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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Stealing Freedom: A History of Automobile Theft, My Webinar, February 15, 2024

 Thanks to the folks at the Canadian Automotive Museum for inviting me to do this!

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Waymo Car Vandalized in San Francisco -- Resentment Towards AI and Autonomous Cars? Will the Luddites Finally Rise?


No car wirh a driver would be at this intersection at this time, but the Waymo Car did not know that.  And so it headed into a Lunar New Year celebration and was vandalized by a crowd perhaps not so sympathetic to high tech and capitalism. When will society turn on all the new technology that we are exposed to? When will the Luddites rise and take back the planet?

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Technological Countermeasures to Automobile Theft Invented and at Times Used during the 1920s

Between 1914 and 1925 there were at least 25 patents related to a wheel chock or wheel lock that shackled a wood spoke wheel.  Of course, a would-be thief only had to take off the wheel to defeat the device.

Technological Countermeasures

Beyond commonsense precautions, automobile owners were advised to take preventive measures to stop early car thieves.  Perhaps the most bizarre, and in retrospect, humorous countermeasure was the Bosco "Collapsible Rubber Driver."  Made in Akron, Ohio, ad copy for the rubber man claimed that "locks may be picked or jimmied. Cars may be stolen in spite of them. But no thief ever attempted to steal a car with a man at the wheel. [It] is so lifelike and terrifying, that nobody a foot away can tell it isn't a real, live man. When not in use, this marvelous device is simply deflated and put under the seat."[1]

 Owners were advised to lock their doors or “garage” their automobiles. In his 1917 article “Automobile Thefts,” John Brennan proposed another counter-measure:  “If owners would only take steps to put private identification marks on their cars, the problem of automobile thievery would be a simple one to solve.”[2] It was suggested that the owner bore holes into the underside of the running boards, scratch their name somewhere secret, or tape an identification card inside the upholstery.[3]

In addition to leaving a secret mark or set of identification marks, stronger locking mechanisms were proposed. One such deterrent, first marketed in 1920, was the Simplex Theftproof Auto Lock.[4]  Advertised with the moniker "To be simple is to be great," the device appeared to be a simple collar lock, made of bronze and steel, and installed in twenty minutes by a mechanic. Once in place the Simplex lock positioned a vehicle's front wheels straight ahead, and it was claimed that such a vehicle could not be towed. Available in five diameters, the anti-theft collar could be attached to virtually every American car, and at the modest cost of $15, not including professional installation.

A far more effective and popular locking device marketed and installed during the 1920s was the Hershey Coincidental Lock.   In a 1928 advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post, its manufacturer asked the question "Will your NEW car be safe?" The ad copy argued their product -- with more than 2 million sold -- locked "not only the ignition, but the steering as well -- with a hardened steel bolt."[5] The Hershey Coincidental Lock was the work of inventor Orville S. Hershey and Ernest J. Van Sickel, both from Chicago.[6]  First developed in the early 1920s and then refined during the remainder of the decade, the lock anticipated steering wheel locks that were mandated by the federal government in the 1970s, and indeed was perhaps stronger than the locks that appeared on Big Three cars at that later date.  With a combination ignition cut off and strongly reinforced deadbolt, the owner of a Hershey automobile lock could opt to disable the deadbolt and only secure the car by  switching off the ignition,  or one could employ both deterrents if so desired.

One might hastily conclude that manufacturers had little interest in selling automobiles that had secure locking systems, but that would be wrong. It is difficult to generalize on the matter of Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) ignition locks installed on cars from the 1920s to the 1930s.  Changes took place year to year in terms of supplier, design, and placement.  For example, for a time in 1932 and then later, V-8 Fords sometimes had a lock on the transmission, other times on the steering column.[7] By the mid-1930s General Motors had settled on a disk or wafer tumbler design, based on that developed by Briggs and Stratton. This lock featured six wafers (pins were also used in some cases) and a single-sided key. If the proper key was inserted, the wafers were moved so that the core or plug of the lock could freely rotate. However, if there was no key or the wrong key in the cylinder, the wafers were not aligned with the so-called lock shear line, and the cylinder core remained fixed.[8]

However, no matter how intricate, locks were invariably defeated by the experienced thief, either by bumping or picking, or simply cutting or forcing open.  Another approach tried in the 1920s was to provide a visible identification number and set of authorized driver photographs.  Such was the product marketed by the Auto-Thief-Stopper Company of Detroit, Michigan.  The invention of Wallace C.D. Cochran in 1922, the "STOP THE THIEF" plate was secured to the motor vehicle's gas tank.[9]  The information on the specially embossed and sealed card included a "Whizzer" serial number, photographs of owners and authorized drivers, their addresses, and information on the color of hair and eyes, complexion, and distinctive marks that might include birthmarks and scars.  The basic notion was that service station attendants would check the plate before servicing the car, and "if any doubt arises, hold parties and summon an officer."  If one attempted to remove the plate, the result would be a hole in the gas tank; to alter the plate would break seals that could not be repaired.  However, there does not exist in the historical record any evidence that such an identification card ever caught on during the 1920s.  But the plate did reflect one of the most important shortcomings of the automobile of the 1920s, namely that a uniform system of vehicle identification numbers did not exist, and that stamped numbers on the motor or chassis were easily altered.

Perhaps the most significant anti-theft technological system introduced during the 1920s, aimed at owners and manufacturers was the FEDCO number plate.  According to one company brochure, the FEDCO System was a response to the utter failure of any method to arrest the alarming increase in auto thefts during the mid-1920s.[10]

New York City-based FEDCO (Federated Engineers Development Corporation) was a firm "devoted to the complete, practical development of inventions." Beginning in 1923 it had worked on an anti-theft number plate with the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Underwriters Laboratories, and the Burns International Detective Agency.  Essentially FEDCO metallurgists fabricated a plate that self destructed when one attempted to remove or alter it. With digits made of white metal and standing out behind a background of oxidized copper, the entire plate also had an embossed surface that was characteristic of the car make. Below the numbers the digits were spelled out, and this complex identifier proved to perplex those who tried to foil it. The idea behind the FEDCO System, then, was based on a number plate attached to the dashboard of a new car coming off the assembly line.  To alter or remove the plate would result in its destruction, leaving a tell-tale remnant, indicative of tampering.  And apparently the technology worked, at least according to one car thief who was caught as a result of it. Writing his confession from the Nassau County, New York jail, auto thief A.M. Bachmeyer exclaimed that "had I realized just what this number plate meant I would not have stolen this car."[11]  While the FEDCO system proved to be an effective deterrent, there is no evidence that Chrysler continued with the number plate after 1926, or that other manufacturers adopted the unique plate technology.[12]  

[1] Floyd Clymer, Historical Scrapbook No. 4 (Los Angeles: Clymer, 1947), p. 162.

[2]Ibid., p. 565.  

[3] “How Safe Is Your Automobile?,” p. 532.

[4] Simplex Corporation, Chicago, "Simplex Theftproof Auto Lock:  A Look for Every Car," Trade Catalog Collection, Benson Ford Research Center, Dearborn, MI.

[5] Ad for Hershey Coincidental Locks, Saturday Evening Post, May 19, 1928, 50.

[6]  See Orville S. Hershey, "Automobile Lock," U.S. Patent 1,685, 128, September 25, 1928; ; Orville S. Hershey, "Automobile Lock," U.S. Patent 1,694,506, December 11, 1928; E.J. Van Sickel, "Automobile Lock," U.S. Patent 1,730,396, October 8, 1929.

[7] Edward P. Francis and George De Angeles, The Early Ford V8 as Henry Built It (South Lyon, MI: Motor Cities Publishing, 1982), p. 53.

[8] Stephen F. Briggs, "Lock," U.S. Patent 1,826,649, October 6, 1931. Robert F. Mangine, "Examination of Steering Columns and Ignition Locks," in Eric Stauffer and Monica S. Bonfanti, Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and Other Crime-Related Vehicles (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), pp. 227-258. 

[9] Wallace C.D. Cochran, "Opportunity: A pamphlet Addressed to Capital, and Pointing the Way to the Establishment of a Gigantic New Business Enterprise, VIZ: -- Wholesale Automobile Theft Insurance, with the Risk Eliminated."  October 9, 1922. Vertical File, Theft Prevention, National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

[10] Fedco Number Plate Corporation, "Foiling the Auto Thief:  The FEDCO System of Automobile Theft Prevention and Detection," December, 1927, Vertical File, "Theft Protection," National Historical Automobile Collection, Detroit Public Library.

[11] Ibid., n.p.

[12] The relationship between Chrysler and Fedco apparently ended after the 1926 model year.  See Thomas S. LaMarre, “From Model B to Big Three:  Chrysler’s Amazing Ascent,” Automobile Quarterly, 32, no. 4 (1996), 25.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Automobile Theft and the 1920s American City Scene

Abandoned Stolen 1920 Hudson, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)

Automobile Theft and the 1920s City Scene

By the 1920s, Automobile theft was most acute in Detroit and Los Angeles. “Naturally Detroit is peculiarly liable to this trouble because it has such a large floating population of men trained to mechanical expertise in the various factories.”[1] It stood to reason that Ford’s workers stole Ford’s cars.  Arthur Evans Wood reported that in 1928 in Detroit a total of 11,259 cars were stolen.[2]   Of those thefts less than 10 percent led to an eventual arrest, and only 50 percent of that group was ever prosecuted.  In the end, only 25 percent of those persons arrested for auto theft in this particular group were ever convicted.  Since at that time many thieves ended up paying off "coppers" to avoid apprehension, one might conclude that this crime actually did pay. 

 The same year in Los Angeles 10,813 automobiles were stolen.[3] By the 1920s, Los Angeles had the most automobiles per resident in the United States. And this fact clearly was changing the face of crime in the City of Angels.  Historian Scott Bottles has pointed out that “By 1925, every other Angelino owned an automobile as opposed to the rest of the country where there was only one car for every six people.”[4] Angelinos had more opportunities to steal cars, and some took those opportunities.  In 1916 some 1,300 cars were stolen and 85% were recovered; a decade later more than 10,000 were taken with an 89% recovery rate.[5]  Theft statistics remained in the range between 5,000 and 8,000 cars per year to the onset of World War II.

            Baltimore, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Omaha, St. Louis, and many other cities also experienced major problems related to automobile theft.  In 1918, the year immediately before federal legislation was enacted to stem the auto theft tide, Chicago experienced more than 2,600 thefts; St. Louis 2,241; Kansas City 1,144; and Cleveland, 2,076. [6] However, in an article published in Country Life, Alexander Johnson revealed the problem was not just endemic to urban America: “We who live in the country are not quite as subject as our urban brethren to this abominable outrage, but automobile stealing is carried on even in the rural districts.”[7]  Although cars from the countryside certainly were stolen from time to time, auto theft remained largely an urban problem from the WWI era to this day.  Joy riders could be found in every locale; gangs, rings, bootleggers, and drugs were very much a part of the city scene.

            Of course, within each city there were some neighborhoods that were more secure than others. And there were "hot spots," some of which were connected with the race of the majority of their inhabitants.  Such was the case of Chicago in the early 1930s, where in several red-lined districts insurance underwriters refused to issue policies "except under special arrangement." In these African-American neighborhoods "conditions are so deplorable …that resident motorists cannot obtain any insurance." To clarify its reasons for making such a decision, the insurance industry stated that "The reason that Negros cannot secure theft insurance is not one of discrimination, but more or less one of character. Color does not play any part."[8]

Vehicles Stolen in Buffalo, New York Between 15 May and 15 July 1924

Make of Motor Vehicle         Number

Auburn                                       2

Buick                                          26

Cadillac                                      5

Chevrolet                                  61

Chalmers                                   1

Chandler                                    1

Cole                                            2

Dodge                                        8

Dort                                            1

Durant                                       4

Elcar                                           1

Essex                                          1

Ford                                           172

Franklin                                      3

Gardner                                     1

Haynes                                       4

Holmes                                      2

Hudson                                      7

Hupmobile                                1

Jewett                                        2

Jordan                                        5

Marmon                                    3

Maxwell                                    5

Moon                                         1

Nash                                           7

Oakland                                     3

Oldsmobile                               3

Overland                                   15

Packard                                     2

Paige                                          1

Peerless                                     2

Star                                             1

Stearns-Knight                         2

Studebaker                               10

Velie                                           2

Wills St. Claire                         5

Willys Knight                            5

(Source: "Automobile Record Book for 1924," Buff)alo, New York

[1]  Johnson, “Stop Thief!,” 72.

[2] Bennet Mead, “Police Statistics.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 146 (Nov. 1929), 94. Arthur Evans Wood, "A Study of Arrests in Detroit, 1913 to 1919," Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 21 (August, 1930), 99. 

[3]Wood, p.94.

[4] Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of a Modern City (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987), p. 92.

[5] J.B. Thomas, Conspicuous Depredation: Automobile Theft in Los Angeles, 1904-1987 (N.P.: Office of the Attorney General, California Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement, Criminal Identification and Information Branch, Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, March 1990).

[6] US House of Representatives, 66th Congress, 1st session, Report 312:  Theft of Automobiles. (Washington: G.P.O, 1919),   p. 1.  

[7] Johnson, “Stop Thief!” 72.

[8] "Car Insurance is Withheld from Chicago Negroes. Appaling [sic]  Auto Theft Rate Makes Negro Districts Bigger Risks than more Refined Districts," Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), July 7, 1933, pp. 1, 4.