By on July 22, 2014


TTAC’s had periodic posts about car theft, from a recent news item on a student project disappearing in the night (here) to hacking into a car (here and here). A recent book however provides a, well, book-length treatment.

Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino ( Johns Hopkins, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4214-1297-9) is an examination of the phenomenon of car theft through the era of the automobile. Authors John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales lead off with this quote

“‘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.’ That solitary impression soon proved to be wrong.” (p. 7)

First, there’s the historian at work, ranging from the first report of car theft in the Horseless Age of 1902, to the new methods of stealing cars noted on TTAC. Then there’s the organization behind it, or the lack thereof: from joyriding and local transportation in the early days (90% of all thefts, corresponding to a 90% recovery rate), to criminal operations seeking entire cars or merely parts – from pulling tires off cars during the WWII era of rationing rubber to cartels today paying for stolen cars with drugs. This thread is backed by an appendix with tables of data.

Then there’s the response to car theft, from the individual level to the lobbying of insurance companies. Technological responses were one avenue. These ranged from ignition keys (though the Model T only had 24 types of keys, with the type stamped on both the key and the starter plate; p. 12) to digital rolling codes tied required to enable the ECU (engine control unit computer). As the authors detail, all had defects – and all can be circumvented by stealing a key. Institutional responses began with the 1919 Dyer Act; for decades a central focus of the FBI was car theft, helped because it so frequently crossed crossed borders. Over time this extended to a system VINs and car registrations that sought to make it hard to remarket stolen parts or to get a stolen vehicle titled. Again, this system has holes. Finally there are sociological responses, particularly the development of garages and gated communities (pp. 73-77).

International theft figured from early on. Canada and Mexico were natural destinations, but on the East Coast rings such as that headed by Gabriel “Bla-Bla Blackman” Vigorito for over two decades (1930s-1950s) shipped cars to Europe and South America, grossing over $1 million in 1952 (pp. 61-3). The book is particularly detailed on the Mexican connection, reflecting the particular contribution of Morales. But it’s also empirically important: the top 10 theft “hot spots” stretch from Washington State through California, particularly near intersections of major highways that are trans-shipment points for drugs (Chapter 5 and Table 4.5 p. 173).

Then there is the depiction of car theft; Heitmann is a devoted watcher of movies and more generally an observer of automotive culture (the subject of an earlier book). Scattered throughout are references to a dozen-plus films, a handful of novels, and of course computer games. Press stories on car theft, ads for gadgets, and other miscellany are sprinkled throughout the book. Then there’s the racial aspect: joyriding whites were shuttled to dad, blacks were carted to prison. That was fine with J Edgar Hoover.

All of this makes for a fun book, and a quick read (159 pages of text). However it’s also disjointed; the authors love anecdotes, and don’t want to leave the best out. The narrative suffers, but quite frankly most on TTAC would probably rather have the anecdotes than the narrative. The book has no maps and only a few photos; it should have more! Likely the publisher resisted, and the authors wanted to get it done. It certainly is not because they lack in such materials: I invited John Heitmann to speak to my auto industry students in May 2014, and he came with a fascinating array of powerpoint slides and additional tales. (For those who want more, join the Society of Automotive Historians (of which he is currently president) or read through his essay on sources and copious footnotes.)

For additional quotes and details, see student journal entries on five chapters under the “Stealing Cars” pull-down menu on the Economics 244 Auto Industry web site at Order your own copy from Amazon as either an inexpensive hardcover or for Kindle.

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26 Comments on “Book Review: Stealing Cars...”

  • avatar

    I have absolutely no sympathy for car thieves being executed-on-the-spot by gun owners.

    A man’s car helps him win bread for his family.

    Car theft is like stealing his livelihood.

    I live in fear that someone is gonna try to steal the 5-spoke GOLIATH oem wheels off my Jeep.

    Why should I have to lock it in a garage every single night?

    And wheel locks only slow them down.

    Did you hear about the Superbird Challenger “Grizz” being stolen and stripped?

    I only pray for their execution or at the very least some “0 Dark Thirty” style torture.

    You steal from me – I HURT YOU.

    • 0 avatar

      Are you having impotence problems? I’ve had stuff stolen before, and I file an insurance claim. Yeah, it sucks, but not enough to kill someone. When you raise the stakes you only get a more desperate criminal.

    • 0 avatar

      Neither here nor there BT, but have you noticed that TTACers have become obsessed with your cock? It has become a theme. You make a comment, and damned if someone doesn’t immediately start talking about your cock. Nothing wrong with it, mind you. Free country and all. None of my business.

      It’s just getting kind of … weird.

    • 0 avatar

      Many things are necessary to win the daily bread. Computers, uniforms, tools, transit passes, etc. So, summary execution for any attempted theft?

      I don’t relish being robbed, but I don’t “live in fear” that someone is going to try to steal my stuff. That’s what insurance is for.

      • 0 avatar

        I used to be a member of the NRA, I believed their propaganda. I went out to meet other NRA members and I found more than a few bigtruckswhatever types. Scared paranoid ‘men’ consumed with murder fantasies.

        Yes, back in the day they hanged horse thieves. Back in the day if you stole someone’s horse, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere, you were condemning them to death. I really doubt anyone will die as a result of having the wheels stolen off their Jeep.

      • 0 avatar

        “That’s what insurance is for.”

        It’s true I don’t buy insurance to protect my stuff from theft. I’m very rarely a victim of theft so it would be a bad investment. Plus I take extra precaution too.

        But if I catch you stealing from me, in the act, I should be allowed to kill you on the spot. No warning shots, just dead. In a parking lot or where ever. That’s different than a premeditated execution, after the fact.

        I was building a block wall/fence and came around to catch a guy, red handed, stealing my brand new Craftsman shovel, so I let him have it. The shovel. Fiberglass handle, rubber/foam grip. I looked at his old work truck and clearly a handyman too. Middle aged white guy. I could tell he’s never had nice new tools in his life. Just junk. He dropped it when I yelled “What the…” and started towards his POS truck. I told him to come back here, pick it up and take it, he’s earned it. And to never let me see him on my street.

        • 0 avatar

          “But if I catch you stealing from me, in the act, I should be allowed to kill you on the spot.”

          So this would be universally true? A shop owner can shoot a shoplifter dead? Even if it’s your adolescent child? How about if it’s you, having absent-mindedly put a piece of merchandise in your pocket while picking up other goods at the hardware store, then failed to put it on the counter before you leave?

          Outside of strict Islamic law, we’ve generally decided that the penalty for theft is something less than death.

          • 0 avatar

            It’s a little different if it’s a child shoplifting. Or anyone shoplifting. Now if i hear a noise at 3am, and I’m face to face with a intruder in my house or in my truck, at that moment, I could feel like only one of us is going to walk away. So I’ll do everything I can to insure that’s me, even if some has to die.

            I heard this from a cop. If you shoot someone in your house/property, unload the whole clip on them and make sure they’re dead so they don’t come back and sue you. You panicked and he kept coming at you.

          • 0 avatar


            If someone will steal – they’ll kill to get away with it.

            If someone breaks in your home and you feel in danger for you or your family’s lives, make sure you’ve chosen KIMBER .45.

            Because: shooting twice is just silly.

          • 0 avatar

            “If someone will steal – they’ll kill to get away with it.”

            Really? I shoplifted as a kid, yet I never thought that I’d kill to get away with it, even once I got caught.

            And your neighbor with the Crown Vic; if true, then he was a remarkably lucky fool. Had the thief been a faster/better shot, your neighbor would be dead/wounded, and all over a very ordinary car. Home invasion is a very different story. The rest of this nonsense is macho bluster.

      • 0 avatar

        @ClutchCarGo: One time a few years ago in Vancouver, someone broke into my Civic, and stole my work tools (electrician). Apparently they weren’t too concerned with getting out of there as they also consumed my ENTIRE lunch which i had left inside as well. They only ended up stealing my drill set which cost approximately my deductible and fortunately left the $1500 of hand tools inside. I called the cops and checked nearby pawnshops, but ended up just replacing it out of pocket.

    • 0 avatar
      formula m

      You obviously are and always have been a giant p%$$y. You are scared so you must use a gun to stand up for yourself. You are too afraid to stop a theif yourself because they would kick your ass and take your lunch money. Pathetic comments by bigtruck

  • avatar
    Tim R

    Sounds like an interesting read

  • avatar

    “frankly most on TTAC would probably rather have the anecdotes than the narrative”

    Almost felt like apologizing for the first few comments here but I see you know your audience.

  • avatar
    Mike Smitka

    Forgot to put in a link to John Heitmann’s blog Co-author Rebecca Morales has also recently published a novel featuring test tracks and car racing with details at her web site

  • avatar

    One of the funniest Top Gear episodes I’ve seen was the trip to Albania show. Clarkson and his buddies were sitting in a cafe in Tirana when he said, “Clever fellows these Albanians. They remover all the unnecessary weight from their cars. For example, none of the cars around here have number plates or lock cylinders.”

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Quote from my mechanic: “30 years in the business, and I’ve never had a customer be sorry when their car is stolen. They all just hope to God that it isn’t recovered.”

    Car theft is just a minor inconvenience. Get a police report, call a cab, drive a rental for a week, pick-up you new car. I guess it would suck if you were driving something rare, but thieves are looking for stuff that’s easy to chop and/or resell.

  • avatar

    Seems to me the references to video games would be inappropriate in a book covering only Model T – Gran Torino.

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