Decades later, he’s still arresting car thieves

Announced on television, The Club became a pop culture icon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and even a joke retort. But decades later, The Club is still around as a successful car theft prevention device.

For those unfamiliar, The Club — which looks like an oversized bicycle lock — is attached to a steering wheel, making it impossible to turn a vehicle even when it’s running.

This means that this analog device cannot be hacked and is difficult for thieves to remove, although it is not impossible to do so. The thieves used everything from bolt cutters and hacksaws (to saw off the steering wheel) to liquid nitrogen (to freeze the lock and then hammer it) to circumvent the Club.

Indeed, the company that created The Club touts it as a preventative measure, like a padlock on your front door. If someone really wants to come in, he will come in. But a device like The Club can help reduce opportunity theft.

The brainchild of Pennsylvania native James Winner, The Club was inspired by his time serving in Korea when soldiers attached chains to the steering wheels of their Jeeps to prevent theft. Later, back in the United States, when his Cadillac was stolen, Winner hired mechanic Charles Johnson to design The Club and in 1986 Winner International was formed to distribute it.

But a lot has changed since the club’s heyday. For one, the new cars are keyless and more like a computer on wheels, which means they can be hacked.

Vehicle theft is on the rise in the GTA, in part due to automotive supply chain issues that have created severe shortages of vehicles and parts. Toronto police data shows vehicle thefts increased 61% from January 1 to May 23 compared to the same period last year.

“He’s been professionalized,” said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA). Thanks to the high demand in foreign markets, professional auto theft networks export stolen cars at a much higher price than they are in Canada.

They may also steal popular makes and models for their parts or use fake vehicle identification numbers (VIN) to sell stolen cars to unsuspecting buyers. Cars can even be stolen for the express purpose of committing another crime.

Among the top 10 brands targeted by thieves in 2021 are the Honda CR-V, Lexus RX350 and Toyota Highlander, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, which compiles annual vehicle theft statistics. There is also consistent demand for spare parts for popular brands such as Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, Iny said.

While some vehicles are more popular targets, any car can be a target. That’s why insurers encourage car owners to make their vehicle harder to steal.

As for the Club? “It’s inconvenient for most people and they eventually give up,” Iny said. After all, if it gets thrown into the back seat of your car, it won’t do any good. It also does not work on all makes and models of vehicles. But, he says, it’s an added inconvenience for the thief.

“It was never very difficult to remove – the steering wheel itself can be cut – but it’s extra work,” Iny said. This could act as a deterrent, especially if thieves show up with tools for electronic theft, not those for sawing off a physical anti-theft device.

This is why the APA recommends a layered approach to security. For example, a signal blocking bag or box, such as a Faraday pouch, can prevent key fob signal hijacking. An immobilizer only starts the engine if the correct key is used. And an on-board diagnostic lock, which is plugged into the car’s on-board computer system, can also thwart thieves.

“These challenges aren’t new, we’re just seeing a lot more of them, especially in the GTA,” said Elliott Silverstein, director of government relations at CAA Club Group.

A car owner’s approach to safety will depend a lot on their living situation, he said. Many Torontonians rely on street parking and don’t have garages or underground condo parking (and, if they’re a two-car household, they may still have to rely on street parking to one of their vehicles). Parking on the street leaves these vehicles more exposed.

“If (a thief) has moments to spare, he’ll probably go to whoever has the easiest access,” Silverstein said. “If the car doors are unlocked, then you’ve made it easier than someone who has their doors locked with a Club.”

A layered approach to security includes vehicle tracking, which means there is at least a chance of recovery. Indeed, Equity Association, the investigative arm of the Insurance Bureau of Canada and Canatics, reports that 2021 was a record year for recoveries, with more than 1,000 stolen vehicles recovered at the Port of Montreal.

“A significant number of vehicles equipped with a tracking device are recovered,” Iny said. “The company we like is Tag — it’s widely available in Quebec and promoted by insurers.

Auto thieves have become much more sophisticated, as have the tools to protect vehicles. But sometimes it’s the simple things — like remembering to lock your doors, even if you’re just running home for a minute, or using a physical anti-theft device as a deterrent — that can make the difference.