Where BMWs Mix with Shelbys, Gullwings, and Model Ts
Located not too far from Petrolicious headquarters in Los Angeles is Checkpoint Automotive, which will shortly be celebrating its twentieth anniversary in November. Founder and co-owner Steve Beck, together with partner Chris Toppenberg, have been in the business much longer than that, and between the two of them, they’re closing in on a collective century of automotive knowledge. While both men have a longstanding relationship with BMW, with the shop’s focus on that marque, a morning spent by Petrolicious uncovered that Checkpoint Automotive is much, much more than a simple BMW repair shop.
Besides BMWs, there are other cars that reside at Checkpoint. Beck takes care of his own collection of automotive treasures, including an ample collection of Ford Model Ts and As that he’s been very hands on with, as well as a menagerie of a few rare cars for some special clients.
Every story has a beginning, and Beck says that even at an early age cars “got me involved in something”. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s he became immersed in the burgeoning “hot rod” culture. But what does one do when they’re still too young for a driver’s license? They go slot car racing. Beck said that while he was often the youngest “driver” at his local slot track, he was regularly beating older kids, and set a few records in the process. He quips that he still sees some of his slot car racing friends today, so it seems cars, no matter what size, are truly one of the ties that bind. Another pivotal moment in his automotive development occurred at age eleven, when he took apart and put back together a Honda 305 Dream motorcycle. He explained, "it sounded and smelled bad, but it ran”. Rest assured, this is no longer his modus operandi.
For his eighteenth birthday, Beck bought himelf a 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350, then just a nine-year-old used car with 47,000 miles on the clock. Besides being possibly the best birthday gift one could give to oneself, it was his first car, and one that he celebrated quite a few “firsts” in. He has continued to be its custodian ever since, and raced the GT350 at Riverside, Las Vegas, and Ontario. On the third Sunday of each month, the Los Angeles chapter of the Shelby American Automomobile Club (SAAC) meets at the Checkpoint garage. “They’re just used cars till the world changes around them,” says Beck, describing his attitude towards GT350 prices now reaching rarified air, though his is still driven often and hard. The GT350 is no garage queen, and keeps company with a bevy of other automotive icons that belong to Steve, including a British Racing Green Lotus 7, and an E34 M5 bought for $73.
Many years ago a customer had brought the wounded M5 into Checkpoint, and then never returned. After two years of not being able to reach the owner, Beck was worried that the car would become a permanent fixture in his shop’s parking lot, and so took out a mechanic’s lien on the car. After a short while, the car was his, and that’s how he came to own a $73 M5 ($73 was the filing fee for the mechanic's lien). To this day, many years later, the man still hasn't ever called back. Beck suspects he passed away.
Steve got his start wrenching for a living in 1978 whilst working at GT International, and then two other independent garages where he was exposed to the foreign cars of the time, including Italian marques and of course, BMWs, which were really starting to achieve success in America thanks to the 2002, E21 3 Series, and E12 (first of the 5 series) models. From there, it was all BMW–Steve worked a succession of positions at various BMW dealers in the Los Angeles area (including “world famous” Beverly Hills BMW), and it is where his path seemed to crisscross with that of another mechanic, Chris Toppenberg. At one point Chris was Steve’s apprentice at a dealership, and at another Chris was Steve’s supervisor. The men became friends, and in 1994, the two struck out their own claim, along with Steve’s brother, David, founding Checkpoint Automotive.
Steve doesn’t do too much of the wrenching himself on BMW’s anymore, reserving his time in the service bay for when trusted clients with non-BMW’s come in. Beck mentioned an '80s Porsche 911 that would soon be appearing at the shop, and said he preferred to take care of these cars himself. It also helps to keep his skills sharp. When he isn’t doing that he prefers to get into the shop early in the morning to greet customers, find out what problems they're having with their cars, and oversee the shop. And somewhere in between, when there is free time to be found, he works on that collection of vintage Ford steel which, as much as he can, he builds himself. That’s why you might be slightly jarred when you think you're taking your BMW to a repair shop, and see 1920s Fords everywhere. “When you build a car, it's your own,” he says. His philosophy also extends to how the car goes together, saying it is “gratifying to take a bunch of pieces [that are original and used to be part of other Fords] and put it together,” versus buying new parts from a catalogue, something many can do with these old Fords.
Whether for BMWs, old Fords, or a particularly sweet Shelby, Checkpoint Automotive seems to provide a refuge of sorts both for Beck's cars and others'. Just see for yourself.