A black 1975 Volkswagen Beetle is shown in a closeup of the front.

Highway Horrors: Famous Criminals and their Infamous Vehicles

For most people, a car is a means of conveyance, a way to get from one place to another. I’ll admit that’s a bit reductionist, as for many of us our vehicle is much more than simply a way to go from Point A to Point B and becomes an important environment to enjoy. We choose comfort features in our vehicles more than just about any other option, and many of us customize our rides inside and out to express ourselves and to make the car where we spend so much of each day into a more comfortable place to be.

But for some people, their vehicle is an expression of something darker and becomes utilized in all sorts of heinous activities. From serial killers who use their vehicles to stalk their next victim to others who transform their car into a mobile crime scene, some cars have become a part of infamy simply due to the crimes of their owners. Today, I’m going to take you through some of the most grotesque crimes known to history and the vehicles involved in them.

The Manson Family – 1959 Ford Falcon and 1935 Dodge Power Wagon

What began as a seemingly idealistic expression of the counterculture hippie movement and the teachings of a charismatic leader turned into a horrifying nightmare in 1969. After his release from prison in 1967, Charles Manson began gathering followers in the San Francisco-area of California and then set up a ranch for himself and his “Family” in Los Angeles County. Heavy drug use, pseudo-religious teachings, and Manson’s knack for connecting with his followers resulted in a crime spree that reached its catastrophic climax on the evenings of August 8 and August 9, 1969.

Members of the Manson Family rode in a yellow 1959 Ford Falcon to the homes of Sharon Tate on the 8th and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on the 9th. The Family members entered the homes and murdered seven people over the course of the two nights. Months later, as investigators closed in on the Family, one member named Tex Watson fled in one of two 1935 Dodge Power Wagons that Manson had for getting around the ranch. It ultimately failed him and broke down, though Watson was able to hitchhike to Texas, where he was arrested and sent back to California to be put on trial with other Family members for the murders.

Ted Bundy – 1975 Volkswagen Beetle

One of the most infamous serial killers in US history, Ted Bundy was often described as charismatic, handsome, and likable––even during his trials as details of his horrendous actions became public knowledge. The way Bundy approached his potential victims was grotesque and remarkable: he would wear a cast and sometimes use crutches to appear infirm in order to make women feel at ease and lower their guard. He would then ask them to help him with something in order to get them closer to his 1975 Volkswagen Beetle so that he could abduct them.

Some of the earliest reports from witnesses to abductions and those who last saw Bundy’s victims reported seeing a “beige,” “brown,” or “tan” Volkswagen Beetle. On August 16, 1975, a Highway Patrol officer noticed Bundy cruising around a neighborhood and stopped him. Once he approached, the officer saw that the front passenger seat had been removed; this prompted him to search the vehicle. The officer found a ski mask, a crowbar, handcuffs, trash bags, rope, and an ice pick––Bundy attempted to explain that he enjoyed skiing, found the handcuffs in the garbage and that the rest were common household items. Though he was arrested, he was released the next day and promptly cleaned his car, destroying a tremendous amount of potential evidence.

Ed Gein – 1949 Ford Sedan

While Ted Bundy’s method for luring in victims might have inspired Silence of the Lambs, other films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were based on a different monster: Ed Gein. On November 16, 1967, a hardware store owner in Plainfield, Wisconsin went missing––her son realized he had seen Ed Gein in the store the evening before the disappearance. Later that day, Gein was arrested in a grocery store, and the county sheriff’s department went to Gein’s farm in order to search for the missing woman.

What they found was something out of a nightmare. Gein had engaged in grave-robbing for years prior to that and stolen bones and other things from the graves of recently buried women. He used these bones to make furniture and decorations all throughout his home––at least one of the members of the sheriff’s department died of heart failure before Gein’s trial, and many argue that the atrocity they found at Gein’s farm contributed to his death. Ed Gein’s 1949 Ford Sedan, which he had used to transport the bodies of his victims, was sold at a public auction and put on display by a carnival sideshow operator named Bunny Gibbons, who charged his patrons 25 cents to see what he called, “Ed Gein’s Ghoul Car.”

The Beltway Sniper – 1990 Chevrolet Caprice

In the fall of 2002, a rash of shootings throughout Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia caused a panic that lasted three weeks. The shootings occurred at seemingly random locations and dates, with no warning and no apparent cause or motive. Little evidence was left at any of the scenes, and it was apparent that the shots were being fired from a great distance away by a sniper. Early witness reports included the presence of a white box truck that police began looking for; only after later shootings did witnesses mention a blue Chevy Caprice.

By the time the rampage ended and arrests were made, 17 people were dead and another 10 had been injured––between the Beltway Sniper shootings and some earlier preliminary shootings. It turned out that two individuals were working together, and the blue Chevy that witnesses had seen was used as a mobile sniper’s nest. They had modified the 1990 Chevy Caprice so that one of them could crawl through the back seat to get into the trunk where they had drilled a small hole just above the license plate. The shooter would lie prone inside the trunk with a rifle aimed out through the hole and fire on their unsuspecting victims in a display of tremendous cowardice and cruelty.

A grey 1977 Chevy Caprice is shown from the side parked in a field.

Bittaker and Norris – 1977 GMC Vandura

From June to October of 1979, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris committed some of the most horrendous abductions and murders in US history. They had met while both were in prison in 1977 and quickly bonded over a shared interest in misogyny and sadistic fantasies. Unfortunately for the world, once they were released from prison they met up again and began turning those horrid fantasies into a nightmarish reality.

In February of 1979, Bittaker purchased a 1977 GMC Vandura panel van: he chose this model because it had a sliding side door. This allowed the two men to pull up alongside a potential victim alone and walking down the street, then pull them into the van without the need to stop so they could quickly flee the scene. Disgustingly enough, the two of them nicknamed their van the “Murder Mac,” and tragically, it lived up to its name as it was the scene of the deaths of five teenage girls before they were finally apprehended in November 1979.

For most of us, our vehicle is a place to unwind after a long day, to go for a ride on the weekend, and to help us take care of errands. Sadly, others see in their cars the potential for committing horrendous acts against other people. We’re fortunate that such individuals are relatively rare, even though their actions have resulted in a select few vehicles living on in infamy.