James E. Winner, whose company sold The Club, has passe... James E. Winner, whose company sold The Club, has passed away at age 81 (David E. Dale/The Herald, AP).

CLARION, Pa. (AP) -- James Winner, who marketed the steering-wheel lock known as The Club after his car was stolen in the 1980s, has died in a head-on collision in western Pennsylvania. He was 81.

'The Club' on a steering wheel.

Two other people also died when Winner's sport utility vehicle crossed into oncoming traffic Tuesday "for unknown reasons" and collided with their car, State Police said. The investigation continued.

Winner sold the first Club in western Pennsylvania before creating Winner International, the Sharon-based company that has now sold more than 10 million units. The device prevents car thieves from driving away - and its visibility can be a powerful deterrent in itself.

In a statement Wednesday, company officials said it was "a very difficult time for all of us and the family would request that you honor their privacy."

He also was widely known for his philanthropy in western Pennsylvania. He said he wanted to make the area a tourist destination and create jobs after industry losses there.

He bought and restored buildings, including the downtown Sharon home once owned by industrialist Frank Buhl, which Winner converted into a bed and breakfast. Winner owned hotels, schools and businesses, including Winner Steel, which he eventually sold.

"Jim was just a great man and did more behind the scenes than people even knew," the Rev. Larry Haynes, who worked with Winner through the Shenango Valley Foundation community group, told the Sharon Herald.

Winner was born in the town of Transfer and worked on his family's farm from age 5. He attended school in a one-room schoolhouse before joining the Army at age 17.
The other two people killed in the crash were identified as driver Bobby Jarrett, 82, of Tionesta, and passenger Raymond Fair, 76, of Tylersburg.

Winner also had a home in Hollywood, Fla.

Update: Various news reports have cited Winner as the inventor of The Club (in fact, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office calls him such), but he is more accurately described as the marketer of the device. A series of lawsuits by the device's original inventor, Charles Johnson, came to a head in 1993 when Winner and his company, Winner International Corp., agreed to pay over $10 million in damages. Johnson's suit alleged that he invented the Club and agreed to half of its profits on a handshake deal when Winner began marketing it. He said that Winner did not split the profits with him, giving him an amount below $20,000 despite The Club's success in the U.S. and throughout the world.

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