Armored car industry has treasured history

Safekeeping: The founder of Hunt Valley's Dunbar Armored Inc. writes about a business that traces its roots to stagecoach money boxes and railroad `treasure cars.'

April 22, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

"Every piece of currency in your billfold, every coin in your pocket, spent at least part of its life in an armored car before it got to you. And that's not the half of it. The ATM and credit cards you carry, gemstones and precious metals in your jewelry, bonds and stock certificates underlying your investments ... disputed election ballots, famous works of art, rare manuscripts ... collectibles of every sort ... all, at one time or another, have found their way onto armored car manifests."

So writes James L. Dunbar, founder of Dunbar Armored Inc. of Hunt Valley, the nation's third-largest armored-car company and co-author of Bulletproof, a history of the industry.

"There's definitely a mysterious, maybe even glamorous aura around armored cars," Dunbar said in an interview yesterday.

"What's in that truck? What's it made of? Where do they pick up that money, and where do they take it?"

Armored cars, specially built mobile fortresses that cost about $150,000 each, are bulletproof, fitted with multiple gun ports and typically followed by an unmarked chase car for safety.

Whether jewelry, coins, currency or other securities, the contents are always valuable and therefore the transportation from one point to another carries its risks.

"What you're carrying is something you know someone else wants," Dunbar said. "What we're delivering is what everyone is working for. It's money."

Dunbar said the modern "money trucks" trace their ancestry to stagecoach strong boxes, railroad "treasure cars" used by express companies to move valuables and innovative armored vehicles used by the Allies with considerable success in World War I.

Anyone tempted to rob an armored car should reflect on the fact that most such attempts fail, often with tragic results, Dunbar notes in his book.

But thieves keep on trying because, as a famous robber once said of banks, "That's where the money is."

In 1997, there were 90 armored-car robbery incidents in the United States resulting in combined losses of more than $37 million and four homicides.

But Dunbar notes that in that same year there were some 9,000 bank robberies, 100 times as many.

He tells of the robbery in Boston on Jan. 17, 1950, in which seven people with pea jackets and rubber masks robbed a Brinks armored car terminal of $2.8 million. The notoriety of that robbery made people sit up and notice the armored car industry, Dunbar said.

Dunbar, 74, researched his 435-page book over 6 1/2 years, zigzagging across the country to interview the people who could tell him stories about the business.

"This is my gift to the armored car industry," he said.

It's an industry that has given Dunbar enjoyment since he started his Baltimore company in 1956. He even got to consult on a dozen feature films, including Unfaithful, in which the Dunbar company name is mentioned.

The Dunbar family started its business in 1923 when Dunbar's father, George Dunbar, founded Mercer & Dunbar Armored Car Service, the first armored car company in New England, after an armored truck broke down at the car dealership in Hartford, Conn., where he and partner Floyd Mercer worked.

In 1956, Dunbar opened an armored car business in Baltimore after a disagreement with his father, for whom he had worked for five years.

Dunbar called his business Federal Armored Express, the name it retained until 1996, when the company adopted the family name to unite the related companies and divisions.

Dunbar is expected to gross $225 million in revenue this year. The company, which has 4,000 employees and operates in 38 states, is granting franchises worldwide.

The Baltimore company is the third largest behind Loomis Fargo & Co. and Brink's Inc.

Some of the material for the book came to Dunbar in the form of a cardboard box left to him by Bill Williams, a former president of the National Armored Car Association and its honorary historian.

In the 1960s Williams told Dunbar that he wanted to leave him the information when he died. The gift was a responsibility that Dunbar took seriously.

Asked, he will tell his war stories, such as the time nearly 40 years ago when a clerk in a warehouse of Hutzler's department store said, "Stick 'em up" as a joke that didn't seem so funny at the time.

Through the years, armored trucks have received assignments to transport everything from Charlie Chaplin's shoes, to the Beatles, to the latest Harry Potter book on its way to bookstores.

Dunbar himself has been responsible for picking up the Preakness trophy at a jeweler's and delivering it to the track at Pimlico.

Armored car facts

The pioneering procedures of Wells Fargo & Co., which used armed messengers carrying treasure-laden strongboxes aboard graceful stagecoaches in the 19th century, were adapted by armored car operators in the following century.

A modern armored car typically costs about $150,000.

Armored car employees in Britain are not allowed to carry weapons, but the cars are equipped with multiple roof antennas as decoys so that would-be robbers will not know which is the real antenna.

An armored car is frequently followed by an unmarked chase vehicle.

Banks are much more likely to be robbed than armored cars.

The money that people have in their pockets or purses has taken a ride in an armored truck at least once.

Baltimore-based Dunbar Armored Inc. is the third-largest in the industry behind Loomis, Fargo & Co. and Brink's Inc.

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