|An abandoned stolen Hudson, 1920 (Library of Congress)|
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
John Heitmann's Presentation at the SAH Biennial history Conference at Revs Stanford, April 10-12, 2014: Stealing Freedom: Automobile Anti-Theft Deterrents, Criminal Countermeasures, and Technological Change, 1900-1941
Stealing Freedom: Automobile Anti-Theft Deterrents, Criminal Countermeasures, and Technological Change, 1900-1941
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. 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.
That said, I want to briefly explore with you the technology and countermeasures employed in the period ending in 1941. 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.
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.
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.”
The most technologically sensible option to thwart thieves involved the aftermarket installation of stronger locking mechanisms. An 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
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.
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.
Despite the limitations of locking mechanisms, a second strategy centered on wheel immobilization rather than ignition or steering controls. Between 1914 and 1925 there were at least 25 patents related to a wheel chock or wheel lock that shackled a wooden spoked wheel. This kind of device was patented in various shapes, sizes, and mechanisms by at least 30 inventors during the period 1914-1925. Of course, a would-be thief only had to take off the wheel to defeat the device. The Miller-Chapman Security Auto-Theft Signal System came in 32 sizes to fit different rims and tires. The one above is a B1, probably for a Model T.
Another approach tried in the 1920s was to provide a visible identification number and set of authorized driver photographs. The most significant of these anti-theft technological system introduced during the 1920s aimed at owners and manufacturers was the FEDCO number plate. Beginning in 1923, New York City-based FEDCO designed an anti-theft number plate, working with the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Underwriters Laboratories, and the Burns International Detective Agency. Essentially, metallurgists designed 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
Despite the plethora of technological (and I might add institutional) anti-theft measures, 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.”
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. For example, it was 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 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. 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.
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.”
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
As the Depression took root, however, there was a sustained decline throughout the 1930s in urban thefts known to police in cities with populations over twenty-five thousand, suggesting that organization (FBI engagement), technology (new metallurgical and communications methods), and perhaps depressed economic conditions contributed to what amounted to good news. Along with the end of Prohibition, this optimistic turn was possibly the reason why depictions of stealing cars in
Hollywood films released before World War
II tended to play incidental roles in comic or farcical situations. In films
including New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), It
Happened One Night (1934), Social Error (1935), and Bringing Up
Baby (1938), the serious side of automobile theft, more characteristic of
the tone of the 1920s, was dismissed.
Yet the confidence exuded by government crime experts during the 1930s was short-lived. In sum, up to 1941 the combination of technology and organization was able to abate, but not stop, thefts of something Americans had learned to love. The problem of auto theft in the
surged after World War II with a vengeance. For a time, the issue centered on
youth, first those from the middle class and then from minorities. Later,
professional criminals were a target of law enforcement, but in a cultural
climate that increasingly portrayed the auto thief as a hero. After all, the
automobile in America
was the ultimate freedom machine, and driving proved as exhilarating and
liberating for thieves as for owners.