Thirty years ago, an employee working at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds concocted a scheme to secretly sell prototype vehicles that were supposed to be crushed. He nearly got away it, too. Here’s the story according to Deadline Detroit.
The story of Jack Clingingsmith comes to us from Greg Stejskal, who worked for the FBI for 31 years and retired in the Michigan office in Ann Arbor. Speaking with Deadline Detroit, Stejskal told of a man named Jack Clingingsmith, who worked at GM’s Milford Proving Ground and whose job entailed “disposing of” (i.e. crushing) prototype cars.
Working at the proving grounds in the mid 1980s, Jack was struggling to make ends meet, Stejskal says. The cars Jack was tasked with crushing were “worth about $90 as scrap metal. However, if the cars were sold for parts, they could bring $1,000-$2,000 each.”
This gave Clingingsmith an idea. He could make sweet, sweet Benjamins if he didn’t crush cars and instead sold them for parts. So he did just that, selling the prototype cars to a dealer in Pontiac. According to Stejskal, that dealer then sold the cars to the owner of a Flint-based auto parts store, who then provided fake bills of sales that made it seem as though the cars had been crushed. With enough middlemen, Clingingsmith was convinced he’d get away with his scheme.
But greed ultimately did him and his accomplices in.
Upon taking delivery of these pristine used cars [the auto parts owner] had an epiphany – why disassemble these cars to sell for parts when they could be sold whole? These cars hadn’t been reported stolen; in fact, there was no record they even existed. But it probably wouldn’t be wise to sell them locally.
So that’s what the dealer did. He sold the cars to a car dealer in Tennessee, who then sold the cars to consumers.
All was peaches and roses until one guy, who had purchased a complete car, decided to do some wrenching. He found a part that didn’t match the one in his repair manual, so he called up a GM engineer, who realized the part in question was not a production part.
To see what was going on, the engineer asked for a hidden VIN from the factory that couldn’t possibly have been removed. The VIN confirmed the engineer’s suspicion: the car was indeed a test car that had supposedly been destroyed.
Stejskal says GM then contacted the Michigan State Police and eventually the FBI. The FBI got ahold of Clingingsmith, the dealer and the auto parts owner, all of whom admitted to their wrongdoing. GM had to find and seize all the cars in the incident (14 cars in total). They compensated the unknowing owners, though some were unwilling to give up their cars. In the case of Butler v. Buick Motor Company, the appellate court decided that because the vehicles hadn’t been legally and properly obtained in the first place, GM was technically still the rightful owner.
Eventually GM got all their cars back and most likely crushed them. The three conspirators weren’t charged with theft, though, as Stejskal explains:
When the case was presented for prosecution, we realized there was a problem. What Clingingsmith had done with the cars was legally speaking not theft. We had initially planned to charge all three with conspiracy to transport stolen cars across state lines. Instead, we found an alternative violation, a 1984 federal statute, “trafficking in motor vehicles without vehicle identification numbers.”
In the end, the three conspirators pled guilty and were sentenced to a less than a year in prison, three years probation and $60,000 in restitution.
Stejskal finishes his story, saying: “Clingingsmith no longer had his dream job and his financial woes had returned.”
Photo: Brad Perkins/Flickr
It’s a story that hit home for me.
When I was an engineer at FCA, I used to drive test mules very regularly. And while many of them were just cobbled together junkers, the mules built late in the development cycle were basically production cars. And like the Jeep Cherokee I got to drive across the American southwest, many prototypes were actually really nice places to spend time.
But it doesn’t matter, because they all got crushed. Yes, even the Hellcats.
Sometimes it’s a very good thing, and sometimes it’s unfortunate, but automakers have to crush prototype vehicles. Not only is storing them a hassle, but even if automakers did store prototypes until launch, selling them would be a major liability to the company.
Many M-Plates are built with parts that haven’t yet been validated and tested, so the chances of component failure are much higher compared to a production vehicle. This can cause accidents, and accidents lead to lawsuits. It’s a big mess, and one that is easily avoided thanks to our friend The Crusher.
Anyone who has worked for an OEM has probably heard old legends about people who used to take home prototype parts and maybe even break the rules and sell them.
“Hey there Walter, we just finished testing these prototype cylinder heads. We know you have a 440 in your Dodge, so here you go. They’re yours.” From stories I’ve heard, this kind of talk wasn’t uncommon back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
So a question to readers working in the auto industry: have you heard stories similar to Clingingsmith’s? What ended up happening in the end?
Photo Credit GM