Cars and the Highway to Hell: How Automobiles Helped Bootleggers Skirt Prohibition Laws

By: John Simonson, author of Prohibition in Kansas City
In September 1921, the Ladies Home Journal placed an advertisement in the Kansas City Times, a tease for an upcoming article titled “Freedom and Our Changing Standards.” The automobile, the article warned, had become a threat to American morality, and young people were especially vulnerable. The car offered new freedom of movement, and with it “came the road house, the jazz band, the hotel and restaurant dances, came the unrestricted association of the sexes.” In other words, according to the author and other social reformers, cars offered a quick ride down the highway to hell.

In 1923 a Kansas City anti-vice organization declared automobiles “a great source of moral delinquency.” And two years later law enforcement officials blamed autos for overcrowded prisons filled with auto thieves, sex traders, dope smugglers and that breed of criminal created by Prohibition, the bootlegger. “Regular transcontinental liquor caravans have been uncovered by government agents,” said the Kansas City Post.

Kansas City bootleggers, far from any steady source of imported liquor – Canada or a coastal port where rum-running boats made clandestine deliveries from the Bahamas or Cuba – often made those transcontinental runs, especially early in Prohibition, before it became more profitable to make their own. And it wasn’t easy.
For one thing, the nation’s roads were hardly interconnected ribbons of concrete like today. The Federal Highway Act was not a thing until 1921, and that set off years of construction to replace the single tracks of mud or “improved” gravel crisscrossing states. Any road trip could be harrowing, let alone one with the possibility of gunplay.

There were liquor hijackers, some with fake lawmen’s badges. Real officers also roamed about hoping to snag an overland shipment, sometimes willing to let it pass for a “toll,” perhaps a dollar per case. Bootleggers tossed out boxes of tacks to ruin tires, and some rigged their cars with contraptions that left pursuers choking in a wake of oily smoke.

Those cars were Fords, Chandlers, Overlands, Nashes, Studebakers, Cadillacs, LaSalles. Fortified suspensions allowed bigger payloads. Most were spacious. The choice among Kansas City bootleggers was said to be a Buick roadster, favored for its twenty-five-case capacity. One such model was advertised as “a powerful, roomy and exceptionally easy riding car.”

All major selling points when the local bootleggers’ record driving time from Pittsburgh – stopping only for gas, oil and water – was said to be 55 hours.