Monday, March 28, 2011

Here, speeder, speeder. A look at police vehicles, past and present

Police cars have the distinction of being among the most important vehicles on the road, as well as some of the least respected.

Behind the scenes, the men and women behind the wheels of these rolling billboards of law and order are putting their lives on the line everyday to keep the world safe from killers, thieves, and other miscreants. We’d live in a pretty rough world without their service.

More visible, at least to the public, is the police car during traffic enforcement duty. The last thing we need are drivers thinking they can recklessly bomb thorough residential neighborhoods with no regards for the safety of others, and to that end, this is also an important function of the police car. Of course, that noble service can get muddled a bit when you see one of these cars hiding at the bottom of a hill on a lightly traveled roadway, nabbing people that venture five-miles-per-hour over the posted speed limit.

But whether your perspective on the police is geared more toward T.J. Hooker or Rosco P. Coltrane, there’s no denying that police cars have always been among the coolest vehicles on the road. Talk about your factory muscle cars—it’s hard to beat a stripped-down, large displacement full-sized sedan that’s tough enough to run hard all day, every day.

The first police car was commissioned in Akron, Ohio in 1899. Officer Louis Miller, Sr., controlled the electric beast, which could hum as fast as 16-mph. The city engineer actually built the car for a mind-boggling $2,400.

For better than ten years, the police car market has been absolutely dominated by one car—the Ford Crown Victoria P71 Police Interceptor. Built in the same tradition, and with many of the same parts, as they have been for the past 20-30 years, the Crown Victoria has served as a solid, bulletproof (figuratively, not literally, although that would probably be nice for police service), proven piece of equipment for police agencies all over the country.

The unwavering body-on-frame construction has been the perfect balance of durability and maintainability. Many big police departments actually have frame straightening equipment to get damaged cars back on the road faster. Parts are interchangeable. And once they’re ready to be sold, there is a strong secondary market in the livery service.

The last real competition Ford had in the police car market was the Chevrolet Caprice 9C1, which was discontinued after the 1996 model year. Like the Crown Vic, the Caprice was a durable, old-fashioned body-on-frame beast. The advantage was the LT1 350 V8, which was a fast, efficient power plant for pursuit duty.

All good things must come to an end, and the days of the body-on-frame car, and indeed the Crown Victoria, have all but ended for the 2011 model year. What are the police departments going to do?!

Well, don’t worry, because we are on the fringe of one of the most exciting times in police car history. Every American auto manufacturer is offering their version of a new high-performance machine specifically tailored toward police fleet service.

Ford is replacing the venerable Crown Victoria with a new Taurus-based, front- or all-wheel-drive police cruiser, or for added room, an Explorer-derived version is available. And even though the new car won’t be equipped with a V8 engine like the old Vicky, the optional twin-turbocharged, 3.5-liter “Ecoboost” V6 will outperform it in every way, with a healthy 365-hp on tap for those high-speed chases.

Dodge came back into the police car fold a few years ago with the (now discontinued) Magnum wagon and Charger sedan. The Charger recently got a significant redesign, but it is still relatively proven under the skin. That might be an advantage over the newer offerings from Ford and Chevy. City bean counters will opt for the 3.6-liter V6, but power-thirsty officers will surely want the 340-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi under the hood.  Plymouths and Dodges were easily the most widely-used of all police cars from the late-'60s through the early '80s, so this is familiar territory for the Pentastar brand.

Chevrolet didn’t exactly leave the police car business all together after the Caprice was discontinued in 1996. Thousands of front-wheel-drive W-Body Luminas and Impalas have been patrolling the streets ever since. But most agencies want the predictable handling and familiarity of a solid rear-wheel-drive platform. For 2011, Chevrolet is answering that call with the new Caprice Police Pursuit Vehicle. Based on a stretched version of the Australian-built Pontiac G8, the rear-wheel-drive Caprice will initially be sold exclusively to police fleets. The big dog will be equipped with a Corvette-derived, 6.0-liter, 355-hp V8.

There is a fourth company, Carbon Motors, that is trying to break into the ever-more crowded police car business with the E7 sedan. They plan to build a car that will live its whole life as a police car, then be recycled after 250,000 miles instead of going into taxi service. A BMW-sourced, inline-six, turbo-diesel engine is the publicized source of power. We’ll just have to wait and see how this one comes out.

In the meantime, take a look at the slideshow below. There, you will find lots of manufacturer factory photos and publicity artwork of police cars through the ages. I think it’s a pretty entertaining little slideshow, and you’ll agree that there have been some pretty neat police cars roaming the highways and byways over the years. Just be careful coasting down the hills.

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