The History Of The Getaway Car And Where It Started

1900s | April 10, 2021

1912 Stanley steam car. (Stephen Foskett/Wikimedia Commons)

Before the advent of the automobile, bank robbers, rustlers, and no-goodniks of all stripes fled the scenes of their crimes on horseback, but as cars became more affordable and readily available in the 20th century, the getaway car became a must-have accessory for the criminally employed. It's believed that the term entered the cultural lexicon in 1901, but figuring out who used the first getaway car and what crime they were committing is easier said than done.

The First Getaway Car

The first use of the phrase "getaway car" dates back to a robbery in Paris that took place on October 26, 1901, but there's no source for the claim, so it's hard to pinpoint its actual inception. It's even harder to track down the first time such a vehicle was used. If we're counting small potatoes incidents and not actual heists, it's possible the first getaway car was used in the 1860s, when Francis Curtis used his Curtis Steamer to drive away from a police officer following a noise complaint.

In 1866, Curtis invented a steam engine that was meant to be used in firefighting, holding a 20-gallon water tank and 80-lb. coal box. Its five-horsepower engine could reach speeds of up to a whopping 25 miles per hour, and it was incredibly loud, so it certainly wasn't the stealthiest getaway. In fact, its noise was the reason the getaway was necessary. His neighbors filed noise complaints about Curtis testing his steam engine, but when the police arrived, Curtis just drove away.

De Dion's steam tricycle. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Getaway Car's Heyday

By the 20th century, steam-powered automobiles were readily available. They might not be what we think of as the perfect ride for escaping police custody, but officers still mostly patrolled on foot, so even those ancient beasts that topped out at 30 miles per hour were still a good option.

They were also headline news. On August 29, 1909, the Rich Hill Tribune reported that a group of "Bank Robbers in Motor Car" used this new technology to make off with $7,000 from the bank of Santa Clara by hopping in a "hired automobile" to evade arrest. They made it about seven miles before they were caught by a posse of civilians who also drove cars.

It was France's Bonnot gang, however, who really put getaway cars on the map. The group was a part of the Illegalists, a group of anarchists who believed crime was the best way to bring down capitalism. On December 21, 1911, the gang made off with 5,126 francs and an unknown amount of securities deposits from the Société Générale Bank before fleeing in a limousine that had been stolen a week prior. A few months later, the group stole a De Dion-Bouton four cylinder to carry out a raid on a bank in Chantilly.

Bonnie and Clyde with their getaway car, c. 1932–34. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Getaway Cars Today

Automobiles may have changed drastically since the beginning of the 20th century, but little has changed about the getaway car since the Bonnot gang drafted its blueprint. More often than not, they're stolen from an area that's far enough away that it can't be connected to the person or persons using it and then ditched in a similarly remote location. Even the crimes themselves have changed little: One or two people run into a bank and demand money while a driver waits to speed away. The only difference between getaway cars of today and the early 1900s is that an Edwardian-era getaway car couldn't outrun your grandma on even its best day.

Tags: 1900s | cars | crime

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.