Saturday, April 25, 2015
Review of Heitmann and Morales, Stealing Cars
From the April, 2015 issue of the American Historical Review
JOHN A. HEITMANN and REBECCA H. MORALES. Stealing
Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 216. $29.95.
According to 2013 insurance statistics, thieves steal a car every 33 seconds in the United States. As John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales write, although car theft has existed “at the margins of American life,” it is and was, nevertheless, “far from inconsequential” (p. 1). They prove this broad claim by surveying the reasons and methods for stealing cars and the technological, so- cial, and institutional responses to the crime. A long history of stealing cars has resulted in myriad anti-theft technologies, powerful federal laws to ameliorate the criminal activity that thrived by crossing state and in- ternational borders, and a trend toward more sophisticated, professional criminals who in the twentieth century set up global networks to trade in stolen vehi- cles.
Historians have mostly overlooked theft as an impor- tant part of Americans’ relationship with the automo- bile. But as Heitmann and Morales rightly argue, we can learn much about technology, law enforcement, and the role of insurance companies, by examining the changing contours of auto theft. Their work is part of a growing body of scholarship that examines how users changed the design and meanings of the automobile from the bottom up. However, here, users applied their ingenuity to illegal activities, from the fairly harmless act of joyriding, or stealing cars for pleasure, to more serious offensives. The authors ask: “Who steals cars, and why?” (p. 1). How did government and industry respond to the crime in an escalating battle to thwart a growing network of criminal activity? Heitmann and Morales mine their source material, which ranges from statistics and patent records to interviews and a range of popular literature, film, and digital games to under- stand the complex back-and-forth between criminals, technology, authority, and the wider culture. Their most significant claim is that automobility changed and increased the scale of unlawful activity beginning with the mass production and adoption of the car. The automobile became a prime target for thieves and con- veniently provided its own means of escape. Although, some saw the opportunity to enjoy a free ride or make money stripping parts or selling stolen cars, thus rob- bing car owners not only of an expensive durable good but also their own automobility, Heitmann and Morales conclude that American culture, as seen through films, songs, novels, and video games, has often glorified car thieves rather than condemning them.
The authors survey the landscape of auto theft in six chronological chapters, a brief conclusion, and a useful collection of historical statistics. Taken together the chapters chart the trajectory of criminal activity from the 1910s to the present. The book is organized into periods, beginning with the 1910s to the 1940s; continuing into the postwar period to about 1980, when auto theft rose so rapidly that there was an unprecedented response; and ending with the 1990s to the present. Chapter 5 examines the history of cross-border activity between Mexico and the U.S. providing an in-depth case study of the globalization of automobile theft that should give historians much to consider.
Throughout the book we learn that average people and often skilled users participated in the process of stealing, stripping, masking, and trading in stolen cars. Chauffeurs, mechanics, assembly-line workers, small business owners, and a couple of generations of male teenagers all took part in stealing cars. Notably, car owners, through the 1960s, were often culpable as well; some reported their cars as stolen to get the insurance money, many more simply left the keys in the ignition or under the floor mat. Whatever the cause, we learn that this crime shaped the institutions and the larger landscape that governed the use and value of cars, including the insurance industry. Insurance companies led the way in developing new communications systems and technologies to protect and recover their invest- ments. Additionally, law enforcement, especially at the federal level, grew. Because the stolen goods crossed state and international borders, auto theft became a federal crime and the authors trace the legislation and developments in policing from the Dyer Act (1919) to the growth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They also explore efforts to outwit ingenious criminals through an array of devices from early ignition locks to General Motors OnStar surveillance system. In the last chapters, Heitmann and Morales suggest that there has been a definable shift in the nature of the car theft, from youth-centered impulsiveness to an organized and global crime. Although global trade in stolen cars existed as early as the interwar period, the scale increased dramatically in the late twentieth century. The chapter on Mexico and the U.S. provides a more careful look at this phenomenon and suggests that borderlands foster crime. Beginning with the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), she provides an intriguing case study of how automotive theft became entangled in a more complex web of illegal activities including drug trafficking. As the authors conclude, “Crossing borders was, and remains, the car thief’s best strategy” (p. 158). The authors’ attention to the variety of people and technologies involved in stealing cars and the evolution of the practice into a global business make their study worth reading. Some small criticisms: The latter half of the book felt somewhat disjointed. The later chapters would have benefited from more historical context, especially with regard to the political and economic land- scape of the 1970s and 1980s. How did the energy crisis figure into criminal activity or its representation in film? But overall, Heitmann and Morales have added to a better and broader understanding of both crime and the
automobile in American life and have pointed to other fruitful avenues for exploration.