Columns

Janie the Checker cab not a great investment 2015.11.11

By RICH FOLEY

When you spend (or waste, as some may say) as much time reading car magazines and classified ads for cars as I do, it eventually becomes clear that owning a rare or classic car isn’t always the best of investments. There’s no guarantee that your purchase will pay off for you when you ultimately search for a new owner.

You often see owners advertising how much they’ve invested in restoring a vehicle, then offering to accept much less from a buyer. For example, a seller in Marion, Ohio, is currently advertising what they claim is  “a show car for cheap.”

It’s a 1984 Chevy Corvette, the car’s most popular model year both by number sold and number stolen. This particular car has what is called “color changing paint,” applied at a cost of over $10,000. Unfortunately, even with the fancy paint, the owner is trying to unload it for only $4,950, cash.

Think about that for a second. Give the owner less than half of what he paid for the paint job alone and get a 1984 Corvette thrown in for free. That’s why some experts suggest rather than trying  to restore a car yourself, buy one that’s already had the work done and let someone else lose their money.

Sometimes, you might have a late model car in excellent condition, but a few changes by the manufacturer can have a drastic effect on your sale price. That’s particularly true recently if you own a Smart car.

The odd looking little car is to this decade what the Pontiac Aztek used to be—a weirdly shaped vehicle almost begging for ridicule. One magazine said the Smart car’s styling made it resemble a “pustulating zit.” On the now-cancelled television show “Bad Judge,” character Judge Wright told her bailiff that his Smart car “looks like a baby’s corrective shoe.” I think both descriptions were probably too kind.

For 2016, Smart has made the car slightly bigger, but not so much that most people would notice. They did, however made big improvements to the engine and transmission, along with a fancier interior and much better ride. In the process, they made the old version obsolete and many owners of older Smarts are trying to dump them while they still can.

A dealer in Tawas City has a 2009 model with 10,000 miles for just $8,700. Another dealer in Alpena has a 2008 Smart convertible with 27,000 miles for $7,995. Closer to home, there’s an even more interesting offer.

A seller in Napoleon, Ohio, has a 2008 Smart coupe with an ultra-low 576 miles  for $12,200. It’s never even been titled. I think those people who thought they’d someday resell their Smart car for big bucks are starting to panic.  

And then there’s Janie the Checker cab. Fifteen years ago, she was a piece of New York City history and a hot item in the classic car market. Today, to say simply “not so much” is a huge understatement.      

In the 1960s and 70s, Checker taxis manufactured in Kalamazoo roamed New York City streets by the thousands. When Checker ceased production in 1982, the number of cabs slowly began to decline. By late 1998, only two remained in service  in New York, not counting the one driven by Lisa Kudrow in several episodes of the television series “Friends.”

On Dec. 15, 1998, the next-to-last Checker cab was retired from service after failing a safety inspection. On July 26, 1999, the same fate awaited the final Checker cab, nicknamed “Janie.” 

Janie, a 1979 Checker Marathon, was driven by owner Earl Johnson in New York  City for nearly 21 years. Passengers during that time included Muhammad Ali, Walter Cronkite and Jacqueline Onassis. With a history line that, Johnson decided to cash in.

In a Sotheby’s auction late in 1999, Janie sold for a whopping $134,500, with $120,000 of it going to Johnson. As it turned out, he sold it just in time. The new owner sold it at auction in 2006. This time, it brought only $9,400. That was one big financial bath.

Earlier this year, after investing an additional $12,000 in mechanical work, Janie’s third owner put her up for auction once again. Owner number four took the famous Checker home for a mere $7,700. I’ve read many New York City street vendors still sell toy Checker cabs. At the rate this is going, it might be cheaper just to wait for the next time Janie herself comes up for bid.