The bad guys weren't the only ones with the badass cars.The boys in blue had awesome machines to get the job done, whether patrolling the streets or stopping kids racing their GTOs. But these black-and-whites weren't the ordinary sedans Joe Citizen bought. Cop cars had hot engines, beefed-up suspension, brakes and transmissions,and they rode on big, tough tires. They were pretty special then, and they're pretty special now.
What made these cars special?
Powerful engines, like those found in pursuit cars, are the first thought, but it was more than that. Durability — creating a tough-as-nails car — was a police package focus. And there's another factor; call it attitude, that mean-machine look, which got attention no matter the decade. Vintage police cars still command attention. From mid summer 2012 to 2013, Seattle Police Officer James Ritter drove a 1970 Plymouth Satellite from the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum (seametropolicemuseum.org) as his patrol car.
“Driving the Satellite was like Pimp My Ride, police version,” says Ritter. “It was the most popular police car, and people would stop their cars and run across traffic lanes to get a picture. Ex-criminals even approached me to ask questions or reminisce about being taken for a ride in the back of the Satellite."
Cop cars endure punishing service, so police packages focused on durability and reliability at the best cost possible. A police package added heavy-duty components to the engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, wheels, differential, body structure and the electrical and cooling systems. The interior had hardier seat springs, cushions, floor panels, mats and window bracings, along with aftermarket additions like separation panels between the front and rear seats with metal reinforcements. Depending on how they were ordered, they could also have heavier clutches and more powerful generators.
Engine size and output varied with need, because not all police cars were intended for pursuit. While response and traffic cars were outfitted for higher speeds, patrol cars and special services vehicles had different roles, like the San Diego Police Historical Association's ’32 Ford paddy wagon, which also served as an ambulance. According to Chrysler's Brandt Rosenbusch, “The modifications depended on the intended use of the vehicle.”
Originally, police cars were “off the shelf” vehicles pressed into service. Individual heavy-duty items might be ordered and installed after delivery, or an officer might tinker with his own cruiser. Police packages weren't introduced until 1949, despite Ford's retail '32 Phaeton called a “police special.” A brief history shows how police cars evolved from retail to remarkable.
When automobiles first appeared, police departments switched to cars in order to keep up with criminals. Most cars of the 1920s were four-cylinders, like Ford's Model A. That changed when Chevrolet introduced its overheadvalve inline-six in 1929. In response, Henry Ford introduced the flathead V-8 in 1932. It, along with Ford's generally lower cost, made Ford the police sales leader from 1932 until 1968. Ford was tailed by Chevrolet and Plymouth, with other entries coming from Buick, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, Studebaker and Packard, among others.
World War II dominated the early 1940s, and auto factories were converted to wartime production. Automobile innovation didn't progress until the war's end in 1945. The decade is remembered for cop gear changes. The “Beacon-Ray,” introduced in 1948, became a widely accepted revolving emergency light. Two-way police radios also became more commonplace, leading lawbreakers to find, “You can't outrun a Motorola.”
Ford introduced the police package in 1949 for its Deluxe and Custom series, and the Seattle museum's ’49 Ford “Shoebox” is fitted with all the options. With the heavy-duty brakes, cooling system, shocks and springs, the Ford package was designed to improve drivetrain and suspension durability while aiding handling. It did not increase speed; instead, the police package made the car durable with whatever engine it had. In 1955, Chevrolet offered its first police package, followed by Dodge in 1956 with the Coronet. When Plymouth introduced its police package in 1957, it had three different package options and engines for needs from city patrol to high-speed pursuit. Departments could finally order various heavy-duty packages, instead of adding piecemeal upgrades.
What police cars didn't have were luxury features; vinyl seats and rubber mats were the norm. Ritter adds, “Our older museum cars don't even have an AM/FM radio. It wasn't necessary for the job.”
In 1950, Chevrolet was the first low-price manufacturer to introduce an automatic transmission for a police car, though manuals ruled in police fleets until the 1960s. Suspensions changed as Ford tried a ball-joint front setup, while Dodge and Plymouth introduced a torsion bar front suspension. A significant 1955 development was Chevrolet's small block V-8 and the “Plus-Power Package” — originally a police-car-only option — which made 180 horsepower through a four-barrel carb, free-flowing intake manifold and dual exhausts.
Muscle and beyond
Police cars in the 1960s continued to receive more powerful engines but focused also on overall performance. “You could hear those ’60s and early ’70s patrol cars before you could see them," says Ritter. Pursuit cars still had the longer wheelbases to give highspeed stability, but big-city cops, who seldom exceeded 60 mph, looked at
shorter-wheelbase cars for agility.
Generator-powered electrical systems began switching to alternators in the 1960s. The emergency lights and two-way radio drained juice, and alternators produced more amps at lower speeds than generators. “When driving museum cars in parades with the wipers on and lights flashing,” Ritter says, “all it takes is a tap on the brakes to almost shut down the car, it's drawing so many amps.”
The energy crisis and tightened emission standards of the 1970s lowered compression ratios, altered cam calibrations and changed ignition timing. They also brought about the rise of the midsize. The last year of big-block police engines came in 1978, although many urban police were unaffected, having already changed to midsize and compact cars. “Seattle switched to the smaller sized, fuel-efficient Dodge Darts and got a 22-percent fuel savings,” says Ritter.
Other notable cars of the 1970s included the fuel-efficient 1975 Chevy Nova, a midsize with great acceleration and handling. The quick 1972 AMC Matador briefly overshadowed the popularity of Ford, Chrysler and GM, and was made famous in the Adam-12 television series. Meanwhile, the Dodge Polara and Monaco, along with the Plymouth Fury, starred in shows like The Dukes of Hazzard (see our timeline of cop cars on TV at hagerty.com/tvcops).
The 1980s continued the trend of lowcompression small-block engines. This was an era of often-sluggish performance as carmakers worked on reinventing the police car. Sedans like the ’84 Dodge Diplomat were the look of the era, and while rear-wheel drive was still preferred by police departments, front-wheel drive police cars began to appear, particularly with the 1982 Chrysler K car and 1984 Chevy Celebrity, which led to the more accepted Ford Taurus of the 1990s.
When selecting squad cars, price mattered, and it was a factor in Ford being the leading supplier for years. Buyers for police departments were looking to fill particular needs, and the state patrol or a large city might test and choose cars, then let other area departments in on the order. Plus, the local auto dealer might make buying or repairing their cars easier — an important factor for departments without mechanics.
Weather and terrain influenced car choice, too. Heavy annual snowfall made front-wheel drive popular in some northern climes. Hilly, rainy Seattle had its own needs. “We needed good brakes and maneuverability,” says Ritter, “like our ’79 Dodge Aspen."
Police cars from yesteryear were vital tools in laying down the law. They were the machines with the heavy-duty equipment and big engines that allowed the boys in blue to out-maneuver, outperform and out-last the bad guys.