In the 1990s, car thieves roaming parking lots and residential streets looking for an easy target faced a major problem. It was the Club, a sturdy accessory that could be locked onto a vehicle’s steering wheel to make it nearly impossible to turn.
In fact, the Club worked so well that it thwarted another demographic group: law-abiding drivers.
“I went to unlock it and it wasn’t spinning,” said club owner Lauren Clarke. The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I screwed up, I screwed up and ended up breaking the key. And then I thought, oh, great, now what do I do?
Imagine how the thieves felt. Through an aggressive marketing campaign that spanned television commercials, the Club and its various counterfeits became a car accessory success story, locking wheels and forcing criminals to target other non-Club cars. By 1994, 10 million Clubs had been sold.
But the thieves would soon adapt, exploiting a fatal flaw in the locks that would see the Club and other similar devices bludgeoned in the court of public opinion – and inviting speculation about whether the tool was a physical or simply psychological deterrent.
The Club was invented by James Winner, a Pennsylvania native who once said he was raised in extremely humble circumstances. His education was provided in a one-room schoolhouse; shoes for attending classes were hard to find. He skipped college, joined the army, and became a seller of vacuum cleaners, women’s clothing, chemicals, and keyboard organs, among other goods.
While serving in Korea, Winner said he and other soldiers used to lock the chains to the steering wheels of their Jeeps to prevent them from being stolen. Much later, after his Cadillac goes missing, Winner returns to this improvised anti-theft strategy. With a mechanic named Charles Johnson from Ohio, he created the Club in 1986. A new company, Winner International, distributed it. (Johnson later alleged that he was solely responsible for designing the club; a lawsuit led to a $10.5 million settlement in favor of Johnson.)
The winner had a fortuitous moment. By the end of the 1980s, the market for personal safety and protection items was growing: locks, pepper sprays, bulletproof glass, etc. In 1994, the security industry was booming, bringing in $6 billion in alarm sales alone. Priced from $40 to $100, the Club was the perfect solution for drivers worried about having their vehicle bitten.
According to some experts, part of the reason for this boom was the rise of fear-based advertising. For people who had never before considered the possibility of having their car robbed or stolen, TV spots featuring malicious, masked intruders have raised concern. It has become all too easy to imagine a scenario in which a consumer becomes a victim, requiring a preventative purchase to be avoided.
Winner attributed the Club’s success to famed broadcaster Paul Harvey, who read commercials for the device in his popular program. The copy cut off any sense a listener might have of feeling safe, opening the door to the possibility that evil could creep into their lives at any time. “You may live in a safe area,” Harvey intoned, “but I bet you drive into town sometimes. I bet you go to the baseball game once in a while.
Translation: Anyone’s property or personal space can be violated at any time. The Club could reduce this anxiety.
Due to the Club’s publicity push and distinctive appearance, it has become something of a product celebrity in the vein of George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine or the ShamWow. David Letterman tied one to a golf cart during a skit on his show. Even a stroll through a parking lot served as free publicity: with more than 10 million copies sold by the mid-1990s, there were enough Clubs in the United States for one in every 20 cars.
If the Club’s advertising was based on a psychological attraction for consumers who had become victims, so was its functionality. Winner International admitted the club was meant to act as a deterrent – that a thief would look out of a car window, see the bulky device and look for a less difficult target.
How much it really worked depended heavily on the thief. Someone determined to get around the Club had no trouble doing so, which the owners discovered when they locked themselves in and had to call a locksmith for help. To penetrate the defenses of the Club, it was enough to drill the lock or cut it with bolt cutters.
“The script is always the same,” said locksmith Bruce Schwartz The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “They think the car is theft proof and you come in and cut them like they’re butter. They get angry. »
The thieves had other strategies for the Club. The steering wheel of the car could be cut off, allowing the Club to be easily removed. A squirt of liquid nitrogen could be applied to the lock itself, freezing it and allowing the device to be hammered. If a criminal felt ambitious, they could bring their own steering wheel, dismantle the one already in the car with the Club still attached, then attach their steering wheel to the dashboard and drive off.
Winner International argued that the Club was analogous to a lock on your front door. This was a preventative measure against harm, not an absolute measure. Winner International also offered a $500 refund to any Club buyer whose car was stolen with the device in place. According to the company, few customers came for the indemnity, which was intended to cover any insurance excess.
The Club may have repelled the occasional thieves – a teenage joyrider, for example – while doing little to deter skilled carjacking enthusiasts. But the device and others like it undoubtedly made consumers feel empowered, especially when they felt it had the blessing of law enforcement.
Winner International’s zeal to promote the Club as a darling of law enforcement has sometimes backfired. In 1989, the National Fraternal Order of Police (NFOP) endorsed the device, which Winner’s company released to the public. But Winner was forced to back down from his claim in 1992 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) pointed out that only the NFOP board had given its approval, not the organization’s 220,000 police officers.
However, the club found supporters. A cop, Jack Klaric, appeared in advertisements for the Club, but while he was indeed a real policeman, Klaric was still paid for his services. When questioned by the media face to face, the police often claimed that the Club was a visual deterrent and nothing more. And even that could be called into question when consumers fail to engage the Club. Since it had to be applied every time a driver left their vehicle, some simply chose to leave it on the floor or under their seat.
Winner International expanded into door locks, boat locks and other Club or Club type devices, although sales were never as strong as for the original in the 1990s. It has imagined clubs for hotel doors, housing projects, and some sort of device to protect car radios that would activate pepper spray to deter a would-be thief. He even talked about something called the assistant, which would allow owners to disable their vehicle when a carjacker drove off. The doors would remain locked until authorities arrived.
Winner died in a car crash in 2010 aged 81, but the Club remains in circulation. In 2020, Winner International claimed increased sales due to an increase in car thefts during pandemic shutdowns, when cars were left unused for long periods. Security experts generally advise anyone looking for such a device to pair it with another security measure, such as a car alarm or GPS tracking. Its purpose still seems largely psychological, alarming for a thief and reassuring for the owner. Taken in these conditions, the Club is more efficient than ever.