Bonnie and Clyde's getaway car has hidden lessons for cops in the self-driving vehicle era | Popular Science
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia

Bonnie and Clyde's getaway car has hidden lessons for cops in the self-driving vehicle era

The outlaw duo died May 23, 1934. Their stolen Ford V8 could be relevant once more.

Mr. and Mrs. Warren of 2107 S.E. Gabler Street were in search of a new car. In early 1934, the Topeka, Kansas couple went to the Mosby-Mack Motor Company to see the latest automobiles on offer. It didn’t take long for the brand spanking new Ford Fordor Deluxe to catch their eye. Painted a sleek Cordoba Gray and equipped with comfortable seats and handsome bumper guards, Ruth Warren liked how it looked. Outfitted with the most enviable engine on the market—the lean, mean, mass-produced V8 driving machine—her husband, Jesse Warren, liked how it moved. And though the Great Depression was raging, the couple decided the price tag (approximately $700, or about $14,000 in today’s dollars) was alright, too.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, sometime between 1932 and 1934, when their exploits in Arkansas included murder, robbery, and kidnapping. Contrary to popular belief the two never married. They were in a long standing relationship. Posing in front of a 1932 Ford V-8 automobile.

The good times didn’t roll for long, however. A little more than a month later, on April 29, 1934, while Ruth was helping care for her sister’s sick child, someone stole the prized automobile right out of the Warren’s driveway. When it was returned that August by a federal court, the couple found their car in disarray. The car thieves—a “swarthy” man and “girl of slight stature,” as she described them to the papers—had put 7,500 miles on the odometer in just 26 days of driving. Stranger still, the once-pristine vehicle was riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood.

But what else would you expect from the last car stolen by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow?

Parker and Barrow’s last month on the road, spent crisscrossing the country and robbing a bank or two along the way, culminated in a deadly firefight that destroyed the stolen Ford Deluxe and killed them both. But the cars they stole helped to cement their status among America’s most despicable outlaws—and made an indelible mark on the history of the getaway car. More than 80 years after their death, as Americans sit on the precipice of the autonomous vehicle era, the age-old intersections between cars, crime, and the freedom of the open road those outlaws once capitalized on are due for a cataclysmic shift.

By the time they found themselves in Ruth Warren’s driveway, the flaxen-haired Parker and elf-eared Barrow had been living on the lam for almost two years. Barrow had been in and out of prison since he was 17 years old. He picked locks, cracked safes, and eventually murdered, but perhaps his favorite trick was stealing cars. Parker had no criminal history prior to falling for Barrow, whom she met sometime in 1930. But she took to their life of crime easily, as evidenced by those infamous stick-em-up photos, still widely disseminated to this day.

At various intervals in their crime spree, Parker and Barrow stole cars, only to desert them in ditches, or leave them in fields when the cops closed in. After many blurred months of travel in automobiles of various shapes and stripes, the duo must have thought they struck gold in Topeka: a spacious cab, useful for weapons storage, and a brand new V8 engine. What more could two public enemies ask for?

A lot more, says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, a Dearborn, Michigan museum dedicated to innovation, from transportation to the environment. By modern standards, he says, the car didn’t actually go that fast.

bonnie and clydes death car

Bonny and Clydes car (1932 Ford V-8), riddled with bullet holes after the ambush. Picture taken by FBI investigators on May 23, 1934.

The French engineer Leon Levavasseur is often credited with the invention of the first V8 engine, which he first patented in 1902. He called his lightweight V-shaped, eight-cylinder engine the Antoinette, named for his benefactor’s daughter. While it may have used more fuel than its smaller predecessors, it compensated with raw power. The engine first found a home in boats and eventually airplanes. Eventually, engineers transferred the eight-cylinder engine into cars. The V8, as it came to be called, was pricier than other engines on the market, but it was also more reliable. By 1915, it was humming along only in higher-end models from automakers like Cadillac, inaccessible to all but the wealthy.

That changed in 1932 when Henry Ford used his world-famous assembly line to mass-produce V8 engines. The trick? Casting them in a single engine block, instead of shaping them piece by piece. “What Ford was credited with was democratizing horsepower,” Anderson says. Once confined to luxury vehicles, the engine was now relatively commonplace, built into the Ford-branded vehicles that seemed to dot every driveway in the United States.

In democratizing horsepower, Ford believed he delivered another good to the masses, according to Anderson. “I think the key word is freedom,” he says. The company and others advertised cars as a way to save time and see the world. It also promoted the automobile as a way to liberate women who felt stuck in their home, and connect rural Americans who might otherwise feel isolated on faroff farms.

But the cars of this era seem sluggish compared to modern cruisers. Even the speedometer in the politest Prius can hit 100 miles an hour, even if the driver never does. But the car the outlaw couple stole in 1934 “was like 85 horsepower, so on dirt roads, maybe 75 miles an hour,” says Mike Herman of H&H Flatheads, a California-based engine restoration company specializing in flathead V8s. Other sources, Herman notes, put the capacity of the 1934 Ford Fordor Deluxe even lower: around 65 miles an hour. “Compared to today’s world, it’s slow, super slow,” he says of the stolen Ford. “Back then, it was one of the faster cars made.” A driver could probably push the car past this limit, Herman says, but not without quickly wearing out the engine or making major modifications to the machinery. Refueling would still slow even the speediest drivers down, as the V8 engines of this era got about 14 miles to the gallon.

By 1934, Cadillac was producing a V16 engine with higher horsepower than the stolen Ford Fordor Deluxe. But Parker and Barrow didn’t need to be faster than every car on the road. They just needed to be faster than the cops. In those days, that wasn’t too hard. As reporter Bryan Burrough detailed in his 600 page true crime book, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, most police officers in this era were driving older, slower models. The 1929 Model A, a common squad car, for example, hovered around 45 horsepower. It could reportedly reach 65 miles an hour if pressed, but its comfort zone was probably closer to 40 miles an hour.

Henry Ford v-8 assembly line

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan

Henry Ford: ndwariga via Flickr/Assembly Line: Wikimedia

Like many contemporaneous criminals, the thrill-seeking Barrow was capable of turning almost any car (and, in at least one case, a mule) into a suitable getaway vehicle. Similar to the moonshine runners whose racing habits served as the foundation of NASCAR, Barrow eagerly ran his cars into muddy ditches and sped down winding streets and dirt paths in the dead of night to evade the police. Where a police officer might be tuckered out or forced to turn back at state lines, Burrough wrote in Public Enemies that Barrow “thought nothing of driving a thousand miles in a day, if that’s what it took to outdistance the law.”

While cars with bigger, pricier engines were on the market, they weren’t as widely available as the everyman’s Ford. Given their circumstances, Anderson says, Parker and Barrow couldn’t prioritize speed alone. They had to place a premium on ease of access, too. Sadly, their carjacking victims in Topeka certainly made it easy. According to The Life and Times of Bonnie and Clyde, E.R. Milner’s disputed book on the Barrow gang’s crime spree, Ruth Warren had left her keys in the ignition.

1950s nascar

This is a photo that was taken during a NASCAR race in 1958. The leading car is a Ford Thunderbird.

Ted Hinton of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department and Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger turned gun-for-hire, were among those on Parker and Barrow’s scent. As Barrow drove his stolen car saw across large swaths of the country (after leaving Topeka, he wound up and down Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, before settling in his hideout in Bienville Parish, Louisiana), he and his companion were being tracked, and sometimes directly tailed.

Hamer, a hotshot Ranger, had his own Ford V8 engine, but Hinton, a small-town officer, did not. Hinton was forced to swap out a series of disappointing vehicles until he finally found a car that could keep up with his Parker and Barrow. In a humiliating series of events described in Public Enemies, he tried a Cord sedan, a Cadillac limousine, and even a gravel truck before finding a suitable vehicle. Mechanical hiccups aside, law enforcement eventually got their chance to strike the killer couple, who had always promised never to be “taken alive.”

On the morning of May 23, 1934, Parker and Barrow reportedly stopped for breakfast at Canfield’s Cafe (now a Parker and Barrow-themed museum) in Gibsland, Louisiana. A few miles south of town, they saw Ivy Methvin, father of Barrow gang member Henry Methvin, on the side of the road, nursing what appeared to be a flat tire. In actuality, Methvin had made a deal with the police to lure Parker and Barrow into this carefully-laid trap in exchange for a lesser sentence for his son. When Parker and Barrow pulled over, the police jumped out of the bushes and fired. Some 150 bullets ripped through the scene, killing the criminals, and destroying their stolen automobile.

No getaway car has skidded its way into the public consciousness the way Parker and Barrow’s did. Recent films like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise and even Baby Driver still glamorize the thrill of the chase. And songs like Tracy Chapman’s ever-resonant “Fast Car” continue to sustain the myth that car keys also unlock one’s destiny. But the last real-life chase we all remember—O.J. Simpson’s helicopter-taped serpentine after a warrant was issued for his arrest in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson—was literally “slow speed.” And it played out on the L.A. stage, where car chases seem to occur as regularly as mainstream sports programming instead of a rare, daring event that grips the public consciousness.

Part of this decline in the getaway car may have been cultural. In many cities today, cops are discouraged from chasing citizens altogether. In 2015, research revealed that since 1979, police chases in the United States have killed more than 11,000 people, many of whom were bystanders. While cops may still give chase, many departments now recognize the risk is often bigger than the reward.

But much of the shift should be attributed to technological advances designed to support officers of the law. Police still lag behind law-breakers in some areas, but contemporary cops are typically equipped with high-powered customized squad cars. Called “police interceptors,” these vehicles may look like standard sedans, but they actually have special features, including engines calibrated for faster acceleration and higher maximum speeds. According to a 2016 review, the fastest cop car on the block was the Chevrolet Caprice, which can go 155 miles per hour. Chevy no longer makes the Caprice, though some departments still use it. Its 6-liter V8 shares a similar structure with Ruth Warren’s stolen V8 engine, but thanks to modern engineering, that Chevy has approximately 300 horsepower, or approximately three and a half times the power of Warren’s vintage ride.

There’s been a technological shift on the other side of the equation, too. In the early days of the mass-market automobile, vehicles of all shapes, sizes, and abilities were on the road at the same time. Where Barrow had to adjust to variations in breaking, accelerating, or transmission systems in the cars he stole, today’s vehicles are built to meet an industry-wide standard. Dedicated drivers can still customize their vehicles, but standardization means it’s harder to surprise the cops. But if autonomous car manufacturers have their way, this relatively new status quo is sure to be upended entirely—for better or for worse.

Clyde Champion Barrow mug shot

Clyde Champion Barrow Mug Shot - Dallas 6048

On April 10, 1934, mail carriers in Tulsa, Oklahoma processed an envelope that appears to have been mailed by one Clyde Barrow. Addressed to none other than Mr. Henry Ford, the error-riddled letter read:

Dear Sir:

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 hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.

Yours truly
Clyde Champion Barrow

The letter has never been proven to be Barrow’s true handiwork. It’s listed on Snopes, the fact-checking site known for its booster-ish green checkmarks and blaring red stop signs, as “undetermined.” (Barrow’s middle name, however, is most certainly a lie. Snopes explains that while he may have styled himself a “champion” on more than one occasion, his real middle name was Chestnut.) But Ford addressed the letter as though it were authentic. From the carmaker’s headquarters in Michigan, a secretary sent a boilerplate thank you in reply. It was never received.

Reading the notes all these years later, one wonders, what automaker could ever be the recipient of such a letter today? Perhaps Elon Musk, founder of the electric car company Tesla, who in 2015 stated level 5 autonomous cars requiring no human presence were just “two years” away, will find himself on the other end of such a correspondence. Or maybe the CEO of a more traditional automaker like Ford, which aims to debut level 4 autonomous vehicles requiring minimal human input in 2021, will dispatch a courteous auto-reply once more.

While skeptics say a truly autonomous car is probably closer to 50 years down the road, the time and money being poured into the effort all but ensures self-driving vehicles are somewhere around the corner. When they arrive, ethicists and futurists say enterprising criminals will be along for the ride.

One common way of thinking suggests autonomous vehicles will stop crime in its tracks. News coverage has explored the possibility that self-driving cars will be programmed to follow the letter of the law with excruciating precision. Save for some advanced hacking skills, these cars, in theory, couldn’t be persuaded to speed, execute evasive driving maneuvers, or engage in other criminal activity. Other future-minded speculation suggests police officers will one day be able to remotely disable cars whose passengers are suspected of criminal activity. This could be done by disabling the car itself, through some kind of override system, or perhaps by powering off electrified roads, which will be necessary to coordinate autonomous vehicle traffic. Still other futurists—influenced, perhaps, by the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report—speculate that all cars will be police cars, capable of rerouting passengers to the police station, perhaps even for criminal behavior the car detects on its own.

Any of these scenarios is possible, but Joseph Schafer, a professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University focused on the future of policing, says these major themes will probably play out in smaller and uncinematic ways. “We have a romanticized view of the getaway car,” he says. “We’ve long seen the automobile as a central feature of criminality.” Instead, he sees self-driving cars as an extension of the surveillance state. Autonomous cars will collect unprecedented amounts of data—Intel’s estimate puts it at 4 terabytes per 90 minutes of driving—including video logs, GPS coordinates, and more. When every vehicle is a narc, Schafer says, criminals could resort to decidedly low-tech alternatives, like “bike-by-shootings,” so they have a better chance of slipping by unnoticed.

target practice

FBI Special agent in target practice, 1930s

Crime could blossom in other ways, too. Schafer is particularly concerned with the potential for smuggling. Right now, police often use traffic stops as a pretext for talking to drivers they find suspicious. When drivers are no longer in control of the car, Schafer says, this method will necessarily change. A reduction of this type of policing may result in a significant decline in racial profiling during, but it may also mean that cops miss illegal contraband, like illicit drugs or even explosives set to detonate upon arrival at a specific location.

Either way, Schafer says, the brave new world of autonomous cars will require law enforcement to reconsider their approach, much as they did in the early days of the V8. “There’s a lot of unknowns,” he says. “But it certainly seems to suggest we’re going to see some changes.”

The Parker and Barrow families buried their children, age 23 and 25 respectively, in two separate Dallas-area cemeteries. Though they are still visited by fans and occasionally adorned with flowers or other tokens of remembrance, each grave is rather plain. At each site, a simple plaque with the deceased’s name is embedded in the earth. But Warren’s vehicle, more commonly called the “Bonnie and Clyde death car,” has had a rather different trajectory.

Back in the 1930s, Warren fought to get her car out of court—and into a cash grab. She and subsequent owners of the true car warded off fakes and frauds, some homemade and others purchased off the set of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, the film that solidified the status of Parker and Barrow, so lost in life, as breakout stars in the criminal underworld.

Today, Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino in Primm, Nevada does the same. From the outside, the casino looks like a desert castle, replete with turrets. Inside, the death car sits carefully staged and encased in glass. Historical rubberneckers, car aficionados, and “public enemy era” junkies can stop in and see the vintage Ford, red with rust, as they pass through on their way to Las Vegas or California. For many, the vehicle is a remnant of a darker time. But for others, the death car has a strange nostalgic pull—a reminder of the particular kind of freedom one used to find on the open road.

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