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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

A Brief History of Car Theft

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy Pxhere

With today's automobiles being more computer than car, it amazes me that they're so easy to break into and steal. If you don't believe me, all you have to do is peruse portals like TikTok and Google to find tens of thousands of car theft videos.  Still, you'd think there would be an app or a device that could ensure the security of the family sedan.  Since the average car or light truck now costs what a house did a few decades ago, the financial loss can be extreme to the average household.  Therefore, I thought I'd take the time to cover the history of car theft and the evolution of car security systems.  

No sooner had inventors started tinkering with horseless carriages as the nineteenth century drew to a close when the first car thefts began to occur.  Of course, back then, automobiles didn't have doors, much less locks.  They didn't even have electric starters.  One of the first recorded instances of car theft occurred in 1888 when Carl Benz reported the theft of his 3-wheeled contrivance.  It later turned out that his wife Bertha had taken it without his knowledge.  She decided to take her husband's buggy instead of the train from Mannheim to Pforzheim, which was 55 miles away.  Along the way she stopped at an apothecary in Wiesloch for gas (later declared the world's first gas station), shocking the shop owner at the sight of a woman driver.  The unintended publicity stunt not only helped popularize the Benz brand, it also helped improve the vehicle by pointing out the fact that the buggy's brakes overheated when going downhill.  This motivated Bertha to stop at a local cobbler on her way home to have the brake shoes fitted with a leather lining.

While the invention of the brake lining helped automobiles stop better, it didn't stop them from being stolen.  The next reported instance of car theft happened in Paris, France in 1896 when a Peugot owned by Baron de Zuylen, the founder of the Automobile Club of France, was stolen by an auto mechanic who was later caught red handed.  The popularity of horseless carriages coupled with their lack of security features soon created a spate of car thefts that was soon countered by some ingenious anti-theft concepts.  The first of these was developed by the Leach Automobile Company whose vehicles came equipped with a removable steering wheel designed to curb car theft.  In 1913, a former car thief invented a car alarm that sounded when anyone hand cranked the engine.  In 1916, an inventor came up with an alarm that triggered if anyone attempted to tamper with the vehicle's ignition system. Door locks were introduced in the 1920s.  However, the locks themselves were easy to jimmy.  It would take fifty additional years before more robust locks were installed on cars, and even these did little to deter professional car thieves.

Image courtesy Pxhere

The now ubiquitous power lock was offered as an option on 1956 Packard automobiles.  Keyless entry was available on select Ford models back in 1980, which required the driver to enter a 5-digit code on a keypad located on the driver's door.  The first keyless remote was standard equipment on the 1982 Renault Fuego.  However, with every attempt to harden the security of automobiles, there came an equally  determined set of thieves looking to find a way to thwart them.

Take car alarms, for instance.  OEM alarms installed at the factory started in the 1970s when Chrysler installed sensors in their vehicles designed to detect unauthorized entry. Once triggered, the system would set off a siren and flash the vehicle's lights.  GM started offering a car alarm in 1972 on its Corvette models.  The problem with these and other alarms was that they were all too easily disabled by a skilled thief. Even today's wireless alarm and car immobilization systems can be thwarted by thieves armed with radio scanners that can intercept and copy the RFID signal produced by the key fob. A 2019 study revealed that 92% of vehicles stolen that year were equipped with keyless entry.

If you can't beat car thieves, can you at least track them?  This idea was first explored in 1979 by Medford, Massachusetts Police Commissioner William Reagan when he patented a vehicle tracking system called LoJack.  It was designed to use radio telemetry to transmit a stolen vehicle's location to law enforcement.  If a LoJack vehicle was stolen, the police would enter the theft into the state police database which would trigger a remote command to the LoJack unit hidden in the vehicle.  This command would cause the unit to broadcast a radio signal that could be picked up and triangulated by squad cars equipped with tracking units.  The units would display alphanumeric information that indicated the direction and distance of the stolen vehicle, as well as the make, model, color, and license plate number.  This data could then be used by the police to locate the vehicle.  By 2013, the LoJack system was being used by 1,800 law enforcement agencies in 28 states.  While the technology used in LoJack systems has evolved over the years, the system is still being used by more than 4 million car and light truck owners.

Image courtesy Pxhere

As of late, car theft and car parts theft has abounded.  Everything from catalytic converters to anything left inside vehicles have been targeted by thieves.  The problem became so rampant in San Francisco that some drivers leave their car doors unlocked and their trunks open whenever they park downtown to keep thieves from breaking their windows to get inside.  San Francisco comedian Seth Rogen tweeted, "You can get mad, but I don't view my car as an extension of myself and I've never really felt violated any of the 15 or so times my car was broken into."

Other Bay area residents aren't as open minded as Seth.  To thwart thieves, some people in San Fran have taken to having their rides outfitted with bulletproof glass.  Others have resorted to creative ways of deterring theft. One Bay area tech executive, former Apple designer Mark Rober, came up with an ingenious anti-theft device meant to deter thieves who break into cars.  Known as the Glitter Bomb, the gizmo is meant to be secreted inside items thieves like to steal from cars like purses, backpacks, luggage, and the like.  When a thief absconds with an item containing the device, it remains dormant until the the thief opens the package to see what's inside.  Then it  sprays the perpetrator with glitter and a foul-smelling oil that will leave the thief retching.  While the Glitter Bomb is not available to the public. I'm sure it will inspire tinkerers to invent other ways of getting back at car thieves.

The only foolproof automotive anti-theft device I'm aware of was one I heard about a couple years ago.  A female magician who lived and worked in Las Vegas got the shock of her life when she stopped at a Burger King to grab a quick bite.  As she was standing in line waiting to place her order, a group of patrons quickly ran inside the restaurant.  One of them shouted, "There's a lion in the parking lot!"  The magician said, "I've got this.  Don't call the cops."  Then she proceeded outside to deal with the big cat who was part of her act.  It turns out she routinely drove to and from gigs with the king of beasts in the backseat. When she pulled into the restaurant, her male lion was taking a nap until a hapless thief broke into the car only to belatedly realize what was in there with him.  So frightened was the thief that he fled the scene without bothering to close the door.  The lion then decided to step outside to stretch his legs which prompted those in the lot to storm inside Burger King.

While not all of us have either a stink bomb or a lion to deter car theft, it's only a matter of time before some  clever entrepreneur offers the public a device that will make thieves think twice before breaking into the family sedan.  Until that day comes, we're on our own.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on all your insurance needs, check out her website at


  1. If we can send a man to the Moon, why can't we keep thieves from ripping off our rides?

  2. Great article, I learned a few things I didn't know.


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