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Stealing Cars

Technology and Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino

John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales

Publication Year: 2014

As early as 1910 Americans recognized that cars were easy to steal and, once stolen, hard to find—especially since cars looked much alike. Model styles and colors eventually changed, but so did the means of making a stolen car disappear. Though changing license plates and serial numbers remain basic procedure, thieves have created highly sophisticated networks to disassemble stolen vehicles, distribute the parts, and/or ship the altered cars out of the country. Stealing cars has become as technologically advanced as the cars themselves. John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales’s study of automobile theft and culture examines a wide range of related topics that includes motives and methods, technological deterrents, place and space, institutional responses, international borders, and cultural reflections. Only recently have scholars begun to move their focus away from the creators and manufacturers of the automobile to its users. Stealing Cars illustrates the power of this approach, as it aims at developing a better understanding of the place of the automobile in the broad texture of American life. There are many who are fascinated by aspects of automobile history, but many more readers enjoy the topic of crime, in terms of motives, methods, escaping capture, and of course solving the crime and bringing criminals to justice. Stealing Cars brings together expertise from the history of technology and cultural history as well as city planning and transborder studies to produce a compelling and detailed work that raises questions concerning American priorities and values. Drawing on sources that include interviews, government documents, patents, sociological and psychological studies, magazines, monographs, scholarly periodicals, film, fiction, and digital gaming, Heitmann and Morales tell a story that highlights both human creativity and some of the paradoxes of American life.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

Rarely is a book of this complexity the result of authors working without considerable assistance. For author Heitmann, the list of those who contributed to the work is long, and there is always concern that someone’s name will be left out. Certainly former student Peter Cajka...

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Introduction: Park at Your Own Risk

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pp. 1-6

Automobile theft is a crime at the margins of American life. Yet it also reflects themes that are at the core of both modern existence and what it means to be human. For the thief, the act can be a vicarious experience. It is a moment that linguist Jeffrey T. Schnapp suggests vaults...

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1. “Stop, Thief!”

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pp. 7-35

The automobile was a primary object for thieves and a perfect accessory to crime during the twentieth century. Not knowing what the future held, however, in 1901 a physician and early steamer owner was confident that the coming of the automobile would substantially decrease...

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2. Juvenile Delinquents, Hardened Criminals, and Some Ineffectual Technological Solutions (1941–1980)

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pp. 36-67

Regardless of the era, any critical discussion related to the topic of auto theft defies simple explanations. For example, at the beginning of World War II, many social commentators spoke of a general outbreak of juvenile delinquency as a sort of mass hysteria. One might expect that...

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3. From the Personal Garage to the Surveillance Society

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pp. 68-86

How we create our physical environment—our houses, cityscapes, open areas, streets, and sidewalks—says a lot about us as a society. Whether we are orderly or chaotic, inviting or insular, an advanced economy or a developing one are all expressed in the way we organize...

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4. Car Theft in the Electronic and Digital Age (1970s–Present)

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pp. 87-114

Sitting calmly beside Sergeant Steve Witte in the Chula Vista, California, police station, “Joseph,” a convicted automobile and motorcycle thief with links to the Mexican cartels, was candid in recounting his past miscues. A high school dropout who started taking drugs at...

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5. Mexico, the United States, and International Auto Theft

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pp. 115-143

Borders—especially national borders—have always been the car thief’s best friend. Stolen cars have been transported illegally across international boundaries from the early days of Brass-Era cars to the present. The motor vehicle is a valuable commodity to an enterprising criminal...

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6. The Recent Past

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pp. 144-156

In the closing scenes of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino, the stories of one man’s personal redemption and another’s dream of achieving independent manhood come together in two life-defining moments: one of self-sacrifice, and the other a symbolic act of automobility...

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Conclusion: Stealing the American Dream

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pp. 157-160

In summary, with very few exceptions, American culture has characterized auto theft as a crime that is not terribly serious or important, unless violence accompanies the act or it enables its perpetrators to commit other crimes. Essentially, the car is disposable. If damaged...

Appendix. Tables Summarizing Various U.S. Automobile Theft Crime Reports and Surveys, 1924–2010

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pp. 161-178


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pp. 179-204

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 205-210

The personal anxieties and legal uncertainties associated with the Dyer Act and automobile theft—the drama of it all—are best found in the hundreds of boxes of litigation case files (1919–60) that are class 26 of Record Group 60, Department of Justice, housed at the National Archives located in College...


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pp. 211-216

E-ISBN-13: 9781421412986
E-ISBN-10: 1421412985
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421412979
Print-ISBN-10: 1421412977

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 8 halftones, 5 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 872114910
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Stealing Cars

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Automobiles -- Technological innovations.
  • Automobile thieves -- United States.
  • Automobile theft -- United States -- Prevention.
  • Automobile theft -- United States -- History.
  • Automobile theft -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Grand Theft Auto games -- Social aspects.
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