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Stolen classic cars take long road home

Like a ghost ship emerging from the mist or a presumed-dead relative knocking at the door, the reappearance of a car stolen many years ago comes as a shock to its rightful owner.

Published February 24, 2007
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Like a ghost ship emerging from the mist or a presumed-dead relative knocking at the door, the reappearance of a car stolen many years ago comes as a shock to its rightful owner.

While the recovery of long-gone cars is hardly common, it does occur. Each situation raises interesting questions, not only about where the missing vehicle has been for years (or even decades), but also about the rights and responsibilities of various parties who have had some connection with it.

In one recent intriguing case, a 1965 Shelby GT350 surfaced on eBay Motors 27 years after it was stolen.

The discovery was made by Howard Pardee, the registrar of 1965 and 1966 Shelby GT350s for the Shelby American Automobile Club, who had been looking at eBay listings to stay abreast of price trends.

Pardee found an auction listing for the ’65 GT350, a high-performance version of the Mustang with modifications by Shelby American, a company founded by the race-car driver Carroll Shelby.

Shelby GT350s carried two vehicle identification numbers, or VINs: the original designation from Ford and a second one added by Shelby American. The eBay listing identified this car by its Shelby number and even provided the Ford number, which is not visible on the car unless the Shelby identification plate or the fenders are removed.

Pardee checked the records in the Shelby club’s registry, which evolved from the Shelby American factory records. They listed a different Ford serial number for this GT350, so Pardee ran the Ford number through his records. He found that the Ford number matched a different car with a Shelby serial number that was one digit off.

That car was listed as “stolen/never recovered” in the Shelby American World Registries of 1982, 1987 and 1997.

The eBay seller had bought the car in 1980 with a reproduction Shelby serial number tag. The car also came with a clean New York title. It appeared that the thief had taken the Shelby serial number from a prior edition of the Shelby registry that had listed no owner for that car.

His suspicions aroused, Pardee contacted the eBay seller. The seller said he didn’t know the car had been stolen. That seemed likely, given that he included the main clue to solving the mystery – the Ford serial number – in his eBay listing.

Pardee tracked down the car’s original owner, who was still a member of the Shelby club. The owner confirmed that the GT350 had been stolen in 1979 and never recovered. He was amazed, Pardee said, that the same car was being offered on eBay with a bid, at the time, of $121,000.

He was even more amazed when Pardee advised him that, based on the condition of the car as seen in the photos on eBay, the Shelby’s market value was probably $150,000 to $175,000.

The rightful owner called police. The Shelby was confiscated and held in storage pending resolution of the ownership claims.

The discovery of the GT350 came at about the same time as two other surprising theft recoveries.

Last summer, Terry Schuler, a senior officer with Oregon State Police, recovered a car that had been stolen 18 years earlier.

A resident of Washington State had owned the car – a customized 1951 Ford Crown Victoria – for five years and sold it to an Oregon man. The new owner was trying to register the car in Oregon when Schuler made a routine VIN inspection and unearthed the car’s secret.

The Ford’s VIN plate was missing from its usual location inside the door, but the officer, who has since retired, knew that the identification number was stamped in another hidden spot in the car.

Checking that number with the National Insurance Crime Bureau turned up a report that the car had been stolen in Oregon in 1988. The car was returned to Louis Freeland of Portland last June.

In a similar circumstance about a year ago, a customs agent in Long Beach, Calif., conducted a routine VIN check on a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette bound for a new owner in Sweden and discovered that it had been stolen 37 years earlier. The original owner, Alan Poster, had bought the car new. It was stolen from a Manhattan parking garage in January 1969.

As amazing as these stories are – the vigilance of the discoverers; the efficiency of modern databases; the surprised owners reunited with long-lost cars that are now far more valuable than when stolen; and the mysteries of stolen cars that were stored, driven, sold and resold for years without notice – they also raise legal questions.

All of these cars appear to have been owned by innocent parties when they were discovered. Since these people seem not to have known the cars were stolen, are they eligible for compensation, given that the cars were seized by authorities?

Well, no.

The owners of record are out of luck – in the U.S., they cannot keep the car or receive recompense from the rightful owners.

The current “owner” can make a claim against the person who sold them the car, who can make a claim against his seller, and so on, until the chain reaches the thief.

But pursuing all these claims is difficult. First, you have to track down the person who sold you the car, bear the expense of litigation and actually collect the money. In some cases, the statute of limitations has expired.

The Shelby case has another interesting facet – it was insured for theft, and the insurance company paid the owner $6,500 in 1979 to settle the claim. When an insurer pays a theft claim, it becomes the owner. If recovered, the car goes to the insurer.

This may seem an unfair windfall for the insurance company, but perhaps not upon closer consideration. Stolen cars recovered after many years are usually not worth more than when they disappeared.

If this had been a plain Mustang that was not cared for, worth perhaps $1,000 when recovered, it would not be fair for the insurance company to give it back to the original owner and demand a $5,500 refund. Likewise, the original owner cannot just give the insurer $6,500 and take the car back.

The insurance company would point out that the original owner, having been paid a fair amount for his loss, could have used the $6,500 to buy another GT350 in 1979. If he had chosen to do that, and had held and maintained the car, he would now own a rare Shelby worth perhaps $175,000.

The lesson for collectors is to be very careful to make sure you actually own whatever you buy. The best protection is to research a car thoroughly before buying it.

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