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Crazy for Cortinas: The 80s cars targeted by thieves

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They were the cars in every driveway, as symbolic of the 1980s as big hair, yuppies and Duran Duran. But now the once ubiquitous Cortinas, Escorts and Novas are sought after. So much so that they are increasingly being targeted by organised criminals.

It is big business - a couple of vinyl seat covers for a Cortina can sell for £300, while an Escort door can go for £500.

Other than retro-fitting alarms and immobilisers, demand is such that there is little owners can do to protect their vehicles.

Image copyright IAATI

Classic car collector and motorway police officer Alan Colman goes as far as to compare the spare parts industry to the drugs trade.

"You need parts for a restoration and get them from an internet auction site," he says. "You pick them up from an 'Aladdin's cave' of rare parts at good prices.

"You think it's downright dodgy and the seller is cagey about the origins of those parts. What do you do? After all, it could be your parts they are selling one day.

"Just like the drugs market, if the supply of buyers dries up then the thefts diminish."

Image copyright IAATI

Dave Bailey, a spare parts dealer from Gloucestershire, said he buys cars at auction whole and breaks them himself to sell on, "easily tripling" his profit.

But he admitted there are some people in the trade who turn a blind eye to where their parts come from, and it is that willingness to "sort of wink at jacked goods" which fuels the black market.

Is there a solution to the problem? Mr Bailey thinks not.

"It's second-hand car parts. There's no registry or anything like that. It's up to the buyer - if you think it's dodgy, it probably is. But you don't have to buy it.

"And of course there's a risk to the seller - I've known lads fined or even jailed for selling parts they've got by unconventional means, if you know what I'm saying."

The victims of the black market are people like Martin Isitt. His pride and joy, a red Mk5 Cortina Crusader was taken from the driveway outside his home in Chatham, Kent, on New Year's Eve.

"It's like I lost a part of me," said Mr Isitt, who had spent the past three years working on it.

The car, which had no battery and was missing bumpers and a Ford badge, was reportedly seen on the back of a pick-up truck.

Image caption Not a joyrider in an Austin Maestro

Bob and Tracy Tobin were similarly distraught when their Cortina disappeared from outside their home in Kent. Mr Tobin rescued the car 30 years ago after hearing a friend was planning to send it to a scrapyard. Mrs Tobin said her husband was "absolutely devastated" at the theft.

If going to the effort of arranging a truck to steal a car sounds extreme, it is nothing out of the ordinary, according to Neil Armstrong who runs Stolen Oldskool Fords - a group dedicated to publicising the theft of, and finding, Fords from the 1970s and 80s.

The models only fetched a few hundred pounds as recently as a decade ago but are increasingly popular with thieves.

Image caption This Cortina Lotus was stolen from an enthusiast who had owned it for 27 years

When Mr Armstrong set up the group in 2008, just 15 thefts were reported to him. Last year there were 34. Thieves are going to increasingly extreme lengths to steal the cars.

A Mk1 Ford Escort Mexico was taken from a garage in south London in 2008 after thieves removed tiles from a garage roof, cut the roofing felt, dropped someone inside who removed the steering lock from the car and opened the garage door.

A recent government report found that, although newer cars make up a far higher proportion of stolen vehicles than older cars, vehicles made in the 1980s were still proportionally more likely to be stolen.

Image caption Martin Isitt's pride and joy, a red Mk5 Cortina Crusader

"I've heard theories they might be being stolen for banger racing or parts, but I suspect it's all about the resale value," says Dr Ken German, a former police officer and rally driver.

"Enthusiasts and collectors will pay thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds, for a nice example."

One attraction of targeting 1970s and 80s cars is their lack of sophisticated security.

Image caption Bob and Tracy Tobin's Cortina had been in the family for 30 years

"No cars had alarms or immobilisers back then, unless they were fitted after-market. So they are easy to steal by anyone with a coat-hanger and a screwdriver," says Tom Bell, owner of a Mk2 Golf.

Perhaps most importantly, however, these cars evoke a nostalgia for the earliest "hot hatches", which allowed speed freaks to go from 0 to 60 in 12 seconds without the expense of buying a sports car.

Now, the children of the 1980s have grown up and can recreate their - or their dad's - youth with their own Cortina or early Golf.

The cars are fast and fun to drive, relatively economical and easy for amateur mechanics to tinker with.

But with a roaring black market spare parts trade, the cars of the 1980s are becoming increasingly rare on the streets, and increasingly popular on the car thief's to-do list.

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