Dodging the Neon

There's no accounting for taste among car thieves.

Coming soon to a joyride near you . . . the car that says "hi."
Coming soon to a joyride near you . . . the car that says "hi."
In the nation's more cosmopolitan cities, car thieves have yuppified tastes. The most commonly stolen car in Boston and New York is the Toyota Camry. In San Francisco, it's the Honda Civic; in Philadelphia, the Honda Accord.

In Cleveland, a city where high fashion has yet to be diplomatically recognized, thieves prefer -- get this -- the Oldsmobile Cutlass. No matter that it's the styleless accessory of the middle-aged plant manager. Never mind that the model was discontinued four years ago. "They just love that car," says Cleveland Police Lieutenant Joe Krych, supervisor of the department's auto theft unit.

Dubious style continues down the list of commonly stolen cars here. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Greater Cleveland's top 10 includes two Oldsmobiles, two Buicks, and a station wagon. On the banks of the Cuyahoga, sporty imports get no love. Grandpa's car is the ride that rules.

So when nearly a dozen Dodge Neons were reported stolen from the city's west side in May, Krych may have wondered if Cleveland was finally emulating trendier towns. Cheerful and fairly girly, the Neon is no Accord, but at least it's 180 degrees from the manly steel boat typically coveted by local thieves.

But as it turned out, the missing Neons didn't exactly herald a new trend. Many were found abandoned between West 48th and West 52nd streets near Clark Avenue, and most showed evidence of similar entry: a screwdriver through the driver's side window to open the door and a screwdriver used to bust open the steering column.

On Krych's hunch, undercover officers staked out the dumping grounds near Clark. They were quickly rewarded when barely pubescent drivers sped up in two Neons. The cars hadn't yet been reported stolen, but the officers were suspicious enough to radio for visible police presence.

When the black-and-whites arrived, the kids panicked and "bailed on foot," Krych says. Police were able to catch one, who ratted out his friends. The officers arrested five teens, ages 13 to 17.

The ring may have operated beyond Cleveland's borders. Lakewood Police Detective Jim Sacco says his department also noticed a "rash" of Neon thefts in May. It stopped with the Cleveland arrests. "We don't know for sure it was them, but it seems to have subsided," he says.

If the thieves had a motive, they haven't shared it with cops. Yet they obviously weren't skilled craftsmen. The cars were not stripped, nor were CDs even removed, Krych says. He suggests the thefts may have been joyrides. Akron Police Sergeant Tom Brown, who hasn't seen a Neon trend in his city, guesses that it might have been a gang initiation. "It's the same problem for all of us," he says. "Gangs might say, 'If you want to be one of us, you have to steal a Dodge Neon.' That's generally what starts something like this."

It helps that Neons aren't exactly girded for battle. Thieves used to love old General Motors cars because they could tear a hole in the steel steering column, Krych says. The manufacturer fixed the problem in newer models, so lightweight, plasticky cars like the Neon and the Dodge Caravan became the industry's "weakest link," according to Sacco.

"One of these kids was bragging to us about how easy they are to steal," Krych says.

Supply and demand, however, play as much a part as easy access. The more popular the car, the easier it is to resell -- or strip at the friendly neighborhood chop shop, says Ed Sparkman of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Police used to recover more than 90 percent of stolen vehicles nationwide, he says. Now, with the rise of sophisticated schemes to resell cars or ship them overseas, that percentage has dropped to about 60.

Hence the Cutlass, a perennial heartland favorite. "It's an easy vehicle to sell and an easy one to steal, if you know what you're doing," Sparkman says.

America's top steal is the Camry, but regional tastes still abound. For example: In Albuquerque, where the desert meets the city, the top thefts are Ford F-150 pickups.

Despite the frantic activity of the West Side Five, Neons probably won't make Cleveland's top 10 this year, Krych says. The ratings cover the entire metropolitan area, including Lorain and Elyria, and Krych believes police stopped the Neon gang before it could reach the charts.

It might not be so bad if they did. Cleveland's list is riddled with Rust Belt malaise, heavier on steel and lighter on style than any other metro area in the country. After the Cutlass, there's the Buick Century and LeSabre, the Chevrolet Cavalier and Blazer, the Olds Delta 88, Pontiac Grand Am, Cadillac DeVille, Chevrolet Celebrity, and the ubiquitous Camry.

They may be solid cars, but their coolness factor is just about nil. Compare that to Boston's list of imports and sporty coupes, and it's obvious why Cleveland gets sneered at. And it's not just geography. Even cowtown Columbus slipped an Accord onto its list. Pittsburgh chose the trendy Jeep Cherokee.

But in youthful cities like Denver, Tampa, and Washington, D.C., the Neon is climbing the ranks. In New Orleans last year, it made the top three. Who's to say Cleveland can't make similar gains? After all, they don't call this the Comeback City for nothing.