The Model T, car thefts and the FBI: What these 3 things have in common

SAN ANTONIO – Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation mainly focuses on national security, but more than 100 years ago, the FBI started with car thefts.

The FBI was founded on July 26, 1908. Seventeen days later, the first mass-produced car, the Model T, was introduced.

“I think it’s interesting to see how those two things occurred very close in time and then how the evolution of the automobile has really changed our country and very much changed the FBI,” said FBI Special Agent Michelle Lee.

As car sales increased, the number of car thefts increased.

“The automobiles that were created in the early 1900s had no locks. The ignitions were very primitive. So they were very easy to hotwire, and they had no identification markings like we do today, like the Vehicle Identification Number,” Lee said.

The widespread access to cars didn’t increase only car thefts; it also increased other crimes. Criminals were able to transport stolen goods, kidnap children and women, traffic drugs and commit bank robberies.

“All of these things they were able to do in a way that they couldn’t before without the automobile,” Lee said.

In 1919, Congress passed the Dyer Act, which is also known as the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. It made it a federal crime to transport a stolen car across state lines. Before the Dyer Act, local and state law enforcement agencies had a hard time capturing car thieves once they were out of their jurisdiction.

In the first two decades of the Dyer Act, the FBI recovered more than 56,000 stolen cars. The recoveries led to more significant cases for the FBI.

“So many of you may recall some gangsters, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. Those gangsters were pursued by the FBI and law enforcement agencies, and they were investigated under the Dyer Act,” said Lee.

With the rise of car thefts, it also led the FBI to create new crime-solving tools, including a laboratory in 1932.

“That brought the capability of being able to create a database of tire treads and automobile paint samples,” Lee said.

Today, those innovations are also used to solve violent crimes, including murder.

About the Authors

Brina is the Executive Producer of the NightBeat and KSAT Explains. She has been with KSAT since 2015. She is a Houston native and proud to call San Antonio home.

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