One good thing you can say about the Midwestern bank robbers of the Great American Crime Wave of 1933 and 1934 is that they loved to drive.
This article originally appeared in the Dec./Jan. 2012 issue of Road & Track.
The Dillinger gang, for instance, would hit a bank in Indiana or Wisconsin and then take a road trip to Daytona Beach or Tucson. Baby Face Nelson liked to visit his old pals in San Francisco, while Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow virtually lived in whatever car they'd most recently stolen. They ranged so widely you couldn't tell if they were driving to commit crimes or committing crimes just so they could drive around and pay for gas.
And the getaway car of choice, more often than not, seemed to be a '33 or '34 Ford Fordor sedan with a Flathead V-8 under the hood. The '34, with an extra 10 bhp, was preferred.
Well, they were quite fast, at a time when most cops were still chuffing around in 4-cylinder Model A Fords or the like. Also, their low cost ($615 for a new 1934 Fordor Deluxe) made them ubiquitous. You could steal one on any street in America, and yet it wouldn't attract unwanted police attention. Dillinger himself—when spending his own money—also had a taste for the light and quick Hudson Essex Terraplanes, which were equally handsome, yet discreet and inexpensive.
Running boards and four doors were useful, too, as most bank robbers took hostages and made a few of them stand along both sides of the car for cover. About eight miles out of town, the crooks would drop the wind-burned captives off at a crossroads and tell them to have a nice day.
Once they'd disappeared into the rural countryside, the gangs often encountered citizens who were not all that annoyed by the concept of bank robbery. America had 13 million unemployed, with hundreds of thousands who'd just lost everything in bank closings and foreclosures, so there was a general loathing of financial institutions. Not like now…
So what does all this '30s sociology have to do with Road & Track? Funny you should ask. Seems your Wisconsin correspondent (that would be me) just happens to own a Dearborn Blue 1934 Ford Fordor Deluxe. Yes, the exact model Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in. What a cheerful fact.
It's a lovely old car with 34,000 original miles on the clock and a dead stock 85-bhp Flathead V-8 under the hood. I found the Ford down in Arlington, Texas, last year and have been working on it ever since to make it reliable enough for a long road trip I've wanted to take for many years—a little cruise back into history along the Dillinger trail.
And why Dillinger? Well, about six years ago I was recommended a book by Bryan Burrough called Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34.
The Ford cruised into the warm fall morning running beautifully, and it soon seemed most serene at about 53 mph. It can go much faster, but I hated to push the old girl too hard. On low burner, the Flathead has a smooth, almost watch-like quality, quite different from the roarty lumpiness of the high-compression V8s of the '60s.
When I first bought the Ford, it was easily the worst handling car I'd ever driven, lurching crazily every time it hit a bump, but new shocks and a careful steering adjustment had turned it into a pleasant driver. Still, I couldn't imagine a high-speed chase in this thing. Watching Beatty & Dunaway teeter and slue around corners in Bonnie & Clyde still makes my hair stand on end. What's left of it.
We shunned the Interstate and all busy state highways, taking County Road T straight down into Illinois, jinking our way toward Indianapolis. Every little town seemed to have a nice old stone bank building on Main Street, usually with a realty sign in the window. They look small and vulnerable now, and during the Depression they might as well have had a "Free Money" sign flashing in the window. Of course, thousands of these little banks went broke before they could be robbed. And now they're empty again.
Nightfall found us bloodhounding behind our yellowish-dim headlights into Remington, Indiana, staying at a Super 8 near the Interstate. Up early, we cruised the back roads to Indianapolis' sprawling and neatly groomed Crown Hill Cemetery, where three-quarters of all famous people from Indiana seem to be buried, including Dillinger, Richard Gatling, many former (as you would guess) Indy drivers and Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley.
When we pulled up at the cemetery office in our '34 Ford, I said to the manager, "I bet you can't guess whose grave we'd like to visit." He smiled and said, "Dillinger's is our most visited gravesite," then gave us a map.
The Dillinger family plot has a large central headstone, with small stones beside it for John and his kin. Someone had left a weatherbeaten old baseball glove and a whiskey bottle next to Dillinger's modest headstone. He'd died in 1934, at the age of 31—as famous as Charles Lindbergh, according to one biographer.
Barb and I once visited Lindbergh's grave in Hawaii, where he died in 1974, so flying solo across the Atlantic was apparently safer than being Public Enemy Number One. By the end of 1934, every member of the Dillinger gang had been gunned down or executed. Sometimes both.
From the cemetery, we drove a short distance southwest to Dillinger's hometown of Mooresville. I'd pictured a little Midwestern berg still brooding over the pros and cons of the Dillinger legacy, but what we found was a thriving Indianapolis suburb with more than its share of Audis and BMWs cruising its busy streets. We almost missed the old Dillinger farmhouse, just off highway 267 on the edge of town, as the place is now surrounded by a housing development, a nursing home and a paving company.
Dillinger's widower father, John Sr., moved there from Indianapolis, supposedly so his excitable son could settle down and get away from his wild city friends. It didn't work. Dillinger and an accomplice mugged a local grocer and young John did nine years in the state pen. It was there he met most of his future gang, and he began robbing banks about 15 minutes after he got out of prison in 1933.
Heading westward, we drove to the nice college town of Greencastle, where Dillinger pulled off his richest heist, escaping with almost $75K in 1933. As Barb and I scanned the town square, a friendly bearded fellow named Joe Moody walked up and asked what we were looking for. "The old Central National Bank that Dillinger robbed," I said.
"You're parked right in front of it," he said. "I have a loft apartment on the third floor, and my landlady is an attorney named Trudy Selvia who has a law office on the second floor. The bank has been closed for years. I'll ask Trudy to give you a tour of it, though. You can still see the old vault that Dillinger made them open."
Ms. Selvia was indeed kind enough to give us a tour, and we got to see the vault at the back of the bank, which had been stripped of its counters and cages. On the empty bank floor were the freshly painted fenders for a customized Volkswagen Bug that Trudy's son was building. Some might not consider this progress, but I certainly do. No Volkswagen ever charged me for an overdraft or an ATM transaction.
By noon the next day, we'd driven 130 miles northwest to Crown Point, Indiana.
Big Dillinger Site here. This is where he famously broke out of jail with a wooden gun, after being captured in Tucson and flown back to Indiana to face murder charges. Director Mann shot the Public Enemies jailbreak on location, and spent a great deal of money rehabbing the charming old red brick jail and sheriff's quarters. If any jail can be said to be charming.
A gentleman named John Forgey, from the jail's preservation committee, kindly gave up his noon hour to give us a tour, and I got to stand in the cell where Dillinger was kept. It held a double bunk and a toilet, and you could carpet the whole cell with one floormat out of a Toyota Corolla.
Anytime I stand in a jail cell for more than a minute, I'm amazed any criminal ever risks going back. This cell was even smaller than my old dorm room in college, and I vowed back in 1966 that the University of Wisconsin would never take me alive.
Much was made of Dillinger's resourcefulness in getting through several layers of security with a wooden gun and stealing Sheriff Lillian Holley's new V8 Ford for his getaway, but Dillinger's lawyer later claimed that the wooden gun was smuggled in and several guards were bribed to make sure the jailbreak came off smoothly. Quite brazen, nevertheless.
That afternoon, we visited the Dillinger Museum in Hammond (excellent) and then tried to enter Chicago the old-fashioned way, on Highway 41. Unfortunately, it was so clogged with truck traffic we finally hit the Skyway and swooped right down onto Michigan Avenue during rush hour. Pedestrians gave our car the thumbs up, while many cabs made feinting, shark-like passes at our venerable fenders. Turning onto Lincoln Avenue, we soon found the Biograph Theater.
When they came out of the theater, FBI agents moved in on Dillinger, chased him a short distance to an alley entrance and gunned him down. Seems Hoover and his Chicago bureau chief, Melvin Purvis, had finally lost their sense of humor.
A parking space magically opened up right in front of the Biograph, and we walked down to the alley where Dillinger had died. There's a Mexican restaurant next to it now, and blacktop where the bloodstained bricks used to be. The Biograph is still open and has a nicely restored lobby, but it's used for live theater these days, rather than movies. One can only hope they still have popcorn and Junior Mints. Otherwise, what's the point?
Barb and I drove up Highway 41 to Racine, Wisconsin, that evening and got a motel. The gang robbed the American Bank and Trust Company there in November 1933, and got away with $28,000. We found the old bank building in downtown Racine, but it had been modernized into a civic art museum.
We drove back to our home that evening to do laundry, wash the car and grease the chassis. We'd already driven almost 1000 miles, and the only "repair" I'd made was to get out a Crescent wrench and adjust the mechanical brakes one click. I'd added three quarts of oil, and an equal amount of water. We were averaging between 12 and 18 mpg, depending on wind and hills. The Flathead, with its low 6.3:1 compression ratio and factory-hardened valve seats ran fine on regular unleaded, making easy torque everywhere.
We left the next morning on our 400-mile round trip to Little Bohemia.
This is a lovely old log resort set back in the pine trees on Little Star Lake, near Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. The Dillinger gang—including the psychopathic Baby Face Nelson—stayed there in April 1934 to nurse some minor gunshot wounds and cool off after things got a little hot in the Twin Cities.
Lodge owner Emil Wanetka (who'd actually emigrated from Bohemia) and his wife soon realized their heavily armed guests were not Fuller Brush salesmen and notified the FBI. Purvis and his agents came flooding in from Chicago and the Twin Cities at night and "surrounded" the place. On three sides.
Federal agents managed to gun down three innocent customers (one fatally) who were leaving the bar in their old Chevy. This alerted the gang members, who fired their Thompsons out the windows briefly, then escaped along the unguarded lakefront, stole various cars and drove away. Meanwhile, the FBI hammered the place with teargas and gunfire all night. It was a national disgrace, and Will Rogers quipped, "Dillinger is going to get in accidentally with some innocent bystanders sometime, then he will get shot."
You can't rent rooms at Little Bohemia any more, but we got a tour of the gang's upstairs lodgings, where the walls were chewed with bullet holes and the sink had been shot in half. In his haste, Dillinger left behind a perfectly good shaving kit and a can of antiseptic powder to treat a recent minor bullet wound to the shoulder. No rest for the wicked. Just when you're starting to heal, some fool fires a Browning Automatic Rifle through the wall and ruins your sink.
We explored the area the next day with R&T photographer Marc Urbano, finally heading for home late in the afternoon. After a night in Wausau, we used our Wisconsin gazetteer to navigate the narrow two-lane county roads south, following creeks and rivers past fiery red maples and old white farmhouses with orange pumpkins for sale in the bright autumn sun.
As we neared home, I realized that, after 1400 miles, I wasn't the least bit tired of touring in our old car and—like those gangland figures—I didn't want the ride to end. The Ford had the best all-day seats I've ever had in any car, excellent outward visibility and an enjoyable mechanical presence. There was also its timeless beauty of line, whether looking down the hood from the driver's seat or approaching it from the curb. Barb agreed it was one of the most enjoyable car trips we've ever taken.
And I like to think the old Ford enjoyed it, too. After 77 years of minimal use—and perhaps decades spent languishing in various garages for the crime of being collectable—it was finally set free, hitting the open road and stopping at one or two places it might have recognized from its own obscure past.
When you buy a '34 Ford, you never know where it's been. Or who's been driving.