Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles

Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino By John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 216 pages.

Reviewed by David M. Burel

If you ever come across someone trying to sell a foolproof antitheft system or an unstealable car, you ought to call him a liar or at least direct him to read John Heitmann and Rebecca Morales’s recent book on auto theft. The authors have assembled an effective and concise historical survey of automobile theft in the America. The book proceeds chronologically, from the beginnings of automobility to the significance of the Grand Theft Auto videogame franchise. It also contains more topically-based chapters on novel areas such as countermeasures in the built environment and a study of international auto theft across the southern United States border. Furthermore, the authors demonstrate how this form of mobile criminality is both perennial and resistant to social, political., and technological efforts to stop it. From the perspective of a historian of technology, the book’s strongest contribution is its ability to demonstrate the fallibility of socio-technical solutions to large societal problems. More generally, auto theft is such a multifaceted topic that most readers will find something that sparks their interest. Stealing Cars does not remain fixed on one element of the story, but instead covers the criminals, victims, business, and government institutions, as well as the technologies marshaled both by those who tried to prevent theft, and those who attempted to steal.

The book takes the reader back to early days of automobility beyond most people’s living memory. During much of this period, manufacturing a secure and difficult-to-steal automobile was not a high priority of many automakers. This placed the task of securing one’s automobile directly onto the end users. Therefore, those users looked to secure their vehicles through either commonsense use of existing security devices, and/or by purchasing and tinkering with aftermarket equipment. These many ad hoc countermeasures did not represent a formidable barrier to a motivated thief, but perhaps discouraged the common joyrider. Despite the ease of theft in this era, insurance companies and the public were quite willing to place the “onus on the owner” and blame driver negligence for most thefts. It might be easy to take for granted the police powers the federal government has in pursuing interstate criminals today, but this was not always so in the early days of auto theft. The authors point to the important institutional response to auto theft represented by the passage of the Dyer Act of 1919, which allowed federal law enforcement agencies to pursue car theft cases across state lines.

Some people remember the 1950s and 1960s as America’s golden age of automobiles, but Heitmann and Morales also demonstrate that those decades were equally a golden age for automo-bile theft. They evaluate the joyrider phenomenon of this era in reality and in fiction. The implementation of federal legislation, manufacturers’ responses, and greater owner vigilance could and did easily thwart a joyrider or an amateurish thief, but very little at this time could stop the growing ranks of professional auto thieves. It was also near the end of this era when the annoying car alarms Americans have grown so accustomed to loathing and ignoring began to be installed as aftermarket or optional equipment. The authors note that alarms have become so ineffective that some studies have found that only about one percent of people would call the police if they heard one go off.

The thought that automobile theft has at least partially reshaped American’s security infrastructure is one of the more fascinating points in the book. The authors argue that part of the reason that Americans have embraced closed garages, gated communities, and surveillance technology has been to prevent the crime of auto theft. They date this shift to the 1960s, which seems plausible given the wider trends of suburbanization and white flight that also occurred during this period. In this era, garage door opener technology became both more secure and commonplace. Although the authors note there has recently been a slight decline in the number of gated communities, these communities offered another level of protection for homeowners. They also suggest gated living potentially lend a false sense of security to their residents. Ensuring the security of America’s automobiles has also taken the shape of increased surveillance through CCTV systems and an emphasis on better lighting in parking areas/structures. In many ways these infrastructural solutions have proven effective. However, the authors do raise pertinent questions about the intrinsic tradeoffs between systems of security and surveillance when measured against American notions of liberty and freedom.

Just as professional auto thefts routinely circumvented new technology designed to stop them, modern day hackers routinely seem to break through even the most secure systems designed to keep our data safe.

Illegal car disassembly and parts selling rings known as “chop shops” were highly publicized in the past several decades. The problem presented by chop shops gained visibility and martialed several legislative responses since the 1970s. These responses came in the form of mandating an increase in the use of vehicle identification numbers (VIN numbering) on more automobile parts as well as securing more resources for local police departments to combat auto theft. The technology marketed to users in this high-tech era ranged from the very low tech “Club” that physically immobilized the steering wheel, to the fittingly modern electronic LoJack system that uses radio technology to find stolen cars. Despite these advances, the authors note that even these devices can be overcome (like so many of their predecessors).

In the chapter, “Mexico, the United States, and International Auto Theft,” the mostly American-centered focus of the book shifts to a case study of international car theft across the border between the United States and Mexico. Mexico has often offered an outlet and a demand for stolen vehicles. Auto theft rings have grown up alongside the vice industry, which are now both dominated by the drug cartels. The international boundary offered, much as earlier state lines had, a substantial barrier for enforcement and recovery. The American and Mexican governments have worked to curtail some of this theft, but have not been able to truly cut back on the black market of cross-border stolen cars. These cars are commonly referred to as “chocolate cars” in Mex-leo, which denotes their dubious origins. This chapter is a departure from the regular narrative flow of the book, but does offer an interesting case study that points to further research on the topic of international/transnational auto theft.

In recent years, it seems that auto theft is depicted less harshly in the media, often as a victimless crime. Heitmann and Morales contend that while actual joy-riders have long since faded from the spotlight, the advent of computer technology has made millions of people digital car thieves and carjackers through the various iterations of the Grand Theft Auto videogame franchise. The authors work to present both sides of the contentious debate about videogame violence. One can see from the evolution of antitheft technology in the book that stealing a car does require greater technological sophistication on the part of the thief than ever before. The chapter even suggests that modern car thieves might even blur the line between hacker and car thief.

This argument about car theft as a form of hacking suggests to this reader a possible larger analogy that could be made between the history of auto theft and the more recent history of cybersecurity. Just as professional auto thefts routinely circumvented new technology designed to stop them, modern day hackers routinely seem to break through even the most secure systems designed to keep our data safe. In light of the authors’ acknowledgement that auto theft has declined recently, the thought arises that the new crime of digital identity theft might provide an outlet for intelligent criminals and represent a safer heist than the automobile of days past. Either way, parallels can be drawn between yesterday’s technology of freedom – the automobile, and today’s technology of freedom – the Internet.

One can see connections to Heitmann’s previous work The Automobile in American Life in which he suggested the need for a scholarly study of auto theft. Stealing Cars delivers the work Heitmann suggested and contributes to the history of the automobile by bringing this novel topic into greater focus. Its smooth and readable style answers many questions a generalist audience would want to know about auto theft but also should be read closely by historians of the automobile and of technology for ways in which the act of theft and crime in general can open up a new area of study. The book could have gone further in studying automobile thieves themselves the structures of their criminal enterprises, and the tools and technology of their trade. Readers looking for a very detailed technical history of anti-auto theft devices might not be satisfied with the generalist approach presented. One area of strength in this work is how the authors have included media sources into their narrative about car theft as a reflection of American’s attitudes about the subject. Overall, it is easy to recommend this book to readers, from historians and professionals interested in automobile topics to a general audience looking for a good read. Author Information David Burel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Auburn University. His studies focus on the history of technology with an emphasis on the history of the automobile. His current research focuses on the history of recreational vehicles in America. email:

Reviewer Information

David M. Burel is with the Centre for Social Anthropology & Comput., Univ. of Kent, Canterbury, U.K.