The good times didn't roll for long, however. A little more than a month later, on April 29, 1934, while Ruth was helping care for her sister's sick child, someone stole the prized automobile right out of the Warren's driveway. When it was returned that August by a federal court, the couple found their car in disarray. The car thieves—a "swarthy" man and "girl of slight stature," as she described them to the papers—had put 7,500 miles on the odometer in just 26 days of driving. Stranger still, the once-pristine vehicle was riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood.
But what else would you expect from the last car stolen by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow?
Parker and Barrow’s last month on the road, spent crisscrossing the country and robbing a bank or two along the way, culminated in a deadly firefight that destroyed the stolen Ford Deluxe and killed them both. But the cars they stole helped to cement their status among America’s most despicable outlaws—and made an indelible mark on the history of the getaway car. More than 80 years after their death, as Americans sit on the precipice of the autonomous vehicle era, the age-old intersections between cars, crime, and the freedom of the open road those outlaws once capitalized on are due for a cataclysmic shift.
By the time they found themselves in Ruth Warren’s driveway, the flaxen-haired Parker and elf-eared Barrow had been living on the lam for almost two years. Barrow had been in and out of prison since he was 17 years old. He picked locks, cracked safes, and eventually murdered, but perhaps his favorite trick was stealing cars. Parker had no criminal history prior to falling for Barrow, whom she met sometime in 1930. But she took to their life of crime easily, as evidenced by those infamous stick-em-up photos, still widely disseminated to this day.
At various intervals in their crime spree, Parker and Barrow stole cars, only to desert them in ditches, or leave them in fields when the cops closed in. After many blurred months of travel in automobiles of various shapes and stripes, the duo must have thought they struck gold in Topeka: a spacious cab, useful for weapons storage, and a brand new V8 engine. What more could two public enemies ask for?
A lot more, says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, a Dearborn, Michigan museum dedicated to innovation, from transportation to the environment. By modern standards, he says, the car didn't actually go that fast.
The French engineer Leon Levavasseur is often credited with the invention of the first V8 engine, which he first patented in 1902. He called his lightweight V-shaped, eight-cylinder engine the Antoinette, named for his benefactor's daughter. While it may have used more fuel than its smaller predecessors, it compensated with raw power. The engine first found a home in boats and eventually airplanes. Eventually, engineers transferred the eight-cylinder engine into cars. The V8, as it came to be called, was pricier than other engines on the market, but it was also more reliable. By 1915, it was humming along only in higher-end models from automakers like Cadillac, inaccessible to all but the wealthy.
That changed in 1932 when Henry Ford used his world-famous assembly line to mass-produce V8 engines. The trick? Casting them in a single engine block, instead of shaping them piece by piece. "What Ford was credited with was democratizing horsepower," Anderson says. Once confined to luxury vehicles, the engine was now relatively commonplace, built into the Ford-branded vehicles that seemed to dot every driveway in the United States.