LOVE, HATE & A FORD V8

By Sivan Goren

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The story came to a bloody end on 23 May 1934. But it began a few years before that, during the height of the Depression that swept across the US. At a time when more than 15 million Americans – a quarter of all wage-earning workers – were unemployed, people needed something to believe in. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover, took an apathetic approach and certainly did not provide inspiration – or even attempt to do anything to ‘make America great again’ – and people felt desperate and hopeless. This was more than likely why the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow captured the public imagination in the way it did.

It started out like so many stories do: boy meets girl. But the bits after that (boy and girl go on a robbery and murder spree, become outlaws and get mowed down in a hail of bullets) were what made this real-life story sound like something out of a far-fetched movie. In fact, the story of Bonnie and Clyde was eventually made into a film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, in 1967.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Bonnie Parker was a regular gal who was born in 1910 Rowena, Texas and grew up in fairly normal circumstances, until her brick-layer father died when she was four. Her mother then moved the family back to her parents’ home in an industrial suburb called Cement City, where she worked as a seamstress.

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When Bonnie was not even 16, she dropped out of high school and married Roy Thornton, but the marriage did not last long. By the sounds of it, Roy was not a very nice chap; Bonnie allegedly referred to him as a “roaming husband with a roaming mind.” He would be gone for long periods of time and when he returned, would invariably be drunk and abusive. Apart from the fact that he was frequently away, Roy was also not the most law-abiding citizen and he eventually ended up in prison for robbery. Bonnie moved back to her mother’s house and after January 1929, she never saw her husband again. (Incidentally, the couple never divorced and weirdly, when Bonnie died, she was still wearing Roy’s wedding ring.)

Clyde Barrow had a much poorer upbringing. He was born on 24 March 1909 in Telico, Texas – the sixth of eight children. Clyde’s parents were tenant farmers and lived hand to mouth, often not making enough money to feed their children, and Clyde was frequently sent to live with other relatives. Eventually, when Clyde was 12 years old, his parents gave up farming and moved to West Dallas, an urban slum. In the first few months, Clyde’s family had to live under their wagon until his father had enough money to buy a tent.

The neighbourhood was a pretty rough one, and it wasn’t long before Clyde and his brother Buck began to get into trouble for stealing. Clyde was first arrested in 1926, at the age of 17, for vehicle theft when he did not return a car he had rented. Even though the car rental company dropped the charges, Clyde got a criminal record. Then three weeks later, he was arrested again – this time with Buck – for possession of a truckload of stolen turkeys, of all things.

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Clyde met Bonnie in January 1930 at a mutual friend’s house and that, as they say, was that – from then on, the two were inseparable. But a few weeks after they met, the law caught up with Clyde – he had committed a string of crimes, including cracking safes, robbing shops and stealing cars – and he was sentenced to two years in jail. Bonnie was devastated and, already deeply in love with Clyde, managed to smuggle a gun into the prison. Clyde’s escape attempt failed, and he was captured a week later. This time he was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour at Eastham State Farm, where the conditions were brutal and the work relentless. So much so that in 1932, unable to bear it any longer, he chopped off two of his own toes with an axe in the hopes that he would not be able to work. His timing couldn’t have been worse… unbeknownst to him, he would be released on parole just six days later. But by that time, he was forever changed. When he was released at the age of just 23, his sister Marie said that “something awful sure must have happened to him in prison because he wasn’t the same person when he got out.”

Ralph Fults, a fellow inmate Clyde met at Eastham and with whom he later had criminal dealings, said: “I seen him change from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake. He got real bitter.” According to John Neal Phillips, author of Running With Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults, Clyde’s goal in life was not to gain fame or fortune from robbing banks, but to seek revenge against the Texas prison system – and in particular Eastham – for the abuses he suffered while serving time.

Unsurprisingly, when Clyde’s foot healed, he began to do what he did best: stealing. Not just because he had little other work experience, but also because jobs were not exactly prolific at the time. He was part of a gang nicknamed The Barrow Gang, which included his brother Buck and Buck’s wife Blanche, and Bonnie soon joined them. And so began their lives as outlaws on the road, constantly on the move and always on the run from the law.

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During the next two years, Bonnie and Clyde travelled in various stolen cars from Texas through New Mexico and Oklahoma, to Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, robbing everything from banks, hardware shops and petrol stations. They usually stayed close to the border to aid their getaway, knowing that police could not cross state lines to follow a criminal. During their travels they were captured by police at least twice but escaped each time and continued with their criminal activities. Clyde had several aliases and would also regularly change the stolen car’s licence plate. He studied maps and seemed to know all the back roads like the back of his hand, a talent which proved useful during close shaves with the law.

As news came out about the infamous couple, public interest in them began to grow. Upon raiding their hideout, police found several rolls of undeveloped film. When the now-famous photos emerged showing the pair playfully posing and pointing weapons at each other, and one of Clyde kissing Bonnie in an over-the-top movie style, public fascination reached fever pitch. In particular, the picture of Bonnie posing with a cigar clenched between her teeth and a pistol in her hand caused a stir. Here was a woman who was not only part of a gun-toting gang but was – gasp – smoking cigars! The press branded her as a “cigar-smoking gun moll”, though in truth she only smoked cigarettes.

Then, on 29 April 1934, a new character entered the saga – and one that arguably became the most famous in the whole story: a beautiful, brand-new Ford Fordor V8 sedan that the outlaws stole from newlywed couple Ruth and Jesse Warren. Ford V8s were not new for Bonnie and Clyde; they had stolen several already – in fact, Clyde was a huge fan of the marque in general and apparently attributed his ‘luck’ in getting away to the V8. He loved the car so much that he even sent Henry Ford himself a fan letter, gushing about what “a dandy car” he had made and how “for sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever(y) other car skinned”. Though its authenticity has never been verified, the letter remains on display at the Ford Museum in Michigan.

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The final year of the Ford Model B was 1934, but cars of this era became known simply as Fords V8s. A relatively light body powered by a strong engine made this car faster than most cars on the road at the time. The engine was introduced in 1932, when Ford found a way to mass-produce them effectively. It was a flathead V8 with 85 horsepower, good for a top speed of 65mph (around 105km/h), with power going to the rear wheels via a three-speed manual transmission.

The 1934 Ford V8 was very similar to the 1933 models but had been given a few updates for the new model year. The main changes included an additional 10 horsepower and a different type of carburettor; in the previous year, the engine utilised a traditional Ford Lubricator carburettor but 1934 introduced a dual-downdraft Stromberg with a new over/under manifold. This new combination was responsible for the extra grunt, and Ford V8s fast became popular with many of the gangsters of the Public Enemy Era.

Options included a coupé, the Tudor and Fordor (the more common sedans), the Victoria (the luxury model) and the sporty models (Roadster and Phaeton). Each model had standard and deluxe versions. The standard package included just the basics: adjustable driver’s seat and sun visors, dome light, cubby hole and a choice of interior trim. If you, like the Warrens, had splashed out on the deluxe, you got everything the standard model had as well as cowl lights, dual horns, dual taillights, arm rests, cigar lighter and ashtray. A greyhound hood ornament was also an option for that bit of extra class.

Another fan of the Ford V8 was former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. In February 1934, desperate Texan authorities hired Hamer to track down the deadly duo. Hamer spent weeks driving around Texas, Louisiana and other nearby states trying to find the couple. Plotting their crimes on a map, he realised that they were actually moving in a large circle. Hamer’s theory was that in order to catch them, he would need to think exactly as they would. So he immersed himself completely in everything Bonnie and Clyde and became obsessed with minute details – what clothing they might wear or what cigarettes they smoked. He even lived out of his Ford V8 the same way they did. Hamer knew that when the time came, they would not surrender.

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On that fateful day in May 1934, Bonnie and Clyde drove their stolen Ford V8 into an ambush of six officers on a rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Leaving nothing to chance, the police shot over 130 bullets at the car, killing the couple. In a macabre spectacle, the ‘Death Car’, as it became known, was towed through the streets with the bodies still inside. Even more unbelievably, frenzied crowds crowded round the car, snatching gruesome keepsakes off the corpses. Although Bonnie and Clyde died together, Bonnie’s mother refused to allow them to be buried together, and they were laid to rest in different cemeteries. Their funerals attracted tens of thousands.

The blood-splattered, bullet-riddled car became a grizzly attraction, touring carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for 30 years. It spent some time in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts and then in the 1970s it moved to a race track in Nevada where people could pay $1 to sit in it. For several years thereafter it moved from location to location; its current home is a casino in Primm, Nevada, where it is parked next to the main cashier cage. But the car’s doors are now tied shut and it stands behind panels of glass, with cheap-looking mannequins dressed like Bonnie and Clyde standing next to the car.

It was a sad end to a beautiful car, but the Ford V8 engine’s legacy lived on. The first independently designed and built V8 engine produced by Ford for mass production, it was one of the manufacturer’s most important developments and had a 21-year production run – even longer than that of the Ford Model T engine. Not only did it make Ward’s list of the 10 best engines of the 20th century, to this day it remains famous in classic car circles, despite the huge variety of other popular V8s that followed.

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