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Grand theft with autos: Exploring famous criminals and their cars

For history's most notorious criminals, a fast getaway car was as important as a gun.

Published July 6, 2012

The first getaway car was the horse.

Full credit, if that’s the word, goes to Jesse James for this innovation in American criminality. Before he had the inspired notion to use his guerrilla tactics honed during the Civil War — the surprise, rapid strike, the scattering of the cohort into the countryside and the subsequent bafflement of pursuers — in the service of robbing banks, there was no concept of the getaway. Daytime bank robberies were unheard of before the Civil War — the almost universal technique of bank theft was the night time burglary.

Technology, exploited by Jesse James, changed that, notably the invention of the Colt revolver, a handy, mass-produced weapon, and the marrying of that gun with the horse. Jesse James, a veteran of many mounted, revolver-based battles in the Civil War, was an expert in horse flesh who never used anything less than a top flight mount in his robberies. That’s one of the reasons he eluded capture. He also made the dynamic of robbery and the getaway a permanent fixture in the American imagination. Robbery and getaway constituted the whole plot of the first movie, , and it is the foundation of the Jesse James legend. His getaway, following an attempt to rob the Northfield, Minn. bank, is re-enacted every year by the citizens of that town — the only re-enactment of a failed bank robbery that I am aware of.

The transition from getaway on horseback to getaway behind the wheel was almost seamless. The man credited with introducing the automobile into bank robberies was one Henry Starr, a former cattle rustler and Old West ruffian, who used a Nash in a 1921 bank robbery. It is said that he favoured the Stutz Bearcat, however, a vehicle described in L.R. Kirchner’s as “one of the all-time classic speedsters.”

By the 1920s the Colt revolver and horse combination was replaced by the Thompson submachine-gun and automobile combination. This gave bank robbers, called “yeggs” in the press, a huge advantage. As Bryan Burrough writes in his history , “While a county sheriff was still hand-cranking his old Model A, a modern yegg could speed away untouched.”

A robber named Herman Lamm honed the technique of planned bank jobs — casing the bank beforehand, knowing the exact location of guards, tellers, alarms, and so on, giving gang members the specialized roles of lookout, getaway driver, lobby man, vault man. The getaway was the crucial part of the plan. As Burroughs writes, “Any teenager with a bird gun could rob a bank. It was getting away that posed a challenge.” Lamm, according to Kirchner, met the challenge by using “finely tuned, hopped up cars, and drivers with racing experience.” Like Jesse James, who familiarized himself with the neighbouring terrain of the banks he intended to rob, Lamm, before robbing a bank, mapped nearby roads, with alternate routes, and attached the maps to the dashboard of his vehicle.

Fords with a powerful flathead V8 engine were favoured vehicles for gang members. In the Ford Museum in Dearborne, Mich. is an April 1934 letter written by Clyde Barrow, addressed to Henry Ford. “Dear Sir,” it reads, “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I would get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned, and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.”

A handwritten note to Henry Ford by fellow bank robber John Dillinger in the same year is also extant. “Hello Old Pal,” it begins. “You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It’s a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, drive a Ford and watch all other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford’s dust.”

The authenticity of both letters is doubtful — the supposed Dillinger letter, for example, is postmarked Detroit but Dillinger was known to be elsewhere at the time. If they are not authentic, they should be, however. They play to our desire that famous bank robbers should be humorous (“even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal”) as well as daring and cavalier about their imminent violent doom. We cheer as they make one improbable getaway after another, knowing that it will soon stop.

Movies have long recognized this appeal. The two greatest getaway scenes in American cinema are found in Nicholas Ray’s 1947 and Joseph Lewis’s 1949 — both scenes filmed completely from the point of view of the getaway driver. In Ray’s film the driver, named Bowie, watches while his two accomplices enter the bank; we feel the unbearable tension as he waits. Suddenly he is distracted by a friendly jeweller from whom he bought a watch. The man won’t go away, he insists on talking to Bowie until Bowie pushes him in the face, an act almost as brutal as the holdup. Finally the three make their getaway, driving into the country until they stop the car, set fire to it and continue their getaway in a second, waiting car.

This is another reason the Dillinger letter seems a hoax to many. He mentions driving in one car for three weeks, when in all probability, as a man on the run, he bought or stole a number of vehicles in that time. No matter how “dandy” it is, the getaway car is always disposable, like the car driven by Bowie.

The getaway scene in was originally intended to be filmed inside and outside the bank, in conventional style — but the director had the inspired notion of filming it in a single take, from the inside of the car. Here there is no agony of suspense for the driver because the action is all around him, but the madness is the same and so is the feeling that the car itself has disappeared.

Today the getaway car is becoming infrequent. “In 1978, 80 per cent of bank robbers used getaway cars, whereas vehicles were observed in only one-third of robberies in the 1990s,” observes one American survey. The reason is that most bank robberies are no longer planned in the meticulous style of Herman Lamm, but are, rather, “spontaneous and opportunistic crimes that are often acts of desperation,” according to the survey. That means a lone individual with a note for the teller.

Eighty per cent of bank robberies, at least in the United States, are carried out by these solitary offenders — and solitary offenders don’t use getaway cars for the same reason many of us don’t use our cars to go shopping downtown. It’s just too hard to find a good parking space.

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