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30th Anniversary: Driving Memories

A car guy looks back at 30 years of the best and worst patrol vehicles.

October 01, 2006  |  by Steve Rothstein

When I started my law enforcement career about the same time that Police was launched in 1976, cop cars were changing. It was the era of the oil embargo and the gas shortages, so the engines in patrol vehicles started to get a lot smaller.

And I hated it.

Gone were the big cars with big interceptor engines. The new police cars that were coming on line when I first strapped on a duty belt were an administrator’s wet dream. They were less expensive to purchase. They were less expensive to insure. And they were a lot less expensive to operate than the good old-fashioned Detroit iron that the public associated with cop cars. Oh, yeah. They were also a lot less fun to drive.

When I was a kid, patrol cars were patrol cars. Officers in the ’60s drove big Plymouths with 440 interceptor engines in them. And when I first decided that I was going to be a cop, one of the things that drew me to the job was being able to drive high-performance cars at high speed. I mean I wanted to serve the public and fight crime. But man, I really loved those big, powerful police cars that roamed our Texas highways and byways.

Here’s the punchline. When I first went on patrol, it wasn’t in one of those high-powered units of my youthful daydreams. No, not quite. My first patrol car was so tame my grandma would have loved it.

There I was, a 19-year-old car enthusiast, graduating from his MP training and going to his first assignment and expecting some serious automotive muscle. So you can imagine the look on my face when the Army in its infinite wisdom put me in a Plymouth Valiant with a 225-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine. My first days of driving a cop car were not what I had imagined at all.

Fortunately, I soon got to drive one that was closer to my dreams. My next unit was an older Ford Custom 500 with a 352. We nicknamed it “the battle wagon,” since it had plenty of power and neither power steering nor power brakes to leech that power. I loved that car.

It was the last true high-performance police car that I would patrol in for some time.

Spartan Sedans

For the next couple of years, the pattern was set: smaller cars with mid-size engines. Ford was selling the LTD II; Chevy had the Malibu and then the Nova, both with 350s; and Chrysler had the Valiant and the Fury with a variety of engines up to the 360. A few years later, Chrysler introduced the Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen with 318 and 360 engines.

The most remarkable thing about these cars when you compare them to today’s police vehicle is that they were really spartan. They had smooth vinyl bench seats, no air conditioning, no radio for entertainment, and no other fancy options. You even had to manually lock and unlock the doors and manually roll the windows up and down.

Those cars were dull and uncomfortable. But the worst thing about them was those damned bench seats.

I remember one technique we developed during driving training. We were using Dodge Diplomats with bench seats and, if you drove them fast, you had a lot of trouble staying in the driver’s seat. So we always got in with the seat a little further back than we needed, buckled the seat belt, and then slid the seat forward to the proper position. This made the seatbelt tighter, so you could stay in place on the track.

That’s what we did in training, but that trick would have never worked in a real pursuit. We didn’t have enough time to make the adjustment. So we just had to hang on. Fortunately, the car manufacturers soon saw the error of their ways and provided us with bucket seats.

Not everything about the cars from this era was inferior to today’s patrol cars. My early ’80s Ford unit was really maneuverable and one of the things that made it such a blast to drive was that it had a parking break that would not stay down if the tranmission was in gear.

We used this feature for a quick turnaround we called the bootlegger’s turn. If you were going in one direction, you could apply the parking brake by stepping on its foot pedal, and it would lock the rear wheels up. If you turned the steering wheel, the car’s back end would break loose and spin around. When you were turned around, you would take your foot off the parking brake, which would then release. You now had all four wheels holding traction, and you could give it gas to go the other way. That was a lot of fun.

Gas Crisis Cars

Unfortunately, administrators don’t like fun cars. And in the 1980s, they especially hated them. The country was in recession, gas prices were high, inflation was high, and cop cars got a lot smaller and wimpier.

By 1983, there were no more 440 interceptors being made and more of the Chryslers were made with 318s than any other engine. Chevy equipped its cars with the 350 and Ford used a 351.

Fuel efficiency was the marching order for designers and engineers of cop cars. Some administrators even started buying four-cylinder cars for in-town policing. Chrysler sold a police package of the “K” car (Dodge Aries), Chevrolet sold a Celebrity patrol car, and Ford sold the Fairmont in a police version. I still cringe at the thought of these things being called cop cars.

I and a lot of my fellow officers and even some administrators found the idea of four-cylinder patrol cars ludicrous. They were way too wimpy to get the job done. And fortunately, the car companies realized that the Aries K and its underpowered cousins needed some backup, so real patrol cars still rolled off the assembly lines.

Ford made the LTD II; Chrysler, the Dodge Diplomat, and the Gran Fury under the Plymouth nameplate; Chevrolet, the Impala and then the Caprice. They were all good police cars.

You see, what happened is that the car companies realized that they could make fuel-efficient cars that also had some power. To manage this feat, the engineers starting using electronically controlled fuel injection.

It was also about this same time that both car manufacturers and police administrators started to realize the importance of making police cars more comfortable. Patrol cars started being sold with bucket seats and electric windows and doors. More cars came with entertainment radios and deleting it was the option instead of adding one. Unfortunately, some agencies didn’t believe officers should have entertainment radios. They didn’t prohibit them. They just wouldn’t buy them. So I carried a radio in my briefcase to install in the dash when I was on duty and took it home with me after my shift.

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