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April 2018

This month's document is chosen by Archive Assistant Sarah-Jane Wilson.

 Not everything in the Archive is related to the British motor industry. The Baldwin Collection holds many interesting items including those collected from abroad. The countries range from Belgium to Bermuda and Sweden to Singapore, with this particular document being from the United States. 'Cars of Chicago' is a story describing the life of a police officer named Drysdale in prohibition era, mobster run Chicago. It's well known that officers fought a constant battle with crime bosses and their gangs during that time and this story is no different, producing such infamous names as Al Capone,  John 'Jake the Barber' Factor and Bugs Moran. Even the mayor of the city, Big Bill Thompson, had a name fit for a gangster. 

The document was written using a typewriter and includes photographs of Tribune Tower in Chicago, the V8 engine of a Town Sedan and the Niagara Falls Antique Auto Museum.

Why this document?

The part of this document that caught my eye is an image showing a smartly dressed detective and a shifty looking Al Capone peering around the back of a car. Capone's own vehicle was a Cadillac Town Sedan. Able to reach speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour, it was fitted with armour plating and inch thick bullet proof glass with specially created holes for a machine gun to fire through. It was described by the writer, Hugo Vincent, as a 'fortress on wheels'. The car was used by Capone and his gang, 'The Outfit', to out-run police capture and protect against rival mobsters. Vincent explains in his story how night-time Chicago is the perfect place for gangs to go about their business, describing it as 'eerie' with the buildings and alleyways appearing to be 'cloaked in velvet'. Gangsters hurtled around in their grand automobiles sharing gunfire with rival groups and shooting up saloons.

Vincent uses 1920s slang in his story such as 'Typewriter' to describe the Thompson submachine guns that were popular with organised crime groups and 'Pineapple', the name given to grenades because of their shape and surface texture. The cars used by the wealthier gangs were often luxurious and large enough to fit the boss and several of his trusted bodyguards comfortably inside. The most popular makes were Cadillac and Duesenberg and Vincent describes how people would rush to see the cars, with gunmen in tow, driving around Chicago. He calls Capone's Cadillac 'the biggest advertisement ever for a certain manufacturer'. The cars were expensive with their impressive modifications but cost nothing in comparison to 'The Outfit's' estimated yearly turnover of $100 million. At the height of his power, Capone appeared almost untouchable and lived a lavish life in the now demolished Lexington Hotel. His gang members could afford to visit expensive restaurants such as 'The Empire Room' and the notorious gambling joint, 'The Four Deuces'. Trips to ritzy resorts and country homes were never out of the question, as long as an entourage of body guards accompanied them.

However, despite being able to evade police capture and rival mobsters in his armoured Cadillac, Capone's luck eventually ran out. He was finally caught in 1931 for tax evasion and was sentenced to eleven years in prison, spending some of his sentence at the maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island. His famous vehicle was exhibited at carnivals and passed through several museums before entering a private collection in the 2000s. He may have seemed invincible in Chicago but as Hugo Vincent puts it: 'In the Twenties the American cities were full of lions but only those made of stone offered any comfort'.

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