The legacy of The Club: Decades later, it’s still stopping car thieves

This old school anti-theft device is still around and making things harder — but not impossible — for car thieves.

By Vawn Himmelsbach Wheels.ca

Jul 30, 2022 5 min. read

Article was updated a year ago

Join the Conversation (0)
Advertised on television, The Club became a pop-culture icon back in the late 1980s and early 1990s—and even a punchline to jokes. But several decades on, The Club is still around as a successful auto theft prevention device.

For those not familiar with it, The Club — is looks like an oversized bicycle lock — is attached to a steering wheel, making it impossible to turn a vehicle even when it is running.

That means this analogue device can’t be hacked and is a hassle for thieves to remove, although it is not impossible to do it. Thieves have used everything from bolt cutters and hacksaws (to saw off the steering wheel) to liquid nitrogen (to freeze the lock and then hammer it off) to circumvent The Club.

Indeed, the company that created The Club touts it as a preventative measure, like a lock on your front door. If someone really wants to get in, they’ll get in. But a device like The Club can help to reduce thefts of opportunity.

The brainchild of James Winner, a Pennsylvania native, The Club was inspired by his time serving in Korea when soldiers locked chains to the steering wheels of their Jeeps to prevent theft. Later, back in the U.S., when his Cadillac was stolen, Winner enlisted mechanic Charles Johnson to design The Club and in 1986 Winner International was created to distribute it.

But a lot has changed since The Club’s heyday. For one thing, newer cars are keyless, and they’ve become more like a computer on wheels — which means they can be hacked.

Vehicle theft is on the rise in the GTA, in part due to automotive supply chain issues that have created severe vehicle and parts shortages. Toronto police data shows vehicle theft increased by 61 per cent from Jan. 1 to May 23 over the same period last year.

“It’s been professionalized,” said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA). Thanks to high demand in overseas markets, professional auto theft rings export stolen cars for much more than they’re sold for in Canada.

They might also steal popular makes and models for their parts or use fake vehicle identification numbers (VINs) to sell stolen cars to unsuspecting buyers. Cars may even be stolen for the express purpose of committing another crime.

Among the top 10 brands targeted by thieves in 2021 are the Honda CR-V, Lexus RX350 and Toyota Highlander, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, which compiles annual statistics on vehicle theft. There’s also constant demand for replacement parts for popular brands such as Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, said Iny.

While certain vehicles are more popular targets, any car can be a target. That’s why insurers encourage car owners to make their vehicle harder to steal.

As for The Club? “It’s inconvenient for most people and they eventually give up using it,” said Iny. After all, if it’s tossed in the back seat of your car, it isn’t going to do much good. Nor does it work on all makes and models of vehicles. But, he said, it’s an additional inconvenience for the thief.

“It was never very difficult to remove — the steering wheel itself can be cut — but it is extra work,” said Iny. That could serve as a deterrent, particularly if thieves show up with tools for an electronic theft, and not those to saw through a physical anti-theft device.

That’s why the APA recommends a layered approach to security. For example, a signal blocking bag or box, such as a Faraday pouch, can prevent a key fob signal from being hijacked. An immobilizer only starts the engine if the correct key is used. And an on-board diagnostic lock, which is plugged into the car’s onboarding computing system, can also thwart thieves.

“These challenges are not new, we’re just seeing a lot more of it, especially in the GTA,” said Elliott Silverstein, director of government relations with CAA Club Group.

A car owner’s approach to security will depend a lot on their living situation, he said. Many Torontonians rely on street parking and don’t have a garage or underground condo parking (and, if they’re a two-car household, they may still have to rely on street parking for one of their vehicles). Street parking leaves those vehicles more exposed.

“If (a thief) has moments to spare they will likely go to the one with easiest access,” said Silverstein. “If the car doors are unlocked, then you’ve made it easier than someone who has their doors locked with a Club.”

A layered approach to security includes vehicle tracking, which means there’s at least some chance of recovery. Indeed, Équité Association, the investigative branch of the Insurance Bureau of Canada and Canatics, reports that 2021 was a record-breaking year for recoveries, with more than 1,000 stolen vehicles recovered from the Port of Montreal.

“A significant number of vehicles that have a tracking device are recovered,” said Iny. “The company we like is Tag — it’s widely available in Quebec and promoted by insurers.”

Auto thieves have become much more sophisticated, as have the tools to protect vehicles. But sometimes it’s the simple things — like remembering to lock your doors, even if you’re just running back into the house for a minute, or using a physical anti-theft device as a deterrent — that could make a difference.




More from Wheels & Partners