Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Stealing Cars: Garages and Automobile Security
The Home and the American Garage
Common sense might argue that early garages were built to prevent auto theft. In reality, they were primarily places for inventing, constructing, and rebuilding cars, and protecting them from the elements. Pioneer Brass-Era cars were notoriously loud, dirty, dangerous, and most significantly, very expensive. They required constant maintenance and needed to be housed in buildings that were large enough to hold parts and equipment. In addition, they were sufficiently distant from residences in case of an explosion or fire (the most frequent source of early auto insurance claims). These structures were converted carriage houses, barns, and sheds--outbuildings dedicated to transportation that were sometimes shared with horses and buggies.3 One famous early garage, sometimes described as the “first” garage, was Henry Ford’s workshop situated behind his duplex at 58 Bagley Avenue in Detroit where he made the 1896 Quadricycle. When the contraption was completed, it was too large to fit through the existing door, so Ford hammered and chiseled a way out, thereby creating what is arguably the “first” garage door.
Cars started out as a novelty in the late1890s but had become a necessity by the 1920s and 1930s due to the growth of suburbs. Concurrently, interest grew in household garages to protect these sometimes temperamental but prized objects. “In 1913, Collier’s magazine warned that a car stored in an unheated space could end up with a frozen radiator, rattling doors, bowed fenders, a cracked frame, and flaking paint.”4 Needless to say, a heated garage was a luxury few could afford, but an enclosed space was not. By the 1920s, even though most people did not own a garage, it was a dream to which they aspired.5 President Herbert Hoover knew this when he promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” during his 1928 presidential campaign. The slogan struck a chord that resonated in the American psyche. Throughout the Great Depression, detached and attached garages began popping up across the country.
For the most part, the focus during the 1930s was on whether to build an attached garage, a semi-attached garage, or detached garage with an emphasis on architectural integrity or convenience, but theft was rarely a consideration.6 In fact, though desirable, homebuyers did not always select a garage. From 1933 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered home plans in their catalog that gave people choices--they could build a garage, or a dining nook, or recreation room and the like, according to their preference. The company also offered freestanding garages and pergolas for sheltering cars that could be bought separately and built later.
With garages came garage door opening systems for both convenience and later, security. The garage opening devices of the 1920s sometimes used a spring beneath the driveway that was activated when the driver entered, or a chain or rope next to the garage door that the driver pulled to open the door.7 However, the spring doors could injure a family member who happened to be in the garage, and both mechanisms failed to adequately secure the automobile.
By the 1930s, companies began to consciously aim at preventing theft and did so through the use of photoelectric cells or radio signals. These ingenious early systems were still uncommon and forerunners to the widely-adopted methods of later years. According to one description:
a photo-electric cell installation . . . opens doors when [a] light beam . . . is broken. . . . [Alternatively, a] remote control on [a] standard in [the] drive[way] . . . operate[d] doors electronically when unlocked, by key, from car. Both from Stanley Works. There is also a radio type door operator, from Barber-Colman, which works by short wave from car when you pull knob on dash.8
Remote control garage door openers of the 1930s generally consisted of a simple transmitter and receiver that controlled the mechanism. One type was developed in Spokane, Washington and used a receiver that responded only to a particular wavelength broadcasted by the spark coil on the car. Another system developed in Illinois used coded radio signals sent from an instrument board in the car to an antenna buried in the driveway, which started the electric motor that opened the garage doors. Although automobile thieves could potentially find the right radio wave to thwart the Spokane system, they were hard pressed to crack the Illinois designers’ radio code.9
By the 1940s, consumers also turned to garage door opening schemes like that of the Chicago-based Era Meter Company’s “Drive-Rite-In.” It opened the garage door via a key-operated post at the end of the driveway.10 But for the most part, these and other devices were largely aimed at making it easier for the driver to enter the garage.11 Whether detached, semi-attached, or attached, garages often had separate entry doors with glass windows, making it very easy to break in.
After World War II, attached garages became common features of the typical American suburban home.12 The 1960 US Census enumerated garages for the first time. With advances in technology, garage door openers were also becoming more sophisticated. The key system was abandoned for electronic garage door openers. These devices of the 1950s and 1960s used a simple code method that operated the garage door with a push of the remote’s button. However, the remote controls had a “shared frequency”--a garage door was opened by one of five codes--and that was problematic in its own right. With only five codes, a suburban driver could well have the same code as their neighbor. Thus, the goods inside of the post-war suburban garage and indeed even access to the home were easy prey for a criminal.
By this time, garages were being used as transitional spaces that linked the indoors to the outside. They were refuges for playing music, working on hobbies, storing stuff, washing and drying, and puttering, and driveways were convenient playgrounds for shooting hoops and roller-skating.13 With few exceptions, no one in Middle America locked their garage; to the contrary, garage doors often stayed open day and night.
However, with crime on the rise during the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans began locking their garages and companies that sold garage door openers began to devise more secure systems. By the 1980s, companies placed dual in-line (DIP) switches that sent between 256 and 4,096 codes from the remote control to the garage door opener. Criminals were still able to hack this system, however, by trying multiple codes on a regular transmitter or using code grabbers to attempt every possible combination in a short period of time. It was not until the late 1990s that garage door opening systems used “rolling codes” that changed with each opening of the door, making it almost impossible for thieves to reproduce the code.14
With the progressive changes in garage door technology and loss of innocence associated with leaving the garage door open all night, the garage and its contents became relatively safe from theft. Automobile insurance underwriting recognized the effectiveness of the changes in stemming auto theft. Though the individual home and garage could provide significant protection against auto theft, for some this was not enough. For those who needed even more assurance, gated communities that were walled off from the rest of society offered even greater protection from crime, including auto theft, and their appeal has grown from the 1990s to the present.