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Auto theft history joins SAH Hershey book signing event

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Ross Paswell, convicted of auto theft in 1945. Mugshots courtesy angusmcdiarmid on Flickr.

They make it look easy in the movies: Fiddle around under the steering wheel, strip some wires, and touch two bare copper ends together to start a car and abscond with it. In video games, it’s even easier: Punch a button to punch a guy and take his ride.

In real life, however, stealing cars takes a good deal of technical know-how and carries not only practical complications (“How to do this without getting caught?”) and moral condemnation, but also studies of social, economic, and other factors leading up to and stemming from the actual crime. A few years ago, authors John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales decided to examine the history of auto theft in detail, and the result, Stealing Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino, will feature at this year’s Society of Automotive Historians Hershey tent book signing.

“Automobile theft is at the margins of life, yet it reflects American core values as well as the nation’s central social problems,” wrote Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton. Heitmann said he got the idea for the book after writing briefly about the topic of auto theft in his earlier book, The Automobile and American Life.

“I was totally amazed at the sheer number of auto thefts in the 1920s and how the government responded to that,” he said. “Local police forces really expanded at the time, and the response (to stolen cars taken across state lines) was what really made the FBI the FBI in terms of authority and scope. The more I got into it, the more interested I became.”

As Heitmann chronicled, the first recorded auto theft in the United States took place in the fall of 1902 in Trenton, New Jersey, but steam and electric car makers had already included rudimentary anti-theft devices on their cars by that time. Automakers largely ignored the problem of auto theft in the Twenties, leaving aftermarket companies and local, state, and federal governments to provide solutions. From the end of World War II until the Seventies, most auto thefts were the work of joyriders, but then came the rise of chop shops and professional auto thieves and auto theft rings. All the while, those endeavoring to put a stop to auto theft came up with more complex deterrents and the thieves quickly figured out how to defeat any deterrent.

To address the impact of auto theft, the book delves not just into the technology and methods of stealing cars but also deterrents, institutional responses, city planning, cross-border cooperation, and organized crime. And unlike most automotive histories focused on one particular make, model, racing series, or personality, Stealing Cars draws from a multitude of sources, ranging from patents, government documents, sociological studies and interviews to the aforementioned movies and video games.

“There’s a lot of cultural history here, and studying films and literature and video games helps us understand shifting perceptions on the crime and how to punish it,” Heitmann said. “For instance, when you watch the original ‘Gone in 60 Seconds,’ you see that once we get to the Seventies one of the big themes is that if a car’s insured then it’s no real big deal.”

(For what it’s worth, Heitmann, who owned a 1971 Porsche 911 and a 1982 Mercedes-Benz, said he’s found steering wheel locks like The Club to be the most effective theft deterrent.)

Heitmann will also be signing The Automobile and American Life, which similarly takes a human-level look at the widespread social, economic, cultural, and political transformation caused by the automobile. Heitmann said a second edition of The Automobile and American Life is due toward the end of the year.

In addition to Heitmann’s books, the SAH book signing will include appearances by Donald R. Hoke, author of Hector Halhead ‘Steam’ Stewart: The History of Stanley Steam Cars in New Zealand and More; Louis F. Fourie, author of the three-volume On a Global Mission: The Automobiles of General Motors International;  Kit Foster, author of The Stanley Steamer – America’s Legendary Steam Car; Robert R. Ebert, author of Studebaker and Byers A. Burlingame: End of an Automotive Legacy and Champion of the Lark: Harold Churchill and the Presidency of Studebaker-Packard, 1956-1961; and Robert Casey, author of The Model T: A Centennial History. Copies of the books will be available at the event for purchase.

The SAH book signing will take place from 12:30 to 3:00 p.m., October 5, at the SAH tent on Hershey’s Orange field. For more information, visit