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Rumble Seat 

This is a story about two cars that wouldn't start, two cars from different sides of the automotive universe, one old, one wet-paint new, one a schoolboy's locker-door fantasy, the other the ultimate mom-mobile. And in a strange Doppler effect of fate, both cars wound up disabled at the bottom of the same hill in the same week.

My neighbor Charlie drives a 1965 Mustang convertible, metallic blue, white top with blue interior. The Mustang, as the car-cognoscenti know, was Lee Iacocca's signal triumph, a lightweight and affordable American sports coupe created at the same time (1963) Ford was transforming the T-bird into a garish, jet-age heavy cruiser. "I always wanted a Mustang," says Charlie.

Powered by a 289-inch V8 speaking through a three-speed manual transmission, Charlie's car--while slow by modern standards--can still chat the tires and bellow impressively under the whip. Nearly four decades on, it remains a cool looking car, slab-sided and compact, with an aggressively raked windshield and bobtail.

Cool enough to steal.

Late one night a couple of weeks ago, a group of kids tried to drive off with Charlie's car. Typically, he leaves it unlocked because in our neighborhood cars are frequently ransacked and he doesn't want anyone to slice open his convertible top. We deduce it was a group of kids because there was too much damage to have been caused by one person. We assume it was kids because, apparently, they were not old enough to know how to hot-wire a car.

The '65 Mustang is, of course, pre-digital. Its ignition system traces through the key-lock in the steering column. Cross the right two wires and ground the circuit and the car will start. Easier said than done, of course, particularly in pitch-black while rooting around under the cramped dashboard snarled with faded wires.

The method of thieving a car in this manner is the stuff of criminal oral history, a lesson of larceny handed down through the generations until the late 1980s. By then, the first digital electronic anti-theft devices were appearing in cars. Alarm systems would trigger if doors or windows were forced open or broken. Later, engine-disable systems began appearing. These required the car to recognize a transducer built into the key itself--after a millisecond of digital chat the car would receive the password from the key and the engine system would release the electronic fuel injection to function.

Even if a miscreant were able to work around alarms and automatic locks, the real estate under the dash and steering column is quite a bit more crowded than it used to be. Between computer controls, windshield and rear wiper controls, cruise controls and more, the guts of a steering column is now an indecipherable jumble of electronics, requiring an oscilloscope, schematics and a good worklight to puzzle out. Car thieves have been able to use Yankee hammers to jack the ignition locks out of columns (smashing them in the process) but this requires a very special piece of equipment. The fact is hot-wiring, and the classic joy ride of teen delinquent movies, is becoming a lost art.

The kids, attempting stealth, put Charlie's car in neutral to roll it down the hill and way from his house. But they hadn't reckoned on the power steering lock, which freezes the steering wheel if the engine isn't running. The car veered across the road, coming to rest awkwardly against a curb. The dilettante thieves forced the steering wheel, breaking the locking device on the rack. Then they bashed the central console around the gearshift, perhaps out of vengeance and frustration, or perhaps they were looking for the magic wires to cross (which certainly do not run through the center console).

And it was wires--or more aptly, the lack thereof--that led to the crippling of the other car, a Volvo V70 XC, an all-wheel-drive wagon that is one of my favorite automobiles. Volvo has been among the first manufacturers to use electronic multiplexing, the use of integrated fiber-optic and digital routing whereby the car's several computers talk to each other at cable-modem speeds. Such technology helps cars operate more efficiently, and makes them lighter and cheaper to build and re-program. Forget about hot-wiring the Volvo. You'd have more luck building a G4 Macintosh in your spare bedroom.

The morning after Charlie's misfortune, I walked out to the Volvo, pointed the key fob at the car--which responded with the thick, clunky sound of the doors being unlocked--got in, turned the key, the starter turned over and then ... nothing. This should not happen in a brand-new Volvo. I lifted the hood and was confronted with a writhing bundle of induction plumbing, hoses and coolant lines, nothing remotely accessible to my shade-tree skills. I put the car in neutral and it rolled down the hill. I thought perhaps a gas uptake valve in the tank had become stuck and that jarring the car might shake it loose. Needless to say, I was taking a very analog approach to the problem.

The car resolutely resisted by key-twisting entreaties. I called the tow truck--a flatbed, because all-wheel-drive vehicles can't be towed on a hook.

Two days later, I learned that the car's anti-theft key interlock malfunctioned. In essence, the car didn't recognize the key being used to turn the ignition. But it was a temporary problem that I might have fixed myself by cycling through the lock-unlock process a few times. In fact--as a measure of how glitchy new computer programming can be--the car started as soon as it was off-loaded from the tow truck. The dealership downloaded a fresh, uncorrupted program into the car, a program they pulled off Volvo's satellite feed.

I'm all for security, yet I wonder if it isn't time to set aside some small portion of our collective memory to honor the devious ingenuity of car thieves. They have been defeated, finally, utterly by systems so good they sometimes defeat us. I feel a little nostalgic for the cheap, simple thuggery of days gone by.

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