Man finds Philly stolen car 42 years later on eBay

An Austin Healey similar to that owned by Bob Russell
An Austin Healey similar to that owned by Bob Russell
Posted: July 10, 2012

It's not often that Philadelphia police are called to jump-start a stolen auto case. Especially one four decades old.

But thanks to their efforts, a Texas man has recovered a treasured convertible stolen in Philadelphia nearly 42 years ago.

Bob Russell never gave up hope that his stolen 1967 Austin Healey would be found one day.

Russell was a graduate student at Temple University in 1970 when he parked the English roadster at an apartment complex after a date with his future wife. When he went out to the lot the next morning, the Austin was gone.

Because he was a cash-strapped student, it was a double whammy. He had liability, but no theft insurance.

For more than four decades, Russell searched for the cream-colored convertible. And this year, against all odds, he found it.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Russell was trawling eBay, the Internet sales website, when he spotted his hot car listed for auction by a Los Angeles car dealer.

The final bid on the Austin stood at $19,700, which, Russell told the Morning News, did not meet the reserve price.

The listed VIN matched his beloved Austin. Russell, now living near Dallas, still possessed the original title and set of keys. The only thing he didn't have was the original stolen auto report.

Russell told the newspaper he called the dealer.

"I hate to sound indelicate," Russell told the dealer, "but you're selling a stolen car."

The dealer offered to sell it back to him for $24,000.

Russell called Los Angeles police. Their hands were tied. There was no record in the national database. They couldn't recover the Austin unless it was listed as an active stolen car. Technically, it wasn't.

So Russell called Philadelphia Police.

But what police department keeps stolen auto reports for 42 years? And even if the report could be located, would it have to be tallied up in this year's crime stats?

The prognosis did not look good.

Fortunately, Philadelphia cops love a good puzzle.

"We had to make sure we did everything right," said Det. Walt Bielski of major crimes.

Though there was no computer record, Deborah Sanborn in the department's PCIC unit found an old teletype reporting the theft of the roadster.

Lt. Fred McQuiggan, head of the Police Integrated Information Network, discovered the VIN had been entered incorrectly into the FBI's computerized files. After straightening that out, he found a way to relist the car as hot without it appearing to be a new incident.

"McQuiggan is the guy who really helped push this through," Bielski said. "He's a flexible and smart problem solver."

The L.A. County Sheriff's office could now impound the car.

In mid-June, Russell and his wife drove to California, paid $600 in impoundment fees, and took possession of the Austin.

Russell, who heaped praise on Philly police for their efforts, plans to restore the car to its former glory.

"It's a bit of a relief," Russell told the Morning News about his ordeal. "Nothing's ever linear - you're up, you're down, you're being whipsawed back and forth, and suddenly it's over."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or

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