On patrol in Ontario

Car people often have conflicting feelings about law enforcement and their toys. While few of us welcome the sight of a black-and-white in the rearview mirror (lights flashing or not), most of us are fascinated with police cruisers and pursuit vehicles, which often have performance upgrades unavailable to civilians.

Like any large public safety agency, the Ontario Provincial Police, or OPP, has seen a varied vehicle fleet since purchasing their first patrol car in 1941. Several of the vehicles spanning that history are maintained and can be viewed at the OPP Museum in Orillia, Ont.

Prior to the 1940s, officers rode their own motorcycles, which they also maintained, to perform their patrol duties on Ontario highways. The OPP Museum’s 1931 Henderson Streamline Special KL, equipped with red lights and police identification on the front fender, was typical of equipment used by an OPP motorcycle officer. A retired OPP motorcycle patrolman from Perth, Ont., located it in the 1970s and rode it until his 80th birthday in 1990. His family donated it to the museum, where it’s the oldest original OPP vehicle in the collection.

A 1941 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Coupe in the museum’s collection is representative of OPP cars that served through most of the 1940s. Since civilian auto production stopped in North America soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrust the United States into WWII, these Chevrolets served years longer than patrol cars normally would – into the late ‘40s. As mentioned above, the purchase of this Chevrolet marked the OPP’s transition to patrolling with cars rather than motorcycles. This particular car was lovingly restored in the early 1970s, and it has competed in a distance race from Ottawa to Mexico City, with two officers dressed in period OPP uniforms.

The 1950s and early ‘60s saw a mix of Mopar and Chevys in the OPP fleet. Chevrolet coupes from 1953, along with 1955 Plymouth Savoy four-doors, were among the most common.

Don Burbidge was a civilian mechanic with the OPP from 1965 until 1993. Most of the vehicles he worked on were full-sized rear-drive sedans from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Corporation, with a smattering of four-wheel-drive Jeep Wagoneers. Interestingly, when Burbidge started two-door Dodges from the early ‘60s dominated.

“In those days, we kept the cars for about three years, so there were cars that went back to 1962,” Burbidge said. “The officers hated the two-door cars. Trying to get somebody into the back seat was tough. By 1970, we started getting four-door Caprices.”

A steady stream of Dodge Diplomats, Plymouth Gran Furys and Ford Crown Victorias followed. Burbidge had no favorites.

“They were all really good,” Burbidge said. “We saw very few problems unless they were abused, in which case the transmissions and rear ends would give trouble. I do remember the Chryslers which ran 318- and 360-cid V-8s having trouble with their High Energy Ignition systems. You needed to carry a spare ballast resistor all the time. We had an officer breakdown in North Carolina on his way back from holiday in Florida.”

While rear-wheel drive was favored for its simplicity (the OPP made it through winters with snow tires at each corner and a trunk full of heavy police radios and other essential gear), the arrival of the front-drive Ford Taurus in the 1980s was welcome. The enhanced traction was put to good use, and many of the OPP’s Taurus sedans had the Yamaha-engineered 24-valve SHO engine that made more than 200 horsepower. When those cars were retired, the fleet reverted to Chevrolet Caprices and Ford Crown Vics for the most part, and examples of each are kept at the OPP Museum.

Burbidge did have a soft spot for one particular OPP car, a 1968 Plymouth Fury I two-door. He bought it with about 120,000 miles on the odo when it was retired; it ran another 200,000 miles before he donated it to a high school body shop. Then it served another five years as a postmaster’s car in rural Ontario, a testament to the car’s durability and its care under Burbidge and the OPP.