4 January 2016

Preserving the NYPD's Motorized Past

(Editor’s Note: In honor of National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day on Jan. 9, writer Benjamin Preston takes a look at a group of current and former New York Police Department officers who restore classic police cars.)

Let's say you've spent a couple decades busting drunk drivers, chasing robbers or sending wise guys to prison. Finding something to do after you retire that doesn't bore you to death can be tricky. In New York City, there is one pastime that allows some former officers of the country's largest police force to stay engaged with department while they learn about a specific part of NYPD history: restoring old cop cars.

I met a group of mostly retired NYPD police officers recently in Astoria, Queens, who had formed a club dedicated to police car restoration. They said there are about 15 members in their club, all people who have or have had some professional involvement with the NYPD. About a dozen historic cruisers were parked in a gleaming row beneath the Triborough Bridge, just across the East River from Ward's Island and Manhattan. These were men who had seen it all, yet none of them were old enough to have used cars of those vintages when they were on the force.

Larry King, for example, retired as a captain in the traffic division in 2002. He now owns a '71 Plymouth Fury dressed in the NYPD's pre-1973 green and black paint scheme, but when he joined the force, the car was already a decade out of date. He said his first cruiser was a blue and white '82 Plymouth Fury, the boxy type many may remember from the days when Ed Koch was mayor. More recently, most of them drove modern Chevrolet Impalas and Ford Crown Victorias. Today, even those are being phased out in favor of new Ford Tauruses and Escapes. But those cars are all fleet white with plain blue lettering, not the richer colors of years ago, when police cars were painted in unique hues, depending on their use.

Al Roman, a retired detective from the Bronx narcotics division, brought a 1940 Plymouth Business Coupe to Astoria, a car with almost Art Deco styling dressed in green, black and white. The doors had "23" painted on them, for the 23rd Precinct – Spanish Harlem – Roman's neighborhood.

"The old Plymouth is way different from the cruiser I drove," he said. "There's no a/c, no power steering, no power brakes and it has a manual transmission."

It's also a two-seater, a feature all NYPD police cars had until the late '50s, said Joe Marino, Sr., another member of the club. He and his son, Joe Marino, Jr., restored a 1958 Ford sedan, one of the first 4-door cruisers the department bought, he said. Before that, the cruisers were all 2-door models.

"If officers needed to transport a prisoner, they called the wagon," he said, referring to the paddy wagons made famous by the film noir genre.

All of the cars club members own have a few things in common. First, they're all restored to exact, period-correct NYPD standards. The Marinos' Ford has a vintage – and very difficult to find – underhood siren and single rotating red roof light. Cars like Chris McSweeney's '65 Plymouth Fury and Joe Lentini's '65 Chevrolet Biscayne have refurbished, chrome-plated sirens mounted on the roof. They're the kind that have a reciprocating flap inside that makes the sound of the siren wail vary, a feature that made them temperamental in cold weather. Club members explained that officers used to reach out the window and whack them with nightsticks to get the flap moving, so there aren't many left that are still in good working order. The pre-'73 cars are painted Envision Green, Coca-Cola White and gloss black; the exact colors that dressed NYPD cruisers in that era.

"Everything has to be authentic because these guys are so detail oriented," King said, adding that archival photos were a big help in figuring out how things were supposed to look. "I feel like we're sort of like Smithsonian curators. We're maintaining the past for the future."

Second, the cars in the club's collection are all the lowest form of automobile available in each particular model. As with Roman's '40 Plymouth, you won't find many old NYPD cruisers equipped with power steering, power brakes, air conditioning or FM radios. The seats are all plain, vinyl-covered benches.

"The NYPD didn't even put air conditioning in its cars until 1974," Marino explained.

Most of the cars were equipped with an extra speedometer; the analog type used to clock speeders before radar was in use. But only the highway patrol cars got the fancy, perfectly-calibrated units.

The guys who have gotten involved with this particular club are, with one exception, retired or active NYPD officers. The one who isn't – Michael Gorgia, a longtime city bus and police car mechanic – is currently the man in charge of the NYPD's vast fleet. Although they're all NYPD-affiliated, there tend to be three types among club members: the ones who bought cruisers that were already refurbished, others who put their efforts into restoring one particular car and the guys who have multiple police cars in their collections, typically along with other classic cars and hot rods.

Roman, an example of the third category, has a '65 Chevrolet Bel Air, a '68 Plymouth Fury, an '86 Dodge Diplomat, an '89 Chevrolet Caprice and a '95 Caprice station wagon. And they're all dressed as different units' cars. The '65 Chevy wears 41st Precinct numbers, the '68 Plymouth the 75th and the '86 Dodge the 43rd. The '89 Caprice is a Transit Police vehicle, from the days when the city's transit and housing departments had their own police forces. The wagon is from Highway 2, which Roman said was the original bomb unit.

The guys who picked up cars just to stay connected with the department said they had learned a lot. The NYPD, they said, always had a way of picking accessory equipment – sirens, radios, lights and the like – that was different from the sort being used in most other parts of the country.

"The most difficult of the restoration was finding equipment for the car," McSweeney said. "Most of the stuff you see on these cars was spec'd out for the New York City Police Department, so it's almost impossible to find."

Of course, being a retired cop has plugged them into a parts network most people don't have access to. The Internet is a good resource for cars and parts, they said, but when a local police department needs to get rid of some old parts, it can help to know someone inside.

Another challenge – and undoubtedly a big reason why the curators of this slice of history are almost exclusively affiliated with the police department – is considering the NYPD's image when the cars are out on display. Gorgia said they all minded their Ps and Qs when driving the old police cars, even though it was clear from looking at the cars that they were no longer part of the department's current fleet.

Maintaining and showing off old police cars is as much a goodwill mission as it is a hobby. Marino said the police department often asks club members to bring their cars to parades, retirement ceremonies and funeral processions. Children, retired cops and sometimes, a few of the one-time officers noted, even people who had taken a rather unpleasant ride in the back of one of the now-classic cars – they all stop to admire when the old cars are out on the town. As a group of us talked over the open hood of Lentini's '65 Chevy, a young boy stopped by to peered inside the car. He was wide-eyed, cooing, "Cool!" under his breath.

"We sort of represent the department as unofficial ambassadors, so everyone takes it seriously," King said. "In light of today's times, when police aren't necessarily looked upon in a favorable light, this is a good way to connect with people in a positive way."

25 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Dave Cavagnaro Blairstown, NJ January 6, 2016 at 14:27
    Great article, great plan to remember the NYPD. I remember having to deal with 51 Plymouths and later 57 Fords, all 6 Cylinder stick shifts... They had a problem with my 51 Olds, two carbs, stick shift.....
  • 2
    Ric WA. January 6, 2016 at 15:01
    I'm sure you've noticed by now that the Chevrolet featured is a 1966 model, not a '65.
  • 3
    Greg Reynolds Chicago January 6, 2016 at 15:05
    Great job, officers. The cars look great. Keep doing all the good you do!
  • 4
    George Eischen Fairview OK. January 6, 2016 at 15:36
    I have a faux 1965 Impala patrol car I built 15 years ago. It has been in Car Craft, and it's been a BLAST to cruise!!!! Best part, I only have 3700 dollars in it!! 67,000 actual miles!!! And, yes, it's insured with HAGERTY!!!! THANKS GUYS!!
  • 5
    Steve crane Bellmore ny January 6, 2016 at 15:59
    Can I get the clubs email address or can someone contact me about joining the club thanks. Steve.
  • 6
    Steve Maryland January 6, 2016 at 16:39
    If that Chevrolet is a 1965, why does it have 1966 grill and front bumper? the 1965 models had the signals in the grill, not in the bumper.
  • 7
    Will P New Jersey January 6, 2016 at 19:08
    I love old Police cars and was in law enforcement for a while but since in college, had an old Caprice police package, I caught the bug for old police cars. I have had 6 since then and I'm currently restoring a retired CHP 76 Coronet with a 440 that according to Chrysler it is one of 200 built special for CHP with the 440. The following year the Monaco which was the Coronet's twin became available with a 440. Anyway, since these cars are so hard to restore because they were meant to be used up and disposed of and were driven hard and not really taken care of. I have parts available and need parts and have sources to get parts for these cars. If anyone needs help just email me and I will help anyway I can. Love the fact that police cars from decades ago are finally becoming recognized in the vehicle restoration world and the more that get restored to me is great. Maybe that will lead to parts being reproduced for these cars and everything else that comes with it in the restoration hobby. Thanks
  • 8
    Jim Benjaminson Walhalla, North Dakota January 6, 2016 at 21:21
    Would like to have Mr. Roman contact me via the Plymouth Owners Club about the 1940 Plymouth P9 police car. I have factory photos showing a fleet of these for delivery to NYPD. Would also like to get more pictures and a story about his car for an upcoming special issue of the Plymouth Bulletin featuring the 1940 Plymouth.
  • 9
    Mike RI January 6, 2016 at 22:17
    The Chevy is a 1966, not 1965.
  • 10
    Michael Hesse Denver Colorado January 6, 2016 at 23:50
    I very impressed with your article on the New York Police cars. The Denver Police museum is undertaking a simlar effort and hope to recreate A Denver Police car from every decade beginning 1920 to present.
  • 11
    B. Beck Hockessin, DE. January 7, 2016 at 08:10
    This 1974 Plymouth Satellite was the first year the NYPD went with an "economy" model, which was basically a downsized version of the Satellite from the previous year. Downsized from a Fury, not a Satellite.
  • 12
    Bruce C CO January 7, 2016 at 08:29
    Nice piece. I always enjoy learning more about work-a-day cars. A history of cars used by the NYPD tied in with their present day availability and value would be fun.
  • 13
    Mary McMahan East Northport, NY January 7, 2016 at 08:37
    Can you please provide information on the club (email address, website) so I can find out when & where they will be displaying the cars?
  • 14
    Robert Carwan Michigan January 7, 2016 at 12:05
    The Chevy is not a 65 but a 66!
  • 15
    Jim Boom MI January 7, 2016 at 00:22
    Any 1970 Coronets like we saw in "Kojack?
  • 16
    Philip Wilson Toronto, ON Canada January 7, 2016 at 00:22
    When Ron Howard directed "Cinderella Man" here in 2004-5, my 1928 Model A Tudor was stencilled up (along with 2 others) to be used on set during the summer. Check my FaceBook page to see it in my banner. I want to know if this was the actual make up of the NYPD fleet, back in the '20's & 30's, as it would be nice to get some actual photos showing them in action on the streets of NYC. Thanks.
  • 17
    Ray K NJ January 7, 2016 at 12:52
    Growing up in Brooklyn I remember these "RMP"'s, especially those in the Green, White & Black livery. Those old "Pulsator" sirens although troublesome in the winter sure got everyone's attention and out of the way. For those interested in learning more about the history of the NYPD checkout PoliceNY.com To quote on old PBA ad campaign...........NY Cops Are Tops !
  • 18
    John Bujosa Post Falls, ID January 8, 2016 at 14:09
    Great article! Having grown in NYC in the 60s, and having worked at NYPD in the late 60s, this brings back good memories of those old RMP green, white, and black cars. Some of the finest vintage fleet of patrol cars I've seen in a while! Other than the small mix up in the '65 versus '66, good job guys with the article and restoration! Great to be preserving history!
  • 19
    steve Roth Nashville TN January 8, 2016 at 11:44
    Like the police cars. Have a 1979 Malibu 2 door HT with the Corvette Drivetrain from the factory, all original black on black. Was a Chiefs car in Birmingham Alabama suburb. Fun to drive and no one knows its a Cop car. I was an MP and we had 68 Fairlaines and army jeeps.
  • 20
    Mark Wilson CT January 9, 2016 at 11:45
    I've had a 1964 Plymouth Savoy since 1986, replica Greenwich, Ct PD car. The car is green and white and has been in two car magazines and a book, The History of Chrysler Police Cars. When I put mine together there weren't to many restored police cars, now there are a lot, a great new segment of the car hobby.
  • 21
    Tom Stathes Hicksville ny January 10, 2016 at 08:32
    Being a retired Nypd Detective, i would like further information regarding this club. No mention in the article about how to contact them. Thanks!
  • 22
    Dave Gilbeau Clinton Twp MI January 10, 2016 at 10:40
    I retired from the Detroit Police Department in July of 2002 and my 1st Patrol Car was a 1970 Plymouth Station Wagon, Black with Gold Detroit Police written on the front doors. That was before the advent of EMS, so we didn't get as many runs as the regular cars because we had to be available for transport to Hospitals and so on...We have a friend who retired from the Wayne State University PD that has a restored Black `73 Wagon with blue interior and a Built 440 cu in engine and the Gold Detroit Police on the side. It`s all vintage DPD all the way down to the original stretchers in the rear! I appreciate that car and all the work that the NYPD has put into these cars and wish them luck in their hobby. Some day I`d love to see the NYPD cars in person....
  • 23
    Charlie Hastings Selbyville, DE January 13, 2016 at 13:30
    Enjoyed the article. I too own a NYPD 68 Plymouth Fury I (Motor Precinct 2) and a 67 La Mesa (CA) PD Plymouth Belvedere I. I would also like to have a way to contact the club to be able to share information.
  • 24
    Jeff Allen Columbia, SC January 13, 2016 at 15:12
    Great to see the old cars restored by the guys. Most people don't understand the importance of this 'hobby' but it means so much to those who walked the walk. As a former police car restorer who has spent tens of thousands of dollars on various cars, and someone who still drives a 2010 CV PI on duty every day, I really appreciate their passion in this area.
  • 25
    Trisha Thompson Allentown Pa. March 20, 2016 at 20:29
    We have a small film crew without a budget and we are looking for a mid 60's cop car to be in one of our movies. We have won film festivals in the past and are in the Fowardian film festival in May, so your car might be somewhat famous if all works out. We can not afford to pay you, but you will be having a good time with the drivers of the other old cars and making a movie. If you can help us out , please contact me. Thank you.

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