10 LORD MR FORD
Henry Ford was a teetotaller and anti-semitic. He launched foolhardy utopian experiments in Brazil that cost him serious money. His famous quip was that his customers could have a Ford car in any colour providing it was black. The 1959 TV series The Untouchables chronicled the Chicago gang wars of the 1920s and was filmed in black and white. Viewers in the 1960s of the TV series could be forgiven for thinking that all American cars built during the prohibition years were painted black. When The Untouchables was released, the family of Al Capone sued the producers. They felt it blackened the reputation of the family. These grievances had nothing to do with the famous bulletproof Cadillac owned by Al Capone being dark green. The mudguards and roof, though, were painted black.
Chinatown was a 1974 private eye movie directed by Roman Polanski. All the cars in that movie were from the 1930s. The cars were brightly coloured, and the white tyre rims were spotless. Raymond Chandler created private eye Philip Marlowe, a man tough enough to walk the streets of Los Angeles. Jake Gittes in Chinatown preferred the automobile. In the classic James M Cain novel, Mildred Pierce, the heroine Mildred separates from her husband. She has to secure an economic livelihood and provide for her two daughters. Mildred is desperate for the moment when she can purchase a modest motor and bring order back into her life. The prospect of owning a car strengthens her resolve and gives her hope. Mildred was no opponent of consumer capitalism and she did live in Los Angeles. Veda the eldest daughter never forgives mother Mildred for the few years of struggle. Veda has scorn for her mother even after Mildred becomes successful and rich. The response of mother Mildred is to buy Veda an expensive sports car.
The city of Chicago has good and cheap public transport. Problems with traffic congestion, though, exist, especially on the roads to the suburbs during rush hour. Without being quite as extensive, the CTA rail system compares to the London Underground. A polluted Chicago river once posed problems for the city but now cleansed it is regarded as a picturesque resource that can improve the urban environment. The river divides the north of the city from the south and then bends and splits to separate the west from the east. Water taxis can take visitors from one end of the city to the other. These may be expensive but the rides appeal to tourists. The subsidised transport system might be why Chicago today has amongst American cities the lowest percentage of car ownership. 27.5% of Chicago residents did not own a car in 1921. The proportion for USA adults was 8.5%. If poor Mildred had lived in Chicago, she might have had sensible words with Veda rather than indulging the little monster. James M Cain could have given the book a happy ending.
The relationship between car ownership in Chicago and the rest of the USA was in the 1920s similar to what occurs today. Around 10% of Chicago residents owned a car in 1930 compared with a figure for Americans that, depending on whom you read, ranges from 20% to 40%. Henry Ford may have done his utmost to make the car a necessity for American families but car ownership in the USA initially declined in the 1920s. Again, there is dispute about the actual numbers of cars owned. Whatever the statisticians decide, cars were not only iconic in the 1920s they were essential for the affluent. Bootleggers had the same concern for status as everyone else but they also needed transport to move their products. Boats rather than planes were used to land imported hooch at the American coastline. Cars and trucks made the deliveries across the country. Dean O’Banion robbed his first liquor truck in 1919, two years before prohibition began. Money, weapons, ammunition, alcohol, drugs, and girls for brothels had to be moved around the city. The owners of brothels switched girls because they felt it necessary to offer alternatives for regular customers.
Swanky hotels were used by the gangsters to resolve differences with rivals and to negotiate trading agreements. No self-respecting gangster would step off a bus before stepping into an upmarket Chicago hotel. The Hymie Weiss gang attempted to assassinate Al Capone while he was having lunch in the Hawthorne Hotel in neigbouring Cicero. The attack is famous for the 1000 bullets that were fired at the hotel entrance. The other important innovation that day was the cavalcade of ten machine gun loaded cars that drove past the Hawthorne Hotel. If cars could aid assassination attempts, they could also provide protection and a means of escape from other killers and the police.
The 1913 Model T Ford was ubiquitous by the 1920s. They acquired the nickname Tin Lizzies. Half the cars on the planet were Model T Fords. The top speed of a Model T was no more than forty miles per hour but the Tin Lizzies helped gangsters to operate anonymously. Suspension systems were modified so that the Model T could carry 90 gallons of booze. 90 gallons could earn the gangsters as much as $4000. The average annual income of a working adult in the USA in the 1920s was $700.
The Ford Model A replaced the Model T in 1927. The Ford V8 appeared in 1932 and just in time for Mildred Pierce and Jake Gittes and two million others to buy one. John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde owned Ford V8s. Dillinger used the V8 after escaping from a jail in Crown Point Indiana. In this instance the Ford V8 belonged to the local sheriff. Bonnie and Clyde drove, died and did God knows what else in a 1934 Ford V8. Baby Face Nelson was also a fan of the Ford V8. Clyde Barrow wrote to Henry Ford and offered his endorsement of the Ford V8. Two men sharing an odd sense of humour, perhaps.
Storage was not an important issue for bank robbers. Vehicles that had speed and manoeuvrability were preferred. The mobsters, though, added and needed hidden storage facilities. Quick release mechanisms allowed the bootleggers to dump whatever it was they should not have been carrying. The 90 horsepower car of Al Capone had bullet proof glass, 3000 pounds of armour plate and weighed 2.5 tonnes. The green paint was chosen because it matched the colour on the Chicago police cars. The Capone Cadillac also had a police siren and pick-up radio. These adjustments may have made the Capone car exceptional but other gangsters also modified their vehicles. Rear windows were adapted so they could be removed quickly and machine guns mounted. The more adventurous gunmen were willing to stand on running boards. One adaptation was the use of a funnel or smokescreen vent to release dark smoke when the car was being chased. Brakes were upgraded because accidents had occurred during car chases with the police. Extra tough tyres were manufactured to meet the demands of a market redefined by prohibition and the increased traffic on the back roads. Studebaker Special Six Duplex Roadster is not a pithy brand name but gangsters recognised that the car was practical and had potential. The car was nicknamed the ‘Whiskey Six’ and used to transport bootleg booze across Chicago.
Ostentation may have been avoided by Johnny Torrio but most gang leaders acted as if they believed their wealth should be flaunted. In New York, the astute Dutch Schultz favoured a 1931 Lincoln. The fearless, crazy and much wounded Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond operated in both Philadelphia and New York. He owned a 1932 Chrysler Imperial. The flamboyance of gang leaders contributed to their celebrity. The cars of gang leaders were as stylish as everything else they owned. Personal extravagance led to the downfall of Al Capone and his brother Ralph. Both men were convicted for tax evasion.
Legs Diamond was a popular figure in New York but even nowhere near as rich getaway drivers sometimes acquired cult status. Robert Glenn ‘Junior’ Johnson has been accredited with developing the ‘bootleg turn’. This happens on a two lane road when a car is turned to face the opposite direction. Cars were turned around well before Johnson came up with the term and practice. He was famous because he was able to complete the procedure at top speed. Vincent ‘The Schemer’ Drucci became a legend when he escaped pursuers by jumping a raised Michigan Avenue Bridge and clearing several feet of the Chicago River. His nickname and alternative heroic feat suggests a possible polymath. But he had his limitations. Drucci was not successful in an assassination attempt on Al Capone and Johnny Torrio in 1925. The chauffeur and dog of Torrio were killed but the gang leaders survived.
The inevitable wreckage to cars caused by car chases and battles facilitated the growth of garages and repair shops. Joe Bergl was adept at adapting motors to meet the specification of the mobsters. He is remembered because the Baker gang in 1933 used one of his modified cars when they robbed the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The car from the robbery that was found abandoned had a boot full of blank cheques and was traced back to Bergl Auto Sales. Bergl lost his business. To the north of the location of Bergl Auto Sales is 2122 North Clark Street. On St Valentine’s Day in 1929, seven men were lined up against a wall and killed in the garage that was located at 2122. One of the deceased was John May. He was a car mechanic that sometimes worked on the cars of the Bugsy Moran gang. The likelihood is that May struggled for full time work. A commission from the Moran gang would have been important to the income of the May family. May have even intended, like Mildred Pierce, to use the extra cash to buy a modest motor and bring order to his life.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.