Friday, February 28, 2014

Automobile Anti-Theft Deterrents, Criminal Countermeasures, and Technological Change, 1900-1970

Automobile Anti-Theft Deterrents, Criminal Countermeasures, and Technological Change, 1900-1970  -- Draft paper to be presented at the Society of Automotive Historians biennial conference, April 10-12, 2014, REVS Stanford, CA.     

Saturday Evening Post advertisement, 1923

Briggs and Stratton wafer lock design, used by GM beginning in the mid-1930s
Miller-Chapman Wheel chock for wooden spoke wheels, available in 36 sizes, very popular during the early 1920s

The FEDCO System, used on early Chrysler models to 1926

Key-Ignition start system, first available on 1949 Chrysler products

            For much of its history, the automobile has been a technological system in transition, rarely static and at times quite dynamic. The changing nature of its various components, including anti-theft devices, mirrors this broader evolution.  From locks and identification schemes to alarms, GPS, Transponder, and RFID technologies, the design of anti-theft deterrents has become so sophisticated that the rolling codes protecting modern vehicles mimic the neural networks in a dog's brain. Yet with all of these recent technological innovations, are our cars any safer from theft than when protected with a Yale padlock? Sergeant Steve Witte, head of the San Diego anti-theft taskforce RATT, doesn't think so. He still swears by The Club, and sells them at cost out of the back of his truck.
            There is no way that in the 20 minutes the contents of Stealing Cars can be summarized, particularly given its emphasis on technology, film, literature, the built environment, borders, and social themes. Automobile theft is at the margins of life, yet it reflects American core values as well as the nation's central social problems. And despite a recent statistical decline, in 2013 a theft occurred every 33 seconds. Lined up end to end, the annual number of stolen cars in the U.S. would stretch from New York City to Phoenix, AZ. In sum, no car is safe from theft.
            That said, I want to briefly explore with you the technology and countermeasures employed in the period ending around 1970.  With every generation it was said that auto theft would be soon a thing of the past.  As it turned out, fool-proof technologies made fools of their creators and owners. Joyriding may be largely a thing of the past, but so too recovery rates have dropped significantly, thus suggesting professionals are prospering from both the sale of hot cars and the drug trade that often goes hand in hand.
            The automobile was a primary object for thieves and a perfect accessory to crime during the twentieth century and beyond. However, not knowing what the future held, one early turn-of-the-century contemporary asserted that the coming of the automobile would substantially decrease personal transportation thievery. An early steamer owner and physician asserted in 1901: “When I leave my machine at the door of a patient’s house I am sure to find it there on my return. Not always so with the horse: he may have skipped off as the result of a flying paper or the uncouth yell of a street gamin, and the expense of broken harness, wagon, and probably worse has to be met.”3 That solitary impression, however, soon proved to be wrong. The first reported auto theft in The Horseless Age occurred during the fall of 1902, when "Laurenz Schmalholz, while in Trenton, N.J. …had his Pierce Motorette stolen from the stables of the United States Hotel," recovered only later the next day.4
            Steam and electric vehicles, however, were better equipped with locks than their internal combustion powered rivals. Steam-powered vehicles typically had locks that immobilized the throttle, “thereby preventing any possible interference by the over curious meddler”6 Electric vehicles typically came with a key that manipulated a switch, and with one turn, the current to the motor was cut off. Yet the designers of many of the earliest internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicles were cavalier about security. As one illustration, the Winton used a common snap switch mounted to a porcelain base. One could remove the hard rubber handle and carry it along, but it was not usually done, since the switch could be operated without it. Packards featured two push button switches that interrupted the igniter circuit. Ordinarily, one of these switches was placed on the kneeboard, and the other in the battery box, which could be locked. The 1901 Hayes-Apperson used: “a switch of their own construction.”8 But if a would-be thief possessed a lever from one Hayes-Apperson, others could be taken. French vehicles were hardly better in terms of being designed to thwart the unauthorized driver. In a De Dion-Bouton, a slightly tapered plug was used to open the igniter circuit when turning off the car; this plug could be carried along in the pocket of a dismounted driver. Nevertheless, any button from any De Dion-Bouton would work.
            Aftermarket manufacturers and independent inventors soon got busy developing devices to satisfy the insecurities of a growing number of automobile owners. By 1905 the Auto Lock Company of Chicago began advertising its Oldsmobile Lock, claiming that “it locks everything (even while the motor is running), prevents theft and meddling. Once used, always used.”10 In July of 1909, Orville M. Tustison of Bainbridge, Indiana, patented his “Circuit-Closer,” employing a Yale-type lock with mechanical and electrical mechanisms that ultimately served as a spark coil kill switch. Located prominently on the dashboard, Tustison’s device was only as good as the Yale lock and box that housed the device.11
             On the early Ford Model T, 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 code was stamped on both the key and the starter plate.
            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.”48Another suggestion, far less radical, involved the owner boring holes into the underside of the running boards, scratching their name somewhere secret, or taping an identification card inside the upholstery.50
            In addition to leaving a secret set of identification marks, stronger locking mechanisms were proposed. One such deterrent, first marketed in 1920, was the Simplex Theftproof Auto Lock.51 Advertised with the slogan “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 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 that their product--with more than 2 million sold--locked “not only the ignition, but the steering as well--with a hardened steel bolt.”52 The Hershey Coincidental Lock was the work of inventors Orville S. Hershey and Ernest J. Van Sickel, both from Chicago.53 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 cutoff 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 ignition and transmission 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.54 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 was placed in the cylinder, the wafers were not aligned with the so-called lock shear line, and the cylinder core remained fixed.55However, 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.56 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.
            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.57Beginning in 1923, New York City-based FEDCO (Federated Engineers Development Corporation also known as the Fedco Number Plate Corporation) 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 telltale 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, “had I realized just what this number plate meant I would not have stolen this car.”58 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.59
            Writers who addressed auto theft from 1915 to 1938 admitted that the professional thief could not be stopped. They 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, professional thieves would simply cut padlocks and chains with bolt cutters.87 In a May 1929 article entitled “Tricks of the Auto Thief,” Popular Mechanics described an array of tactics. Thieves stole accessories, unlocked and started cars with duplicate keys, “jumped” the ignition by placing a wire across distributor and coil to the spark plugs, ripped off car dealerships, and towed cars away.88 One well-equipped gang of three in Brooklyn, for example, used its supply of bogus bills of sale, motor vehicle department forms, and an ingenious “jumper box” to steal and sell some 25 cars in only two or three months. The jumper box, which police described as being unique, featured a magneto and wires to connect a vehicle’s distributor with its starter, thus bypassing the ignition switch.99 “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.”89 One method, “kissing them away,” involved an individual breaking into a car, and being unable to start it, a “confederate” would push the stolen car with his own from behind. The car would be moved into a garage or alley and promptly dismantled.90 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.”91 Automobiles were branded with a serial number that corresponded to a factory record, a number that preceded what is now known as a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). However, thieves used several tactics to change the numbers. The “doctoring” of numbers involved filing down numbers and branding a new number into the car, or changing single digits. In a detailed article entitled “Stolen Automobile Investigation,” William J. Davis noted, “It is possible for a thief to re-stamp 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.”92 In response police departments developed processes using chemicals and torches to identify fake serial numbers.115 These destructive forensic techniques enabled investigators to recover filed or ground down motor numbers that were seemingly hidden to the naked eye. Typically, the stamping process involved striking a cast iron motor block with a die that deformed the metal, leaving an impression. Physically, two zones of deformation resulted, one called the plastic, and another deeper area, the elastic. Even if the number was totally removed from the plastic layer, it still existed in the elastic, and techniques were developed to make those digits visible again. One popular destructive technique used etching solutions. A heat treatment method was also quite successful in recovering filed off numbers on cast iron substrates. Using a propane torch, a technician heated the metal to cherry red, which caused the deformed area to bulge above its surroundings. Marks were thus pushed up, and after cleaning, the numbers stood out in contrast to darker surroundings.
            In Popular Science Monthly, Edward Teale noted that: “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.”93
            Over time, professional auto thieves came up with their own lexicon. A “Bent” or “Kinky” was a stolen car; “Breezer,” an open tourer; “Clean One,” a car from which all identifying numbers were erased; “Consent Job,” an automobile stolen with the owner’s consent for the purpose of collecting insurance; “Dauber,” a car painter who worked quickly; “Dog-House,” a small garage used as a safe house for stolen cars until they cooled; “Right Guy,” a dealer who buys stolen cars; “Slicker,” a stolen car newly painted; and finally a “Stranger,” a stolen car taken from a distant location. Additionally, auto thieves purportedly had their own proverb, namely “Never steal anything you can’t steal right away.”94
            The only significant new security device during the first decade following World War II was Chrysler’s “key operated starter switch,” which was introduced in 1949.33 Manufacturers used data indicating that a high percentage of auto thefts were due to the key being left in the ignition switch as a way to avoid any serious commitment to make cars theft-proof. From time to time, door locks were marginally improved, but little else was done.
            However, in the mid-60s feeling pressure from angry consumers, General Motors and Ford implemented several improvements in the theft security system on passenger vehicles. Ford redesigned all its locks on 1965 models. The new style contained tumblers at both the top and bottom of the lock assembly. The lock required a key cut on both edges and prevented the car from being unlocked by using a jiggler key. General Motors modified Chevrolet and Buick ignition systems to make it impossible for the key to be removed without locking the ignition. The new ignition switch had five positions--accessory, lock, off, on, and start. The key could only be removed when the ignition was switched to the lock position. Furthermore, switch wiring terminals were secured and concealed in a plastic connector that was fixed into position on the back of the switch by three projecting fingers that snapped over the concealed lugs on the ignition housing. This made it more difficult to hotwire or jump the ignition wires and start the car without the key. General Motors also agreed to attach VIN plates using rivets instead of spot welding on all models except Cadillacs. A special rivet, appearing as a distinctive rosette or “rosehead” was used, which made it easier to detect fraudulent or changed VIN plates.34
            In 1968 Congress finally held manufacturers accountable for auto theft by passing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 114 and 115. Standard 114 called for manufacturers to equip their products with steering column locks and an ignition key, while Standard 115 mandated a single VIN marking to be placed on the vehicle.36 Although the steering lock was a highly touted innovation that was intended to greatly dissuade car thieves, in reality it did very little to stop them. The United States followed the experience of West Germany, where steering wheel locks were made compulsory in new cars beginning in 1961, and where statistical data tended to indicate their effectiveness. However, in the case of the US, each manufacturer introduced their own lock design, since Congress did not want to establish a restrictive standard that discouraged technological innovation in the field of theft inhibition (33F.R. 6471, 5-27-68).37 What resulted after 1967 were a number of improved designs and new devices that laughably stopped only the most amateurish of joy riders. In the process, manufacturer removed the vent window and column-mounted ignition switches and annoying key buzzers became standard equipment.
            Almost immediately after manufacturers introduced steering locks, car thieves countered by developing low-tech tools such as “slide hammers,” or dent pullers to remove the lock from the steering assembly. A screw was welded to the end of the dent puller, and in one rapid motion the lock was extracted. Alternatively, a screwdriver driven into the lock and turned using vise grips broke the tumblers, rendering the mechanism useless. Ford locks proved to be the most vulnerable; subsequent studies reported that a good thief could circumvent a Ford steering lock in 10 seconds, one found in Chrysler products in 30 seconds, and General Motors vehicles in 120 seconds. If a thief took the route of breaking the lock by twisting, the entire operation took about 5 seconds.

            The 1970s marked the beginning of a new era in automobile technology related to the introduction of semiconductor and computer technologies to control fuel, ignition, and auxiliary electronic systems. Alarms, transponders GPS, and RFID technologies followed, initially thwarting thieves, but hardly stopping them if they were determined and smart. And more recently the Internet not only offered plenty of "how-to" information for the would-be thief, but also the tools -- jammers and code grabbers made and sold in China. For example, during the summer of 2013, thieves holding mysterious black boxes were viewed on surveillance cameras in California, New York, Texas, and Michigan effortlessly opening the doors of newer BMWs and Mercedes vehicles. Insurance companies maintain that these security systems are impregnable, and that a theft of these models must be the fault or collusion of their owners. Yet the loss of some 400 luxury makes in New York City alone during the fall of 2013 suggests otherwise. It seems no matter the state of the art technology employed, if a thief wants a car, it may well be gone in sixty seconds.

1 comment:

  1. Great info! Regarding the FEDCO system -- it was used at least as late as 1928 by Stutz as evidenced by this 1928 Stutz Model BB rumble seat coupe recently (as of Aug 22 2014) listed for sale on ebay. More info and a pic of the FEDCO plate can be found on this blog: