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Tuesday, March 7, 2023

March 7, 2023: American Cars: Crime Cars

[As his 16th birthday approaches, my younger son has begun the driving lessons that will soon mean I have two youthful drivers in the family. To help me deal with that stunning reflection of the passage of time, this week I’ll blog about a handful of American car histories and cars. Share your thoughts on all things American cars for a crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On AmericanStudies contexts for three early 20th century crime cars.

1)      Bonnie and Clyde’s car: That extensive hyperlinked article on the many fake versions of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s stolen V8 Ford and the current resting place for the one authentic one (at a Nevada casino’s car museum that also houses the second crime car below) reveals just how much of a hold this particular early 20th century car has on the American imagination. It had at least a much a hold on Clyde himself, who famously wrote to Henry Ford, just a month before the May 1934 police ambush that killed the pair and shot up their car, “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 could 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 V-8.” That’s the kind of detail that would feel outrageous in a novel, but stranger than fiction, y’know.

2)      Al Capone’s car: Again that same Primm, Nevada casino and museum holds Al Capone’s bulletproof 1928 Cadillac, a helpful alteration for a life of crime that would have served Bonnie and Clyde well; the car was already bulletproofed when Capone bogarted it from deceased gangster Dutch Schultz, and it never took any fire during Capone’s life (although casino/museum owner Gary Primm shot a bunch of bullets at it to prove the point and make it more tourist-friendly). Of course Bonnie and Clyde’s car was stolen late in their crime spree while Capone’s was (after he acquired it in tellingly gangster fashion) his own and integral to the day to day operations of his criminal enterprises. But while that distinction reflects the very different types of criminals we’re talking about, the common thread is that by the 1930s, the most famous criminals all had equally famous wheels.

3)      Gatsby’s car: Jay Gatsby was a fictional character, but in his world he was just as famous as these figures; his criminality was a matter of more dispute, but many of the rumors about him do define him in that way, and it seems from the novel’s final revelations that he was indeed in some sort of nefarious business with gangsters like Meyer Wolfsheim. But while Gatsby’s yellow automobile might well have been purchased with ill-gotten gains, it becomes a crime car in a very different and much more tragic way: when Gatsby allows novice driver Daisy Buchanan to steer back from New York City and she hits and kills Myrtle Wilson (and then flees the scene of the crime). While mythic real-life criminals like Capone and Bonnie and Clyde can capture our collective imaginations, it’s fair to say that this fictional accidental criminal tragedy is much more like the reality of both crime and the human experience. With cars as a through-line across every form of story to be sure.

Next CarStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Car histories or stories you’d highlight?

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