In the 1990s, car thieves roaming parking lots and residential streets looking for an easy target were running into a major problem. It was the Club, a heavy-duty accessory that could be locked onto a vehicle’s steering wheel to make turning it all but impossible.
In fact, the Club worked so well that it was thwarting another demographic—law-abiding drivers.
“I went to unlock it and it wouldn’t turn,” Club owner Lauren Clarke told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I messed around, messed around, and ended up breaking the key off. And then I thought, oh, great, now what do I do?”
Imagine how thieves felt. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign that played out on television commercials, the Club and its various knock-offs became a car-accessory success story, jamming up wheels and forcing criminals to target other, Club-less cars. By 1994, 10 million Clubs had been sold.
But thieves would soon adapt, exploiting a fatal flaw in the locks that would see the Club and other devices like it getting bludgeoned in the court of public opinion—and inviting speculation over whether the tool was a physical deterrent or merely a psychological one.
The Club was the invention of James Winner, a Pennsylvania native who once said he was raised under extremely modest circumstances. His education was delivered in a one-room schoolhouse; shoes to attend class were difficult to come by. He skipped college, enlisted in the Army, and became a salesman of vacuums, women’s clothing, chemicals, and keyboard organs, among other goods.
While serving in Korea, Winner said he and other soldiers were in the habit of locking chains to the steering wheels of their Jeeps to prevent them from being stolen. Much later, after his Cadillac had gone missing, Winner harkened back to that improvised anti-theft strategy. With a mechanic named Charles Johnson out of Ohio, he created the Club in 1986. A new company, Winner International, distributed it. (Johnson later alleged that he alone was responsible for the Club’s design; a lawsuit led to a $10.5 million settlement in Johnson’s favor.)
Winner had some fortuitous timing. As the ‘80s drew to a close, the market was growing for personal safety and protection items: locks, pepper sprays, bulletproof glass, and more. By 1994, the security industry was blossoming, netting $6 billion in alarm sales alone. Priced anywhere from $40 to $100, the Club was the ideal solution for drivers concerned about having their vehicle nicked.
Part of the reason for the boom, some experts said, was the rise of fear-based advertising. For people who had never previously considered the potential of having their home broken into or car stolen, television spots featuring malevolent and masked intruders incited concern. It became all too easy to imagine a scenario in which a consumer became a victim, necessitating some preventative purchase to avoid.
Winner credited the success of the Club to famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, who read ad spots for the device on his popular program. The copy cut through any feeling a listener may have had of feeling secure, opening the door to the possibility that evil could intrude in their lives at any moment. “You may live in an area that’s safe,” Harvey intoned, “but I bet you drive to the city sometime. I bet you go to the ballgame sometime.”
Translation: Anyone’s property or personal space could be violated at any time. The Club could reduce that anxiety.
Because of the advertising push and the Club’s distinctive appearance, it became something of a product celebrity in the vein of George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine or the ShamWow. David Letterman attached one to a golf cart during a skit on his show. Even a stroll through a parking lot acted as free advertising: With more than 10 million sold by the mid-'90s, there were enough Clubs in the U.S. for one in every 20 cars.
If the Club’s advertising relied on a psychological appeal to consumers-turned-victims, so did its functionality. Winner International admitted the Club was meant to be a deterrent—that a thief would peer into a car window, see the cumbersome device, and seek out a less-challenging target.
How much that really worked depended heavily on the thief. One determined to bypass the Club didn’t have a difficult time doing so, something owners found out when they locked themselves out and had to call a locksmith for assistance. Penetrating the Club’s defenses required little more than drilling out the lock or cutting through it with bolt cutters.
“The scenario is always the same,” locksmith Bruce Schwartz told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “They think the car is theft-proof and you come in and cut them off like they’re butter. They get upset.”
Thieves had other strategies for the Club. The car’s steering wheel could be cut, which would allow the Club to be slipped off easily. A squirt of liquid nitrogen could be applied to the lock itself, freezing it and allowing the device to be hammered off. If a criminal was feeling ambitious, they could bring their own steering wheel, dismantle the one already in the car with the Club still attached, then secure their wheel to the dashboard and drive off.
Winner International argued that the Club was analogous to a lock on your front door. It was intended to be a preventative measure against mischief, not an absolute one. Winner International also offered a $500 reimbursement to any Club purchaser whose car was stolen with the device in place. According to the company, few customers ever came looking for the compensation, which was intended to help cover any insurance deductible.
The Club may have put off casual thieves—a teenage joyrider, for example—while doing little to deter skilled car heist enthusiasts. But the device and others like it undoubtedly made consumers feel empowered, especially when they felt it had the blessing of law enforcement.
Winner International’s zeal in promoting the Club as a darling of law enforcement sometimes backfired. In 1989, the National Fraternal Order of Police (NFOP) endorsed the device, which Winner’s company publicized. But Winner was forced to walk back the claim in 1992 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) pointed out that only the NFOP’s board had made the endorsement, not the organization’s 220,000 police officers.
Still, the Club found supporters. One cop, Jack Klaric, appeared in ads for the Club—but while he was indeed a real police officer, Klaric was still paid a fee for his services. Asked by media face to face, police officers often said the Club was a visual deterrent and little more. And even that could be called into question when consumers neglected to engage the Club. Since it had to be applied every time a driver left their vehicle, some simply opted to leave it on the floor or under their seat.
Winner International expanded into door locks, boat locks, and other Club or Club-type devices, though sales were never as strong as they were for the original in the 1990s. He imagined Clubs for hotel doors, housing projects, and some kind of apparatus to protect car stereos that would activate pepper spray to deter a would-be thief. He even talked up something called the Wizard, which would allow for owners to disable their vehicle as a carjacker drove away. The doors would remain locked until authorities arrived.
Winner died in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 81, but the Club remains in circulation. In 2020, Winner International claimed a sales spike owing to an uptick in car thefts during the pandemic lockdowns, when cars were left idle for long periods of time. Safety experts typically advise that anyone looking for such a device pair it with another measure of security, like a car alarm or GPS tracking. Its purpose still seems largely psychological—alarming for a thief and reassuring for the owner. Taken on those terms, the Club is as effective as ever.