Checkered Past : Car Aficianados Bid Farewell to Sherman, a Fallen Warrior

Times Staff Writer

The deceased was a car named Sherman. Its lifeless body sat in Kathryn Bassett's back yard in Pasadena, a pathetic mass of charred metal and paint. Its interior was a jumble of blackened upholstery, which the mourners gloomily assessed through punched-out windows.

"Ooh, what happened to little Sherman?" sighed one man.

The gutted motor? Too ghastly to contemplate. This would be a "closed-hood ceremony," said Ken Marchant, the automobile appraiser who delivered the eulogy for the car at a Saturday morning "funeral" recently.

Fifteen people, most of them members of Checker Car Club of America, gathered in the back yard around Sherman, a 7-year-old light blue Checker car, its odometer frozen at 116,550 miles, as Bassett recounted once more the sad story of Sherman's demise in September on the Foothill Freeway.

The defunct car was bedecked with flowers--one bouquet bore the words, "R.I.P. Sherman"--and several mourners shed tears.

Human Characteristics

When it comes to their cars, Checker owners are an emotional bunch. They see human characteristics under those hefty fenders. "When we had a new engine put in last year, we referred to it as a heart transplant," said Lesley Allen of Covina, whose family owns three of the big, square, 4-door cars.

Bassett said she had named her car Sherman because it was built like a tank. What kind of personality did the car have? "Reliable," said Bassett. "We played good Samaritan a couple of times, pushing people stalled in intersections with those big, heavy bumpers."

Reliable, maybe. But a vanishing breed. The Checker Motors Corp., most of whose cars became taxis, went out of business in 1982. The dwindling supply worries the 70 or so California Checker owners who belong to the 670-member national club.

"You get a ding on your fender and it's drastic," Allen said. "You're not going to go to an average junk yard and find a Checker fender.

Bassett's car went with depressing suddenness. She had been driving home from San Francisco, said Bassett, a 40-year-old housewife, who was dressed for the funeral in a two-piece Victorian silk widow's gown, complete with a black pillbox hat and an ostrich feather.

Near Sunland, she noticed smoke coming from under the hood, and she pulled over to a call box. Sherman began to burn.

"I was a little hysterical . . . a lot hysterical," said Bassett. "I kept yelling, 'My car! My baby!' " Bassett had felt especially maternal toward Sherman, she said. She had ordered the car straight from the factory in Kalamazoo, Mich., where it rolled off the production line on Valentine's Day, 1981. The rest is mostly a blur, said Bassett. A passing motorist helped her remove some belongings from the car, then restrained her when she headed impulsively back to the burning car.

A trucker stopped and gave the flaming Sherman a few squirts from his fire extinguisher. "He said, 'I'm sorry, it's too far gone,' " Bassett recalled. Firefighters came at last and doused the flames. "One fireman with a crowbar was getting ready to pop the trunk," Bassett said, "and I yelled, 'Don't do that, you jerk, I've got the key.' Looking back, I feel I was acting like a real idiot, but I was hysterical."

A post-mortem showed that Sherman's water pump had conked out. Heat from the engine had touched off sparks, said Bassett.

Sherman was "totally totalled," said Marchant, pointing to the bowed roof, warped door handles and melted window frames. "She's lucky she got out when she did," said the appraiser. "There could have been serious injury or death."

Marchant used his eulogy both to pay tribute to Southern California car enthusiasts and to claim a deep emotional link between automobile and driver. "The car does become part of ourselves," he said.

Then, Norman Rhinehart, the bereaved owner's father, played a ukulele and sang a 1930 song about Checker cabs: "Why be slammed, packed or jammed for no reason, cause or rhyme. . . . Just call a Checker, old man."

Bassett buried Sherman's Checker emblem in her back yard, promising to adorn the grave site with a brass plaque. The charred carcass? Bassett isn't sure. She's thinking about resurrecting it, rebuilding the body and replacing the motor, though Marchant said the cost would be considerably higher than $20,000.

One thing is certain, she said: "Somehow or other, I'll own a Checker car."

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