key to notorious Depression-era outlaws Bonnie
and Clyde staying alive as long as they did was not Clyde Barrow’s
skill with a gun but his skill with an automobile, especially the
V-8 Ford. He practiced driving more than he practiced shooting, and
for a very practical reason.
Shooting, unless Clyde was bushwhacking lawmen as he was prone to
do, usually involved other people shooting back at him. But if he
outdrove them, there was a good chance he would never see them again.
Clyde outdrove more lawmen than he shot. He drove out of more trouble
than he drove into.
One example happened in Dallas
in 1933 when some policemen, on the lookout for Barrow and his gang,
recognized him as he drove down West Davis Street with notorious running
Fults in the front seat. The officers began following them. Barrow
stomped the accelerator and sped away, quickly putting a great deal
of distance between him and the police car.
When he crested Chalk Hill, with the police car three or four city
blocks behind him, Barrow did that thing that moonshine runners and
stunt drivers do; he cut the lights, hit the brakes and turned the
card hard to the left, which suddenly had the car pointed in the direction
from which it had just traveled. Then he shifted gears, hit the gas,
and turned on his lights. The police car was a blur as it sped past
them at the top of the hill. Fults later said it was the most impressive
piece of driving he had ever seen.
Author John Neal Phillips noted in his book “Running
With Bonnie Clyde” that Clyde practiced that move over and over.
He also practiced driving in reverse at full speed, spinning the car
and shifting to second in one fluid motion, like a second baseman
practicing a double-play pivot. He practiced until it became second
Marie Barrow, Clyde’s younger sister, recounted how she and her mother
once rode with Clyde at full-speed across an open field. Marie remembered
being “scared half to death.” Sophie Stone, who was abducted by Bonnie,
Clyde and W.D. Jones in Ruston, La. in 1933, said the vast array of
weaponry in the car didn’t scare her nearly as much as Clyde’s driving:
90 miles an hour over rutted backroads across the state line into
Arkansas. She must have been a good passenger; she and a companion
who was abducted with her received a five dollar bill from the outlaws
to help them get back home.
The car Clyde Barrow drove was nearly always a V-8 Ford, which was
introduced to the public in 1932 and was the first high performance
V-8 available to the public. Clyde supposedly endorsed the car in
a letter to Henry Ford in 1934. Barrow biographer Jeff Guinn has said
he doesn’t know if the letter is real or not but it sounds like Clyde
and it was mailed from Tulsa on a day when Barrow and gang were in
The letter read: “While I have still got breath in my lungs I will
tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords almost exclusively
when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from
trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned, and even if my business
hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what
a fine car you got in the V-8.”
The letter was signed “Clyde Champion Barrow.” Family members have
long insisted that the handwriting isn’t Clyde’s and he would never
have signed his middle name “Champion” as that was a name he gave
prison officials when he checked into the Huntsville prison in 1930;
Barrow’s real middle name was “Chestnut.”
Good thing Barrow went by his first name. Bonnie and Chestnut just
doesn’t have the same ring.
Sometimes Clyde drove his stolen V-8s into trouble rather than away
from it. On U.S. Highway 83 near Wellington he was driving too fast
to read all the highway signs and missed one telling him that the
bridge over the Red River was out. The car ran out of road, went airborne,
landed, rolled a couple of times and caught fire. Bonnie was seriously
injured in the wreck, but Clyde and W.D. Jones were dazed and paranoid
but otherwise okay.
The last ride of Bonnie
and Clyde ended in a hail of gunfire, as everyone, including them,
knew it someday would. That day was May 23 and the place was near
Gibsland, La. Clyde drove headlong into a posse headed by former Texas
Ranger Frank Hamer. The posse then ventilated the V-8 with bullets.
In the end, firepower won out over horse power. There’s some trouble
that even Clyde Barrow and a V-8 Ford can’t outdrive.
© Clay Coppedge
2, 2013 Column
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