Criminals, Pop Culture

Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde. PART II.

zz Dillinger-Ford-Bonnie-Cltde part 2

Original publish date:  May 21, 2020

As discussed in part I of this series, Henry Ford had early connections to auto racing’s two biggest cities: Indianapolis and Daytona. And despite his straight-laced appearance, boy scout demeanor and pious reputation, he also had connections to some of the biggest names in the history of crime. Those connections were not personal, they came from his innate ability to create quality automobiles.

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Clyde Barrow in his Ford V-8.

Star-crossed lovers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are infamous for their two-year crime spree from 1932 until their deaths in a hail of bullets in 1934. At the time of their death, they were believed to have committed 13 murders and dozens of robberies and burglaries across the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. One reason for their “success” was due to the driving skill of Clyde Barrow. And for Clyde, there was no better car on the road than the Ford V8. The Ford V8-powered automobile was introduced in 1932 by the Ford Motor Company. From the start, the V8 proved tremendously popular with motorists.
zz ClydeClyde had an uncanny ability to steal Ford V8 cars and evade the police whenever he was trapped, cornered or surrounded. Clyde claimed that a Ford V8 car could outmaneuver and outrun any police car that attempted to follow him. Additionally, living a life on the run meant that Clyde and Bonnie spent days (or weeks) traveling long distances and sleeping in their car at night. Clyde supposedly preferred Ford V8s because he thought that their bodies were thicker and, thereby, more bullet-resistant. And those famous photos of Bonnie and Clyde mugging, clowning and romancing for the camera, most of them include a Ford V8 in the background.
zz bonnie-parkerClyde Barrow loved the Ford V8 so much that he wrote a letter to Henry Ford in April of 1934 praising the car. Addressed simply to “Mr. Henry Ford Detroit, Mich.” from “Tulsa, Okla. 10th April” the letter, misspellings and all, reads: “Dear Sir:- While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8- Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow” (Clyde Barrow’s middle name was actually Chestnut. He jokingly listed “Champion” as his middle name when he entered the Texas state prison at Huntsville in 1930.)
img209Amazingly, after Ford’s secretary failed to recognize the outlaw’s name,a reply was sent on April 18th. The neatly typed letter on the ornate letterhead of the Ford Motor Company reads: “Mr. Clyde Barrow, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dear Sir: On behalf of Mr. Ford, we wish to acknowledge your letter of April 10 and thank you for your comments regarding the Ford car. H.R. Waddell, Secretary’s Office.” Six weeks later, Bonnie and Clyde were dead. A debate rages to this day as to whether the letter is authentic or not. Regardless, it is a priceless piece of Americana that can often be found on public display at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. When Dillinger was asked about Bonnie & Clyde after his capture and incarceration at Crown Point, he responded, “Bonnie & Clyde? Huh, a couple a punks.”
img208Ironically, a month later, Henry Ford would receive another letter. In May of 1934, a letter arrived from the most famous gangster in the world: John Dillinger. Like the previous letter, this one features the official stamp of the Henry Ford office, dated May 17, 1934. The letter is postmarked from Detroit and, like the Bonnie & Clyde letter, is entirely handwritten. It reads: “Hello Old Pal. Arrived here at 10:00 AM today. Would like to drop in and see you. You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It’s a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, Drive a Ford and watch the other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford’s dust! Bye-Bye, John Dillinger”. The Dillinger gang had just held up the Citizens Commercial Savings Bank in Flint, Michigan, on May 18, 1934. Like the Barrow letter, the authenticity of the letter writer is called into question. A week after this letter was received, Bonnie and Clyde were dead. 67 days later, so was John Dillinger. While Dillinger died in a Chicago Alley next to the Biograph Theater, Clyde Barrow died behind the wheel of his last stolen car: a Ford V8.
Regardless, at least one Ford dealer recognized an opportunity when he saw it.

zz Dillinger fullThe letter, coming on the heels of the disastrous escape by Dillinger and his gang from the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin a month before on April 22, inspired a Milwaukee Ford Motor Car dealership to create and distribute a sales brochure asking the question, “Will They Catch John Dillinger?” on the front. When opened, it featured the answer, “Not Until They Get Him Out of a Ford V-8!” with additional info at bottom reading, “NEWS NOTE: John Dillinger evaded capture by making speedy get-away in new Ford V-8 after famous jail break at Crown Point, Indiana. His spectacular get-away from Little Bohemia Resort, Mercer, Wisconsin, was also in a Ford V-8.” The back of the brochure touts the Ford V-8’s “Speed: The Ford V-8 can do better than 80 miles per hour and keep it up, hour after hour. It has vibrationless pickup, tremendous hill climbing ability, and holds the road perfectly.” The “Economy: The new dual down-draft carburetion system of the Ford V-8 provides increased fuel economy at all speeds. The Ford V-8 gives better gasoline mileage than any other six or eight of equal power.” And, perhaps confirming Clyde Barrows assertion, the “Safety: The Ford all-steel body is inherently strong and exceedingly durable. It is electrically welded into a one-piece construction, giving greater safety and quietness.” The brochure concludes with the dealership name and address at 407 E. Michigan Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Furthermore, in October of 1934, when Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was gunned down by G-men in a farm field in East Liverpool, Ohio, it was a Ford V8 that brought him there. And during the 1940s, what was the moonshine distillers’ favorite rum runner car? A 1940 Ford with a flathead V-8 that could be souped up, or replaced with a newer, more powerful engine-maybe from a Caddy ambulance. The 1940 Ford Coupe had a huge trunk for hauling shine. NASCAR great Junior Johnson (who was still running bootleg moonshine when he was winning races in the 1950s) once said the fastest car he ever ran was a flathead Ford. Mafia Dons Carlos Gambino and Paul Castellano along with mob hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski all drove Ford Lincoln Continentals. Thus, it was no coincidence that “The Godfather” film featured a 1941 Lincoln Continental. And you pop culture crime buffs will easily recall that when O.J. Simpson made his “escape”, he did it in a white Ford Bronco. So, let me ask you, have you driven a Ford lately?

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Baby Face Nelson.
Criminals, Indy 500, Pop Culture

Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde. PART I.

Dillinger-Ford-Bonnie-Cltde part 1

Original publish date:  May 14, 2020

Like all Americans, Covid-19 is affecting my life and adjusting my normal routine. For more than a quarter century, the Hunter family has ventured down to Daytona Beach, Florida every spring for an annual getaway. Well, that vacay was cancelled this year. The seriousness of this pandemic far outweigh a lost vacation and, when viewed alongside the sufferings of many of my fellow Hoosiers, is a minor issue indeed. So, since we are all confined to quarters together, I decided to write about a few things I have always loved about Daytona Beach.
z 4c204cccdb56508fb665c0a2c1a5ec5bThere is a lot of history on the world’s most famous beach: cars, gangsters, auto racing, motorcycles, bootleggers and Henry Ford, for starters. When you think of auto racing, two American cities come to mind: Indianapolis and Daytona. However, before Indianapolis and Daytona, Ormond Beach was the mecca of auto racing. Ormond Beach just north of Daytona, held races on the beach from 1902 until after World War II. At that time, Ormond Beach was a playground for America’s rich and famous: The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Henry Flagler, John Jacob Astor; all spent their winters at the old Ormond Hotel.
z 08_DMNz_125From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race on the beach. Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona after World War I as the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.z france card unnamed
In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the drivers was Bill France, who later founded NASCAR. The first stock-car race after World War II was held in the spring of 1946. During that race, Bill France flipped has race his car and spectators rushed onto the beach to turn the car back on its wheels. Bill France finished the race. The next year, France began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach.

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Bill France, Sr.

In 1937 Bill France, now a promoter and no longer a driver, arranged for the Savannah 200 Motorcycle race to be moved to the 3.2-mile Daytona Beach Road Course. World War II cancelled the races held between 1942 and 1946. By 1948, the old beach course had become so developed commercially that a new beach course was designed further south, towards Ponce Inlet (where our family time-share condo is located). The new course length was increased from the previous 3.2 miles to 4.1-miles. By the mid-1950s, the new beach course was lost to the rapid commercial growth of the Daytona Beach area.

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Bill France Sr. at Daytona International Speedway.

In 1957, France purchased a site near the Daytona airport and construction began on the Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile paved, oval-shaped circuit with steep banked curves to facilitate higher speeds. The track opened in 1958. The first Daytona 500, run in 1959, was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty. France convinced AMA officials to move the beach race to the Speedway in 1961. Today, the motorcycle racers are honored in a memorial garden, not unlike monument park in Yankee Stadium, located near the bandshell and Ferris Wheel off the Daytona Beach Boardwalk. Bill France is as much a legend in Daytona as Tony Hulman is in the Circle City and Henry Ford in the Motor City.
Although Henry Ford raced cars as a young man (he was the first American to claim a land speed record with his “flying mile” in 39.4 seconds, averaging 91.370 miles per hour in his “999” car on January 12, 1904) and attended many of the early Indianapolis 500 races as an honorary official, he did not allow his cars to take part in the races. In 1935 Edsel Ford brought his Ford V8 Miller to the IMS and after the elder Ford’s death in April 1947, the company had considerable success at Indianapolis (Mario Andretti won in a Ford powered turbocharged dohc “Indy” V-8 known as the “Hawk” in 1969). Bottom line, in the early years of automobiles, Henry Ford’s cars were fast.
z 5148ab5255e50.imageSo it comes as no surprise that the gangsters of the 1930s drove Fords. In particular, outlaws John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson all preferred the Ford Model V8. Introduced in 1932, it was touted as America’s first affordable big-engine car. Dillinger also is said to have owned a Model A and what’s more, in mid-December of 1933, he drove his Ford to Daytona Beach for a vacation. After secretly visiting the Dillinger family farm in Mooresville, America’s first Public Enemy # 1 brought along girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, Hoosier “Handsome Harry” Pierpont and his “molls” Mary Kinder, her sister Margaret and Opal Long and gang members Russell Clark and Fat Charlie Makley. The gang rented a spacious 3-story, seventeen room beach house for $ 100 a month at 901 South Atlantic Avenue until Mid-January, 1934. The house, long ago demolished, was located across the street from Seabreeze high school on the spot where “Riptides Raw Bar & Grill” and the Aliki Atrium are located today. Vacationers will recognize the “Riptides” name from the banner pulled by the tail of an airplane that constantly trails up and down Daytona beach.

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Riptides Bar Today.

Billie later called the house a mansion with four fireplaces. The gang swam, played cards, fished, went horseback riding and reportedly took a side-trip to Miami. Billie also stated that Dillinger spent his days chuckling as he listened to radio reports and read newspaper stories about the robberies he and the gang were committing back in Illinois and Indiana. On New Years Eve a drunken Dillinger (who normally drank very little) exited the house and fired a full drum of bullets from his tommy gun at the moon. Three young boys, the Warnock brothers, lived next door and ran out to see what was going on. When they saw Dillinger with flames spitting out of the muzzle of his tommy gun, they quickly ran back into the house. Sobering up the next morning and sure that his rash act would bring on the law, Dillinger and the gang packed up the Ford V8 and head out two weeks before the rental contract ended.
By January 1, 1934, John Dillinger had just two hundred days to live. He would spend that time praising Henry Ford and damning Bonnie and Clyde, who, ironically had less than 150 days to live and were also praising Henry Ford.
Next week:

Part II of Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde.