car thief

Max Thomsen

“My whole life was lived at night,” says Scott (not his real name). “You know what they say: Nothing good happens at night. That’s why I was living my life entirely after dark.”

This story originally appeared in Volume 10 of Road & Track.


In the Eighties, Scott helped run a Southern California car-theft ring specializing in Porsche 911s. As he tells the tale, we’re sitting in a Chicago garage filled with every automotive tool imaginable. A 1979 candy-apple Corvette crouches under a tarp. Next to it sits a 1997 Jeep Wrangler that Scott is building for the end times, with massive shocks, extra fuel tanks, and a variety of shovels mounted on the hood. Next to a TIG welder sits a smoking bong and $6000 in cash. Scott has been out of the criminal life for years, and today he’s a hardworking father. But some habits are apparently hard to lose.

“Back in the Eighties, there was a huge market for stolen Porsche parts,” he says. “And where there is a market, there is money to be made.” It wasn’t rocket science. “I had a buddy who lived in Orange County who owned Porsche shops. He could make a lot more money if he had parts that he didn’t have to pay Porsche for. A customer walks in with a busted mirror? Hey, he’s got plenty of mirrors. A guy walks in with a crushed door? He’s got doors.”

The first thing you need to do to run a car-theft operation is find the cars, Scott says. The pros call it bird-dogging. “I was just out of high school, living with my grandparents in Burbank,” he explains. “My job was to scout parking lots at night. If I found a Porsche parked in the same spot every night, there you go.” The shop owner would pay Scott a $500 finder’s fee for every car ripe for stealing. Overnight, a crew would snatch the vehicle and bring it to Orange County. It wasn’t the exotic fare that got the attention: The 911 Turbo was somewhat of a new phenomenon at the time. More valuable for thieves back then was the 911 SC, because its parts were more in demand.

car thief

Years ago, if you spotted “Scott” lurking by your Porsche, it meant you were about to be relieved of your car. Today, he’s on the straight and narrow and a caretaker for an owner of a new 911 Turbo S.

Max Thomsen

“My guy in Orange County would dismantle the cars,” Scott explains. “He would take anything that didn’t have a number on it. So now he’s left with everything that did have a number: the engine, the chassis, the transmission. He’d call me and tell me to come down and get all this shit.” Scott could take all the leftover stolen parts, items a purportedly straitlaced body-shop customer wouldn’t touch, and sell them. Buying and selling the same assets in different markets to maximize profit—“it’s all about arbitrage,” Scott says.

Scott’s buddy Bill (again, not his real name), “a rich kid from Burbank,” would buy all the numbered stolen parts. “We’d go down to Orange County at night with Bill’s pickup and trailer and load up the skeletons of the picked-over cars. There’d be a chassis and engines and whatnot, sometimes there’d be seats. The shop owner in Orange County always gave us wheels so we’d be able to roll this shit up into the back of the trailer. Was I nervous driving this pickup with the skeletons of stolen 911s on the highway at night, back up to Burbank? Nah. To us it was routine.”

Scott and Bill put together Frankenstein Porsche race cars in Bill’s garage, all made of stolen parts. They had a technique for obscuring serial numbers by drilling in Heli-Coil thread inserts where the numbers had been. “Besides, with the race cars we were building, it didn’t matter if the parts had numbers on them, because these cars were never going to hit the street.”

car thief

Max Thomsen

During the three years Scott worked this Porsche ring, he estimates that he pulled more than 100 jobs. “Just the mirrors were worth a lot of money,” he says. “They were worth $500 to the dealer. They were easy to steal! A guy would come back from lunch, and his car wouldn’t have any mirrors.”

Since those days, the underground market for stolen cars has declined massively, in part because Porsche and every other carmaker have made vehicles harder to steal. Research from the car- insurance watchdog Uswitch found that car theft in the United States declined 62.6 percent from 1990 to 2020. By then, only 246 out of every 100,000 cars were stolen. But the same study shows that the trend was on the rise again in recent years, with a 10.71 percent increase in thefts from 2015 to 2020. Not surprisingly, California still has a thriving stolen-car economy—tied for second place with New Mexico and behind Colorado, where authorities believe the recent spike is related to drug trafficking.

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Meanwhile, Scott has shifted his automotive passion to less unsavory activities. Not only is he building out that Jeep to survive the apocalypse, but he’s also the caretaker of a 911 Turbo S that belongs to a wealthy Porsche fan. He gets to drive the thing just about whenever he wants. Ironically, what Scott did in the Eighties makes him a good guardian of a quarter-million-dollar Porsche today. He knows how to think like a thief, because for a handful of years, he was one.

But there’s one thing today’s thieves still have going for them, one that can’t be defeated by any car alarm or smart-key technology.

“Dude!” he yells. “In some places here in Chicago, if you stop to get gas in a Porsche or a Land Rover, you better be careful. Back in the day, we had to bird-dog cars and go in and functionally do stuff to steal them. Now the gangs will just carjack your ass.”