Maindrian Pace is a respectable insurance investigator who runs an automobile chop shop in Long Beach, California. He is also the leader of a professional car theft ring, who steals and re-sells stolen cars; using the vehicle identification number (VIN), engines, parts, and details (such as parking decals and bumper stickers) sourced from legitimately-purchased wrecks. As an insurance industry insider, Pace does have one small idiosyncrasy: All vehicles stolen must be insured.
Pace is approached by a South American drug lord who offers $400,000 in exchange for the theft of 48 specific vehicles, to be delivered to the Long Beach docks within five days. The list includes limousines, semi-trailer trucks, vintage cars, and exotics; rendering the order difficult to fill within the time limit. Nevertheless, Pace is confident that the order can be filled by the March 2, 1974 deadline.
Mapping out a basic strategy, the thieves scout out their vehicular targets; all of which have been given female code names. The plan goes smoothly – with even some of the more eclectic vehicles acquired with relative ease – but obstacles mount. Chief of these difficulties is a yellow, 1973 Ford Mustang, code named “Eleanor.” The first “Eleanor” they come across is occupied; they locate this car again but stealing it results in a chase as its drunken owner pursues Pace. A second “Eleanor” is acquired seemingly without issue.
Further tension enters into the picture when a white Cadillac – stolen as part of the order – is found to contain several kilos of heroin stashed in its trunk. Pace’s brother-in-law, Eugene, sees the heroin as a profitable side business; Pace disagrees, viewing the heroin as a threat to the security of the operation. Against Eugene’s vehement protests, Pace does not relinquish the heroin, and has the Cadillac and its contents burned at a remote location – unbeknownst to Eugene.
The theft of all 48 vehicles is soon completed, but the second “Eleanor” is discovered to be uninsured within hours of delivery to the docks. After pleas from fiancée Pumpkin Chase, Pace agrees to return it – only because he is aware of a third match for “Eleanor” at the International Towers in Long Beach. At the same time, Eugene learns of the Cadillac’s fate and attempts to start a brawl; ultimately leaving the office in a rage.
Pace prepares to steal the third “Eleanor”, unaware that Eugene has anonymously tipped off the police. As a result of the tip-off, two detectives (Butch Stockton and Phil Woods) in an unmarked Mercury corner the disguised Pace as he exits the International Towers. A 40-minute car chase (in which 93 vehicles are destroyed) ensues, covering six California cities from Long Beach to Carson. Eluding the police with speed and driving skill, Pace keeps from being caught by police – but not without causing irreparable damage to the car.
Pace is now desperate; police blockades and surveillance surround the areas. Pace spots another “Eleanor” Mustang pulling into a car wash. Realizing an opportunity, Pace drives the abused Mustang up to the wash entrance, leaves it with the staff, and then dupes the owner of the fourth Mustang (under the guise of being the manager of the car wash). After a quick license plate swap and removal of his disguise, he subsequently leaves the car wash with the intact Mustang.
Meanwhile, the duped owner is inquiring with the manager of the car wash as to the whereabouts of her Mustang – and faints at the sight of the wrecked car as it exits the wash bay. The police, spotting the wrecked Mustang, quickly descend upon the scene to arrest the manager of the car wash, who matches the description of Pace.
The film ends as Pace clears a police roadblock, driving the fourth “Eleanor”.