Freedom of Movement: Car Thieves and Chauffeurs in Los Angeles during the 1910s & 1920s

Since its popularization in the late 1910s and 1920s, the automobile took its place as one of Americans’ most cherished possessions next to their homes.  Early on, the automobile acted as a luxury, a symbol of wealth, and a practical means to enhance one’s personal mobility.  Enthusiasm for the new technology seemed universal.  Wealthy owners, working class chauffeurs, professional thieves, and youthful joyriders all craved the opportunity to drive.  Although car theft plagued the United States as a whole during the early twentieth century, it particularly impacted Los Angeles, California.  During my research on the Black Prisoners Project, I encountered numerous cases of black men charged with grand theft auto in Los Angeles and subsequently sentenced to San Quentin State Prison.  Whereas some of them worked as chauffeurs prior to their arrests, others were habitual joyriders.  Some were desperate for cash and others for escape.  Chauffeurs, with their mechanical knowledge and close proximity to their employers’ cars, were especially able and accused of auto theft.  Car thieves dubbed Los Angeles as “the easiest city in America” to steal an automobile.[1]  Car theft and joyriding provided both symbolic and physical freedom of mobility to those who could not afford the luxury of owning an automobile.  This essay attempts to explain both the material and ideological motives behind the crime that imprisoned Los Angeles auto thieves in the California State Prison at San Quentin. 

In the early twentieth century, city planners and boosters envisioned Los Angeles as a metropolis paradise, endowed with a mild Mediterranean climate, sweet smelling orange groves, and modest bungalows dotting a suburban landscape.  The rise of the automobile in the 1920s supported the city’s trend towards decentralization and suburban sprawl.  In the downtown area, horse-drawn transportation, streetcars, and now automobiles contributed to acute traffic congestion.  Traffic served not only as an urban flaw in need of repair by city planners, but also as inspiration to modernize Los Angeles’ transportation system.  Charles Henry Cheney, a renowned city planner of California, argued that “a city is built up entirely from its traffic routes...and if they are not properly laid out, can cause absolutely the wrong and most harmful development of a city.”[2] Progressive city planners studied traffic patterns to trace human activity.  Proponents of the City Beautiful movement, for example, imagined the construction of broad boulevards in Los Angeles for aesthetic and a practical means to connect the periphery with the urban core.[3]  Yet, this tendency for sprawl and the precedence of the automobile in Los Angeles defied contemporary notions of modernity in the United States. Other cities boasted skyscrapers, elevated railways, and subterranean subway systems.[4]  Thus, Los Angeles embraced the automobile as its vehicle for modernity, simultaneously inspired and burdened by it.  Thieves also saw opportunity in the automobile-driven city.  

Newspapers nationwide concurred that spring awakened dormant desires to possess an automobile.  For those who could not afford to purchase one, the West, and more specifically auto-obsessed Los Angeles, posed an easy target for car theft.  Although only a minority resorted to thievery to whet its desire to drive, the crimes were extensive enough to galvanize the newspapers.  As far away as the Midwest, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune characterized Southern California as a winter resort for the wealthy, as well as for car thieves.[5]  In 1920, a Los Angeles Times article coined the phenomenon as the “Spring Drive of Thieves.”  Visiting car thieves wintered in the mild climate of Southern California and, by summer, returned to the East Coast in stolen vehicles.[6]  This seasoned discourse demonstrated Los Angeles motorists’ attempt to understand the motives behind car theft.  The city’s passion for cars resulted in car owners’ paranoia about the security of their vehicles.  However, the promise of mobility motivated the desire to possess an automobile, purchased or stolen, all year round.

For thieves and victims alike, the automobile offered freedom of movement in that it significantly improved one’s mobility.  Mass transportation, the collective movement of a mass of passengers at once, characterized ships, railroads, and streetcars.  An individual yielded to the schedules (and inconveniences) established by the operating companies of mass transportation.  In contrast, the automobile allowed the individual the ability and choice to move whenever and wherever he desired. 

The automobile, stolen or purchased, imparted ultimate mobility upon its possessor.  By stealing a car, the thief stole the owner’s freedom of movement, appropriating it for himself.[7] Moreover, auto theft was an innovative crime because the stolen property facilitated its own escape.[8]  It’s own movement enabled evasion of the police and insurance companies.  Yet if caught, the auto thief risked imprisonment, the ultimate loss of freedom and extreme immobility.[9]  If caught, he would be sentenced to prison.

Twentieth century Americans stole cars for thrills, profits, or power, or any combination of the three.[10]  Some car thieves simply enjoyed the thrill of the steal and the excitement of a speedy getaway.  Joyriding, driving a vehicle without permission of the owner, was a new type of crime.  Some criminals considered joyriding an act of borrowing an automobile.[11]  For instance, Kirk Morgan, the reported king of auto thieves in Los Angeles, explained in a 1917 Los Angeles Times article, “‘I have a mania at certain times for stealing certain kinds of autos, which is beyond my control…Never yet have I taken a car for speculative purposes.’”[12]  

Other car thieves were motivated by the potential for profits.  With the rise of mass-production and interchangeable parts, introduced by Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, some car thieves stole parts rather than the entire vehicle.  The Chicago Tribune insinuated that no car in Southern California was considered safe.  When thieves could not manage to steal the entire vehicle, they stole parts.[13]  Mechanical parts, as well as stolen autos, were sold in domestic and international markets for high profits. 

Finally, in addition to the freedom of physical movement, car theft offered symbolic freedom from American society’s status quo.   Behind the wheel of a car, in a temporary suspension of social classes, thieves experienced the same freedom of movement as wealthy motorists.  The chauffeurs of the early twentieth century exemplified this transposition of social status and realization of power through their close relationship with the automobile.

Similar to car thieves, chauffeurs reimagined their role as wage laborers by operating an automobile, despite not owning one.  In the early twentieth century, no precedents were set regulating which race dominated the new profession.  Many blacks made the transition from draymen to chauffeurs.  By 1920, African American men constituted nine percent of all Los Angeles chauffeurs, a decent proportion given that blacks represented three percent of the total Los Angeles population.[14]  Wealthy motorists hired chauffeurs not only as on-call drivers, but also as mechanics due to the extensive maintenance and frequent problems associated with early models.  Thus, auto owners expected their chauffeurs to be knowledgeable of the practices of the road, to obey their employer, and to act as full-fledged mechanics.  Because car owners were often unfamiliar with the mechanical workings of the automobile, chauffeurs’ special knowledge allowed them to challenge their secondary status.[15]  In this way, chauffeurs possessed more power over the automobile than the detached owner with little understanding of its mechanical workings. 

Chauffeurs took advantage of this superior knowledge and their responsibility to maintain the automobile, by dabbling in fraud and joyriding.  They bargained with different garage owners to receive kickbacks in exchange for their employers’ business in parking their vehicle at a specific garage.  They demanded commission on supplies and services sold to their employers.  A.R. Shattuck, an important member of the New York City branch of the Automobile Club of America, noted at a 1905 meeting that chauffeurs’ “temptation to fraud has been very great.”[16]  Although car owners exercised power over their employees by setting the wage rate for their chauffeurs, the latter wielded their own by collecting kickbacks and commission in addition to wages.  They exploited the property they did not own.  In addition, their duty to be available to drive for their employers at any hour of the day produced the temptation for joyriding, especially during the long hours of the night.  They also compelled garage owners to stay quiet out of fear of losing business.  However, the chauffeurs’ act of defying social status through their relationship with and knowledge of the automobile did not last as owners became suspicious of joyriding and theft by their employees. 

Precisely due to their association with automobiles they did not own, chauffeurs were suspected car thieves during the early twentieth century.  A 1920 Los Angeles Times article cited the Automobile Club of Southern California stating that the crime epidemic began “under the guise of chauffeurs and ‘night men’ [having] conducted a score or more successful raids on public garages and wealthy car owners lately, using their positions to advantage.”[17]  Thus, motorists viewed chauffeurs suspiciously in the wake of extensive auto thievery.  Often times, chauffeurs and mechanics were responsible for theft.  In a 1923 Los Angeles Times article, a “clever gang” of automobile thieves, composed of two chauffeurs and a mechanic, was arrested for stealing and wrecking a car.[18]  Instances such as this established the common suspicion relating chauffeurs and crime, thus dismantling the chauffeurs’ power over their employers.

Because motorists believed that auto thieves were posing as chauffeurs, they made efforts to regulate those admitted to the trade.  According to the Los Angeles Times, “Local employment agencies would do well to examine more carefully than ever the antecedents of alleged chauffeurs applying for positions and thus help stop the auto-stealing crime wave now sweeping over the city.”[19]  The Automobile Club of Southern California only recommended chauffeurs with proper credentials and references.  By organizing as a union, chauffeurs and night garage men could better protect their reputations and try to prevent more thieves from entering their ranks.  Moreover, the new National Chauffeurs’ Association banned African American drivers to discourage their employment by motorists.[20]  By banning black membership, the chauffeurs’ union adhered to the precedent established by other unions that represented skilled occupations in the early twentieth century.  Thus, the union associated African Americans with car thieves in that it blocked both unwanted populations from chauffeur employment.  In addition to these more stringent chauffeur hiring practices used to quell the wave of thefts occurring in garages and at the hands of hired drivers, Los Angeles authorities implemented broader measures to prevent auto theft.

In general, Los Angeles authorities increasingly took action against car theft with plans for more thorough policing.  For example, Los Angeles Chief of Police Butler visited New York City in 1917 to study its policing tactics against car thieves.  Policemen’s schools educated every officer belonging to the Metropolitan force in New York City on the various makes and models of automobiles.  Therefore, when searching for a stolen vehicle, police officers only read the identification numbers for passing automobiles that matched the stolen vehicle’s make.[21]  Upon his return to Los Angeles, Butler intended to implement New York’s policing practice to recover more stolen cars.  A Los Angeles Times article in 1921 quoted a local businessman suggesting, “California might do well to follow the plan adopted in New York in addition to her own excellent methods for nabbing the thief.”[22] 

To impede the interstate trafficking of stolen automobiles, Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Theft Act, also known as the Dyer Act, in 1919.  It stipulated that the accused was considered guilty if he possessed a stolen car, knew that the car was stolen, and moved it across state lines.  Those caught in violation of the act were prosecuted in the location where authorities apprehended the stolen vehicle.  Then, they were fined five thousand dollars or sentenced to ten years in prison, or both.[23]  Not unique to Los Angeles, the Dyer Act attempted to deter car theft and to severely penalize offenders.

Automobiles symbolized the ultimate freedom of movement during the early twentieth century.  Motorists realized this freedom largely on the streets of Los Angeles, idealized as Autopia by city planners.  Car thieves were driven by the desire to sit behind the wheel, despite their inability to purchase their own automobile.   They transformed mobility into evasion.  They fled the law in the very property they stole.  Similarly, chauffeurs took advantage of their specialized knowledge of autos to surpass society’s expectations of wage laborers.  They exploited their employers’ property to advance their own status and wealth.  While authorities attempted to stamp out car theft and Los Angeles suffocated from more and more traffic, the desire to drive remained.

[1] "Youthful Leader of Auto Thieves Calls Los Angeles an Easy City." Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec.1917, VI1.

[2] Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Dreams and Visions of the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 43. 

[3] Ibid., 23. 

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] "Thieves Collect Automobile Parts on the Pacific Coast." Chicago Tribune, 24 Sept. 1922, II12.

[6] "Plan to Stop Car Stealing." Los Angeles Times, 29 Feb. 1920, VI1.

[7] John A. Reitmann and Rebecca H. Morales, Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 2. 

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] “Youthful Leader”.

[13] “Thieves Collect Automobile Parts”.

[14] Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 75-76. 

[15] Kevin Borg, "The ‘Chauffeur Problem’ in the Early Auto Era: Structuration Theory and the Users of Technology,"Technology and Culture 40.4, (1999), 809.

[16] Ibid., 814.

[17] “To Take Stand Against Crime,” Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1920, VI1.

[18] "Trio Held as Auto Thieves," Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1923, II17. 

[19] "Chauffeur Springs New Theft Problem," Los Angeles Times, 22 Feb. 1920, VI1. 

[20] Borg, 822.

[21] "Chief Butler Ready to Snatch All Violators," Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov. 1917, VI1. 

[22] "Pickings Poor for Thieves," Los Angeles Times, 24 Jul. 1921, VI11. 

[23] Reitmann and Morales, 22.


Magdalyn Schmall