Whenever I take my classic car for a drive, I only stop in coffee shops or restaurants where I could see it from the window, my friends think I’m a little paranoid but I don’t.
So, are older cars easy to steal? Yes, older cars are very easy to steal. In 1991 car theft peaked in the US at 1.7 million, and it’s been falling for the last 26 years, as of 2017 it’s down by 55%.
In this post you’ll learn how older cars are stolen, what we can do to protect them, and how new technology is making modern cars much harder to steal, so hard, in fact, it appears owners are leaving the keys in them.
Breaking Into An Old Car
Getting into an older car was easy, the door locks weren’t very good. Several different methods were used, the slide hammer was a favorite, it removed the barrel from the lock which left the lock-free to turn with just a screwdriver.
The slightly more sophisticated thief might use a range of tools designed to break in without damaging the car. The tools consisted of a selection of slimline levers that slip down between the door window and outer door skin. The tool is designed to catch the door lock rod and lift it.
A variation on this method was to simply prise and wedge the top of the car door open enough to slip a coat hanger in to lift the door lock.
Hot Wire An Old Car
Once in the car, there are two more obstacles to overcome, the ignition switch and the steering lock.
The slide hammer is also known as the reversible hammer was the go-to tool, it was fast, effective reliable, and could be concealed inside a coat.
The slide hammer employed a rough thread screw on one end, screwed into the ignition lock, and with one reversing slap of the hammer, the ignition barrel was out. Like the door lock, a simple flat-head screwdriver would turn the ignition and start the car.
Removing the ignition barrel is the most efficient way to start a car, not only does it save the time, effort and complexity of hot wiring, but it also disables the steering lock.
Hot wiring a car, as you know from the movies only takes seconds. No, it will take a little longer than that. First off you’ll need to gain access to the ignition wiring, which will mean removing plastic steering column covers, a hammer was used to quickly smash them out of the way.
Now you’ll need to figure out the wiring layout, cut and strip the wires to allow contact. The basic principle of hot wiring a vehicle:
- Locate the power supply wire (usually red)
- Locate the ignition wire (dash lights circuit)
- Join the power supply wire to the ignition wire
- Locate the starter control wire
- Touching the starter wire off the joined pair starts the engine
- To shut off the engine disconnect the joined pair of wires.
Wiring identifying colors will be different for all vehicles, so for most thieves, they had their preferred cars to steal otherwise the wiring part of the process was trial and error.
We’re not quite done yet, although the car is running the steering lock is on. The method used to overcome the lock was force. One or two thieves would force the steering wheel until the lock snapped.
The problem with this solution is the steering feels stiff and can bind as the remains of the lock jam the steering shaft.
Car Alarm Systems
Older cars didn’t come with alarms, aftermarket shops specialised in fitting stereos and alarm systems. The alarm system was basically a remote-controlled disabling device, a relay that disconnected the ignition circuit.
So thieves quickly overcame this in the early days by cutting the wires to the siren and locating and reconnecting the ignition disabling wire.
The secret to an effective alarm in those days was to do a first-class job hiding the wiring.
Key Code Anti-Theft Systems
Manufacturers in the 90s move towards fitting engine disabling technology. By now car engines are computer-controlled, which makes stealing them a lot harder.
The car and key are now coded to each other, the key fob has a chip with a unique code. Every time you start the car the code is read by a code reader in the ignition of the car, if the code doesn’t match, the onboard computer won’t start the car.
So now thieves either needed the key to steal the car or the code. Since stealing the key means breaking and entering someone’s home and if caught means a much longer prison sentence, than just stealing a car.
Stealing the key code is much less risky, and so hardware devices were used to capture your digital key code. Transmitting the stolen digital key code at the ignition of the car after using the slide hammer on the ignition will start the car.
Latest Anti Theft Systems
Auto disabling technology has moved on quite a bit, lots of cars have key-less entry and push-button start. The key code transmitter and receiver technology is still used but is much more sophisticated, it now uses a random code which as before must be recognized by the onboard computer.
Some experts say it’s easier than ever before to steal a modern car. With the right hardware, software, and depth of knowledge you can unlock start, and drive some of the latest cars remotely, and when I say remotely I mean from anywhere there’s an internet connection.
So are they secure? Only as long as it takes the thieves to catch up with technology, and some have, they’re able to capture your keycode using an amplifying and capturing device, the key isn’t needed if they have the code.
According to NICB, between 2013 and 2015 147,000 cars were stolen because the key fob was left in the car, and that has jumped to 229,000 for the 2016 to 2018 period, over 50% more thefts with the key fob.
How To Protect Your Classic Car
The truth is your classic car by definition will attract attention, so the best way to keep it safe is with a layered system of protection.
I fitted an ignition kill switch (Dizzy switch) and took some time to find a discrete place to hide the switch. If your car is fuel injected you could fit a kill switch to the fuel pump and hide it in a different location to the Dizzy switch.
A quick solution to disabling your old car is to remove the fuel pump relay and coil wire, and hope she’s still there when you get back.
Other solutions include fitting a tracking device, a remote battery disconnect relay, alarm system, brake pedal locks, steering locks, wheel clamps, hungry Rottweiler.
What’s a stolen property database? It’s a web-based database of all stolen property, you can post alerts and offer rewards for your stolen items.
What do thieves do with stolen cars? Typically stolen cars are broken down for parts, used for ram raids or getaway cars, joyriding or re-plated and sold.
- About the Author
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.