Original publish date: May, 2014 Reissue date: October 10, 2019
In parts I & II of this article, we recalled the bloody death of outlaws Bonnie & Clyde and explored their Indiana connection. By now, you know the Barrow gang robbed a bank in the tiny community in North Central Indiana known as Lucerne and that Clyde was wearing a shirt made by the Wasson’s department store in Indianapolis when he shot to pieces by Texas lawmen 80 years ago on May 23, 1934. But what about the death car? That bullet riddled Ford V-8 coffin of Crimedom’s best known romantic duo? Well, long-story-short, the Bonnie & Clyde death car is owned by (and on display at) Whiskey Pete’s Las Vegas Casino which also owns the Clyde Barrow death shirt. But how it got there, well that is an interesting story.
Clyde Barrow loved to drive Ford V-8’s. He didn’t like to pay for them and it is unlikely that he ever owned one outright, but he sure could steal ’em. Those who knew, or chased, Clyde said with unanimity that when he slid behind the wheel of a flathead Ford, Clyde Barrow became a part of that car. He could drive those cars so fast and loose around those dirt lined country backroads that no lawman alive had a chance of ever getting a sniff of him. I guess that’s why those six Texas lawmen decided to wait roadside in the brush for Bonnie and Clyde to coast past before popping up and unloading 167 bullets into them.
Clyde once famously wrote a letter to Henry Ford praising his cars. The letter, dated April 10th, 1934, was sent from Tulsa, Oklahoma and reads as written: “Mr. Henry Ford Detroit Mich. 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 anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 -Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow” The letter is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Bonnie & Clyde death car, known by crime aficionados as “The Warren Car”, was technically known as a “1934 Ford Model 730 Deluxe sedan Fordor model”. Built in February 1934 at the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, it featured a large 85 horsepower Ford V-8 flathead engine with a manual 3-speed transmission and rode on Firestone tires. It was purchased by Miss. Ruth Warren from the Mosby-Mack Motor Company of Topeka Kansas for $ 835 and was “Cordoba Gray” in color.
The death car belonged to Ruth and Jesse Warren, a roofing contractor in Topeka. Ruth bought her new Ford for $782.92 – $200 down, $582.92 to be paid by April 15. It was a beautiful automobile with special seat covers, bumper guards, a metal cover on the extra tire, an Arvin hot water heater, and a leaping greyhound in shiny chrome on the radiator cap. The windows not only rolled up and down, but also slid backward almost two inches for partial ventilation. The running boards were wide, and the doors, both front and back, swung outward toward the rear to open. Ford Dealers of the 1930’s advertised that this new V-8 would get nearly twenty miles to the gallon at forty-five miles an hour. But Clyde Barrow proved it could go much faster then that.
For a month and a half the Warrens ran the car at low speeds to break it in smoothly. By late April they had driven 1,243 miles and had paid the balance owed on it. On Sunday, April 29, 1934, she took the car out for a short trip and returning home, she parked it in the driveway, leaving the keys in the ignition. The new car had been sitting in their driveway for only a short time when Ruth, who had been doing dishes, looked out the window and noticed it was missing. Ruth believed her husband had driven it to a nearby neighbor’s house. But just to be sure, she called him and learned that he hadn’t taken the car.
She called the police and reported the car as stolen. According to the police report, shortly after one o’clock, neighbors saw a man and a woman circling the block in a Plymouth coupe. Later the mystery couple returned, this time with a man riding on the right running board. He jumped off, climbed into the Warren’s car, started it, backed out of the driveway, and sped away. The Warrens wouldn’t see their new Ford for three months.
Clyde would put 7,500 miles (in only 25 days) on the odometer before it rolled to dead stop on that deserted dusty Louisiana highway barely 3 weeks later. Clyde added Arkansas license plate # 15-368, stolen just a week before the massacre, to the car immediately after boosting the automobile. The plate had originally belonged to a Mr. Merle Cruse of Fayetteville, Ark. Later, when Mr. Cruse was in a theater watching newsreel footage of the death scene and impounded death car, he noticed it bore his stolen plate. He jumped up excitedly exclaiming “THAT’S MY LICENSE PLATE!”
On May 23, 1934, an Associated Press reporter notified the Warrens that their car had been found in Arcadia, Louisiana. But the reporter warned Ruth that before she got too excited, there were a couple of things wrong with the car. The upholstery was blood-soaked, and the vehicle had 167 bullet holes in it’s body. In response to the stunned silence coming from the other end, the reporter told the Warrens to check out that evening’s newspaper. The headline read, “Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow Shot Down In Louisiana” and right there was the Warren’s car with the bodies of America’s most famous outlaws grotesquely twisted in the throes of death inside.
In a flash of violence, the Warren’s Ford became the most famous car on the planet. Soon everybody in the area knew the story of the death car and by the time the coroner arrived, a souvenir-mad mob had gathered, everyone trying to get mementos. Bits of window glass were broken off, swatches of blood-soaked upholstery were ripped away and the chrome was a twisted, mangled mess. A wrecker arrived and hooked the gray Ford up (with Bonnie and Clyde still inside) and the makeshift rolling coffin made the fifteen mile trip into Arcadia. The car stopped occasionally to let curious clusters of people along the road peer in at the bodies. Behind the wrecker a long line of cars followed.
After the ambush Mrs. Ruth Warren arrived in Bienville Parish, Louisiana to claim her car. Sheriff Henderson Jordan refused to release it to her, claiming that she would have to pay $15,000 to get it back. Warren quickly hired attorney W.D.Goff from Arcadia to represent her. Goff claimed that by Jordan setting the value of the car over $3,000, the case would surely wind up in Federal Court. Because of Sheriff Jordan’s refusal to comply, Federal Judge Benjamin Dawkins threatened to send the sheriff to jail if he did not return the car to Mrs. Warren. She finally got her car back and amazingly drove it to Shreveport, Louisiana, bullet holes and all. From there the car was taken by truck, back to Topeka, Kansas, where it sat in her driveway at 2107 Gabler Street for several days.
Jesse Warren didn’t want anything to do with it and thought it was horrible thing to have the death car parked in his driveway looking like a mess. What would anybody want with a bloody car full of bullet holes? But Ruth soon took control and leased the car to John Castle of United Shows, who exhibited it at the Topeka Fairgrounds. But in September of 1934, Castle defaulted in paying rent. It took the Warrens, another trip to court to repossess the car. Within a short time, a Kansas man name Duke Mills appeared. Billing himself as a “master showman and display expert”, Duke approached Jesse Warren with a plan to exhibit the car at the “Century of Progress” Worlds Fair in Chicago. He offered to rent the car for $50.00 a week and pay Jesse a commission of the ticket proceeds on top of that. But that deal never materialized.
Ruth then rented the death car to carnival operator Charles Stanley, who exhibited it on the Hennies Brothers Midways in his 1939 crime show. Stanley displayed the car outside of his tent and charged admission to see the film of the actual ambush on the inside. Eventually, multiple bullet-riddled 1934 Ford Fordor sedans began appearing on the county fair and carnival circuit over the next few years, all claiming to be the actual death car. The various owners sometimes vigorously defended their claims, too, casting doubt on the authenticity of the real death car. Aside from the damage to historical accuracy, the frauds cut into the revenue generated by Ruth Warren as the death car toured the country.
After Ruth divorced her husband Jesse, she kept the title to the car and sold it to Stanley for $3,500.The car was then exhibited at Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati from 1940-1960. After World War II, memories faded and interest waned in the “Public Enemies” Era, pushing the car further-and-further into obscurity. In a 1960 issue of Billboard magazine, Stanley offered the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car for sale. Ted Toddy purchased the car in 1960 for $14,500. The car then sat in a warehouse for years until the popularity of the 1967 movie “Bonnie & Clyde” brought it out of retirement.
In 1971 Toddy leased his car to the Royal American Shows. In 1973 the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car was purchased by Peter Simon of the Oasis Casino in Jean Nevada for $175.000. It was eventually put on permanent display at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm Nevada not far from the California Stateline. The display is free and the car rests prominently, yet unceremoniously, behind photo-obscuring reflective glass in the casino lobby flanked by a pair of macabre “Bonnie and Clyde” mannequins. The death car is part of a special display of Bonnie & Clyde personal items including the light blue cowboy shirt that Clyde was wearing when he was nearly shot to pieces. The shirt that Clyde Champion Barrow bought at Wasson’s Department Store in Indianapolis 80 years ago this month.
Next Week: Part IV of Bonnie & Clyde-Saga of he Death Car