I’ve written a little in the COALs I did a while back about my Dad owning a repossession agency, and while digging through my old photos recently I stumbled across a cache of pictures I’d taken of some of the more exotic cars we had come through the lot in the mid-eighties, like this DeLorean.
Part 1: The Repo Business
Repossession is nothing like it’s portrayed in the movies—or, at least, in the days before chipped keys, OnStar and onboard wifi, it was different. In the early 80’s my Dad bought a repo agency north of New York City founded by an eccentric businessman who decided to situate his impound lot as far away from a convenient train, bus, or taxi as possible (thus avoiding zoning laws and commercial property tax). The impound lot was 10 miles outside of a sleepy commuter town, up on the side of a hill, surrounded by woods and within earshot of the Taconic parkway. The service area was New York City and its surrounding states, so there was a lot of travel involved.
So, people would lease a car from somewhere and if they missed enough payments, GMAC or some other lending institution would call my Dad’s office and fax him a file on the car. This file contained all of the current information available on the vehicle, lessee, and usually the key codes for the door and ignition—and sometimes they’d even FedEx a spare key. Our first step was to do some skiptracing and find out if the address was still good, and then assign the job to one of the repo guys on staff. If we had key codes, my Mom would head down to the basement where we had several keycutters arrayed on a long bench in front of several thousand blanks. She got really good at cutting keys, even some of the tricky European makes. Then the repo agents (they were agents, not men) would notify the local police about their plans, then go out and case the address to see if the car was there. Sometimes the cops would send somebody out with the agents to keep an eye on things, and they often had a front-row seat for the evening’s fun.
Most of the lessees were acutely aware they were behind on payments so they’d do their best to hide the car somewhere, but we always seemed to find them; Dad employed a couple of retired NYC cops who hit the phones every day to track people down, and they were very good. I have an original NYPD mounted policeman’s coat given to me by Joe, one of the skiptracers, when he was cleaning out his house. It’s a thick wool double-breasted coat with cutouts at each hip for sitting on a horse in the winter for easy access to one’s service revolver or billy club. Joe was a big burly guy who could sweet talk a mouse out of its hole, and he knew all the tricks to make lessees give up their address. When he found out I was going to college in Baltimore he gave me a 18″ weighted nightstick and told me solemnly to be careful.
The agents were a very strange bunch, as you might guess—they loved the hunt, staying out at night, and the thrill of danger, and each of them had their own quirks. We had guys who could bring in two cars a night—which was a very profitable evening’s work. We also had a lot of guys try to do the job, but a lot of them washed out. They couldn’t hack the hours, the boredom, or the time shuttling back and forth from address to address hoping a car would show up. Dad usually threw them the easy jobs, but more often than not they didn’t stick with it. It took a very special breed back in those days.
Contrary to what you’ve seen in movies and TV, the best agents were the ones who got in and out unseen. There was no waving guns around, smashing windows, or manufactured TV drama. Confrontations never led to a good outcome, and if the subjects got wind that the repo agents were sniffing around, they’d stash the car somewhere harder to find. Plus, law enforcement in some areas looked upon repossession as barely-sanctioned theft, and were known to jam up the agents if they felt like it (in those cases, the local PD might not get notified, and the fee was higher.) Agents didn’t get paid unless they got the car, so it was always better when they were able to pick it up on their first or second try. Repeat visits got expensive on gas and tolls, especially for distant pickups.
Usually the agents were able to simply use my Mom’s keys to unlock the door, start the car, and drive away with no drama. Other times the lessee had changed the locks, installed LoJack, or some other alarm system, so the agents would bring a tow truck, hook up the car, and haul it away as quickly as possible. Dad inherited a D-series Dodge pickup with a 440 and a Holmes wrecker on the back with the business, but it was used sparingly because it guzzled gas and wasn’t geared for highway travel. Later he bought a diesel Ford F350 with a low-rise lift and that made tricky situations more manageable. But more often than not they came in on a tow company flatbed and that cost was billed to the bank along with the repo fee. Some tow companies were willing to accept a night of excitement for the fee, and some weren’t. These days I’d guess repo agents just drive their own flatbeds and always tow the cars, but back then there was about an 80/20 chance you could ride out with a buddy and drive a repo home with the key.
(True fact: we had a set of three boxes called the Try Keys. The legend went that one of the hundreds of keys in those boxes would open the door lock on any late-model GM-manufactured vehicle. Not that any agent I knew would sit in front of someone’s house in the dark and try every one.)
From there the cars went into the storage lot (if we could get them running), their contents were bagged in storage, and they waited for either the lessee to come pay off the balance, storage fees and reclaim their car, for the bank to come and get them, or for my Dad to auction them off every couple of months.
For my family, this was an interesting new situation. We moved from a quiet leafy suburb of Connecticut to a rural area of New York State. The business—and our house—were on a short road that dead-ended into the woods; on one side was the house and on the other was a large impound lot framed by 6-foot chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. A security camera on our roof slowly panned back and forth across the lot. A signal bell rope stretched across the driveway, alerting us whenever someone came calling (kids, ask your parents what this is). The repo office was built into the side of our house—people had to walk up our front walk to get to the office door.
For most summers I had a built-in job as the lot guy, basically charged with keeping the cars running, organized, and ready to move whenever the lessors or the bank came to collect them. Summers were pretty easy but winters were a ton of work: the cars needed to be started every other day, cleared of snow, and have enough gas to make it onto a flatbed or down into town. We lived up on a hill, so we always got more snow than my friends down in town. I also processed the cars as they came in, which meant filling out a vehicle condition report, shooting Polaroids of each side, then bagging up and recording the personal property before moving it into the lot. Certified letters were sent to the last known address notifying them they had two months to come and get their stuff. If they never contacted us, it went in the dumpster, minus any tools or other valuable items (we actually kept it for four months). In this way I built a solid mix ‘n’ match assortment of tools for my garage—Proto, Snap-On, SK and Matco sockets, wrenches, and other hand tools that I still have to this day.
Most of the cars we saw were pretty mundane. Late-model sedans, commuter cars, and vans were standard. But sometimes we got weird things, like a trio of Stanley Steemer vans full of equipment. Dump trucks. A sailboat (Dad basically hired a guy to sail it to a different marina). An Excalibur. A New York City taxicab, with medallion. Stretch limousines. Schoolbuses. RV’s. Trailers. And sometimes we got exotic cars that seemed out of place parked in a snowy impound lot in rural New York State. Whenever we did get something resembling the exotic car posters I had on my bedroom wall, I did whatever I could to spend as much time in it as possible, and to take a picture of it.
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