They help make your polluting car slightly less irksome to the environment, but that isn’t the reason thieves are increasingly targeting catalytic converters

What is the reason then?

It’s because of the metals that catalytic converters contain. Imagine one as a box of Rice Crispies (other breakfast cereals are available) with a list of ingredients on the side. Among them you would find copper, nickel, cerium, iron and manganese, but also rarer elements such as palladium, rhodium and platinum. And these kinds of metals have serious scrap value, as any Minister or priest who has ever had the copper lifted from their church roof will know.

And what is a catalytic converter?

Imagine a small accordion such as you might play sea shanties on, only sandwiched between two long pipes and slung underneath your car. A fuller explanation containing some scientific facts would say something like: ‘It’s an exhaust emission control device that reduces toxic gases and pollutants in exhaust gas from an internal combustion engine into less toxic pollutants.’ Or it would if you checked Wikipedia.

What value does the metal have?

The actual value rises and falls as it does with any commodity. But a more cogent answer is that the last three ‘ingredients’ – palladium, rhodium and platinum – are all vital for the production of things such as electrical equipment and fuel cells, which are increasingly in demand. Platinum and palladium are also crucial components of smartphones, but mining these metals is difficult, expensive and often dangerous.

They’re in demand then?

They are indeed. Thefts of catalytic converters have risen markedly over the last couple of years and particularly during lockdown. While previously it was car stereos or hubcaps that were often the target of thefts from cars, a study by motoring organisation RAC and insurer Ageas has found that now it’s catalytic converters. They account for three out of every ten car thefts, a fact not unconnected with the price of rhodium which hit a record high earlier this year and has increased by 200% since March 2020. But unlike hubcaps and car stereos, the theft isn’t always immediately obvious. “Drivers are often oblivious,” says RAC spokesperson Simon Williams. “Our patrols are often called to attend cars that have suddenly become excessively noisy … On investigation it’s very often the case that the car’s catalytic converter has been stolen.”

An easy caper?

It certainly wouldn’t tax Ethan Hunt and his Mission Impossible team. Thieves armed with a decent floor jack can have a catalytic converter off in a little over a minute. London seems to be a particular hotspot, with nearly 15,000 reported thefts investigated in 2020 against 9,500 the previous year. Across the whole of England and Wales there were only 2000 reported thefts in 2018 and data from 22 of the area’s 43 police forces for 2017 shows only 637 cases.