THE 1958 movie ''Thunder Road'' was on again the other night: Robert Mitchum running moonshine against some of the clumsiest rear-projection car chases ever.
Mitchum drives a 1950 and a 1957 Ford in the film, recalling the starring role the Ford V-8 once played in American crime. The V-8 is cited in Bryan Burrough's 2005 book ''Public Enemies,'' which I picked up in paperback a few days after seeing ''Thunder Road'' again.
The book is about the crime wave of 1933-34, which made Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd famous. It also created the power and myth of the modern F.B.I.
The reason for the crime wave, Mr. Burrough argues, was that technology got ahead of the legal system, a process that began in the 1920s. The firepower of the Thompson submachine gun was one factor. But the main impetus, Mr. Burrough writes, ''was the automobile, particularly the availability of reliable, powerful V-8 engines.'' The local police and even state highway patrol forces were overwhelmed.
Cadillac had offered V-8's since 1914, but it was Ford's flathead V-8, introduced in 1932, that began democratizing automobiles suitable for fast getaways. (Though by the time of ''Thunder Road,'' newer V-8's from Chevrolet and Chrysler were generally thought superior.)
Already by 1924, in one calculation, automobiles were accessories to 75 percent of crimes. No wonder Bonnie, in one famous photograph, posed proudly with her foot on the bumper of a Ford that Clyde had stolen, the 8-inside-V logo visible behind her. Clyde, for his part, may have been an even bigger fan -- he supposedly praised the utility of the V-8 in a letter to Henry Ford.
The car let bandits range over vast areas, as the maps in Mr. Burrough's book show. Bonnie and Clyde were killed in Louisiana, in a 1934 Ford V-8, apparently stolen not long before from a driveway in Topeka, Kan.
The pattern continued long after the famous crime sprees of the '30s had ended. As the freeway system began to take shape in Los Angeles in the 1950s, the police noticed that bank robberies went up. Robbers chose branches conveniently close to on-ramps.
It took the arrival of the helicopter to thwart these getaways -- and provide countless hours of televised chase scenes, the modern equivalent of old black-and-white films like ''Thunder Road.''
Bonnie, Clyde and V8 Ford