's fleet operations command, which turns out five street-ready patrol cruisers each day. There are perhaps 5,000 vehicles in the CHP fleet-including black-and-whites, SUVs, special emergency trucks, undercover surveillance vehicles and motorcycles. The fleet operations section gets the vehicles new from the dealer-a Crown Victoria costs $24,000, so does a basic SUV– then fits them with an array of special gear, which costs another $24,000. Dodge and Chevy are in there, too. None are really muscle cars-the Fords have a standard 4.6-liter engine–but they move plenty fast.
"The best law enforcement vehicles in the world," notes manager Brett Bensen. Few would argue with him.
The new cars replace the aging cruisers in the fleet: When a patrol car reaches 100,000 miles, typically after three years, it is taken out of service. The commanders notify the fleet operations command in West Sacramento when a cruiser is approaching benchmark and send the cars in. There, the specialty gear is extracted, refurbished and placed in the new cruisers, although the special impact bumpers are discarded and new ones installed.
The used car is cleaned up, painted and placed on the lot, where it can be purchased through a closed-bid auction. The car looks like the kind of high-end vehicle one would see on any sales lot. There is no indication that it was ever a patrol car. "They're generally in pretty good shape," said Capt. William Peters as looks out on the lot, which is not far from the CHP's shooting range and cadet academy.
Prices vary, but the minimum bid on a 2005 Crown Victoria was $7,300 on the day Capitol Weekly visited the section. Typically, the auction minimum is 80 percent of low Blue Book. Most of the cars are conventional sedans, but occasionally a Mustang or Camaro-both of which have been used by the CHP– pops up.
The elaborate and spaghetti-like electrical wiring harnesses are retained, too, saving hundreds of dollars or more per vehicle, or more–a fact that that the CHP emphasizes in a tight budget year. "We recycle them to save money, that's our message," said CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader.
The fleet section is really an elaborate in-and-out operation. The new cars come in one side, get modified on the assembly line and go out the other side when they're done. The older vehicles come in another side, get their law enforcement gear moved, and go out to the lot or, in some cases, the Department of General Services.
Fleet officials like to have a full lot and a steady flow of vehicles, in part because they can have the cars handy in the event of emergencies. Nothing is so distressing for Peters than to have an empty lot-and a sudden need for vehicles from the officers in the field.
The CHP modifications include special radios, lights, speaker horn, bumpers, computers, electronics, racks, shielding and other gear. For the motorcycles, in addition to all the special gear, the storage compartments are beefed up. One worker, the prototype expert, puts together the first version of a modified vehicle, in order to make sure everything fits right and is engineered properly.
The SUVs, depending on their application and configuration, may be handled differently than the cruisers. They may have their interior furnishings removed entirely – as in the case of undercover trucks, for example – and the electronics and wiring hidden away under the carpets, in the rocker panels and the doors. From the outside, and even looking into the interior, the surveillance cars look like any conventional vehicle.
The labyrinth of electrical wiring alone is impressive. Each car has some 550 feet of wiring snaking through the frame, or under and around the interior fixtures. Special fuse boxes are designed to handle the power load. Wiring harnesses used over the past three decades are displayed on a wall in the work area, showing the increasing level of complexity, as the gear became more sophisticated. There are tools, parts, vehicles in various stages of tear-down or build-up, bins of equipment and salvage gear.
Outside, there are a handful of cars waiting to be sold.