After More Than 40 Years, a Stolen Austin-Healey Is Back Where It Belongs

Photograph Courtesy Bob Russell

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the January 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Bob Russell agrees that getting his stolen Healey back after 42 years was a dream come true, but he never expected the media explosion that followed. When the story really got cranked up, the calls got so bad he had to turn off his cell phone. Even then, reporters managed to track him down. 

What started as a small story in “The Dallas Morning News” spread to hundreds of newspapers worldwide, including publications in Australia, Russia and India. 

Network and cable television played the story, too. Hundreds of local stations across the country picked it up. Diane Sawyer aired a segment on “ABC World News.” Jay Leno did a funny bit on “The Tonight Show.”

The Internet buzzed as bloggers chatted about it. Car boards lit up and links appeared. Voices on Twitter weighed in. Videos appeared on YouTube.

The tale of how Bob Russell tracked down his stolen Healey after four decades resulted in more than 3200 comments on Yahoo! News. One said, “I think the FBI or CIA should hire this guy. Terrorists wouldn’t stand a chance.” Photography Credit: John Webber

Bob and his wife, Cindy, were overwhelmed. Why all the interest? 

Well, theirs was a captivating tale of extraordinary luck, fortunate timing, dogged perseverance, improbable twists and good old-fashioned police work in two cities 2400 miles apart. Even for people who didn’t know an Austin-Healey from an Acura, this feel-good story shone like a headlight in a tunnel of dark news. 

You’re kidding,” folks said. “After 42 years? No way.” 

Who could possibly even remember what he was driving four decades ago? And after all that time, who could piece the puzzle together and buck the odds until he got his car back? Well, Bob Russell could—and did.

The Story Begins

In 1969, Bob bought a 1967 BJ8 from his best friend, who had purchased it new. “I bought the car on a lark,” he says, “and I grew to like it.” Then a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Bob drove the Healey every day. He and his girlfriend—now his wife—Cindy, enjoyed their first date in that car. For them, it was indeed a fun ride. 

Bob generally parked his prize in a lot, but one September night in 1970, he left it on the street. The next morning, it was gone. “I got that sick feeling,” he remembers. He immediately filed a theft report, but the police didn’t offer much hope for recovery—and they were right. The car never turned up.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Bob had just returned from a trip to Europe to find he had lost his graduate assistantship. So to cut expenses, he dropped the Healey’s theft insurance. With no coverage, he was out about $3000. “That was stupid,” he admits.

The loss of the car was a huge financial hit. The Healey’s theft also affected Bob’s life in another way: “I was considering dropping out of graduate school,” he says. “That Healey was my escape car. Without it, I decided to stay and finish.”

Life Goes On

Stolen Healey or not, Bob’s life moved on. He and Cindy got married and had a daughter. He embarked on a career in sales, and Cindy became an English teacher. Through the years, they packed up and moved around the country four times, finally ending up near Fort Worth, Texas. Bob continued to play with other fun cars, including a 1965 Corvette coupe and later a 2002 Porsche 911. He enjoyed a couple of motorcycles, too. 

But through the years and household moves, Bob hung on to his Healey’s original title and a set of keys. Somehow this car stuck with him (he could always recite the VIN from memory), even though he figured it had been wrecked or chopped up long ago. “I had no hopes of ever finding it,” he says.

But lack of hope didn’t stop him from checking out Healeys. While driving, Bob would always take notice of white BJ8s, and sometimes he would follow one for a closer look. “One time in Washington, D.C.,” he recalls, “I must have stared at a car for 45 minutes, trying to find some telltale mark that would show me it was mine.” Sadly, he couldn’t find one.

He always kept his eyes open, occasionally scanning classified ads in newspapers and car magazines. Later, he prowled the Internet, where he checked the BJ8s listed for sale. When eBay gained popularity, he frequently looked at Healey auctions and prices—with no luck. Still, he persisted. Time passed.

Game On

Consider the odds of a sleepless night, an eBay auction and a guy with a VIN embedded in his brain for 42 years all coming together at the same instant. “Couldn’t happen,” you say. Normally you’d be right, but it did.

Bob was jet-lagged from a trip and couldn’t sleep. So he got up, went into his office, turned on his computer and checked out eBay Motors. “I just happened to click on the auction of a white Healey, and the car’s VIN was listed,” he says. “I thought, ‘Holy shit! That’s my car.’ I jumped up, pulled out my title and there it was.” 

The car was listed by a Los Angeles car dealership. Early the next morning, Bob was on the phone. “I basically told them they were selling my car,” he said. “They thought I was joking.”

And then the fun began. Bob is normally an affable guy, but as he puts it, “This got personal.” A man of considerable energy, he vowed to do whatever it took to get his Healey back. He also loves a challenge, and he saw this as a wrong that had to be righted. 

Cindy and Bob Russell posed with Detective Ortega of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (top) 42 years after Bob’s Healey disappeared. Even after that, his Healey looked mighty fine to him—flat tire and all. The wayward Healey was loaded up for a ride to its new home in Texas, where it’s now undergoing a restoration to its former glory. Photographs Courtesy Bob Russell

Of course, he couldn’t know that his decision would lead to a five-week, stress-filled battle fueled by hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls, a saga that would produce despairing lows and euphoric highs.

After some phone sparring and the exchange of documents, the car dealership’s attorney admitted Bob may have an ownership claim. But he insisted, so did the dealership. After all, he said, they had bought the car from a guy in New York who claimed he had owned the car for more than 40 years and who provided a New York title. To Bob, that meant one thing: “Either that guy stole it or bought it from the guy who did.” 

Bob contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and explained the situation. They sympathized, but pointed out that they couldn’t help unless the Healey was currently listed as a stolen car. 

Expert Help Arrives

Bob needed legal advice. In the first of a series of breaks that came his way (this guy should buy Powerball tickets every week), his wife’s cousin, Deborah Fishman, happened to be an attorney on the West Coast with the firm of Dickstein Shapiro. When she heard Bob’s strange and compelling tale, she agreed to act as his legal advisor, pro bono. Soon she was explaining California law to him and the requirements needed to proceed with a civil case.

California civil law features a well-established code called bona fide purchaser for value. Translated, this means that if a buyer can prove he bought an item in good faith—not knowing it was stolen—he may be able to keep it if an ownership dispute arises. Under this code, Bob feared that proving his ownership would require drawn-out, expensive litigation, with the considerable burden of proof on him. 

As a compromise, the dealership offered to sell Bob his car at a discount. Naturally, he was not too keen on that idea.

Working several fronts at once, Bob had contacted Steve Byers of the BJ8 Registry. “Steve interpreted all sorts of data and answered all kinds of questions for me,” he says. Byers also explained how Bob’s numbered ignition key matched the British Motor Heritage Trust Report for his VIN. “From the start,” Bob says, “Steve’s encouragement gave me the motivation to continue.”

Bob’s Breaks Continue

Bob’s negotiations with the dealership reached a stalemate. Since his copy of the 42-year-old theft report was missing, he assumed he would be unable to prove his car stolen. Seeking advice, he called a friend—a retired New York state policeman. 

Thinking like a cop, his friend suggested that Bob attempt to get the Philadelphia Police Department to issue a new stolen car report. That way, the claim could proceed as a criminal case. But after 42 years and many record purges, this seemed highly unlikely. 

That’s when luck again stepped in, or as Bob calls it, “ridiculously good fortune.” He managed to get in touch with a civilian in the Philadelphia Police Department who was willing to search the National Crime Information Center for an archived report. This was no easy task, as fruitless searches finally revealed that the theft record was listed not under the car’s VIN, not under Bob’s name, but under “AUHE,” an obscure abbreviation for Austin-Healey. Bingo.

Photographs Courtesy Bob Russell

No longer immersed in the legal system, Bob has turned his considerable energy toward bringing his Healey back to driver condition. Photography Credits: John Webber

Armed with a copy of this archived report, Bob again called the Philadelphia police. Again he lucked out, working with a couple of veteran officers, Detective Walt Bielski and Lieutenant Fred McQuiggan. 

According to Bob, these cops went above and beyond the call of duty to dig further, this time into the FBI’s computerized files, where Fred found the stolen Healey’s VIN had been entered in 1970 with a number transposed. When this was corrected, they were finally able to re-list the car as stolen. They immediately contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office with the now-active stolen car report. 

Bob puts it this way: “After weeks of ups and downs, the case turned in 10 minutes.”

Game Over

Bob’s good fortune with police had continued on the West Coast. From early in the game, he had been in contact with yet another responsive and helpful police officer, Detective Carlos Ortega of the auto theft division of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. 

Armed with the active theft report, Carlos quickly set the wheels of justice in motion—and this time the wheels were driving a rollback. The sheriff’s department impounded the Healey. Carlos called Bob: “We’ve got the car,” he said. “When can you be here?”

Soon Bob and Cindy were headed to L.A. They walked into the impound lot with mixed emotions—the car was looking pretty sad. Bob approached his Healey for the first time in four decades, clutching the keys he had kept all those years. “I got in, stuck my key in the ignition, turned it and it started right up.” Without a doubt, this was his car. Cue the blinding light and heavenly music.

What did Bob feel? “Overwhelming relief,” he recalls. Cindy agrees. “It was an emotional roller coaster,” she says. “There were times when I thought, ‘He’s not going to survive this.’ Some days we felt we were just going around and around. But he would just not give up.”

The car was basically intact—one tire was flat—but the Healey had been badly neglected. No doubt it had spent years in storage, as the odometer showed it had been driven only 10,000 miles since it was stolen. A closer inspection revealed that the car’s VIN plate was missing, the corresponding number stamped on the frame had been ground off, the trunk lock had been changed and the glove box lock was gone.

Bob gladly paid $600 in impoundment fees, plus $800 to ship his car to Texas. In all, he figures he spent about $2500 to get the Healey back, close to what he paid for it in 1969. Of course, this is a fraction of the “discounted” price the dealership wanted him to pay for his car.

During this battle, he figures he spent a couple hundred hours researching law, chasing leads, playing detective, talking on the phone, sending emails and documenting his efforts. “And that doesn’t count the time I lay in bed, unable to sleep, trying to think of ways to solve problems,” he adds. 

He acknowledges that he had a lot of help, and he has nothing but praise for everyone who assisted, including the police. “I know these guys are busy, but they went out of their way to help,” he says. “I was amazed.”

He also reflects on key turning points in his saga: “If I hadn’t canceled the theft insurance in 1970, the insurance company would have paid me off. None of this would ever have happened.” 

And his chance eBay find? “Unbelievable,” he says. Plus, at each step of his battle, what were the odds of finding the right person with the right information who was willing to help? Yet this happened numerous times. Bob believes that his unlikely, off-the-wall story drew them in. “Who could make something like that up?” he asks. 

What about the dealership that listed the car? When the police seized the Healey, they lost their claim to ownership—and possibly their investment. However, the law does provide recourse if they chose to track the ownership trail to the thief and seek compensation. Since Bob got his car back, he has mellowed a bit. “They were victimized, too,” he says. 

He also has some pointed advice for the guy who stole his Healey, wherever he is. It’s instructive, but we can’t print it here.

Together Again

When we caught up with Bob, he was a happy man, covered with grease, waist-deep in his long-lost toy. In fact, he was standing in the Healey’s empty engine bay, painting the firewall. 

The freshly painted engine and transmission stood nearby. Boxes of parts littered the garage, along with a set of shiny chrome wire wheels, complete with new tires. A pair of Healey seats resided in his office, and his desk was piled with parts catalogs. These days, he still spends a lot of time on the phone—not talking to lawyers, but ordering parts and chatting with other Healey owners.

With the help of Pat Yoas from the North Texas Austin-Healey Club, Bob contacted Healey expert Bret Blades, and Bob and Bret are now refreshing the car in Bob’s garage. They’re working from a long list, which includes new brake and fuel lines, a gas tank, hydraulic seals, and electrical and interior work. They plan to turn over the car to a shop for bodywork and paint. 

“It will never be a show car,” Bob explains, “but it will be a nice driver, and I intend to drive it.” Once the Healey is back on the road, Bob says he’ll pick up where he left off in 1970—owner and car both trying to make up for all those lost years together. Of course, Cindy is invited, too.

But Bob vows that two things have changed: Today the Healey is fully insured, and he swears he will never again park it overnight on the street.

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Comments
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noddaz
noddaz UltraDork
10/29/20 4:20 p.m.

Nice story!  A follow up should be done.

 

californiamilleghia
californiamilleghia SuperDork
11/1/20 12:44 p.m.

This is always a concern when you buy an older car , 

The California dealer got a title when he bought it , 

How was he able  to verify if it was stolen or not  ?

ralphtyrone
ralphtyrone
11/23/20 5:14 p.m.

the dealership should have checked that the vin plate was intact and had matching numbers to the title.

If he did he would have not taken possession of this car, unless he really didnt care and was just going to pass it off to someone else. 

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