Don't be surprised if you walk into a chic restaurant and find that the customer next to you brought his Mercedes hood ornament to the table along with his portable car stereo. And don't be too quick to touch that gold laurel wreath ornament on your neighbor's new Cadillac. If he's like many Caddy owners, he may have it wired for sound.
As thefts of automobile accessories increase across the nation--about $1.3 million such crimes were reported in 1988--Southern California motorists are going to great lengths to keep their hardware on their cars.
But it's not easy keeping a car intact these days. That's especially true for Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac owners whose car emblems are most popular among teen-agers who like to wear the Mercedes three-pointed star or the Cadillac wreath as necklaces, belt buckles and key chains.
"It's somewhat of a craze, I think," Lt. Greg Vasquez of the Los Angeles Police Department's Burglary Auto Theft Division said. "The kids wear them as ornaments. It's like a status symbol, a trendy thing to have in your possession. It's done in all segments of the city."
In the city of Los Angeles last year, LAPD statistics show there were 13,868 thefts from vehicles, which includes hood ornaments and hub caps. But some police officers believe that figure is low, because hood ornament thefts often go unreported.
The latest theft-deterrent device is an alarm that sounds the car horn if someone tries to steal the wired-up hood ornament. Manufactured by Celebrity Inc. of Placerville, it fits all American-made cars with vertical hood ornaments; another model fits all Mercedes-Benz models.
A Removable Emblem
For Mercedes-Benz, there also is a removable emblem available.
Responding to customer demand, Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories recently began offering removable Mercedes-Benz hood stars. Gold plated models cost $129; chrome, $99.
"We decided to offer removable ones, like the portable car stereos, because so many customers requested it," Kathryn Johns of Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories said. "It's really a big problem for the Mercedes owners. It's $100 every time they lose one. This way, they can just stick it in their pocket when they leave the car."
Rolls-Royce's Flying Lady ornaments get ripped off, too, but they're too heavy to be worn around the neck, leading some dealers to suspect that the stolen emblems get sold into some auto parts black market, as do Rolls-Royce hubcaps, which cost $1,200 a set.
"Locally, Mercedes stars are as popular as necklaces," Newport Auto Center Rolls-Royce dealer Roger Fletcher observed. "But no one walks around with a 5-pound Flying Lady around his neck."
$500 to Replace
A Los Angeles exotic car parts dealer said: "Everybody I know with a Rolls has had a Flying Lady stolen. They used to be made of solid silver, but they're silver-plated now; even those cost $500 or $600 to replace. Five years ago, a guy came in with 130 stainless steel knockoffs (of the ornament) made in Korea and I bought them for $10 apiece. I just sold the last one for $225."
In Europe, both Rolls-Royce and Bentley autos have factory-made devices attached to the Flying Lady and Flying B that make the ornaments disappear down into the radiator if someone grabs them and tries to steal them. The devices are not included on Rolls and Bentleys manufactured for American distribution.
In Los Angeles, Cadillac dealers report a flurry of emblem thefts, especially since the ornaments--also Cadillac grills and wheel covers--became available nine years ago in gold plate in addition to chrome.
"One night in the used car section, we lost every hood ornament in a whole row," said Chuck Nelson, tire and accessories manager for Dixon Cadillac in Hollywood. "Customers are always losing them. One guy lost four in a week. I tell them 'Don't even bother to replace it unless you get an alarm.' "
'Everybody Takes Them'
Dixon sales representative Bob Petrie, who had two emblems stolen from his Cadillac Seville before installing an alarm, added: "Everybody takes them, the kids on up to adults. If they don't get a gold one, they take the chrome ones and get them gold-plated."
Cadillac's hood ornament theft problem is unique among General Motors cars. The penta star Chrysler emblem is stolen only "occasionally," Los Angeles Chrysler representative Chris Hosford said.
But for Mercedes owners, ornament theft is a big problem. "At some Mercedes dealerships they're selling 20 hood ornaments a day," said Doug Furuye of D. F. Auto Leasing and Sales in Culver City. "That's how bad the theft problem is. One young lady picked up her 260E Mercedes from me late one afternoon and went back to her office. When she came out that evening, the star had been ripped off. She got another one the next day, and the following day, it was taken."