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An amusing history of motorcycle crime 

History of motorcycle crime

History tells us that the first speed camera caused such a fright to the rider that he lost control, veered off the road and demolished the camera, covertly hidden behind a bush.

Not much has changed in more than a century of motorcycling!

It’s also part of an amusing and enlightening history lesson in motorcycle crime that has been put together for Motorbike Writer by retired UK police officer Dr Ken German.

Ken was head of the stolen vehicle unit in London and has a degree in International Autocrime. 

History of motorcycle crime
Dr Ken German

He raced in the Isle of Man TT and other European circuits, is part of the UK Motor Cycle industry’s Crime Reduction Group and past president of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (UK).

While the article is based in England, we think you will find it interesting and very entertaining:

Crime has been with us forever. The motor vehicle however has only been with us in one form or another since the late 19th century. 

Like night follows day, vehicle theft followed up close behind and indeed some offences are not quite as new as you might think!

In 1891 for instance the police forces in the UK, already 60 years in existence, were aware of the disquiet caused by these ‘new fangled’ horseless carriages, and over-responding to local pressures from a frightened public (not to mention the horses), they attempted to ban them from what could arguably be called roads.

The ‘contraption’ owners however, who could list among them Lords, judges, wealthy industrialists and landowners, not to mention a few Chief Constables, were thankfully able to influence the Highways Act 1895, which at least allowed them to keep and use their vehicles, providing a 14 miles per hour (22.5km/h) speed restriction was observed.

Both cars and bikes, now fitted with pneumatic tyres, were also released from the red flag requirement imposed on it since 1865.

By 1904 the speed limit had been increased from 12mph )19km/h) to 20mph (32km/h) for both the 17,000 bikes and cars now registered for the road.

The Automobile club had been formed in 1897 and the 1903 Motor Car Act required vehicle owners to register their cars and motorcycles with the local council for twenty shillings (£1) and also obtain a licence from a post office for five shillings (25p). An increase in reported vehicle crime as such was limited to abusers of the new speed limit, usually the ‘offspring’ of the vehicle owners.

These privileged few were no doubt trying to emulate the drivers in the Gordon Bennett races (the Formula 1 stars of that period) who were exceeding 40mph (64km/h) on their journey from one capital city to another.History of motorcycle crime

The ‘borrowing’ of cars and motorcycles however, with or without permission for “joyous purposes”, as one Kent magistrate suggested, “was inappropriate, foolhardy and worrying for the owner”.

TWOCing (Taking Without the Consent of the Owner) or Joy riding began in 1903. 

By 1904, nearly 29,000 owners had sought registration for their vehicles.

In Cheshire, just three years after compulsory registration, a new BAT machine had been ‘borrowed’ from the collection of vehicles owned by an eminent local surgeon.

The culprit, a young relative, had challenged his fellow students to a race but had damaged his own P&M bike beyond repair.

The registration plates (one letter and one number) from the student’s bike were placed on to the ‘borrowed’ machine and the race was run. The student won the race but was indiscreet and the owner took him to court. 

The magistrate, a horse owner, likened the offence to the ‘Ringing’ of a horse and imposed a fine of 7 shillings. (Ringing; substituting one racehorse for another.) 

The term ‘Ringer’ had moved from four legs to two wheels and it is a word that still blights the automobile world to this day. (The term Ringer we know now as a Clone!) 

In 1907, Automobile Association (formed in 1905) ordered their patrol motorcyclists to warn motorists of oncoming police speed traps. In Reigate, an over-enthusiastic AA rider waved down a speeding machine to inform the driver of a speed trap ahead. The alleged (printable) reply was similar to “We know mate, we are the Police!” 

Not quite an attempt to pervert the cause of Justice but interesting all the same.

Another disastrous attempt to catch speeding riders occurred near Oxford when a photographer was summoned by the police to photograph the speeding vehicles complete with registration plate.

One rider, startled by the flash, lost control, veered off the road and demolished the camera, covertly hidden behind a bush.

The photographer, who I am pleased to say escaped injury, might well have been involved in the very first speed camera.

Stolen or borrowed vehicles had not been publicly declared a problem in 1910. Some car manufacturers however had started to fit key-operated locks to their door and ignition systems.

By 1914, certain garages were using mechanical pumps to distribute petrol. Previously sold in cans, the new pumps allowed this ‘expensive’ fuel to be sent directly from the pump to the vehicle’s tank.

In Lancashire, vehicles entering a certain garage triggered a bell by driving over a mechanical cable.

The proprietor, probably thinking that he had not had a customer for a while, found his severed cable hanging over a lamp standard in his forecourt and 5 gallons of fuel had been taken.

Not the first theft of petrol I am sure, but an early example of a ‘drive off’ without paying certainly. Motorcycle theft stolen motorcycles

In 1918, World War I had ended and the total number of vehicles reported stolen to the Police in the UK was surprisingly less than 1179 with London receiving just 211 vehicle crime-related reports. 

Up to then and certainly in the ‘sticks’, it was quite common to notify the Chief Constable or his deputy personally of any vehicle theft and it was quite normal for him to have details printed on posters which would be displayed in prominent places in the surrounding area.

This presupposes that most vehicle owners at that time were still fairly wealthy and therefore deserved the best treatment and advice the police could offer.

The cheapest car models available at this time were around £175, a whole two year’s wages to the average person.

Motorcycles were a lot cheaper however and much more affordable to the working man.

The 1920 Road Act required all 591,000 owners to register their vehicles at the time of licensing, each one being issued with its own individual number.

There were at this time quite a few old and well-used ex First World War machines being made available to the public, albeit still at a price that many could not afford.

In an auction sale in Dalston, London, bikes were sold for as little as £4 each and a quantity of 30 ‘mixed motorcycles’ was purchased by a Mr Wellesley  for just £35.

He could well have been the first second-hand bike dealer in the UK.

Three armed carriers and a sidecar outfit were also purchased by a gentleman from Waterloo who used them for collecting people from the railway station and taking them sightseeing around London. 

He was not registered as an official cab driver but could well be responsible for starting the first mini cab business. Any passenger ‘bilking’ this owner would, I assume, be in for a big surprise.

Typical of that period, much of the vehicle theft was opportunist and people simply borrowed motorcycles and cars to see how they worked, or perhaps used them to get home from a night out.

One recently demobbed Captain living in Victoria got fed up when his Harley-Davidson was taken from outside his home.

He always removed most of the fuel from the tank before leaving it (lot of petrol theft then!) and on this occasion was fortunate to have found the machine by himself parked less than a mile away.

He recovered it and not willing to be a victim a second time he attached a flare grenade to the machine and connected the pin via string to the railings outside his house. 

The wind unfortunately blew the bike over in the night and the explosion rendered the bike and his car parked nearby useless. 

He was forced to pay for the damage to the windows in the neighbouring property, the railings and the shrubbery. He may well however have invented the first alarm and immobiliser.History of motorcycle crime

In 1921 the first growing signs of car crime were appearing. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police reported the following.

“Amongst other crimes, larcenies of motor vehicles have been frequent. These, again, are in a large measure due to the carelessness of owners.” 

With no ignition locks, alarms, immobilisers it is difficult to understand how a driver could be careless.

It is known that in this the first serious mention of vehicle theft by a senior police officer, several well-known persons had earlier reported their vehicles stolen clearly using the publicity to their advantage. Several were in reality just misplaced due to the owners’ alcoholic amnesia. 

In those days, vehicle insurance existed but was not readily available or indeed considered by the majority of owners.

When a Mr Swaby of Dorset found his Rudge Multi missing, all of his estate workers and those from neighbouring farms went looking for it.

Together with the local constabulary, led by its superintendent, it must have been an impressive scene, likened only to that of a murder hunt or a film set.

With little petrol in the tank, the culprit, an army deserter was soon caught. Just as well, Mr Swaby’s insurance, a staggering 6 shillings per month covered nothing outside the curtilage of his house.

In 1926 1.7 million vehicles were registered for the roads in the UK.History of motorcycle crime

Believe it or not, in 1928 the then Minister of transport passed an order making it illegal for drivers and riders in London to lock their cars, vans and bikes when parked in public places.

We can’t establish for sure the ministers mind set at this somewhat unusual law, but enquiries from ancient memory’s suggest that London was simply grid locked with vehicles and horses preventing the capital’s business men (and I assume MPs) getting to their places of work.

One assumes that if the vehicles were left unlocked, then the police could move them around easily should they become an obstruction. 

When thefts of and from these unlocked vehicles bordered on full-blown looting, an early end to this regulation was agreed.

Fingers were pointed at several organised London gangs who now operated in London and rumours were that they had taken control of the theft and disposal of these stolen vehicles. Organised vehicle crime had arrived. 

In 1929, in central London, a failed robbery at a jewellery shop forced the villains to flee. They pulled a rider from his machine which happened to be stationary at some traffic lights (invented two years earlier) and when he bravely fought back, a gun was pointed at him. 

He fled the scene but not before he had ‘locked’ the handbrake.

This might be the first manufacturer or aftermarket anti-theft device ever (we are not sure) and it would be more than 30 years before anything like it was made generally available to the public. 

The two villains incidentally were eventually overpowered by passing draymen.

The judge at the inner-London assizes, prior to sentencing the pair, had read about the recent Valentine’s Day massacre in America and the ‘Hijacking’ of illegal liquor. 

He said: “The offences, including the attempt to commandeer, expropriate, indeed hijack this vehicle with a gun, will be punished to the maximum extent that the law will allow.” 

This could well have been the first time a vehicle had reportedly been hijacked.

Nearly one million vehicles of all types were on the UK roads by 1930 and with more than 7000 road deaths reported, third-party insurance was at last made compulsory. 

In 1932 the bazaar London Traffic (Parking Places) Regulations of 1928 were withdrawn and drivers were now encouraged to lock their vehicles.

Also car and motorcycle manufacturers were now encouraged to design a standard device to prevent their vehicles from being stolen. 

The door lock had arrived for cars and crime prevention advice given to riders to use a padlock and chain.Motorbike brake disc lock theft

1934 was the year that the police decided to record theft statistics. 

The vehicles on our roads amounted to 1.5 million yet only 1303 incidents of theft were reported.

By 1939, at the outbreak of war, there were nearly two million although many of these were ultimately either commandeered for war work or laid up for the duration.

With petrol heavily rationed to 200 miles (320km) per vehicle per month, the ‘Black Market’ was working overtime. Motorcycles were very much in demand because they had greater miles per gallon.

Music hall comedians joked that a motorcycle may run dry, but you could still buy a gallon of petrol somewhere in the Fulham Road for a ten bob note. 

In 1941 the war, petrol rationing, and a restriction on vehicle movements saw only one million vehicles of any sort on English roads, half of that two years earlier. 

This would all change however when World War II ended bringing with it the most bazaar collection of surplus vehicles ever seen to English shores and affordable motoring for all.

In 1946, vehicle theft in the UK rose to a staggering 5171. 

The potential profits had been scrutinised by the organised criminal gangs and vehicle crime was in its ascendance.

Vehicle crime peaked in the UK in 1993 when 592,660 vehicles were reported stolen including 115,000 motorcycles.

Today less than 85,000 vehicles are stolen annually in the UK including 22,000 motorcycles and scooters.