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What Was the Biggest Auto Theft in History?

It's hard to believe that arguably the greatest car theft in history hasn't been made into a movie.

It happened in 1974, during a time when North Korea was more financially solvent than it is today and Sweden was eager to find new trading partners. Swedish officials made what seemed like a great deal with the developing nation, sending it more than $70 million USD worth of heavy machinery and 1,000 1973 Volvo 144 sedans. In 1975, Sweden even became the first western nation to open an embassy in North Korea.

North Korea imported 1,000 Volvo 144 sedans from Sweden in the 1970s, but has never paid for them.
North Korea imported 1,000 Volvo 144 sedans from Sweden in the 1970s, but has never paid for them.

But the machinery wasn't put to use, and the requests for payment that Sweden sent every six months weren't getting paid. In fact, they still haven't been, and as of 2017, the North Korean debt to its Scandinavian trading partner has grown to approximately $322 million USD.

While the Volvos are now 45 years old, some can still be seen on the streets of Pyongyang, shuttling passengers around town as taxis. The Swedish embassy is also still in use, and has allowed the Swedish to conduct humanitarian aid missions and act as a go-between for the West and North Korea.

"The Swedes have often played that kind of a role in diplomacy of various kinds," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. "They are seen, in some measure, as an honest broker."

Dude, where's my car?

  • The most commonly stolen car in the United States is the Honda Civic, with five thefts per every 1,000 vehicles.

  • In 2019, Albuquerque, New Mexico, saw the most car thefts, with 7,146, but five California cities were among the top 10.

  • According to some statistics, New Zealand has the highest auto-theft rate in the world.

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    • North Korea imported 1,000 Volvo 144 sedans from Sweden in the 1970s, but has never paid for them.
      North Korea imported 1,000 Volvo 144 sedans from Sweden in the 1970s, but has never paid for them.