Great Cars of Death II: Henry's* Revenge
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, an engine backfired! A car door slammed. The chauffer cursed. Suddenly, an inappropriately named Chrysler product appeared on the horizon.
Once again we venture forth onto the darkened moors where hounds are heard to bay in the moonlight, where the ever-present low fog curls and wraps around the darkened manor house left silent by years of abandonment and neglect, and where ordinary, average automobiles are mysteriously transformed from, well, ordinary, average automobiles into. . .Agents of Death. [cue spooky music]
Unlike last year's installment, this year I shall examine only a single notorious example of our motoring history that was, by an unfortunate twist of fate, associated with tragedy -- this time by both accident and design. Keep in mind, of course, that we're talking about real death here, not the cartoon variety; and while many of these vehicles have been turned into almost side-show attractions for the morbidly curious, it pays to remind oneself that very real tragedies are associated with these cars. It might not be pretty, but it's a part of our common automotive history.
Warning: One vaguely potentially disturbing photograph below, just as a head's up. Nothing too drastic, but I thought I should mention that.
So click on through. . . if you dare. . . .
* Ford, that is.
This year's installment is probably the most famous 'death car' -- in the truest sense of the term -- of all time: Bonnie and Clyde's 1934 Ford. This is, in fact, the actual car in which the star-crossed lovers met their grisly end in a hail of bullets on May 23, 1934. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met in early 1930 at a party and by most accounts it was love at first sight. Clyde had been in trouble with the law since 1926 and by that time was well known to police as a low-level thief. Bonnie Parker was actually married at the time to one Roy Thornton, whom she married at 16. Roy was also in trouble with the law most of the time so I guess she stayed true to form by falling in with that no-account Barrow fellow. Sadly, Clyde was jailed in mid-1930, thereby putting their budding romance on hold for a time, and he emerged from jail a scant two years later as a hardened criminal, having committed his first murder while still behind bars. From then on the pair embarked on a multi-state crime spree that captivated the nation and mobilized law enforcement throughout the midwest and south to bring them to justice.
Clyde favored Ford's "Flathead" V8 powered cars because of their power and reliability. First introduced by Ford in 1932, the Flathead wasn't the first V8 engine either globally or in the US -- various European manufacturers had been using them since 1902 and Cadillac had installed them since 1914 -- but the Flathead was the first V8 to be truly mass-produced for the general public. What made it unique was that Ford developed a method for casting the entire block -- crankcase and all eight cylinders -- in one piece; other V8s were cast in as many as three separate pieces making the process more complicated, expensive and probably less robust. Consequently, other V8s were found on luxury cars. Seeing as Clyde stole all of his cars, price might not seem such an insurmountable barrier, but obviously pricier cars represented slimmer pickings for what amounted to a common, though by this time a rather extraordinarily violent, thief.
The engine was really a brilliant piece of engineering and not only performed well, it was also very reliable; important in a getaway car. Truth be told, however, the Barrow gang rarely used the Fords as actual getaway cars: they tended to steal cheaper cars for doing the actual jobs, later dumping them on the edge of town before taking off in the Ford. That way, the local townsfolk would identify the getaway car as one thing while in the meantime the gang was making itself scarce in something else altogether. The '34 Flathead used in their final drive was a 221 cubic inch 85 bhp version and could do 0-50 (not a typo) in around 10 seconds and had a top speed of over 80 mph. The story goes that Clyde was so pleased with "his" Fords that he even wrote Henry Ford a letter praising the car for its performance and reliability in his line of work. Whether the letter is genuine or not is anyone's guess, but I tend to fall on the skeptical side.
Also working in the Ford's favor was the strength of the steel making up the body panels. Police had been having difficulty hitting their quarries with standard-issue sidearms: the weapons simply weren't powerful enough to pierce through what amounted to a lightly-armored vehicle. This fact, as we shall see below, was the cause of the rather unique arsenal amassed and used by officers on that fateful day.
Up until 1927, Ford had made only Model T's: one car with many body styles. Henry Ford's obstinance in retaining the Model T for so long -- 19 years -- had allowed other manufacturers to catch up on both the assembly line and in introducing more options and more functionality (such as electric starter motors) into their cars. Ford responded with the Model A, another outstanding success. After the market crash and economic downturn of 1929, Ford decided to go in another direction as well: the Model B. Most other manufacturers were concentrating on 4- and 6-cylinder engines for their non-luxury brands, and one-upping the competition was the reason Ford decided to develop an all-new and affordable V8. Styling-wise, the B didn't look all that different from the A, but it was largely a brand new car from the wheels up, with most of the design direction coming from Edsel Ford. It was lower and sleeker than previous models and came in 17 different models with both 4- and 8-cylinder engines. The "Model B" was reserved for the 4-cylinder versions while the 8-cylinders were designated "Model 18", though mostly they were known simply as "Ford V8s". They weren't really spectacular successes at first, as production and design problems plagued the cars, and the new V8s in particular, but by 1934 most of the problems had been worked out and they were widely regarded as excellent and reliable cars.
Errr, anyway, back to Bonnie and Clyde. The 1934 Model 730 Deluxe Sedan was purchased by Ruth Warren for $835 and was stolen by Clyde on April 29, 1934. Apparently, Ruth had left the keys in the car -- common at the time -- so it wasn't all that difficult for Clyde to pilfer it. By that time, certain officials had begun noticing patterns in the pair's movements: they tended to cross state lines frequently to prevent officers from pursuing them out of their jurisdiction and they also tended to make fairly regular family visits between jobs. Frank Hamer, a Texas Ranger, had been studying their pattern and had learned that they were due to make an appearance at one of the gang's families in Louisiana. Thus, on the afternoon of May 21, 1934, they stationed themselves -- four Texas officers and two from Louisiana -- along State Highway 154 just south of Gibsland, LA. They had actually thought the pair were going to show up on the evening of May 21 and stayed there all night and through the next day and night waiting for their quarry to appear.
Finally, at around 9 in the morning on May 23 they heard the distinctive sound of the Ford V8 and got ready for the ambush. They had obtained a quantity of Browning automatic rifles and a supply of armor piercing bullets, in addition to shotguns and handguns for the job. Clyde had a reputation for shooting at the first sign of trouble so they intended to get the jump on him with overwhelming firepower. When the car was close enough, they opened fire, first with the Brownings and then moving on to the shotguns and pistols as ammo ran out. Clyde was apparently killed instantly with a shot to the head, but Bonnie was supposedly heard to scream after the initial volley. All told, somewhere between 130 and 150 rounds were pumped into the car. When an officer opened the passenger door, Bonnie slumped out into his arms and he reported that at the time she still had a pulse but was soon gone herself. He pushed her now-lifeless body back into the car to lie in temporary repose against her beloved Clyde, himself slumped against the driver's side door (if you so desire, you can find more detailed -- and gruesome -- photos from the scene out there on the Interwebs).
"Securing the scene" at the time wasn't standard procedure all over, and the area soon turned into a zoo. Onlookers descended to have a look at the famous pair and some were even bold enough to start grabbing souvenirs from both the car and the bodies themselves. According to their Wikipedia entry, the coroner, upon arriving at the scene noted that "...nearly everyone had begun collecting souvenirs such as shell casings, slivers of glass from the shattered car windows, and bloody pieces of clothing from the garments of Bonnie and Clyde. One eager man had opened his pocket knife, and was reaching into the car to cut off Clyde's left ear." They found a small arsenal inside the car, as well as license plates for various states -- the pair tended to travel long distances in their stolen cars and needed to blend into the various states in which they traveled.
The car followed a somewhat circuitous route after that. It was first towed (with the bodies still inside) to Arcadia where the corpses were removed. It's unclear how many bullets actually found their marks, but the local mortician commented that there were so many holes in both of them that it was difficult to get embalming fluid to stay in. Ruth Warren wanted her car back, but apparently had to threaten a lawsuit in order to get it returned to her from the police and they eventually relented. Though I find this difficult to believe, Ruth supposedly drove the car back to her Topeka home, bullet holes, broken glass, and copious bloodstains included. She eventually leased it out to various travelling shows and finally sold it to Charles Stanley who exhibited it in Ohio until 1952. After that, it went into storage for a time but eventually emerged again to make appearances at various venues. It now resides in a permanent exhibit just outside of Las Vegas where, were one so inclined to do so, one could view the last ride of two of the most famous outlaws in American history before drinking and gambling the night away.
As for Bonnie and Clyde themselves, well, they were destined not to spend eternity together, at least not in corporeal form. They had wanted to be buried together, but Parker's family put the kibosh on that idea. Bonnie had a fairly sumptuous funeral service with a veritable flood of flowers, including a rather large arrangement sent by a group of newsboys -- apparently, their final drive had been very good for business. She currently resides in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Dallas. Clyde had a private service and was laid to rest across town in the Western Heights Cemetery.
And thus ended the short, brutal crime spree of perhaps the most infamous couple in American history. Some controversies sprang up after the event, apart from trivialities such as how many bullet holes are actually in the car. For example, it is unclear whether any attempt was made by the officers to arrest the pair rather then simply execute them, and the officers' depositions vary wildly in detail. As indicated above, Clyde tended to shoot first and ask questions later, so a "Halt" could easily have been considered an unwise option. Also at issue is whether Parker deserved to be executed at all, since there was little to tie her directly to any of the murders, apart from being an accomplice. All moot, of course, but there you have it.
Bonnie and Clyde have since been celebrated in music, film, and video which, as far as your humble correspondent is concerned anyway, does their memory a disservice: theirs was not a story of romance and adventure, but a sorry tale of a thug and his girlfriend who killed several people, both law enforcement and civilian, on their little joyride through history. Bonnie, at least, seems to have had some inkling of where they were ultimately headed when she penned the following verse from a jail cell back in '32:
Some day they'll go down together
they'll bury them side by side.
To few it'll be grief,
to the law a relief
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.
Credits: The top photo of an Austin-Healey "Bug-Eye Sprite" is from VWVortex.com and has nothing to do with death or Bonnie and Clyde, but any car that intensely cute must be evil. The top photo of Bonnie and Clyde is from their Wikipedia entry, as is the red '32, and the car at the scene of the ambush is from Jerry Brice's blog but is found in a number of places. The Ford V8 poster is from the ever-useful Hans Tore Tangerud's web site. The death car poster is at Bonnie and Clyde's Hideout site, along with a number of other memorabilia photos.