The Hottest Item on Wheels: Hubcap Theft

On January 27 of this year, Don Cerveny went out to his apartment’s parking lot to find that the hubcaps on his 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville had been swiped. For most people that’s an exasperating experience, but for Cerveny, it was nothing short of disaster. Since September of 1976, Cerveny had lost 14 of the deluxe wire hubcaps – total of $982 worth – despite marking them with his driver’s license number and securing them with special locks. Soon afterward, he received word that his insurance was being cancelled.

“I threw in the towel,”Cerveny,director of American Medical Symposia, says. “It was just too much . . . This time I got plain vanilla, the regular type of caps. I figured at least those would be safe. The guy that sold them to me felt so sorry for me he gave me a discount, but even the plain caps cost $100.”

Don Cerveny learned about the epidemic of hubcap theft the hard way. Stealing hubcaps has increased perhaps as much as fifty-fold during the past year, though precise figures are hard to come by, since police didn’t bother to keep separate statistics on hubcap thefts until the first of this year. (The fact that Lt. Cliff Macsas, head of crime analysis, had two sets stolen from his Ford LTD in November, may have helped alert the records keepers.) Police estimate that 40 to 50 hubcaps per month were stolen during most of 1976, but in November an estimated 400 to 500 were ripped off. And in January and February of 1977, over 2,000 caps, with a total value of over $200,000, were taken each month.

Why are the thieves suddenly so interested in hubcaps? Sgt. J. W. Lusk, supervisor in the crime analysis unit and the man in charge of stopping the wave of hubcap thefts, says the answer is simple: “CB thefts have dropped way off lately, probably because they aren’t worth as much since the first of the year when the 40-channels came out. So the thieves have turned to wheel caps.”

There’s also a lower penalty for stealing hubcaps. Taking a CB is a felony “burglary of a motor vehicle,” while taking hub-caps is theft, and becomes a felony only if the value of the caps exceeds $200.

But perhaps the major reason for the thefts is that it’s easy to fence stolen hub-caps. The police are reluctant to name the names of the businesses they think are buying most of the stolen caps, because, as Lusk says, “the only way we can make a case is to catch them with marked caps in their possession, that is, marked caps on which we have a theft report. Right now we could sit outside one of those places and some guy could drive up and unload 50 sets of caps before our eyes and there’s not a darn thing we could do if they weren’t marked and hot.”

Though the police won’t identify the suspected purchasers, suspicion falls most heavily on the discount hubcap outlets that sell caps at well below automobile dealers’ prices. To test the market for hubcaps that could be “hot,” D Magazine borrowed a set of new Cadillac Seville caps, retail value $476, from a new car dealer. We took the caps to Watson’s Wheel Covers, on Garland Road in Dallas, where we were told that the owner was out, but that the caps were worth “$75, maybe $100.” A call to Gabby Hall Auto parts on Hawn Freeway, brought an offer of only $50 over the phone.

When he was contacted later, C. B. Watson, owner of Watson’s Wheel Covers, said he “just flat won’t buy hubcaps from someone who walks in with them off the street. I’ve been in business here ten years – and that would be a hell of a way to run a business. You and I both know the hubcaps would be hot.”

Watson said he bought his hubcaps from “different dealers, different sources.” Asked about his source for the expensive wire Cadillac caps, Watson claimed he purchased his wire hubs from Lone Star Cadillac. (Watson refused a request for an interview at his store, saying “the stockholders wouldn’t allow it.”)

Bill Daniels, the manager of Gabby Hall Auto Parts, said the owner, Gabby Hall, was out of town, but Daniels claimed that they “won’t buy caps from what you might call your thieves.” Daniels said they bought most of their replacement hubcaps from a company in Chicago. Asked about his source for the Cadillac wire caps, Daniels also claimed that Gabby Hall bought Cadillac caps from Lone Star Cadillac.

But the parts manager, Earl Cullens, of Lone Star Cadillac, said he had never sold Cadillac caps to Gabby Hall, as far as he could remember. They sold no more than three or four caps a week to Watson’s, he said, but ’’never the wire caps, just the regular kind.” Why not? “Hell, I don’t know,” Cullens snapped, “they just never ask for the wire caps. I don’t ask them why – I just know that they don’t.”

Because the discount shops undercut the prices of dealer parts shops by as much as 40 percent, insurance companies routinely recommend.that anyone who has to replace hubcaps buy them from the discount shops. One of the largest automobile insurers in the Dallas area, however, says that Watson’s “no longer meets all of the criteria the company considers important in providing quality service to our customers,” but refuses to comment further.

The practice of referring customers to discount houses is beginning to backfire on the insurance companies, according to Edwin Butcher, executive director of the Independent Insurance Agents of Dallas. “The insurance companies like to settle claims as cheaply as possible, to keep their loss ratio down,” Butcher says. “So there’s pressure to refer customers to the discount houses rather than to dealerships. But we know that this creates a market for hot hubcaps, and as long as there’s a good market for them, hub-caps will be stolen. It’s a vicious circle.”

You are in greatest danger of having your hubcaps stolen if you drive a late model Cadillac. In January through March of this year, 592 caps were stolen from 1977 Cadillacs, 543 from the ’76 models. 1976 Fords were next, with 419, followed by 264 caps from ’75 Fords, and 260 from ’77 models.

Thieves strike most often in shopping center parking lots – Valley View, North-Park, Red Bird Mall, and Preston Center in particular – and at country clubs and apartment parking lots.

Several dealers and auto shops sell hub-cap locks, but the police think locks aren’t enough. “The only way we’re going to stop this thing is get enough caps marked,” says Sgt. Lusk. “A car owner should mark his caps with an electric engraving pencil, using his driver’s license number, and register the caps with our Operation Identification program.” Cherri Oakley, public relations agent for the Independent Insurance Agents, has marshalled the support of the Dallas police and fire departments in an effort to get the caps marked.

“Saturday, June 4th, is ’Mark-It Day’ in Dallas,” Oakley says. “We’ll have engraving pencils, registration forms, and volunteers at all 43 fire department substations. Any time from 8 in the morning to 6 at night, you can have your caps marked. It’s free. We are also going to have a special sticker that you can put on your car which tells a would-be thief that your caps are registered and marked.”


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