MILEPOSTS Garage - The Online Classic Car Magazine Preventing classic car theft is largely up to the owner. Here's what you can do to make it less likely you'll become a victim.
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Vol. 2, No. 17
September 6, 2004

Preventing Classic Car Theft
by Andrew Angove

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage

Nationally, a car is stolen every 25 seconds.

It is estimated that 1 out of every 170 cars in the U.S. is stolen every year.

A car can be stolen in under 2 minutes.

Time is the auto thief's enemy. The longer it takes to get the car moving, the more likely their chances of being caught. This is the area classic car owners should concentrate on when attempting to minimize their risk of having their collector car stolen.

From time to time, insurance companies release updated lists of the most stolen cars in America. Lately, the imports like Toyota have had top honor, but not too many years ago Oldsmobile used to always be number one on the list. Rarely do you hear about vintage and classic cars being stolen, but it certainly does happen. Since older cars lack the anti-theft devices that come on new cars, they are often an easy target. When the ignition key moved to the steering column around 1969 or 1970, it meant that turning off the ignition to remove the key locked the steering wheel and transmission lever, which made stealing a car a bit more of a challenge. Now some new cars come with chips embedded in the key itself. If you don't have the right key, the car won't start. Older cars don't have these devices, and while it's a little more difficult to steal an old car than depicted in the movies, it's much easier than a newer car.

So often you see a movie or TV show where someone hops in an old vehicle, fumbles around under the instrument panel for about 10 seconds, then touches two bare wires together producing a spark, and VIOLA! the engine comes to life and off they go. Well, it's not quite that easy, as you do have to find the correct wires and the wires are usually positioned so they're not just hanging down under the panel for easy access, but these depictions do cover the basics.

Experts say that if someone wants your classic car bad enough, they'll get it. But you don't have to make it easy for them. Just as a burglar looking to break into a house will pick the easiest target on the street, a car thief will also look for a car that's easy to steal. A house burglar will look for a dark house with minimal exterior lighting, no alarm system, overgrown shrubs that will conceal him, and one with doors or windows unlocked, or with ineffective locks. Anything a home owner can do to make it more difficult or risky for a burglar to gain access to the house will make that house a less attractive target.

The same things hold true for classic cars. Anything the owner can do to make it more difficult or risky to steal their car will make it a less attractive target. And sometimes the most effective things you can do to prevent theft are also the easiest.

1. Lock your car and take your keys with you. This seems like an obvious one, but surprisingly, many cars are stolen because the keys were left in the ignition. An unsuspecting owner pulls up to a self serve gas station, fills up, then goes inside to pay for the gas and get a beverage. In the blink of an eye, their car is gone because the keys were left in the ignition. They didn't notice the guy loitering at the side of the store. But he was watching them.

It doesn't matter if you're only going to be away from your vehicle for 10 seconds. Lock it up and take the keys with you!

2. Conceal valuables. Some cars become targets because owners leave valuable items laying around in plain sight. Whether it's a digital camera on the floor, CD's strewn on the front seat, a leather jacket hanging on the coat hook, a cell phone sitting on the console, shopping bags, or anything else that might be of value to someone else, it makes your car a target. These things should be hidden from view. Either put them in the trunk or glove box, or take them with you. You never know what a thief might be looking for, so the item doesn't necessarily have to be expensive to make it a target for theft.

3. Park in well lit areas near the path of entry and exit. Often I'll see a classic car sitting way out by itself in a parking lot. Sometimes the car is parked at an angle, as if the owner is saying, "stay away from my car." Not a good idea. Cars sitting away from the traffic flow become an easier target, because they're isolated. Think about it. A thief isn't going to mess with a car when people are walking or driving past every few minutes. The thief most likely doesn't know who the owner is, and anyone passing by could be a friend of the owner.

If you're so worried that your paint is going to get scratched, or your car is going to get dinged, LEAVE IT AT HOME! You have no business taking it someplace where it must be left unsupervised. And the car parked away from others, sitting at an angle often becomes a target for vandals, who gain great pleasure from walking alongside your car with a set of keys scratching the paint. If your car is so pristine that you just can't chance any damage, you should drive it under conditions where you will have more control over it.

Face it, by and large the public today doesn't care if they dent your car with their door. With more people being overweight, and driving vehicles that are too large for the skinny parking spaces provided, dents and dings are going to happen. It's a fact of life.

4. Car thefts at home are on the rise. Not long ago, your classic car was at greatest danger of theft while in a parking lot or garage away from home. Disturbingly, this trend has changed, and more classic cars are now stolen from the owner's driveway or garage than any other place! This means increased awareness of your surroundings is a necessity. Don't leave the keys in the ignition while you run inside quickly to answer the phone, wash your hands or get something to drink. Take the keys with you.

Park your classic car in the garage at night. Most classic car insurance policies require this. And don't think it's safe just because it's in a locked garage. Secure the car inside the garage as well. Lock it up and take the keys inside the house with you. Don't leave them dangling in the ignition, or hang them on a peg board on the garage wall.

The really big issue here is leaving the keys in the car. And if your car is stolen with the keys in it, you may have a difficult time dealing with your insurance company. Just ask the enthusiast with the 1964 Thunderbird Convertible who had his classic stolen from his locked garage one night by kids. They just wanted to go on a joy ride, and after gaining access to the garage, they found the keys in the ignition, started it right up and off they went!

The car was recovered, but it was smashed up and had caused damage to other cars in the neighborhood. Because the keys were left in the car, the insurance company was not too happy with the owner. So, your classic car really isn't safe even in a locked garage at your home. And it's even worse if the garage is detached, or if the car is stored in an outbuilding or shed somewhere on the property.

5. Turn your front wheels and use the parking brake. If you do have to park your car in a place where it might be vulnerable, make sure you use the parking brake and turn the steering wheel all the way hard left or right. This makes it more difficult for someone to pull up to it with a tow truck, hook it up, and drive off with it. With the parking brake on, the rear wheels must be lifted off the ground to tow it. And with the front wheels turned sharply, it can't be towed from the rear unless the front wheels are on dollies. Even loading it on a flatbed is difficult with the front wheels turned sharply. Remember: anything you can do to make your car less desirable as a target is a good thing. And having to gain access to the interior of the car to straighten the front wheels or release the parking brake is just one more step a thief must take to steal your car. Make it as difficult as possible for them!

6. Install an alarm system. An alarm system is an effective way of deterring theft, but only if it pages you when activated or you'll be close enough to hear the alarm and check on the car if it goes off. How many times do you hear someone's car alarm going off in a parking lot? Ever notice throngs of people rushing over to see what's going on? Not likely. If you can't hear the alarm, it won't be of much good to you other than it will draw attention to the car. And that makes it less attractive to a thief, but won't necessarily stop them.

A friend once installed a flashing red LED in his classic car. The light did nothing other than flash every few seconds. It was tucked down in the defroster grille at the base of the windshield, and was very noticeable when flashing, but almost disappeared from sight when it wasn't flashing. It was wired to come on when the ignition key was in the "off" position. It used very little power, and was (I thought) very effective at creating the impression the car had an alarm.

7. Etch the VIN* on glass and other major parts. People with show cars won't want to do this due to point deductions, but if you aren't going to have your classic car judged, this can be a very effective deterrent. Classic cars are often stolen for their parts, so if the VIN is etched into the major components, it becomes less attractive since the parts can be easily identified. Glass is an expensive item, and can be hard to locate for some vintage vehicles, so just etching the glass might be enough to deter a thief.
(*VIN = Vehicle Identification Number, serial number)

8. Use a lockable steering wheel or brake pedal bar. This is a "in your face" tactic to ward off potential thieves. These bars lock within the spokes of the steering wheel, and are long enough to prevent using the steering wheel to steer the car. In reality, a professional thief can cut your steering wheel in half and remove the bar in a matter of minutes.

The brake pedal bar locks the brake pedal to the steering wheel, making both immobile. The steering wheel can still be cut, but either of these bars might be enough to cause a thief to take a pass on your car and keep looking for one that won't be as much trouble.

9. Install a battery disconnect. This is also a safety item that reduces the likelihood of an electrical short. Available in many different styles, these quick disconnect accessories disconnect the battery from the vehicle while leaving it installed. No power, so there's no ignition or starter until the battery is connected again. Some are as simple as a knob on the negative battery cable clamp. Unscrew the knob and take it with you, and your car is completely dead. Screw it back in for normal operation.

This isn't the most convenient way of preventing theft, but it is effective and is less inconvenient than having to fill out police and insurance reports.

10. Document everything with pictures and/or videos. While this has nothing to do with preventing theft, it does provide you with the documentation you will need to prove the value of your car should something happen to it. Anytime a major repair or improvement is made, you should save all paperwork relating to the expense, and document it with dated photos and/or videos.

This will serve as a record of repairs to potential new owners should you decide to sell the car, and will be very helpful in identifying the car and its parts to the police or insurance company if something happens to it.

Make sure to document everything, from the engine compartment to the interior and the luggage compartment. Next time you need to change the oil or have the tires rotated, ask if you can photograph or videotape the underside of the car while it's up on the rack.

Most stolen classic cars are never recovered. They are either stripped and used for parts on another car, or the parts are sold individually, or the car is put into storage in someone else's collection. So just because your classic might not be perfect, that doesn't mean it won't be a target to a car thief. Almost every car has some valuable parts on it, and that might be enough to catch the attention of a thief.

In the insurance industry, experts call the steps listed above "layering." The more layers you can place between your car and a thief, the better. Locking the car and taking the keys is perhaps the most important layer. Parking it in a secure area, or one with high traffic is another. Turning the front wheels and using the parking brake is yet another. And installing an alarm or ignition cut-off device is still another. The more layers you implement, the more difficult your car will be to steal, and the less attractive it becomes to a thief. And you must be consistent. All it takes is letting your guard down once to lose your car.

Tom Johnson's Grandfather purchased a 1959 Cadillac Convertible brand new. It was a birthday gift for Tom's Grandmother. The Persian Sand beauty with white leather bucket seat interior was a real dream car, but the Grandmother didn't care for it. She thought the rear tail fins were too flashy, and rarely drove it. Tom thinks she was embarrassed by it, as she was very down to earth and didn't like flaunting the fact her family had money.

The car was in excellent condition, and was maintained even though it wasn't used much. Tom begged his Grandparents to let him have the car when he was old enough and responsible enough to drive it and maintain it properly. By the time Tom was 35, he had a family and a successful business. The car was given to him on his 36th birthday. He lovingly took care of it and drove it only on special occasions. It was always garaged.

Tom and his family took a two week summer vacation one year, taking every step possible to secure their house before they left. A trusted neighbor picked up the newspapers and mail, went in every day and opened and closed draperies, turned on and off lights, radios, and TVs, took trash out to the curb on trash day, even parked her car in their driveway to make the house appear lived in.

On the third day, the neighbor noticed that a shrub at the end of the driveway was smashed. Since everything else appeared to be OK, she assumed someone had driven over the curb and run over it. She checked the house thoroughly, and nothing was touched. The garage was still locked up, so she assumed all was OK. When Tom returned home, he found his beloved Cadillac gone. The neighbor never looked inside the garage, since everything was locked up and the house was untouched. Years later, the Caddy has never been located.

There are also few clues as to how the car was taken, or who might have taken it. It's almost as if the car vanished into thin air. The only visible clue was the shrub at the end of the driveway, no doubt carelessly driven over by the thief because of the neighbor's car parked in the driveway.

1959 Cadillac Convertible interior

All Tom has left are pictures and memories, and the frustration and hurt of having something that meant so much to him stolen. Tom is convinced that the car was driven out of the garage, as a spare set of keys, which were kept in a box, hidden in a drawer, in a cabinet, in the garage, are missing. There are no signs that anyone searched for the keys, as everything in the garage is exactly as Tom left it. There is no sign that the drawers or garage was rummaged through or searched. Tom is certain no one knew the keys were there except for family members. The neighbor next door had a set of keys to the two cars in the garage, in case of a fire, but those keys were safely in her house the whole time.

It's obvious that the Cadillac was targeted by a professional car thief. There isn't much else Tom could have done to prevent this, as he certainly took all reasonable steps to secure the car that one would expect to be taken. But years later, every time a Persian Sand '59 Cadillac turns up at a car show or for sale, Tom wonders if it might be his car. It's likely he'll never know.

The goal here is to do anything you can do to make your car more difficult to steal. If it takes longer for a thief to start it, or if it is difficult to tow, makes noise, has major parts visibly etched with the VIN, or has the appearance of an alarm system, all will encourage a potential thief to look elsewhere for his next victim. And that's really about all you can do to protect your classic car.

Make sure you have insurance specifically for a vintage or classic car, and it must have a stated value agreed upon by the owner and the insurance company. If you don't have a stated value, the insurance company will attempt to settle for whatever they think your old car might be worth to someone, and you'll be the one who has to prove its true value. It's a real nightmare, and is unnecessary. There are many good insurance companies out there that specialize in insurance for old vehicles.

Related information: Is your car in the Top 10? Most Stolen Classic Vehicles

Copyright © 2004, Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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