Cars figure prominently in the crimes of many notorious criminals. Sometimes they were just the right car for the job; other times, they were expressions of the style and grandiosity. In many cases, they certainly did make an impression. Who can forget the slow-moving white Ford Bronco that appeared on live national television while serving as a getaway car? In many cases, the rule is "find the car, find the killer." In a few cases, the victim's car is a memorable part of the crime.
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Assassin Gavrilo Princip identified his victim, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by the car he drove, an elegant open-air phaeton suitable for royal blood such as his. The archduke was on a visit to Princip's country when he was killed, setting a chain of events in motion which, it is said, led to World War I. Distinctive automobiles not only made finding criminals easier but enabled criminals to target their victims efficiently.
"Nucky" Johnson was, most of all, Atlantic City's crime boss from 1910 until 1941 when he traded his elegant 1920 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost for a prison transport bus. During his reign as both a political boss -- Sheriff of Atlantic County, and a racketeer, he was the boss of the political machine in an entertainment capital similar to modern-day Las Vegas. Since his time in power included prohibition and the Roaring 20s, he made profits from bootlegging as well as gambling and prostitution. In the Silver Ghost, Enoch Johnson could take the wheel himself, or ride in style and survey his domain in an elevated rear seat.
This classic 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan had some less-than-elegant modifications in keeping with the career of its primary occupant, Al Capone. Steel armor plating, three thousand pounds of it wrapped in asbestos, protected the body of the vehicle. Though the car's windows were one-inch bulletproof glass, a drop-down rear window allowed Capone and his associates to quickly open fire on those outside and to the rear of the vehicle. When Al Capone's career had ended, the car toured in the U.S. and England, featured in carnivals and amusement parks.
What better recommendation for an early muscle car than a famous bank robber choosing it for his getaway car? John Dillinger didn't have much time to test it before his death by gunfire in Chicago, but this Hudson-built straight-8 powerhouse had the best power-to-weight ratio of the day and a fairly generic look which made it ideal for speeding away from crime scenes. It was favored by several major gangsters, including not only Dillinger but Baby Face Nelson and John Paul Chase.
Unlike Al Capone's Cadillac, Bonnie and Clyde's Ford was not armor-plated, and so when the end came, 167 bullets pierced the body and killed the occupants of this stolen car with over fifty bullets each. It had an 85 hp V8, three-speed transmission. Legend has it that the stolen license plate on the "death car" caught the attention of Mr. Merle Cruise of Arkansas when he saw it in newsreel footage at the local theater. "That's my license plate!" he exclaimed.
If you have seen a large, black, menacing-looking Mercedes limousine in the Seattle area, you might have seen one of Hitler's 770K or Grand Mercedes limousines, complete with armor plating, 2.5-inch glass, and mine proof flooring. High-ranking Nazi officials favored this car as state vehicles. The car had 150 to 200 bhp depending on whether a supercharger was installed, and seated six. Hitler had seven of these. Herman Goering's vehicle was appropriated by the U.S. Army after the war, repainted and used by high-ranking officials, and then shipped to the U.S. and exhibited around the country. The stories of each of these Nazi vehicles follow trails to an anonymous buyer in Russia, a politician's campaign manager in the U.S., among other curious buyers.
British criminal masterminds the Kray twins were active in East London during the 1950s and 1960s and known for their collection of stylish cars, including Armstrong Siddeley Sapphires with a V-shaped grille and sphinx hood ornament -- the symbol of silence. Fairly fast with a top speed of 100 mph, these cars gave them both prestige and agile maneuverability to cover their domain of takedowns and protection rackets.
Believe it or not, the 1961 Lincoln Continental model 74A, called SS-100-X by the Secret Service, received a $500,000 upgrade after President Kennedy died and went on to serve Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, and James E. Carter, though a new primary vehicle was put into service in 1967. It retired and went on display at the Henry Ford Museum in 1977. It was equipped with specialized features for security and public relations, a special short turn radius, and had a hand-built Ford engine with 350 horsepower.
The architect of the Great Train Robbery, Bruce Reynolds, used this exceptional car to reconnoiter the countryside surrounding the crime's intended location where, in August of 1963, Reynolds and his gang stole 2.6 million British Pounds. Eleven men were sentenced for the crime with terms up to 30 years. It was one of the best-performing cars of the early 1960s with a specially tuned 1500cc engine, which was tested on the Nurburgring track and a close-ratio gearbox and custom suspension, benefitting many times over from Lotus' racing activities.
The elusive Zodiac Killer, who was active in the late sixties and early seventies, attacked at least seven victims, killing five and claimed a total of 37. His activities including sending taunting letters and cryptograms, from which his pseudonym was discovered. Several witnesses in one attack saw a white Chevrolet Impala, a nondescript but powerful car that might give clues to the killer's psychological makeup. The Zodiac Killer -- and the car -- were never discovered, nor were any more of the alleged 37 victims.
The gruesome secret of serial killer Ted Bundy's VW Beetle was its missing passenger seat -- just enough room for his victims. He'd lure sympathetic people, render them unconscious with a crowbar, and drive away with them in his tan 1968 VW Beetle. This was the pattern for a large number of his 30 or more female victims, and the Beetle became a kind of accomplice. This basic vehicle with few creature comforts and minimal performance may have reflected something in his nature: when he was arrested and held for trial, he escaped and stole another one for his getaway -- not the most effective car for the purpose, but perhaps a familiar place for him to commit several additional murders.
The DC sniper actually committed a number of shootings around the country before his spree in the Washington, DC area in 2002. They seemed almost casual, practice rounds in an evolving pattern that included one important bit of continuity: the terrifying pattern of random killing, taking people's lives from a distance, and disappearing as they died going about their daily activities. In DC, that was a powerful theme as well. A blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice served as the hiding place for John Allen Muhammad and his accomplice, young Lee Boyd Malvo, a popular car often used as a police vehicle. They used a small hole in the back to allow them to shoot undetected and mostly unheard.
Some criminals are secretive, others flamboyant. Jordan Belfort was even the subject of a movie made about his crimes, The Wolf of Wall Street. He was a stockbroker who eventually pled guilty to extensive financial crimes, including securities fraud and money laundering. Belfort had an exotic car collection, including a Lamborghini Countach, as shown in the film and his other favorite, a 1991 Ferrari Testarossa, which was a darling of the automotive press at the time.
The world was glued to their televisions in June 1994 as a white Ford Bronco drove on the freeways of Southern California, followed by a collection of police cars with lights blazing. The story was shocking as it emerged: O.J. Simpson, a former football star and popular TV pitchman, was apparently driving his getaway vehicle from a heinous crime, a murder which involved people close to him. His trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, received even more attention. The basic utility vehicle was etched in people's minds as a symbol of how complicated celebrities' lives can be.
In September 1996, Suge Knight was driving rapper Tupac Shakur in his 1996 BMW 750 iL, a high-end BMW with a 322 hp V12 engine and extensive amenities. They were in Las Vegas for Tupac's business partner's birthday and, leaving a Mike Tyson boxing match, crossed paths with trouble. They encountered someone connected with a recent robbery related to Suge's company, Death Row Records, and a fight ensued. Later, on the way to another destination, a white late-model Cadillac approached the convoy in which they were traveling and fired into the BMW, killing Tupac. The case remains officially unsolved.
In this case, the 1995 Ryder Truck was both an attempt at anonymity and a means of delivery of the murder weapon: a "fertilizer bomb" used in an act of domestic terror, the Oklahoma City Bombing. Timothy McVeigh exploded the bomb by the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168, including 12 children, and injuring hundreds more. As parts of the Ryder Truck were located, serial numbers provided a quick trail to the killer. McVeigh was an ex-Army soldier who hated the American government and, after his simple act of devastating terrorism, made little effort to evade capture.