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Classic car theft

A few weeks ago a classic 50 year old Triumph Stag was stolen from its owner, writes Dr Ken German.

It was believed to have been winched aboard a low loader in the middle of the night without the owner or any of the neighbours hearing a thing! After this reasonably well executed theft the car was surprisingly found burnt out later the same day by Thames Valley Police. The owner needless to say was devastated at the wanton destruction of his car and for no apparent reason.

Another recent incident where a 1961 Volkswagen Beetle was stolen and burnt out for what initially appeared to be ‘fun’ left yet another owner heartbroken; the car had been with the same family since it was purchased new for £716 and 10 shillings pence by the owner’s father. The burnt out wrecks of stolen cars have for some time blighted the local countryside and many have been attributed to youngsters either getting their kicks or eradicating any evidence that they were responsible. Not all of these malicious acts of arson are pointless however as some investigators have discovered, particularly with old and rarer vehicles.

Incidents investigated by the police, insurance investigators and assessors often together have discovered that not all torched vehicles have suffered such a simple fate but are actually part of a deception and fraud. For example a 1959 Ford Escort was stolen allegedly from a garage and discovered a few days after theft completely destroyed by fire in an area well known locally for such occurrences. This backwater was described by the local police ‘as downtown Beirut’ for obvious reasons.

The identification was made by a conveniently placed registration plate lying nearby. The bonnet could not be opened as it appeared to have welded itself to the body due to intense heat. The insurance assessors were happy with a desktop examination and a photograph from the police who identified the car by the registration plate which matched the vehicle’s description. The registered owner was informed the car was removed from the stolen file on the PNC.

The fear of inhaling hydrofluoric acid due to the decomposing wiring looms, gaskets and seals in the heat (Fluor elastomers) still exists and continues to deter close examination of recently burnt vehicles.

The torched car had in fact been an inferior later model Escort in poor condition. Should anyone have opened the bonnet they would have discovered its identification VIN number had been cut out and its engine number erased. At that time the real stolen car was actually in a garage nearby ready to be sold along with a V5 registration document which in this instance was a replacement obtained by deception. The car was sold to an innocent purchaser (IP) who realised quite quickly that his vehicle was shown as a ‘total loss’ and would not be allowed on the road.

The DVLA would never issue a registration document for such a vehicle (Category A, Scrap only. For cars so badly damaged they should be crushed and never re-appear on the road. Even salvageable parts must be destroyed). The thief received both payments from his insurance company for the theft of his car and for its later sale to the IP.

A similar example of fraud involved a stolen 1959 Citroen 2CV in pristine condition which again was discovered completely destroyed by fire. The identification of this was by a chassis plate attached to the nearside of the bulkhead. This was examined and found to be identical to that of the stolen car. No one suspected anything other than vandalism at the time and the owner received payment from his insurer.

The thief had in fact removed the valuable canvas roof, seats, wheels, doors and most of the ancillary parts before torching it. The rarity of these items could receive a great deal of interest from enthusiasts with offers for various parts some equalling the £598 which had been the value of the car when new in 1959. Again the insurance company was paid out for his loss and the thief got away (not for the first time) with what may be at face value a perfect fraud.

Despite simple checks that establishes a car’s provenance or whether it is or is not stolen, the temptation to purchase a reasonably priced classic car with a promise from the vendor that ‘it has no paperwork because it is a barn find’ or the ‘V5 will follow shortly’ still does deceive many owners who will lose both their car and their money. Research has shown that of all the 525,000 cars reported stolen in the UK over the past five years only 236,250 have so far been recovered.

Of these 4pc (one in 25) were new models, 64pc were reportedly over ten years old and 1.25pc (6,562) were over 30 years of age. It’s believed that a good proportion of these stolen 6562 classic cars that actually remain in the UK will have been stripped and sold as valuable spare parts. This is a market that is keen here but thriving away from our shores.

That said the restrictions on traffic travelling between the UK and Europe due to both covid-19 and Brexit has seen a notable reluctance by traffickers to chance the queues at their normal exits from the UK and also retract using shipping containers which have been subject to more scrutiny of late for the same reason. This has to be fairly good news for the victims of the latest list of stolen classics which include two Ford Mustang cars, one a Shelby GT350, a VW camper van, a Rover P5, two MK1 Ford Escorts and two period Minis.

Should traffickers make it across ‘La Manche’ with their spoils however, their destiny will probably see the stolen cars quickly cloned and re-registered in any one of half a dozen countries in Europe where few questions are asked and where fake licences, insurance certificates, forged import papers and bogus vehicle documents are more readily accepted. Surprisingly last year after good use of social media several victims of theft did actually locate their own stolen cars and citizen’s arrests were made.

The police who did attend established that whilst the cars were indeed the victims’ stolen cars they had in fact been recovered months earlier and the respective insurers, having paid out the owners for the loss had taken title to the cars and resold them without informing the victims. Something they are not obliged to do unless arrangements are made at the time of inception. Victims of theft may take comfort in the 1987 stated case that suggests that even if their car is sold on to others who purchase it in good faith without the knowledge of theft; they do not acquire title to it (R.W.Jones v N.E.G. Insurance).

Proving it or its component parts are those from a stolen car in a court of law, however, is another matter. It can be done and I have proven that vehicles were genuine in court by virtue of a unique locking wheel nut! Also on another case, a gasket for a carburettor made at a roadside in an emergency from the owners business card still intact!

About the author

Former Met Police man Dr Ken German is a past president of the UK branch of the IAATI (International Association of Auto Theft Investigators).


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