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Grand Jest Auto

Claim:   A well-guarded car proves not to be so well guarded after all when it's found one morning turned around in its parking spot, sporting a "If we want it, we'll take it" note from the mischievous thieves.

LEGEND

Example:  [Brunvand, 1987]

A car owner who, after lovingly restoring a Corvette, took elaborate precautions to protect it from theft. The owner locked it up in chains, with the chains passing through the chassis and then through heavy staples sunk into the cement floor of his garage. He also locked the garage and covered the car with a tarp.

One day the owner came home to find his car safe, still secured by the chains and locks — but turned end-to-end so it faced in the opposite direction. A note left under the wiper blade read: "If we want this car, we'll take it."

Variations:
  • The precautions taken to secure the car are variously described, but no matter what security devices are employed, the thieves smoothly manage to overcome them all.
  • Without exception, the thieves never make off with the item, instead preferring to leave a note indicating they'll return when it suits them and will help themselves.
Origins:   The saga of the unstealable car dates to at least the 1970s. Though cars are by far the most popular item left turned around in this legend, at least one version recounts the story of a Cartoon of the legend woman who had elaborately burglar-proofed her midtown Manhattan apartment. She returned home one day to find her furniture rearranged. Nothing was missing, but she happened upon a chilling note which read: "If we want to get you, we will."

Common sense indicates that these stories are more legend than actual incident. What thief would go to all the trouble of overcoming every security device standing between him and the car, risking discovery and imprisonment, only to leave the prize sitting there? A sense of humor is one thing, but not when it interferes with the business of putting dinner on the table, and a thief's family has to eat just like anyone else's brood. Were the denouement of the story the just-ripped-off's finding an arrogant "We got it anyway" note where his beloved car used to be, the tale would be much more believable, but it's never presented that way. Whatever the item targeted, it's never made off with.

A real thief would simply take the car. He wouldn't bother to leave a note, as the car's disappearance would be clear enough proof of his skill.

Cars get moved around in a certain set of college legends, but as a jest, not as a prelude to theft. Reassembled autos feature in a number of collegiate pranks, usually involving the rebuilding of a disliked student's car in his dorm room or a hated prof's jalopy on top of the tallest building on campus:
[Reader's Digest, 1958]

An M.I.T. student went home for a vacation and left his car parked behind his dormitory. Some of the young engineers who remained at school that vacation took it apart, lugged it piece by piece into the dormitory.

When the owner came back to school he found his car assembled and parked in his room.1
The "arrogant thief" shows up in other legends, most notably in this closely-related one:
[Healey & Glanvill, 1996]

New York
is the citiest of cities and you either love it or loath it; either way, you have to respect the resourcefulness and spunk of its inhabitants. Take the case of a friend from Scunthorpe who moved out to Manhattan to work as a social worker. His job took him to some of the roughest parts of town — Hell's Kitchen, the Bronx, the Stretford End — and he would invariably take his car, a little Honda, with him. And every so often, the dinky motor would be broken into, side windows smashed, car stereo half-inched, and speakers wrenched from the doors.

Having lost three sound systems in this way, the honest bloke decided not to bother with the in-car vibes anymore. But mindful of the inquisitiveness of the local youth, he fashioned a sign reading, in vivid red, 'NO CAR STEREO', and stuck it on the inside of the passenger window.

Thus fortified, he set off on a visit as usual, parking in the housing precinct of one of his clients. An hour later, he emerged from the apartment and strolled over to his wheels, but was dismayed to see that, despite the sign, someone had still smashed in the window.

The sign was still there, though, lying on the passenger seat. Picking it up, even the disgruntled bloke had to laugh when he saw it: next to 'NO CAR STEREO' , the cheeky intruder had scrawled 'JUST CHECKING'.2
No matter how we contrive to foil thieves, the true professionals among them can easily outwit us, a point these legends drive home. Such tales are an expression of fatalism, the certainty that if a criminal wants something of ours badly enough, he will find a way to take it. These stories also make the point that people in all professions, even thieves, take pride in their work.

Barbara "pride and prejudice" Mikkelson

Last updated:   25 March 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 104-107).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 91).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Toying with Unstealable Car a Lark for Would-Be Thief."
    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   24 December 1987   (p. A8).

    1.   Reader's Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor.
    Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1958   (p. 438).

Also told in:

    Cohen, Daniel.   The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.
    New York: Avon Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-380-77020-2   (pp. 39-42).

    2.   Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 72-73).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 144).