Bonnie and Clyde famously loved stealing plentiful Ford V-8s as get-away cars in the early 1930s and wrote to Henry Ford saying as much. Compared to other gangsters of the era, the financial take from Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree of robbing stores and gas stations was small potatoes. Big-time gangsters were moving contraband and running extortion schemes that netted them big bucks, affording them bigger and more powerful cars than Fords. Al Capone is known to have owned a Cadillac, but gangsters’ rides of choice were as varied as the gangsters themselves. As far as the Purple Gang of Detroit is concerned, William Kendall is convinced that Lincoln was the get-away car of choice — specifically, his Lincoln.
In 2005, the Lincoln collector was alerted that a long-hidden 1930 five-passenger Tonneau Cowl Sport Phaeton had become available near him in Hamtramck, Mich. The Lincoln was owned by one Bruno Rusniak, who had bought the car in 1940 at 20 years of age, but he hadn’t driven it in decades despite his listed profession of mechanic. When Bruno passed in 2004 at 84 years of age, his older sister was charged with liquidating his estate, which was relatively substantial for a man in his line of work.
When Kendall arrived to inspect the Lincoln, he found the rear of the Lincoln’s body had been damaged and there were bullet holes in its cowl.
“According to the sister, they were trying to get away from the police and backed into the police car to get away, which would put out the radiator on the police car,” Kendall said. “The rear fenders were all bent, the springs were bent, and they got away and then the car was put away.” And that was only the beginning of the car’s mystery.
While inspecting the car, the Purple Gang was referenced, although at the time Kendall had little knowledge of this crime syndicate. He was more focused on inspecting the garbage-filled Lincoln for its condition. He may also have been distracted by the sellers’ mention that there was $10,000 rumored to be hidden somewhere in the car.
“There was tons of animal remains, there was poop and pee in it and it was really dirty and scummy so you couldn’t touch it without getting crud all over,” Kendall said.
Although the Lincoln needed serious attention, Kendall bought it and dragged it home with the thought of its Purple Gang connections always in the back of his mind. Once he and his wife Gail began to more closely inspect their purchase, they became more aware of items in and on the car that made its past increasingly suspicious. The car wore a Cadillac rock guard over its grille, perhaps to mask its Lincoln identity, and it had been repainted — poorly — in 1930s Cadillac colors. That paint was lifting due to a lack of surface preparation.
“The paint is a greenish and goldish two-tone, but very subdued,” Kendall said, “and you will see spots on the fenders where the paint came right off and you can see the original paint was never sanded — the newer paint has just popped off and it’s as smooth as a baby’s butt there, so maybe it was a quickie job to cover it up from police.”
Inside the Lincoln were a number of items that weren’t necessarily cagey on their own: barber shears, a chauffeur hat, an empty 1938 Chicago Federal Reserve bank bag and 1932 maps for Detroit, Ontario and Illinois. However, once the Kendalls began researching the Purple Gang, these artifacts began to paint the picture of a potentially colorful past for the Lincoln.
A gang of a different shade
During the early 20th century, immigrant neighborhoods in Detroit (and elsewhere) experienced poverty and to survive, some residents turned to crime. The most notorious group of thugs operating with some level of organization in Detroit at this time was the Purple Gang, aka The Sugar House Gang. This gang was comprised largely of the American-born children of immigrants from Russia and Poland. The Purple Gang began with petty theft and extortion in the 1910s before expanding to the more serious crimes of armed robbery (including hijacking trucks) and bootlegging, both with notorious savagery. Given the gang’s location in Detroit, it was perfectly positioned to bridge Chicago with Windsor, Ontario, where the manufacture of liquor remained legal during prohibition in the United States. It is believed that the Purple Gang colluded with Al Capone and his Chicago Outfit and other gangs to supply illegally imported liquor to Chicago and beyond.
By the late 1920s, the Purple Gang ran Detroit’s “underworld” by controlling the city’s gambling, liquor and drug trade. However, it’s believed the gang kept up its armed robbery crimes and extortion tactics. The gang’s extortion often targeted Detroit-area laundry industry and barber unions and associations. The gang’s hit men were hired out to keep members of these unions in line and to harass non-union independents. These crimes are believed to have remained a staple of the organization from the 1920s through at least the 1930s.
Painting a picture of the past
Upon learning about the Purple Gang, the Kendalls began connecting the dots. Former owner Bruno Rusniak’s sister acknowledged the Lincoln had been used as a get-away car when she explained the rear-end damage and bullet holes in the cowl. There was the seemingly rushed paint job in Cadillac colors and the Cadillac stone guard to give the car a different appearance. Did the barber shears tie the car to nefarious acts against barber’s union members? Was the empty bank bag and chauffeur’s hat evidence from a robbery? Was it more than coincidence that there were maps found in the car of the three main points along the major prohibition-era bootlegging corridor?
On top of it all, the Rusniak name occurs mostly in the Ukraine, and Bruno had done much to hide the Lincoln since at least the 1960s.
“I talked to a neighbor who lived kitty corner across the street for 43 years, and he had a direct view into Bruno’s garage... and he never knew the car was in the garage” Kendall said. “The car was covered up, and the amount of stuff in the garage was unbelievable. It had been covered up for all 43 years he lived across the street and he never knew it was in there.”
How long the Lincoln had been in Bruno Rusniak’s garage on well-traveled Caniff Street in Hamtramck is anyone’s guess, but it’s possible it had been hidden there since 1940, when Bruno Rusniak titled it in his name. It’s possible the car was in the garage even longer since upon his passing, Bruno still remained in the home in which he was born. He had even bought the adjacent house either as a real estate investment or perhaps as a buffer to additional privacy.
A treasure on its own
Regardless of the Lincoln’s possible past, it remains a treasure among Full Classic Car collectors. The 1930 Lincoln was the last to be christened with the Model L designation. The cars featured a 90-hp V-8 engine of 384.8 cubic inches that retained the fork-and-blade connecting rod design by Lincoln Motor Car Co. founder Henry M. Leland and his son, Wilfred, for the new marque’s mid-1920 introduction.
Due to the forthcoming 1931 Lincoln Model K and the early effects of the Great Depression, production of the 1930 Lincolns was low when compared to competitors such as Cadillac. Just 3,515 Lincolns with factory-built and custom bodies were built for the 1930 model year. Of those, only 90 were rakish Model 176-B Tonneau Cowl Sport Phaeton models such as the Kendall’s Lincoln. This body was built by Lincoln and sold for $4,400, a substantial figure that equated to exactly 10 new Ford Model A phaetons. For the Lincoln buyer’s money, he received twice as many cylinders as the Ford, a much longer wheelbase of 136 inches and a larger body for a smoother and more comfortable ride plus dual sidemounts and a folding trunk rack. As its name implies, the Lincoln Tonneau Cowl Sport Phaeton featured a cowl with a second windshield behind the front seat that was counterbalanced to ease raising and lowering and thus entry and egress of back seat passengers.
The Kendalls believe about 10 similar 1930 Lincoln Tonneau Cowl Sport Phaetons survive today. Theirs may not be the shiniest of the survivors, but they have enjoyed making the car more presentable and getting it road-ready again.
“It went from Bruno’s to a friend’s house to Mark Welch in Toledo, Ohio, to have the body, fenders and rear frame horns and rear springs straightened,” Kendall said.
“You would be amazed that he was able to get all of the dents out of the rear fenders, straighten the fenders, straighten the springs and frame horns and fix the rear of the car body without taking out the rear of the seat.”
The interior has also been cleaned, of course, and the car has been made to run so that the Kendalls can take it out whenever a drive strikes their fancy.
“We’re enjoying it as it is,” Kendall says, although he hasn’t stopped searching for confirmation of its past and possible Purple Gang connections.
“I have never taken the rear seat out and looked,” he said. “There may be cash under the seat, but I have never taken it out. I doubt there’s any money there.”
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