Friday, August 14, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, and Gone in Sixty Seconds: Auto Theft during the 1920s and 1930s

Gone in Sixty Seconds: Joyriders and Criminals

Hi folks -- one sabbatical project this fall will be expanding on work on the history of auto theft that was done last year and contained in my book "The Automobile and American Life" that I heartily recommend you buy. While at the National Archives last week I acquired plenty of new material to work with on this topic, although I will have to make at least one more trip back to DC to look at files at the FBI and also again at the National Archives. One of the most notorius of auto theives from the 1920s to the 1950s had a large file I examined, and I will exapnd on his story shortly. Here is what has been written so far on the topic, which you cannot find in any another book or published article.

With Ford’s “democratization” of the automobile and an explosion in the number of vehicles came an epidemic of automobile theft. Machines produced in mass quantities made easy prey for “joy-riders” and professional criminals. Moreover, the automobile was valuable, mobile, and its parts were interchangeable. Lucrative domestic and international markets for stolen automobiles and stolen parts yielded high profits. Interchangeable parts also gave thieves the opportunity to quickly reconstruct and disguise stolen automobiles. As evinced by thieves’ ability to alter serial numbers, duplicate registration papers, switch radiators, and replace entire engine blocks, a nascent uniformity welcomed theft. Moreover, thieves sought out and stole the most ubiquitous automobile; popular, mid-priced models were most likely to be stolen, along with the easy to steal Model T. As early as 1910 joyriding and automobile theft were problems for the automobilist. Major concerns centered on the unauthorized use of an owner’s vehicle by a chauffeur or a parking attendant. To that end a number of devices were marketed, from a gear shift lever lock to recorders that kept tabs on when a vehicle was actually being driven.

Until the introduction of the electric self-starter in 1912, automobiles employed a battery/magneto switch along with a crank. The automobilist turned the switch to B (battery), got outside the car, cranked the engine, and then once it started, moved the lever to M (magneto) and adjusted the carburetor. On early Ford Model T’s, the battery/magneto switch had a brass lever key, but there were only two types, with either a round or square shank. Later, in 1919, Ford offered an optional lockable electric starter, but only used twenty-four key patterns. To make things easy for the thief, each pattern was stamped with a code on both the key and the starter plate. Would-be joy-riders needed only a little luck to drive off with any unguarded Model T.

Unlike other stolen goods, the automobile enabled its own escape. As one author observed in 1919:

Not only is the motor vehicle a particularly valuable piece of property . . . but it furnishes at the same time an almost ideal getaway . . . With the automobile there is no planning to be done. With a thousand divergent roads open to him and a vehicle possessing almost unlimited speed, escape is practically automatic.

A New York Police official commented in 1916 that, “the automobile is a very easy thing to steal and a hard thing to find.” As early as 1915, 401 automobiles were stolen in New York and only 338 were recovered. By 1920, it was estimated that one-tenth of cars manufactured annually were eventually stolen. Astonishingly, perhaps, in 1925 it was estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 cars were stolen annually. Table 2 provides theft data for major American cities:

Table 2. Automobile Thefts in Major American Cities, 1922-1925







New York















Los Angeles





San Francisco










Source: Automotive Industries, 56 (February 19, 1927), 283.

Further, the automobile created new opportunities for criminals and confronted legal authorities with a myriad of problems. One author noted that, “as automobile thefts increase burglaries and robberies increase.” The automobile itself was stolen, but the automobile also played a central role in kidnapping, rum running, larceny, burglary, traffic crimes, robberies, and the deadly accidents of the “lawless years.” The Baltimore Criminal Justice Commission reported that

In August, 1922, one of Baltimore’s well known and highly respected citizens was held up, robbed of $7000 and brutally murdered in broad daylight on the busy thoroughfares of the city. The bandits perpetrating this carefully planned crime escaped in a high powered car bearing stolen license plates.

In 1924, Arch Mandel of the Dayton Research Association observed, “The motor vehicle has ushered in a new era of crime and police problems, and apparently a new type of offender.” “To cope with this problem” Mandel wrote, “police departments have been obliged to detail special squads and to establish special bureaus for recovering stolen automobiles . . . this has added to the cost of operating police departments.” Consequently, the increase in mobility was matched with a growth in government. The cost of police work in cities with populations over 30,000 rose steadily from approximately $38 million in 1903 to $184.5 million in 1927. Automobile theft added new categories of crimes, and as a piece of technology became a central part of burglary and housebreaking. In Philadelphia, 8,896 people were arrested for assault and battery by the automobile. In response, police began to patrol with the automobile. In 1922, Chicago police complained that their worn-out “tin lizzies” should be scrapped; they could not catch the high powered hold-up car that traveled at sixty miles an hour. Even with the growth of government and the advent of patrolling, police forces were out-maneuvered by mobile criminals. Contrary to the iconic Prohibition image of police forces smashing barrels of alcohol, municipal police forces may have dealt with automobiles on a more regular basis.

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 in mechanical expertise in the various factories.” It stood to reason that Ford’s workers stole Ford’s Cars. In Detroit, in 1928, a total of 11,259 cars were stolen. The same year in Los Angeles 10,813 automobiles were stolen. By the 1920s, Los Angeles had the most automobiles per resident in the United States. Historian Scott Bottles pointed out, “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.” Angelinos had more opportunities to steal cars. Baltimore, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Omaha, St. Louis, and many other cities also experienced major problems related to automobile theft. 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.”

The cost of police work in state governments also rose from approximately $98 million in 1915 to $117 million in 1927. To combat auto theft, state governments created license, registration, title, and statistical bureaus and urged the federal government to become involved. E. Austin Baughman, Commissioner of Motor Vehicles of Maryland, cited 1919 as “the climax of an epidemic of car stealing” with 922 cars stolen, 709 recovered, and 213 missing. Baughman urged the country to adopt a Title Law which would assure all motor vehicles could be identified and located through the name and address of the owner on record. The bureau helped Maryland to gather statistics:

. . . one can in a comparatively short time find anything from how many 1912 Cadillacs are still in existence in this state, to how many more Fords were stolen than Chevrolets in 1923 or 1922; and from how many six- and seven-ton trucks are still in use in Maryland and to what percentage of cars stolen in 1923 are still missing.

In 1920, Massachusetts developed a similar program under the used-car department of the Department of Public Works. States that did not pass title laws were a nationwide liability and became alleged “dumping grounds” by neighboring states.

The inter-state nature of automobile theft demanded federal intervention. The automobile nullified state boundaries and contributed to the nationalization of crime fighting. Arch Mandel wrote in 1924 that, “State lines have been eliminated by the automobile” and the “detection of criminals is becoming more and more a nation-wide task.”

In 1919, Congress passed the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which received the appellation of its sponsor, Senator Leonidus Dyer. The Dyer Act promulgated that thieves receive fines of $5,000 and 10 years in prison, or both. The American Automobile Association lobbied congress to pass the Dyer Act. Consequently, between 1922-1933 auto thefts were the most prominent federal prosecution of interstate commerce.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, of auto theft was blamed on the owner negligence. A 1916 insurance company pamphlet entitled “Emergency Instructions,” warned owners that “when dining in a public restaurant the driver of the car should be seated in such a position that he can observe his car.” Basic instructions also warned to “not leave your car unprotected on the street or any place at any time.” However, in 1922 many automobile owners left keys in their unlocked cars. An article in Popular Mechanics Magazine observed, “Approximately seventy-five percent of all the cars that were not stolen were not locked at all.” One author chastised drivers for leaving automobiles unattended for an hour or more. Beyond common-sense precautions, automobile owners were advised to take preventive measures to stop early car thieves. Owners were advised to lock their doors or “garage” their automobiles. In his 1917 article “Automobile Thefts,” John Brennan proposed one countermeasure: “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.” 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. A 1926 article in Popular Mechanics passed on to readers one motorist’s intricate plan of fake coils and pseudo ignition connections. Other articles proposed that owners disconnect the magneto. In any case, the prevailing attitude of the day was that automobile theft was usually the owner’s fault. In 1929, E. L. Rickards, manager of the Automobile Protective and Information Bureau in Chicago, stated: “A man or woman who leaves his car unlocked and unattended is committing an offense against society.”

Thieves were recognized as frauds, joy-riders, professionals, and gangs. They stole a range of models, but mostly low-priced Chevrolets, Plymouths, Chryslers, and Fords. Furthermore, automobiles were most likely to be stolen in business or entertainment districts, where individuals parked the same models in the same place. Often a thief caught red-handed simply claimed that they had hopped into the wrong car. When interrogated by a judge, one thief explained why he was in the wrong Ford: “Because both cars are Fords, and all Fords look alike, not only to me but to their owners.” Charges were dropped. Despite preferences to steal commonplace vehicles, elite and unusual automobiles were not exempt from the threat of theft. Expensive cars were stolen, disassembled and repainted.

Early automobile thefts were performed by owners who would, “steal their own car.” To collect on insurance, owners would strip the car of accessories and move it to an out of the way location. The owner would work with a thief: . . . the owner is in partnership with the thief. An auto, for instance, that is insured for $2,000 is reported by the owner as having been stolen. The machine is worth $1,500. So the owner, collecting his theft insurance, makes a clean profit of $500.

Owners in debt often defrauded insurance companies as well: “an automobile owner, after using his insured car for nine or ten months, discovers that its market value is 40 percent lower than when first purchased; also the cost of maintaining the machine, oil, gasoline, tires, repairs, etc., is considerably in excess of the figure on which his first maintenance costs were based.”

Quite different in terms of criminal intent were the activities of the so-called joy-rider. Joy-riders stole for thrills. In 1917, Secretary to the Detroit Chief of Police, George A. Walters estimated that 90 percent of Detroit’s auto thefts were performed by joy-riders. Joy-riders were often groups of young men in pursuit of fun, and had a “taste for motoring.” One author argued that joy-riders (in all cases male) had a sexual motivation, “Some young fellow with sporty tendencies and a slim pocketbook wants to make a hit with some charming member of the opposite sex . . . he thinks an automobile would help him in the pursuit of her affections.” After a joy-ride, automobiles were often found damaged and out of gas. Historian David Wolcott has noted that in Los Angeles, “Boys approached auto theft with a surprisingly casual attitude – they often just took vehicles that they found unattended, drove them around for an evening and abandoned them when they were done – but the LAPD treated auto theft very seriously.” In the early period of automobility, authorities considered “joy-riding” a serious societal problem. Joy-riding was an action of a delinquent. Joy-riding was so serious that young boys were prosecuted under the Dyer Act of 1919. The federal government did not draw a distinction between joy-riding and professional auto theft until 1930. Congressmen Dyer called for the repeal of his own law, and to convince the U.S. House of Representatives of the need for repeal, he read a letter from the superintendent of a penitentiary:

Of the 450 Federal Boys in the National Training School here in Washington, nearly 200 are violators of the Dyer Act, with the ages distributed as follows: Two boys 12 years of age, 6 boys 13 years of age, 19 boys 14 years of age, 31 boys of 15 years of age, 64 boys 16 years of age, 48 boys 17 years of age, 19 boys of 18 years of age, 1 boy 19 years of age, and 1 boy 22 years of age.

Due to the capricious nature of theft for a joy-ride, policemen and journalists surmised that it could be easily prevented: “It is against this class of thief that the various types of automobile-locking devices and hidden puzzles are effective . . . since the joy-rider does more than half the stealing it follows that car-locks are more than 50 percent effective in protecting a car.” However, more elaborate means would be necessary to stop the professional thief.

Writers who addressed auto theft from 1915 to 1938 admitted that the professional thief could not be stopped. Professional thieves employed an array of tactics to steal automobiles. Often chauffeurs, mechanics, and garage men became thieves. Even though locks supposedly prevented theft by joy-riders, thieves would simply cut padlocks and chains with bolt-cutters. Often this was not necessary, since keys to early Fords were easy to obtain. In 1917, Edward C. Crossman described the naïve Ford owner:

Ford owners take out the switch key on the coil box and go strutting off as if they’d [sic] locked the car in the safe deposit box. The first half-baked auto mechanic who needs a Ford can slip in another key and depart via the jitney route without paying his fair.

Crossman’s solution was to lock a heavy metal band around the front wheel of the automobile. In a May 1929 article “Tricks of the Auto Thief,” Popular Mechanics described the array of tactics open to the automobile thief. Thieves stole accessories, unlocked and started cars with duplicate keys, “jumped” the ignition by placing a wire across the ignition coil to the spark plugs, ripped-off car dealerships, and towed cars away. “Some thieves make a specialty of buying wrecked or burned cars as junk . . . they receive a bill of sale, salvage parts which they place on stolen cars, and so disguise the finished automobile as a legitimate car for which they have the bill of sale.” One method called “kissing them away” involved an individual breaking into a car, and being unable to start the ignition, a “confederate,” would push the stolen car with his car from behind. The car would be moved into a garage or alley and promptly dismantled. Thieves used interchangeable parts to confuse authorities. In 1925, Joe Newell, head of the automobile theft bureau in Des Moines, Iowa, stated, “the greatest transformation that takes place in the stolen machine is in the clever doctoring of motor serial numbers . . . this is the first thing a thief does to a car.” Automobiles were branded with a serial number that corresponded to a factory record, but thieves used several tactics to change the numbers. The “doctoring” of numbers involved filing down numbers and branding a new numbers into the car, or changing single numbers. In a detailed article entitled “Stolen Automobile Investigation,” William J. Davis noted, “It is possible for a thief to restamp a 4 over a 1; an 8 over a 3 where the 3 is a round top 3; a 5 over a 3; to change a 6 to an 8, or a 9 to an 8, or an 0 to an 8.”

Apparently the joy-riding problem declined in the 1930s, but organized gangs emerged as a more serious threat to steal automobiles and, in the process, vex authorities. In Popular Science Monthy, Edward Teale noted:

. . . the automobile stealing racket in the United States has mounted to a $50,000,000-a-year business. During the first six months of 1932, 36,000 machines disappeared in seventy-two American cities alone. In New York City, $2,000,000 worth of cars was reported stolen in 1931.

Gangs developed sophisticated automobile theft operations from the expert driver to expert mechanic. Gangs even developed their own vernacular. A stolen car was a “kinky,” or a “hot short.” The “clouter” actually stole the car and the “wheeler” drove it to the “dog house.” The thieves were concerned with stealing the popular, mid-priced, widely-used makes. Gangs often specialized in a certain make or model. One New York gang “scrambled” the stolen automobiles: “a number of machines of the same make and model are stolen at the same time . . . wheels are switched, transmissions shifted, bodies’ changed, and engines transferred from one car to another.”

At other times, gangs would use the “mother system.” Under this system, thieves stole a certain make, had a fake bill of sale made, and changed all of the serial numbers to be identical to the bill of sale. Ultimately, four or five of the same car, with the same serial numbers and bills of sale would exist. In 1936, J. Edgar Hoover penned an article about gangster and international car thief named Gabriel Vigorito (a.k.a. Bla-Bla Blackman), who had amassed a $1 million fortune from automobile theft. “The “hot car” depots of a dozen states dealt in his goods . . . In Persia, Russia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and even China, the American car business included many automobiles stolen from the streets of Brooklyn.” Authorities convicted Bla-Bla to ten years in prison. Historically, the point is poignant: the automobile trumped not only state lines, but national lines. The rise of an industrial and global industry also rose with a global theft ring. In 1936, the Roosevelt Administration entered a treaty with Mexico for “the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes or the component parts of any of them.” The treaty prompted a convention with Mexico in 1937 to address the stolen automobile problem.

To control rampant automobile crimes, authorities developed scientific means to fight crime. As early as 1919, a system of fingerprints to identify automobile owners was proposed. Throughout the 1920s, law enforcement of automobile theft remained ineffective. By 1934, police developed sophisticated means to monitor a more mobile public. In 1936 it was urged that “every city join the nation-wide network of inter-city radio-telegraph service provided for by the Federal Communications Commission.” Police developed processes using chemicals and torches to identify fake serial numbers. Los Angeles police department officers departed the station for their shift with a list of stolen automobiles printed the night before. Developments in communication aided police officers. “Chattering teletype machines and short-wave radio messages outdistance the fleetest car, while police encircle a fleeing criminal in an effort to make escape impossible.” Radio communication made auto theft difficult. By 1934, “auto thieves found their racket a losing one.” In response to mobile crime, Governments at all levels grew more sophisticated. Insurance companies also grew more sophisticated: “In Chicago, a central salvage bureau, maintained by insurance companies is being established in an effort to wipe out a 10,000,000-a-year racket in stolen parts.” Automobile manufacturers invested in a “pick-proof” lock. From 1933 to 1936, insurance companies and the government destroyed the market for stolen automobiles and stolen parts. In 1934 Popular Science Monthly reported, “figures compiled by the National Automobile Underwriters Association show that eighty-six percent of the cars stolen in 1930 were recovered while in 1931 eighty-two percent were recovered and eighty-nine percent in 1932.”

A definitive study of car theft during the Interwar years remains to be written. What the above paragraphs suggest is that the automobile placed unprecedented challenges before local, state, and federal government agencies, and in response the responsibilities and scale of government changed as a consequence. Indeed, the law itself changed, and that included the area of tort law during the 1920s, as sorting out negligence as a consequence of automobile accidents also posed new problems that demanded innovative structural solutions.