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date: 29 May 2017

Car Crimes and the Cultural Imagination

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The car and crime become entrenched in the cultural imagination with the widely circulated images of the bullet-hole-ravaged Ford V8 that Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) were in when they were killed by Texan and Louisianan police in 1934. This couple of outlaws (and their gang) had kept newspaper readers enthralled and appalled as they robbed, murdered, and kidnapped throughout the Midwest since 1932. The scope of their activities and their success in evading authorities, along with their crimes, which included many vehicle thefts, were facilitated by the mobility of the car. Before Bonnie and Clyde, car crime in the public consciousness comprised images of the foolish and antisocial behavior of the well-to-do car-owning elite. After Bonnie and Clyde, the famous image of their death car and the celebrity-making image of Bonnie as the archetypical gangster moll with cigar and revolver leaning over a stolen car, linked in the cultural imagination crime and cars as everyday through a visceral mix of bodies, sex, and violence.

In particular, the visceral imaginings of car crime after Bonnie and Clyde separated into four locations. All involved, to certain degree, bodies, sex, and violence, but distinct contexts and meanings can be identified. The first location is the imaging of car crime itself; of risky use of the car—speeding, dangerous driving, racing, drink driving—actions evidenced by carnage on the roads. There have emerged two frames for this location. The first is the serious and deadly context of the usually male driver fueled by “combustion masculinity” taking irresponsible risks with bloody consequences. The second is the humorous, over-the-top risky, subversive, and illegal car-based activities, a frame tapped into by television shows like Top Gear (Klein, 2002–2015) and Bush Mechanics (Batty, 2001) and manifest in the car chase trope. The second location is the car as a crime scene. From JFK’s assassination in a Lincoln convertible, to the car as site of sexual assault, to the illicit imaginings of the goings-on in a VW microbus, the car is a place in which crimes happen. The car is seen as constructing an internal geography in which crimes occur. The third location has the car as a facilitator of criminal activity. In the road buddy narrative from On the Road (Kerouac, 1957) to Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) the car becomes the outlaw’s mechanical horse facilitating a crime spree and evading arrest. At the fourth location, the car became imaged as property, the car as a crime object. From Gone in 60 Seconds (Sena, 2000) to the advertisements of the vehicle insurance industry, the car became conceived as vulnerable property, the target of theft. While distinguishable, each location is not segmented in the cultural imagination, but, as role-played by gamers in the Grand Theft Auto computer game series, cross and coexist. Now well into its second century, the car, notwithstanding contemporary transformations, nurtures a vivid imagining of its culture gone wrong.

Keywords: cultural imagination, car, crime, bodies, sex, violence, joyriding, advertisements, film, novels, television, Indigenous Cultures

Bonnie and Clyde and the Bodies, Sex, and Violence of Car Crime

In the early years of motoring in the West,1 public concern about criminal activity and the new horseless carriage was sporadic. In North America a concern was preventing criminal damage to the vehicles by a hostile community (Flink, 1976). In the United Kingdom the “motors” were seen as a site of class conflict, with the constabulary having to police the road manners of their “betters” (Emsley, 1993). In Australia before World War I, the figure of mechanized mobility that attracted public condemnation was more the young hooligan on a bicycle who would silently whiz by women and children than the noisy “haste-wagons” that would eventually acquire the same status (Tranter, 2005). Overall awareness of the social ills emergent within the disruptive transport technology of the motor vehicle was hazy during its formative period. Vehicles were the playthings of the rich and generally foolish, wonderfully encapsulated in 1908 by Mr. Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (Grahame, 2007), to be the subject of envy and policing, but too few and far between to be much more than a nuisance or a figure of fun for the rest of the non-automobile community (Knott, 1994).

This changed in the 1930s. As Henry Ford and his competitors brought car ownership more to the masses in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and parts of Europe (Urry, 2004), the cultural imagination of crime and wrongdoing with cars solidified. The catalyst was the media sensation and moral panic surrounding Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow). Bonnie and Clyde were not the first outlaws to utilize the mobility of the motor vehicle, but they were the first to attract global attention. This attention seems to have been based on three factors. There was a daring everywhere-but-nowhere quality to their crimes—a robbery in one state, with a sighting in another, then the murder of a law officer in another—with flatfooted authorities seemingly unable to track down the “Barrow Gang” as the couple and accomplices tended to be known in newspapers at the time (Milner, 1996). There was the aura of young love, with Bonnie the married, jailbird poet run off with her highwayman, mixed with the titillation of illicit sex (Guinn, 2009). The third was that the public could not only read about the couple, but due to the recovery of film from the raided hideout at Joplin, Missouri, could see the couple. These images of carefree lovers embracing over the radiator of a stolen vehicle, and the staged shot of Bonnie as gangster moll with cigar, revolver, and raised foot resting on the bumper (Figure 1), along with images of the bullet-sprayed death car, brought the couple into focus.

Car Crimes and the Cultural ImaginationClick to view larger

Figure 1: Bonnie Parker circa 1933 The Joplin Globe Photographs

With Bonnie and Clyde cars and crime became real and immediate; the car’s utopian promise of freedom (Gartman, 2004; Sachs, 1992) had become translated into freedom from the laws of the land and moral conventions (Lochlann Jain, 2005). The car become something dangerous to everyday decency—something more threatening than the occasional speeding of Mr. Toad—but was also spectacular and exciting. Bonnie and Clyde as a media event, and subsequent fountainhead for a cultural archive of criminal lovers on the run,2 soldered together in the popular imagining car and crime through a visceral mix of bodies, sex, and violence.

Car crime in the cultural imagining has retained this mixing of bodies, sex, and violence. However, as “automobility” increasingly came to define modern life from the mid-20th century (Urry, 2006), four specific locations for the imagining of car and crime have emerged. The first are car crimes themselves, the risk-taking and the breaching of car-specific rules of speed and proper control. The second is the car as crime scene, as a space where crimes can occur. The third is the car as facilitator of crime, its mobility facilitating geographically dispersed crime sprees and evading arrest. The fourth is the car as object of crime, a desirable form of property to be stolen and destroyed.

Car Crimes: Risky Use of the Car

The image of Bonnie and Clyde as healthy young lovers, particularly as cast by Warren Betty and Faye Dunaway in the 1967 movie (Penn, 1967), was filmic license. By her death Bonnie was crippled; her right leg had been disfigured in a car accident in Texas in 1933. The historical material suggests that the accident was caused by excessive speed, resulting in the car she and Clyde were in missing a narrow bridge and falling down an embankment (Baker, 2011).

That cars are large and powerful machines, capable of violently discharging human body–destroying forces in a millisecond if a driver loses control, quickly entered the cultural imagination. As early as 1919 Charlie Chaplin used the car as a vector for injury (for the rival lover) and death (for the spurned lover) in the dreamlike Sunnyside (Chaplin, 1919). In some cultural texts it is the car itself, as an uncanny horror, that pursues and devours victims, as in Steven Spielberg’s Duel (Spielberg, 1971) and Stephen King’s Christine (King, 1983). However, the films that truly brought the bodily horror of the car to the screens were George Miller’s Mad Max sequence (Miller, 1979, 1981, 2015; Miller & Oglivie, 1985). In these films Miller’s early experience as a trauma surgeon becomes transmuted into a post-apocalyptic nightmare of grotesque vehicles and mutilated and twisted bodies (Martin, 2003; Tranter, 2003). Heathcote Williams’ polemic anti-car poem makes the point bluntly:

  • A Black Death with bubonic rats on wheels,
  • A quarter of a million ‘auto-fatalities’ a year–
  • The humdrum holocaust–
  • The fast-food–junk-death–road-show.

(Williams, 1991)

The linking of cars to bodily violence has become so ingrained in the cultural imagining that there is a dedicated literature focused on the effectiveness of its use to “scare drivers safe” using graphic and fear-inducing public road safety advertising material (Hoekstraa & Wegmana, 2011; Lewis, Watson, White, & Tay, 2007).

The potential for the car to cause disfigurement, death, and destruction when driven carelessly was in the minds of lawmakers during the pioneer period of the automobile. The first motor vehicle laws in the United States, England, and Australia contained provisions regarding speed, dangerous and drunk driving, and vehicle identification markers, the precursors to number plates (Flink, 1970; Plowden, 1973; Tranter, 2005). These laws set the template for specific regulatory car crimes that multiplied in number and complexity over the 20th century. While the offence of “driving under the influence” morphed into a myriad of highly technical offences regarding blood-based measurements of intoxication, the basic fact was that faced with the bloody consequences of humans driving carelessly, intoxicated, and dangerously, the criminal law was deployed to deter would-be offenders and punish perpetrators. To police this criminal framework, dedicated highway patrol units were created and eventually automated technologies came to play a significant role in traffic surveillance, bringing all drivers into the policing gaze. While some have argued that regulating risky use of cars has widened the criminal net through a dramatic increase in penalties (O’Malley, 2010, 2015), others have identified a harsh law-and-order approach that has seen increased street policing, court appearances, and imprisonment of unlawful drivers, especially from remote and marginalized communities (Anthony & Blagg, 2012).

Highway Patrol (Ziv, 1955–1959), a fictional television series in the United States in the 1950s and a contemporary Australian “real-life” television series (Burton, 2009–2016) (similar to the New Zealand version of Motorway Patrol (Larsen, 1999–2016)) valorize the role of traffic police. In these shows, the car oscillates from a machine threatening public safety to a bejeweled protector allowing the police the speed and mobility to intercept criminals. The fictional version, unlike its contemporary namesake, was more concerned with catching criminals than with enforcing road rules. The emphasis in the contemporary “real-life” Australian television series is more about enforcing road rules—often because the only evidence arising from the police “investigation” pertains to breaches of driving laws—and bringing order back to the public roads. There are the occasional high-speed police chases, investigations of road accidents, and searches of “suspicious” vehicles. More often, cameras capture straight-talking highway patrol officers with their decked-out police cruisers pulling over generally compliant drivers and uncovering offences under the traffic laws, including drunk driving, driving while talking on a phone, speeding, driving through a red light, not displaying provisional “P” driver plates, not wearing a seat belt, driving an unroadworthy vehicle, or without a valid license or vehicle registration. The viewer is informed of their punishment, involving demerit points, fines, car impoundment, and court convictions. Police interceptions would invariably involve “seedy” characters who come within the public’s scorn, and this in turn cements the righteousness of the highway patrol, both officers and vehicles, and the risk-taking of the dangerous driver.

In the cultural imagination the “seedy” characters likely to be committing car crimes are well identified—the hot-rodder (in the United States (Moorhouse, 1991)), the boy racer (in the United Kingdom (Lumsden, 2013)), the hoon (in Australia (Armstrong & Steinhardt, 2006)), the raggare (in Sweden (O’Dell, 2001)), the bosozoku (in Japan (Kersten, 1993))—young working-class men driving older, performance-modified vehicles. The primary framing within the cultural imagination relates to moral panic and deviance: a young man, out of control behind the wheel of a powerful car, crashing and killing or maiming passengers and other road users. Seventy years after a teenager first raced a hot rod down Californian streets in the late 1940s, the elements and effects of this moral panic endure (Balsley, 1950; Fuller, 2007; Lumsden, 2009). This dangerous othering has created a feedback loop between perception, policing, and law, with each generation of delinquent men in cars requiring further mechanisms of policing, more laws and harsher penalties. For example, §23109.2 of the California Vehicle Code, impounding vehicles involved in racing or reckless driving, was enacted after media concerns that the popularity of the film The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001) was leading to an increase in street racing (Clar, 2003).

Many see risk-taking in cars by young men as an expression of masculinity (Campbell, 1993; Groombridge, 1998; Hartig, 2000; Lumsden, 2013; Walker, 2003). Sarah Redshaw has adopted the phrase “combustion masculinity” to capture the explosive mix of anticipation, adrenaline-inducing risk-taking, and status-seeking bravado that motivates young men to speed and race in cars (Redshaw, 2008). She draws two specific connections. The first is a link to male sexuality of pressure building to an explosive release, rendered explicit by J. G. Ballard in Crash (Ballard, 1973) with the semen-soaked trousers of the accident-watching and -causing “hoodlum scientist” Vaughan. The second connection, also present in both Vaughan and Bonnie and Clyde, is that the mix of sex, bodies, and violence in racing, risk-taking, and crashing is exciting and spectacular; something to be seen and enjoyed from a position of safety. Indeed, the explosive attraction of young men to the car has led some criminologists to remark that the car is “the most criminogenic device yet invented” (Bottomley & Pease, 1986).

This attraction of men to cars also explains a certain ambiguity behind the folk-deviling of the speeding and reckless young male driver. George Lucas’ American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973), a story of committing car crimes (speeding, street racing, causing accidents), is a nostalgic telling of men coming of age in modernity. This is reflected in the enduring popularity of the Beach Boys’ numerous hot rod and car songs.3 The big business from the spectacle of various forms of motor sport—from Formula 1 to demolition derbies—shows a public celebration of speed and driver skill, and a mass voyeurism with the crashing and destruction of cars (Hassan, 2014; Vardi, 2011). Nowhere has this ambiguity been more manifest within the cultural imagination than the BBC’s Top Gear car magazine show (Klein, 2002–2015). Arguably the most watched television show of all time due to its high ratings in developed and developing countries (Bonner, 2010), Top Gear presented three middle-aged, middle-class men “cocking about in cars,” lambasting the “nanny state” of over-regulated roadways, and essentially making a live-action version of the 1960s cult cartoon Wacky Races (Hanna & Barbera, 1968–1969) through a juvenile celebration of speed and the destruction of vehicles (Tranter & Martin, 2013). The formal dictates of the rules of the road and zealous policing attempts by officialdom, along with the failed attempts of the hosts in repairing and driving cars, were all presented as a matter of humor, with witty banter and Chaplin-like sight gags.

In another expression of cultural subjectivity and humor, Bush Mechanics, a popular series in 2001 aired on Australian national television, focused on Indigenous drivers challenging the dominant mass-produced and regulated consumer car associated with the colonial state. Produced by Warlpiri Media in central Australia, it provided a humorous take on Indigenous people resurrecting and battling with run-down motor vehicles. It sought to laugh with Warlpiri car owners and laugh at colonial culture in desert Indigenous communities. Remote from mechanics, devoid of finances to fix cars, and with generations of bush skills, Warlpiri people endeavored to bring their cars (which were legally beyond the brink) back to life with their bush resourcefulness (Clarsen, 2002). The series showed skills that ranged from cannibalizing abandoned vehicles through to fixing gearboxes and brakes by surgically implanting tree bark and grass. Warlpiri Elders provided a cultural narrative that stressed Warlpiri values and cultural continuity synchronizing with postcolonial culture (Probyn-Rapsey, 2006). While often successful in resurrecting cars, Warlpiri people on the series would inevitably encounter speed bumps, including by virtue of their driving high-risk cars. In one episode, a Warlpiri driver in the desert community of Yuendumu pointed to the risk inherent in driving where there was a combination of roaming animals and wildlife, shoddy tracks, and dodgy cars:

Lots of (mis)adventures have happened on the Tanami [Road]. Shout out to everyone who’s dodged a cow, hit a kangaroo, been stuck behind a road train, driven into the setting sun, blown a tyre, run out of fuel, had bits fall off their car, gotten bogged, broken down, and, of course, helped each other out … (Batty, 2001)

In 2016, the filmmaker of Bush Mechanics, David Batty, embarked on a new series that delves into the Indigenous motor vehicle, but this time in remote northern Australia, Arnhem Land. This popular new series, Black As (Batty, 2016), along with Bush Mechanics, have been described as the Australian version of Top Gear but with “some of the crappiest cars on the planet” (Gorman, 2016). These less serious takes on car-based antics within the cultural imagination, which would usually be condemned as car crimes, has a reach beyond the humorous celebration of car culture in Top Gear, Bush Mechanics and Black As.

Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (Yates, 1968) is widely credited with establishing the car chase as a set trope in Hollywood action movies (Romao, 2004). The speed, dangerousness, and crashes of the car chase have become a high-octane retelling of simple morality tales: the “good” car pursues or is pursued by the “bad” car, with a destructive climax of the bad car crashing/exploding. What is interesting about the car chase trope as cultural imagining of car crime is that the police car is more often than not the “bad car.” While policeman McQueen’s Ford Mustang raced down the gunmen’s Dodge Charger in the serious Bullitt, generally it is the hero/protagonist evading the forces of law and order within an unreal and comic frame: James Bond evading the local constabulary or the eponymous Dukes of Hazzard defying Newton’s laws to jump a ravine to escape the sheriff. This reached a zenith of ridiculousness with the car chase in the climax of The Blues Brothers (Landis, 1980). These more-than-real fantasies of evading the authorities through spectacular law-breaking (of both the laws of physics and the rules of the road) actually reinforce the real-world moral panic of car crime. The over-the-top car chase reveals a cultural imagining that may long for the romance of the modern-day highwayman evading arrest—a hope that Bonnie and Clyde might somehow speed around the police trap to live their life together—but actually fears the young hooligan on the road. There is a guilty enjoyment at watching a death-defying car-borne escape on the screen; yet the comic and unreal framing of the car chase points to a real-world desire for the authorities, the Highway Patrol, to catch up and save law-abiding road users from car criminals.

Cars as Crime Scenes

However, the association with the car and crime in the cultural imagination extends beyond the specific regulatory offences relating to speeding, dangerous driving, and intoxication. The car created a space in which crimes can be imagined and can occur. Again, this is prefigured by Bonnie and Clyde. During their brief career the gang engaged in kidnapping. Unlike horse-powered kidnappers from earlier eras who would take a victim to a hideout, Bonnie and Clyde would restrain the victim in the car, releasing them miles from the taking point. The car was not only transportation but had become holding cell: a particularly mobile space in which crimes could occur.

Within the cultural imagining the car as a criminal space is orientated by two images. The first is the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Although the actual still and moving images of the cavalcade took some time to make it into the mass media, the images as images transformed journalism (Zelizer, 1992). Along with the reporting of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination images brought a set of collective mass visual representations that defined the event (Lubin, 2003). The critical image is that Kennedy was shot in motion on film while being shot in motion in a slow-moving Lincoln Continental convertible. Postwar dreams of auto-utopia became shattered in these images. The dangerousness of the car as a vehicle had been seen as something outside—the youth careening about the roads in their jalopies or Bonnie and Clyde with their photographs of stolen cars and stolen guns. With Kennedy, the crime went inside the car, a family man murdered next to his wife and seen by the world. The car became a crime scene. In Australia, the popular images of car as crime scene were the photographs of the Chamberlains’ yellow Holden Torana hatchback (now in the National Museum) stripped by forensic teams in the search of evidence that Azaria Chamberlain was murdered by her mother and not taken by a dingo.

The second image is less in focus but no less specific. The moral panic of the young working-class man with his supercharged sexuality trumpeted with loud exhaust and loud paint-job related directly to a concern of sexual predation; of women being taken by these men in machines to be sexually assaulted and raped (O’Dell, 2001). This is the darker side of the allure of freedom promised by the car (Davison, 2004); that the sex might not be consensual. The car and its infrastructure regularly feature in rape accounts. Victims are raped in their own car, forced out of their car; into other cars, driven to specific places: deserted car parks and country roads (Estrich, 1986; Lochlann Jain, 2005). Some suggest that the car itself has been gendered as a woman to represent the sexual control of male car owners and drivers (Corbett, 2003). The rape scenes in Mad Max and Mad Max II, where a young woman is raped and her vehicle destroyed by marauding bikies, not only made explicit what earlier exploitation films implied (Stringer, 1997) but screened the reality of the car as a physical place where crimes against women occur.

This theme also unfolds in Mystery Road (Sen, 2013), a film set in remote central Queensland, Australia, where a teenage Indigenous girl who is sexually exploited by white truck drivers is ultimately killed in one of their vehicles. Her body is found in a drain under a highway trucking route. The investigation by an Indigenous police detective leads him to the violent and corrupt culture of white truck drivers and white police officers. White men in vehicles constantly back up the murderer, who drives a white hunting truck and is involved in a drug ring. Images of confrontations of the detective’s unmarked vehicle with those of the criminal truck drivers culminate in gun violence and a deadly scene, including the shooting of the perpetrator. In this movie the car is both a crime scene and a marker of white violence upon Indigenous women and Indigenous society.

The car as a crime scene does not end with these violent images of women’s bodies being hurt within vehicles. As the viewers of reality television highway patrol shows know, police searches of cars often uncover illicit substances. Certain makes and models have attracted public notoriety as being the vehicle of choice for drug users and dealers; the pimped Cadillac in North America (Myers & Dean, 2007), the older BMW in England (Graves-Brown, 2000), and VW kombis/microbuses everywhere.4 From the opening scene of the drug deal in the backseat of the Rolls Royce in Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) to the suggestive, but ultimately innocent, smoke bellowing from the Mystery Machine in the Scooby-Do movie (Gosnell, 2002), the car has involved an internal, hidden space through which trade and consumption of illegal commodities can occur.

That the car has intimately become linked in the cultural imagination as a scene of crime, violent crimes towards women and crimes of consumption, has to do with the car as a liminal geography. The physicality of the car, its size, provides an internal space in which crimes can occur. However, this physicality is enhanced by its mobility. It is a private space that moves. This becomes clearly manifest in the women who drive cars that smuggle drugs across the Mexico-US border. These women experience multiple victimizations—the risk of physical and sexual violence within the vehicles and facing detection and arrest, while being less-than-equal conspirators—yet some also experience empowerment and liberation from traditional gender roles (Campbell, 2008). There is a strong suggestion in the Bonnie and Clyde story, that Bonnie was attracted to crime as an escape from poverty and humdrum of her life in Dallas. Here the car as crime scene crosses into something different; the car as facilitator of crime.

Cars as Facilitator of Crime

Beyond the vehicle as the scene of the crime, popular culture has imagined the car as facilitating crime. Since the Bonnie and Clyde film (Penn, 1967), and particularly since Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), this has been intimately tied to the road buddy movie. Before the 1960s road buddy movies told stories of escape from expectations and self-discovery; however, these two films recast the road buddy narrative with violence, sex, and crime (Klinger, 1997; Leong et al., 1997). Drawing upon the minor criminal escapades of car thefts and drug use in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (Kerouac, 1957) and prefiguring the explicitness of Crash (Ballard, 1973) and the Mad Max sequence, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider joined the freedom of the road with a prima facie freedom from the law. This connection was one of the titillations for the newspaper-reading public of the real Bonnie and Clyde; the car’s mobility seemingly made the outlaws present yet absent, with sightings and crimes occurring rapidly between towns and states.

The contemporary definitional road buddy narrative has become Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (Roberts, 1997; Scott, 1991). This film depicts two women escaping from the constraints of domesticity and controlling relationships through the only socially acceptable means available to them: a green Ford Thunderbird.5 The pair then use the vehicle to abscond from the law after Louise (Susan Sarandon) kills a man who brutally attempts to sexually assault Thelma (Geena Davis) in a car park (Louise having also been a past rape victim), and the pair rob a store to make ends meet. Their outlaw status is confirmed when they detain a police officer in his trunk and blow up a fuel truck after the driver acts indecently towards them. The car provides autonomy and freedom and their ultimate escape from life. The movie has been conceived as the sisterhood’s response to Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider (Eraso, 2001). The vehicle strengthens the women’s relationships and allegiances around law-breaking as well as their solidarity in victimization by male crimes (Spelman & Minow, 1992). The women are not so much seen as risky drivers or dangerous people as victims of a patriarchal system that provides them with few options outside of the “fast car” (De Barros, 2004).6

While Thelma & Louise subverts the gender and victimization of the road buddy narrative, the film reinforces the mobility of the car as a facilitator of crime. As the women speed towards the Mexico border the crimes become more premeditated and more violent. This acceleration ends with the women, pursued by an overwhelming number of police vehicles, launching their car into the Grand Canyon. At one level the iconic conclusion to Thelma & Louise replays the morality of the car chase. In building identification with the women and constructing the romantic hope that they will manage to evade the law, the audience is “left hanging” as the final image of the flying Thunderbird fades to silver. The hope of protagonists’ escape is balanced against a suggested reality of their deaths in a flaming wreck. The road buddy narrative actually is an extended car chase; watching the images of a crime spree constructs a fantasy that the car’s promise of freedom extends beyond the law, while at the same time reinforcing a counter desire for policing and catching criminals.

This fantastic edge to the road buddy narrative can be seen as manifest within the surreal touches that often grace the genre. This is anticipated by the delirious fog that surrounds an ill Sal Paradise as he is abandoned by Dean Moriarty in Mexico City in Part Four of On the Road (Kerouac, 1957) and becomes the central trope within Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas (Thompson, 1971). In Thomson’s “gonzo” trip, drug use and property damage became overlaid by hallucinogenic nightmares that have little connection to reality. In Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas the law seemingly does not catch up with Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (thinly veiled versions of Thompson and the activist lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta), something that did happen to both in real life.7 The surreal framing to the road buddy narrative, where the protagonists do crime but rarely do time, extends to the heist narrative. In the heist narrative the car’s dexterity and speed along with precision driving are the tools for the crime; the gold-laden Minis that outdrive the Mafia and the Turin police in The Italian Job (Collinson, 1969) or the choreographed highway heists in The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001). These spectacles remain firmly located in fantasy, where “good” criminals succeed, “bad” criminals crash, and marked police cars and uniformed officers are glimpsed in the distance, clearly not keeping pace. This image is usually replicated within the structure of the narrative, explaining and justifying the undercover cop who is sent to infiltrate the car-wielding criminal gang. In this, The Fast and the Furious recycled a set structure that also drove the Australian cult movie Stone (Harbutt, 1974) and many 1950s penny paperbacks of young police officers going undercover with hot-rodders.

The road buddy and heist narratives celebrate the car as crime spree. Bonnie and Clyde, with their robberies, kidnapping, and gunfights with law officers and murders, set a particular template that mixed the road and car with bodies, sex, and violence. Within the cultural imagination these elements intensified and inverted through films such as Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise. However, like the car chase from which the road buddy narrative is essentially a sustained telling, there are surreal moments that show a complex fantasy with desires for the protagonist to escape and endure parallel with a desire for the inevitable reality of law enforcement closing in.

Car as Object of Crime

In addition to their evading arrest, kidnapping, and murders, Bonnie and Clyde were car thieves. The cars in the background of the Joplin photographs were stolen. That the car as object of crime—as a thing of worth capable of being stolen—was alive in the cultural imagination from the earliest era of motoring. Mr. Toad, privileged, impulsive, and a dangerous driver, was also in modern parlance a “joyrider” (O’Connell, 2006).

That the car as a real and desirable object that can be taken has three manifestations in the cultural imagination. The first and second are related and look to the desires behind the coveting. First, the car is an object of value to be stolen and resold, or reconfigured in a chop shop into untraceable parts. At times this lust for a vehicle is pure comedy, the Midas desire of a fool that leads to self-ruin, as in Baron Bomburst’s (Gert Fröbe) pursuit of eponymous named vehicle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hughes, 1968). However, generally, car theft for wealth is portrayed as a serious business as in Gone in 60 Seconds (Sena, 2000) or in No Man’s Land (Werner, 1987) involving gangs, high-value vehicles, violence, and organized crime.

Usually, though, car theft in the cultural imagination connects with anxieties about youth and opportunistic thefts. This is the second manifestation where the cars targeted are not because of value but because they are there, promising a quick getaway or quick thrill (Uhlman & Heitmann, 2015). Again there are narratives where opportunist theft of vehicles is within a comedic frame; the slapstick excuse for eloping young lovers to evade parents and authority in Grand Theft Auto (Howard, 1977). However, representations of car thieves are usually of youths gone wrong. The template for this begins with Rebel without a Cause (Ray, 1955), where crashing stolen cars in a “chicken run” exemplifies the ennui of white suburban growing-up in middle America of the 1950s. This anxiety of youth stealing cars acquired class and racial dimensions as the decades continued; car thieves were identified as young Afro-American men as in New Jersey Drive (Gomez, 1995), or disenfranchised working-class youths in numerous criminological UK studies (Campbell, 1993; Groombridge, 1997; O’Connell, 2006), or Indigenous teenagers in Australia (Headley, 2002). The repeated image is that of lost youths getting a buzz through the risk of stealing, the joy of speeding, and the sense of momentary power and control. This is a further extreme of the explosive sexuality within combustion masculinity. While the hot-rodder at least had a proprietary stake in the ownership and customization of the vehicle, the joyrider is totally free from responsibility. The joy is the thrill of the now (Campbell, 1993; Scott & Paxton, 1997). The joyrider is the second, more extreme face of the established folk-devil of the dangerous driving youth, often the subject of moral panics that instigates rounds of aggressive policing and new regressive laws. Neil Morgan documents how a moral panic in the Western Australian media concerning a perceived spike in incidents of Indigenous children stealing vehicles and then crashing and killing older, white road users led to mandatory sentencing for repeat traffic offenders (Morgan, 1999).

The joyrider in the cultural imagination has been a consistent and reoccurring threat to the property and mobility of decent, law-abiding citizens or at least adult, white, middle-class car owners. The third is a focus on the owner/victim of vehicle theft. The 1978 Mark Hamill vehicle Corvette Summer (Robbins, 1978) encapsulates this. Having restored a Corvette in shop class in his senior year, the vehicle is stolen on its maiden cruise and Hamill journeys to Los Vegas to steal it back. Part road movie, part love story, and all B-grade, Corvette Summer shows a white kid coming of age through assertion of property (both over car and girl) and mobility rights. It is this assertion of rights that lies behind one of the enduring memes of car insurance advertising—the image of a respectable, to be identified with driver, returning to their parking space to discover their vehicle missing. This identifiable anxiety about losing property and losing mobility—usually staged in a nighttime scene with a background of the threatening concrete jungle—drives a billion-dollar industry. While the medium for these images has moved from the billboard and the newspaper to various screens, the central message has remained; a tapping into and exploiting of the cultural anxiety that organized crime or joyriding youths are targeting your vehicle, leaving your body vulnerable and stranded.

In these ways, the car as the object of crime returns to the essential themes of bodies, sex, and violence that were initially identified with Bonnie and Clyde. Anxieties and fears regarding whose bodies are in cars, whose bodies are left immobile, the sexual expression of combustion masculinity behind joyriding, and the violence of stolen and destroyed property.

Grand Theft Auto and Apotheosis of Car Crime in the Cultural Imagination

The video game series Grand Theft Auto (DMA Design, 1997, 1999; Rockstar North, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2013) represents the apotheosis of car crime in the cultural imagination. The series essentially allows the player not just to be titillated by watching Bonnie and Clyde, but to be Bonnie and Clyde. The recent games are within the genre of a first-person shooter/driver with the player looking through the avatar’s eyes witnessing and participating in car crime in all its visceral immediacy. To win the game, that is, finish all the missions to progress the storyline to its end, players must break road rules and succeed at car chases, players must steal cars, players witness and commit crimes in cars from transporting drugs to kidnapping, participate in robberies, shoot other criminals and police officers, run down pedestrians and have (hereto-)sex in and around cars. Highly controversial for the explicitness of its imagery, the amorality of its narrative, the misogyny of its representation of women, and the prejudicial representations of race (Barrett, 2006; DeVane & Squire, 2008; Miller, 2008), the series has become one of the most profitable commercial video games, with the fifth installment earning $USD 1 billion in sales just three days after release (IGN, 2013). What the games show is that the locations of the cultural imagination of car crimes are not distinct; there is movement across and between locations. As was witnessed with Bonnie and Clyde, and role-played by gamers in the Grand Theft Auto series, dangerous driving in cars is often linked with crimes within cars, crime sprees facilitated by the mobility of the car, and car thefts.

In conclusion, car crime in the cultural imagination can be understood as involving four identifiable, yet interconnected locations: specific car crimes relating to the risky use of the car such as racing, speeding, and dangerous driving; crimes where the car’s interior is a crime scene; crimes that are facilitated by the mobility of the car, the robberies and murders of a crime spree; and finally, the car as the object of crime. Within each of these locations the imagining of car and crime involved visceral combinations of bodies, sex, and violence.

The Grand Theft Auto games transform these cultural imaginings of car crime into a virtual experience. The series exploits the heady attraction of bodies, sex, and violence and simultaneously stabilizes the connotations and connections. While the earlier games were set in a fictional past (notably 1992 for Grand Theft Auto III), and therefore provided some temporal distance between the player and the played-in world of car crime, the recent releases are located in the contemporary (2008 and 2013, respectively). There has been commentary in recent years about transformation of the car and the possibility of having reached “Peak Car” (Dennis & Urry, 2009; Goodwin & Van Dender, 2013; Rees, 2016). What Grand Theft Auto suggests is an enduring stability of car crime in the cultural imagining. The car chase, car theft, and mobile crime spree might have migrated from the Bonnie and Clyde’s black-and-white Joplin pictures to the vivid color of the road buddy film of the 1960–1990s and onto digital interactive screens; however, the imagining of its culture gone wrong endures.

Further Reading

Scholarship on car crime in the cultural imagination has been interdisciplinary in focus, drawing upon criminology, sociology, history, and cultural studies. The following are recommended as further reading.

Campbell, B. (1993). Goliath: Britain’s dangerous places. London: Methuen.Find this resource:

See especially chapter 16, which locates joyriding within a wider lawless youth culture.

Cohan, S., & Hark, I. R. (Eds.). (1997). The road movie book. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Excellent collection of definitional essays on the road movie genre.

Corbett, C. (2003). Car crime. Cullompton, U.K.: Willan.Find this resource:

Leading criminological work on car crime with a United Kingdom emphasis. Comprehensive is coverage but latest studies referred to are from the early 2000s.

Flink, J. J. (1976). The car culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Comprehensive study of the dimensions and aspects of car culture, include crime, in the United States.

Lumsden, K. (2013). Boy racer culture: Youth, masculinity and deviance. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Recent study into street racers in the United Kingdom.

Miller D. (Ed.). (2001). Car cultures. Oxford: Berg.Find this resource:

Edited collection with studies from across the globe of car culture. Each chapter deals with crime, policing, and illegal activities with cars.

Milner, E. R. (1996). The lives and times of Bonnie and Clyde. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

A detailed history of Bonne and Clyde.

Moorhouse, H. F. (1991). Driving ambitions: An analysis of the American hot rod enthusiasm. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

A detailed study into hot rod culture with a major theme being the relation of the hot-rodder to law.

Plowden, W. (1973). The motor car and politics in Britain 1896–1970. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.Find this resource:

Similar text to Flink 1976, looking at the history of car culture, including crime, in the United Kingdom.

Redshaw, S. (2008). In the company of cars: Driving as a social and cultural practice. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Study of car use and meaning in Australia.


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Barrett, P. (2006). White thumbs, black bodies: Race, violence, and neoliberal fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 28(1), 95–119.Find this resource:

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Campbell, H. (2008). Female drug smugglers on the US-Mexico border: Gender, crime, and empowerment. Anthropological Quarterly, 81(1), 233–367.Find this resource:

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(1.) Georgine Clarsen has warned of universalizing national automobilities to worldwide phenomena (Clarsen, 2011). This chapter is mainly focused on a discussion of car cultures in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia and brings into focus some of the cultural complexities within these jurisdictions.

(2.) Most notably Arthur Penn’s loosely based film Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967). The narrative was given more explicit sex and violence and a particular knowing nod to role of the media in Natural Born Killers (Stone, 1994). See also Leong, Sell, and Thomas (1997).

(3.) For example, “Little Deuce Coup” (Wilson & Christian, 1963); “409” (Wilson, Love, & Usher, 1962); “I Get Around” (Wilson & Love, 1964). See Askegaard (2010).

(4.) A red “VW microbus” features heavily in Arlo Guthrie’s counterculture crime spree (littering) in the anti-conscription ballad “Alice's Restaurant Massacre” (Guthrie, 1967).

(5.) Beyond this popular perception, women’s use of the car can also represent a form of recklessness and autonomy, including in escaping from an oppressive domestic sphere or social landscape (Garvey, 2001).

(6.) Tracey Chapman’s song “Fast Car” (Chapman, 1988) developed this theme of escaping an life of deprivation in an aspirational journey to social progression.

(7.) Thompson (McKeen, 2008); Acosta (Lee, 2000).