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James Winner, inventor of 'The Club,' dies

Emma Brown

James Winner, who invented The Club anti-car-theft device, died after an automobile crash in western Pennsylvania on Tuesday, the Associated Press is reporting. He was 81.

Mr. Winner, an inveterate salesman who had hawked pianos, chemicals and vacuum cleaners, invented the steering-wheel lock in the mid-1980s after his Cadillac was stolen. He made a mint and became a prominent philanthropist in western Pennsylvania, where he had grown up on a farm.

The Club's genius was less in its novelty (similar products were available by the early 20th century) or its effectiveness (thieves have been known to beat The Club without much problem) than in its marketing. Mr. Winner blanketed the country with ads starring police officers and he convinced Sears to sell the product nationally; Kmart and Wal-Mart soon followed.

His company, Winner International, estimates that 10 million Clubs have been sold. Mr. Winner, a salesman at heart, said he was not passionate about steering-wheel locks so much as sealing deals.

"If it weren't The Club, it would have been something else -- it could have been a door knob," he told the Wall Street Journal in 1993. "The product is not my cause. I like to sell."

In the early 1990s, a Pennsylvania businessman named Charles Johnson claimed to have co-invented The Club and sued Mr. Winner for reneging on a promise to share its profits.

Mr. Winner said Johnson had signed an agreement abdicating his rights to revenue; Johnson said he was dyslexic and hadn't understood what he was signing. The case went to a jury, which decided in favor of Johnson.

Johnson and Mr. Winner reached a settlement before the jury could determine compensation. The settlement's terms were not disclosed, but two newspapers reported at the time that Mr. Winner agreed to pay Johnson a tidy $10.5 million.

On its website, Winner International describes the inspiration for The Club as Mr. Winner's service with the Army during the Korean War. It was then that he learned what later became The Club's trademarked slogan: "If you can't steer it, you can't steal it."

According to the AP, Mr. Winner was killed when his SUV crossed into a lane of oncoming traffic and hit a car head-on. Two men in the car also died.

By Emma Brown  |  September 15, 2010; 3:43 PM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown  | Tags: james winner died, james winner obituary, james winner the club  
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He sounds like a great old guy...

But with his final act of life, he killed two others?

Posted by: Georgetwoner | September 15, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

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