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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


Killer Whale

In 1989, Chrysler left the pursuit-rated police vehicle market. That left the Ford Crown Victoria and Chevrolet Caprice Classic as the main competitors. Cops liked both cars. But me, I was a Chevy man.

I particularly loved my 1992 Caprice Classic. It had a rounder body style than the previous Caprice and at first a lot of us didn’t like it. It was big and kind of weird looking, and some guy in my department started calling it “Shamu.”

Despite the criticism of its looks, the 1992 Caprice turned out to be a good patrol car. I had one unit assigned to me that I named “Old Faithful” since it never let me down. In one chase, it was perfect all the way to when we stopped and I bailed out. When I got back in, the brake pedal went to the floor, and I had to call a tow truck to get back to the station. But in the chase, my Shamu handled well, had plenty of power, and it stopped when I needed it to. You really can’t ask much more of a pursuit car.

My Caprice had anti-lock brakes and a driver’s side airbag. That doesn’t sound revolutionary now, but at the time it was a major breakthrough.

And many of you probably remember that retraining officers to drive with anti-lock brakes was a real feat for some agencies. On the one-mile driving course used at my agency, my lap times went up by about five seconds when we went to anti-lock brakes. After we learned to just hold the pedal down instead of the decades-old habit of pumping the brakes to avoid a skid, our lap times came back down again.

As for the airbags, I became real happy with this feature about two years later, when a drunk driver crash tested my patrol car for me, with me in it. Believe me, air bags and seat belts do save lives.

My Shamu had one other new feature. It was the first car I ever drove with child safety locks that disconnected the back door handles on the inside. Our other cars just had inside rear door handles that didn’t work. We didn’t have to flip a switch to disconnect them. They just didn’t work. Anyway, no one told us about the child safety locks. So one officer I worked with found out about this feature the hard way. His prisoner jumped from his car while he was driving down the highway to jail.

Fuel to Burn

Like a lot of cops, I’m really not fond of front-wheel-drive cars for police work. I think my attitudes about this were largely cemented in the early ’90s when Ford and Chevy introduced Taurus and Lumina police cars.

Neither car caught on with the market, partly because of the cost of retraining drivers and partly because neither the Taurus nor the Lumina was powerful enough or durable enough to make a good pursuit vehicle. I forget how many times I have taken patrol cars places they were never meant to be, like across medians and drainage ditches. These front-wheel-drive models just weren’t strong enough for this type of patrol abuse.

But if it was horsepower that you wanted in the mid-’90s, you could have it. After all, gas was cheap and we had plenty of it to burn. In 1994, Chevrolet installed the LT-1 engine from the Corvette into some of its Caprice Classic patrol cars and Ford retuned its engine to get a little more power also. Being the average cop, I did compare my issued 92 to a friend’s 94. With his engine, he could pull away from me no matter what I did. I think his car ended up with about 10 more mph on top end than I had.

Unfortunately, the Caprice Classic didn’t have long to live. General Motors saw a change in the U.S. car market and started switching to small cars with front-wheel drive and larger SUVs and pickup trucks. To get the manufacturing capability it needed to produce more of these popular civilian vehicles, Chevy did away with its large rear-wheel-drive sedans, which meant that the Caprice Classic was not sold after 1996.

Ford Takes the Lead

The demise of the Caprice Classic left Ford in possession of the police car market as the sole supplier of a full-size sedan with rear-wheel drive. Today, Ford still dominates America’s police fleets. But both Chevy and Chrysler are trying to regain their law enforcement market.

Chevy introduced its new Impala in 2000 and included police work as part of its initial design specs. The car was fairly well received by the police market, even though it was front-wheel drive and only had a V-6. A friend of mine is driving one of these now and he likes it. His only comment is that it is much harder to put a prisoner in the back seat, especially a big prisoner.

Chrysler re-entered the police market in 2002 with a patrol version of the Dodge Intrepid. The Intrepid failed as a police car, mostly because of reported brake problems.

While Chevy and Chrysler tried to grab some of Ford’s police market share, Ford didn’t sit on its butt. Its designers and engineers constantly improved the Crown Victoria. Reported brake life and handling problems were fixed, and the body redesigned in 1998. When the Crown Vic was redesigned, the engine only generated 235 horsepower. Over the past few years, this has been increased up to 255 horsepower, and Ford now offers it with a choice of rear-end ratios for better highway speed or better acceleration. Ford also made several modifications to the Crown Vic to reduce the risk of gas tank rupture and catastrophic fire resulting from a rear-end collision at highway speeds.

Today and Tomorrow

Today, the Big 3 American car companies are battling for the police market. Chrysler even introduced two rear-wheel drive patrol cars, the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Magnum. Both of these vehicles are offered with a 250-horse V-6 engine as standard, but they also have an optional 345-cubic-inch (5.7 liter) Hemi V-8 that produces 340 horses.

So we are getting back to more powerful cars for patrol use. What will the future hold for us? I am not a fortune-teller, but I can’t wait to see if Toyota decides to market a police version of the Avalon. It is front-wheel drive, but Toyota is now the number one car manufacturer in the world, it's running in NASCAR, and I believe it will pursue the American police market with Avalons assembled in its U.S. plants. How the other manufacturers respond to that challenge will be interesting.

Steve Rothstein has worked patrol for the U.S. Army Military Police, San Antonio PD, and the Luling (Texas) PD. He is now the training coordinator for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

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Tags: Patrol Cars


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