THE LAUREL CHRONICLES
Death Cars on Tour
By Kevin Leonard | May 30, 2021
The public’s appetite for lurid exhibits was on display twice in Laurel involving automobiles with gruesome histories, and both were subject to doubt about authenticity.
Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car
In April 1934, six weeks before his death, notorious killer and bank robber Clyde Barrow wrote a letter to Henry Ford, praising his cars. The letter, which is housed in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, read:
Mr. Henry Ford
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 every 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.
Clyde Champion Barrow
Just before the letter was written, Ruth Warren of Topeka, Kansas, bought a new 1934 Ford Model 730 Deluxe Sedan for $835 in March. A month later, on April 29, 1934, her car was stolen by Bonnie & Clyde. Their gang had been on a crime spree for the past 20 months across the Midwest and police were hot on their trail. One month later, on May 23, 1934, after putting an additional 2,500 miles on Warren’s new car, Bonnie & Clyde were killed by police in an ambush near Sailes, Bienville Parish, Louisiana.
The six officers, led by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, each had an automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol, and each officer emptied all of his guns, continuing to fire when the car drifted off the road into a ditch and came to a stop. The bodies had 50 bullet holes between them, and the car was punctured with an additional 160 bullet holes. The interior of the car was covered in blood.
After a minor legal dispute with local authorities, Warren’s car was returned to her, and she drove it back to Topeka, bullet holes, blood, and all. The car instantly became a source of fascination and plenty of hucksters were itching to get their hands on it. The car changed hands many times over the years by exhibitors, who took it on tours around the country. The public’s fascination with the car led to a handful of fakes that also toured the country.
In Laurel, the Academy Garage on Washington Boulevard had the car on display for one day, May 29, 1940. The ad announcing the display of the car covered with bullet holes and dried blood was interesting, to say the least:
“An educational exhibit proving that crime doesn’t pay. Bring the children!”
Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car has been on display in a casino in Primm, Nevada since 1988. Although some still doubt its authenticity, it has been verified by experts as the genuine article.
In the waning days of World War II, Sgtgoo Joe Azara and the rest of the Twentieth Armored Division found themselves deep in Germany fending off the last gasp of the Nazis, who would surrender days later. While on patrol, Azara came upon a huge automobile fastened to a railroad car. He sneaked up and engaged in a firefight with the four Germans guarding the auto. The Nazis eventually gave up and Sgt Azara had probably the most unique captured war souvenir—Hitler’s limousine, or so he thought.
This was no ordinary limo: a 1941 230-horsepower Mercedes-Benz Grosser 770K Model open touring car with room for eight passengers. It was 20 feet long and seven feet wide, carried a 52-gallon tank, fitted with 1¼ inch bulletproof windows and armor plating, and had 13 secret compartments to stash Lugers. The beast weighed nearly 5 tons.
Hitler’s limo shared a few things with Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car: hucksters couldn’t wait to get their hands on it, there were doubts about its authenticity, it toured the country on exhibit, and there were a handful of fakes promoted as the real thing. Even though Sgt Azara’s captured limo was eventually identified as Herman Göring’s personal limo, not Hitler’s, publicity for the exhibits usually continued to use Hitler’s name.
SOURCE: HENRY FORD MUSEUM OF INNOVATION
SOURCE: FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
SOURCE: CATER NEWS
SOURCE: LAUREL LEADER
SOURCE: WORLDWIDE AUCTIONEERS
COURTESY OF DEBRA WEIDRICK
Accompanied by Sgt Azara—who became known as “GI Joe” in the media—the car toured the country for the government raising money for charity and publicity for war bond sales. As described in Robert Klara’s book, The Devil’s Mercedes, “As 1950 approached, [the] Hitler car had traveled twenty thousand miles and stopped in forty cities, and in the following two years it would crisscross the country three times.” The car appeared in Frederick, Towson, and Cumberland, Maryland, and Washington, DC.
To confuse things, there were plenty of Nazi limousines and staff cars seized by the U.S. Army. As Klara puts it, “It’s anyone’s guess how many Hitler cars were ‘discovered’ in the years after the war, but there were enough of them out there that suspicions about their authenticity appeared pretty early.” But whose was whose? According to Klara, “from day one, neither the army nor the Treasury Department troubled itself to keep any of the cars’ identities straight and, in fact, seemed comfortable with using them interchangeably.” The staff curator at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where some of the autos were stored, said, “No history of any of these vehicles was furnished this office.”
On April 26, 1951, the Leader’s headline announced, “Hitler’s Car Coming Here May 1.” It was displayed at Hudnet’s Texaco Station on Route 1 with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to benefit from donations. But was the car displayed in Laurel actually Hitler’s? When I showed him the clipping from the Leader, Klara explained,
“This was the French Pullman. I wrote about it in the book.
It was captured in Berchtesgaden on May 7, 1945, by the Free French Forces under the command of Gen. Leclerc, who later presented it to Charles de Gaulle. After the war, the French shuttled the car between Paris and Lyon to raise money for charities. The car came to the United States at some point, and it wound up in that warehouse in Syracuse. It was most certainly part of the fleet of limousines available to the Nazi elite. But whether it ever carried Hitler is very difficult to say. Hitler did not care for hard-top limos, and that’s what this car is. I recall from somewhere that he only rode in one of these cars a couple of times. At most, if memory serves me correctly, maybe even just once. As with so many of the purported ‘Hitler Cars,’ it’s just impossible to substantiate the usage unless you have a photo showing the original license plate and Hitler riding in the car. Even then, it’s hard, since most of the plates disappeared. Anyway, this car was in the garage at Berchtesgaden, so probably carried Hitler’s awful henchmen. As for Hitler? Maybe. We just don’t know. Or, rather, I don’t know personally. There were so many of these Benzes running around after the war that tracking down all of them and attempting to run down the histories for each would literally be a lifetime’s work. Alas, that will have to be someone else’s lifetime.”
SOURCE: ST. MARTIN'S PRESS
SOURCE: LAUREL LEADER