Heitmann-Morales

Chapter One: Stop Thief – Ortiz

Summary:

•In the early 1900s electric and steam powered vehicles were much better equipped with locks to prevent theft than their internal combustion counterparts. By 1901 there was a movement to secure most vehicles at as car-theft became more commonplace.
•Many companies came up with various locking devices such as the Oldsmobile Lock and the Circuit Closer, however thieves quickly learned to overcome these technologies.
•In the beginning, law enforcement would write down reports of car-theft but as there was little communication between different police departments, police did little to help the owners. After the owner or insurance company offered a reward however the law enforcement tended to be much more forthcoming with aid, in hopes of securing that reward for themselves.
•At the National Automobile Underwriters Conference in 1912 the National Automobile Theft Bureau was established to provide a private police force focused solely on car-theft as a way to bring down insurance companies’ costs.
•After World War 1, thieves focused on the mass produced, popular vehicles such as the classic Model T. These vehicles were easy targets due to their interchangeable parts. If these vehicles did have locking devices they tended to only have a few variations of keys.
•Adding to the difficulty of finding the car thieves was that the vehicles themselves were their escape.
•Early on Detroit had the highest rates of car theft due to the sheer number of individuals with mechanical skills.
• The Dyer Act of 1919 stipulated that car thieves would be prosecuted at the point of apprehension and would be fined $5,000, sentenced to ten years in prison, or both. This law created quite a bit of confusion due to its wording.
• The period of 1920-1940 showed a significant increase in police and FBI action regarding car theft with new programs such as weekly “hot sheets” and the use of a police radio.
• Car theft surged again after World War 2.

Quotes:

• “’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” (7).
• “As evinced by the ability of thieves to alter serial numbers, duplicate registration papers, switch radiators, and replace engine blocks, Fordism’s inherent uniformity welcomed theft”(12).
• “Professional criminals were a target of law enforcement, but in a cultural climate that increasingly portrayed the auto theft 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“ (35).

Questions:

• Why were middle-line vehicles the most commonly stolen in the early 1900’s? Has this changed in current times? If so, what has prompted this change?
• Why are car thieves portrayed as heroes in popular culture?
• Why did police officers not really try to find and prosecute car thieves in the beginning of the 1900’s? What prompted them to start to?

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