November 16, 1904 – The history of auto theft in Los Angeles begins with first recorded stolen car in the city

history of auto theft started in LA with a white steam car
1905 White steam car. Not the first stolen car, but similar. This one is known as Black Bess and was driven by Los Angeles resident H.D. Ryus to victory in multiple races. He owned the White Garage in LA, meaning he likely sold or serviced that first stolen car at some point.

The greater Los Angeles area has long been a hot bed for auto theft. The wild police chases that fill the evening news are as common now as they were in the 1980s. Even as far back as 1988, LA residents had a 1 in 93 chance of having their vehicle stolen. When did this all begin? Well, it’s taken nearly 120 years for auto theft in the City of Angels to become so rampant. In fact, the first reported automobile theft in Los Angeles occurred on this day in 1904. The stolen car, a White steam car, was taken from in front of the Morton Club just after midnight. Since that fateful night, car thefts in Los Angeles have risen to nearly 30,000 occurrences per year.

Interestingly, DMV records from California indicate that just 6,428 vehicles were owned in California in 1905. That same year California enacted its first auto theft laws. The temporary taking of a vehicle was punishable by up to $200 in fines or three months in jail. This of course came at a time when cars came equipped with approximately zero anti-theft devices. At the time, most cars didn’t even have doors, let alone roofs. Yet, despite auto theft being such a simple crime at the time, it was quite rare.

The history of auto theft and the birth of the Model T

auto theft history with bonnie and clyde
Notorious car thieves Bonnie and Clyde

For one to steal a car in the earliest days of motoring they’d first need to know how to drive it. Second, they would need to consider where to get gas, a rarity of the era, especially in the west. Third, where would they go? Roads were sparse and those that did exist were rugged and hard to travel. Chances are, they would not get far. Finally, there just were not that many cars around, making stealing them a matter of finding them. Then came Henry Ford and his Model T.

With the introduction of the Model T and Henry Ford’s desire to put one in front of every person’s house in the world, came an increase in auto theft. Studies connect automobile mass production with the growing levels of auto theft, in California and beyond. A 1924 report submitted to the Los Angeles City Council by Police Chief August Vollmer stated, “Automobiles are unquestionably making our burden heavier. Ever since the automobile began to be commonly used, police troubles have multiplied tremendously. Criminals riding around in high-powered machines have changed their modus operandi, and even the prostitutes, bootleggers and drug peddlers now use automobiles to ply their vicious trade.” Of course, the famous note from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford shows just how much cars changed crime. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bibliography for this article: CONSPICUOUS DEPREDATION: AUTOMOBILE THEFT IN LOS ANGELES, 1904 TO 1987

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