BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - As the story goes, the 2004 Subaru WRX STi was northbound on Interstate 55 near Springfield, Ill., when the driver exited the freeway, tried to stop on wet pavement and hammered the white-winged rally car into a light pole at the top of the ramp.
The car, a total wreck, was junkyard bound when Earl Hyser stepped in to divert it to the State Farm Insurance Vehicle Research Facility in Bloomington.
"I want to put the wing on our Prius," jokes Hyser, whose mischievous grin belies the seriousness of the research center's studies of safety, theft prevention and repair-cost reduction.
Hyser is superintendent at the facility, a windowless two-story cinder-block building tucked behind State Farm's giant headquarters.
The center, which was created in 1995, employs four researchers who spend their days dismantling crashed and new cars to discover their secrets - whether that be why a vehicle might be easy to steal or why it costs so much to repair.
As for the WRX STi, aside from the big wing that Hyser is eyeing as an accoutrement for the team's Toyota Prius, the researchers' interest in the car centers around learning lessons in theft prevention. Because early WRX models weren't equipped with key-embedded engine immobilizer chip systems, the cars were as popular with thieves as they were with enthusiasts.
He is not proud of it, but when pressed, Hyser admits to special talents that make him uniquely qualified for his job: As the son of a mechanic, Hyser's teenage joy rides often began by breaking into and hot-wiring cars in his father's service shop.
"I can break into a lot of stuff," says Hyser, showing a table laden with the tools of a car thief's trade - from specialized lock-picking devices to simple coat hangerlike unlocking wires fashioned from a stolen car's own radio antenna.
Hyser has identified a handful of problems with the Subaru that make it a tempting theft target - easy under-hood and trunk access without opening doors (which risks setting off an alarm), valuable nonlocking wheels, airbags, audio equipment and racing seats.
While there is little to stop a theft ring armed with a tow truck, Hyser hopes his investigations will help automakers build in equipment that prevents thieves from starting a car without a key and driving it away under its own power.
Hyser's studies also suggest to manufacturers ways to cut theft losses. He recommends:
Once Hyser's work ends, the vehicle typically makes its way through his partners' hands.
Researcher Tom Hollenstain puts each car through a safety review, checking its airbags and other restraints for effectiveness. Hollenstain deconstructs crash damage to learn why some vehicles fare better than others in certain types of crashes.
Research analyst Thomas Bergeron, a glass and body-panel expert, studies the car for ways to contain repair costs. One example: Bergeron learned to repair minor damage to carbon fiber panels so insurers can make a less-expensive repair rather than replacing parts such as a Ferrari Enzo engine cover that lists for $57,000.
Steve Schmidt is the group's liaison to the auto industry. He collects data from the team's research, as well as from automakers and makes sure both parties are alert to the latest statistics.
Are the researchers making a difference?
"Early on, I thought I was going to work myself out of a job - I'm finding things out and telling the manufacturers, and they're fixing them," Hyser says. "But things keep evolving."