In the more hip circles here at state prison it is generally held that the two top drivers of all time were Juan Fangio and Clarence Heatherton. There are probably a number of outsiders prepared to argue the point—with most of the disagreement centered on Clarence—but it's true all the same. You just have to judge by different standards, since Clarence made his reputation driving getaway on bank heists.
Clarence was a Londoner, and he looked every bit of it. When I first met him in 1945 he was a spry little old man, done up in baggy tweeds and wearing a pair of those steel-rimmed spectacles of the sort you see only on Englishmen and characters in old Charlie Chan movies. He also sported a toothbrush mustache that gave him a half-raffish air. Clarence had driven in British races and rallies for years before he was tempted into crime by a yen for an expensive Bugatti. After his first fling, which cost him a stretch in Wormwood Scrubs, he became a fulltime wheelman and never went back to proper racing. Clarence was one of the oddballs who really liked the excitement of his work, but he always insisted that he drove only for love of that elusive Bugatti—or, as time went by, perhaps a 1,750-cc. Alfa Romeo or a 300 SL Mercedes.
Clarence was as efficient as a computer behind the wheel, even though he nursed a quaint set of prejudices about cars. For instance, he never got over grousing about the disappearance of the running board, a very useful feature back in the '20s when he started in the business. A standard technique on bank jobs in those days was to herd an assortment of cashiers and customers out to the getaway car and go tearing off with them stacked on the running boards. This show of togetherness usually kept the police from doing any careless shooting.
Another of Clarence's dislikes was the automatic transmission. I remember one time in 1960 we were parked outside a Chicago loan office, right in the middle of a job, and the old geezer decided to give me a lecture on the subject. He concluded it—after we had pulled away amidst a clanging din of alarm bells and shouts for help—with the determinedly pious observation that automatics were wicked. "An automobile," he declared, "should have a stick shift, as God intended."
In the early days of the profession, when Clarence was starting out on his career, there were more makes of cars to choose from than there are today. The main considerations were size and horsepower. There was the early Locomobile, some models of which boasted up to 120 hp. There were the indestructible Cadillacs and the heavy, high-riding Buicks. Also popular for their speed all through the '30s were such makes as Hudson, Terraplane and Ford.
John Dillinger was a great fancier of Fords. In fact, he was so partial to them that one time while he was on the run in Illinois, with every cop in the country trying to track him down, he took time to write a letter of appreciation to Henry Ford:
Hello Old Pal:
Arrived here at 10 a.m. today. Would like to drop in and see you.
You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It's a treat to drive one.
Your slogan should be:
'Drive a Ford and watch other cars fall behind you.' I can make any other car take a Ford's dust.
After volunteering this testimonial, old John immediately ditched the Ford in favor of a freshly stolen Chevrolet coup�. Which proves, at least, that there is no brand loyalty among thieves.