Finding Andy Griffith’s cop car on the streets of Eugene wasn’t exactly high on my predictability scale. But I’ve finally thrown that away, and nothing surprises me anymore. As far as I know, Deputy Barney Fife grew a ponytail, headed to Eugene and is using his old Mayberry cruiser in a ruse to keep the cops away from his grow operation. But there it sits, and it being Cop Car Friday, it’s now yours to ponder its existence on a side street off 1st Ave. But since its light isn’t flashing and might not hold your attention sufficiently, let’s also do a mini-history of the cop car.
What’s obvious is that this is a fake, since police departments didn’t spend their money on top-of-the line Galaxie 500 trim cars. They would have been riding in a stripper Ford Custom, if Ford was their choice of Cruiser, which was reasonably common enough. Well, actually, by the sixties, Dodges and Plymouths were taking a big chunk of the police car market, but Mayberry wasn’t exactly representative of the real world. And Ford obviously had a product placement deal with the producers of The Andy Griffith show.
I did a little I Tubing last night in hopes of some footage of the ’64 version of Sheriff Andy’s car, but no such luck. A brief glimpse of a ’63, and a ’65 was about it. But there is this short clip of a typical Barney Fife routine with a first year season ’60 Ford (the show ran from 1960-1968). (You Tube, embedding disabled).
From old articles and such, it seems that Fords were particularly popular cop cars during the flat head V8 era of the thirties through the early fifties. The V8 was a tad more powerful than its competitors, although not nearly as much as legend might suggest. In fact the OHV Chevy six nipped at its heels most years, and some years like 1953, was rated higher than the Ford.
Allpar has an excellent article on the history of Chrysler Corp. police cars (naturally), which even claims that a test (slightly suspect) by the Greeley CO police department of 1935 Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth models showed the flat head Plymouth six outrunning the competition by a healthy margin, with a top speed of ninety, compared to 82 for the Ford and 78 for the Chevy. Ringer?
In 1949, the new Ford offered overdrive, which combined with the 100hp V8 made it the fastest of the low-cost Big Three. But Mercuries with the bigger flathead were also popular, and big cars like the eight cylinder Chryslers were not uncommon.
That Allpar article also points out that most early cop cars were of the business coupe variety, lacking a back seat. Perhaps their large trunks made a safe way to haul a suspect to jail. And it wasn’t until 1956 that Chrysler began to advertise its police and taxi fleet cars, and offer the first official police package. Detroit’s horsepower war of the late fifties played right into the growing market for police cars, and bragging rights to the fastest police cars became the flip side to the muscle car era of the times.
The police car business became increasingly competitive, and I remember vividly the accusations of bribes when Baltimore County switched from decades of Fords to Chevys in 1968. Well, corruption was rampant there anyway, but the ’68 Chevy was might appealing, with its 396 engine and slotted rally wheels through which to admire the new disc brakes. The Ford FE 390 couldn’t touch the new Rat Motor, as if it really mattered anyway, in Balto Co.
But there’s no doubt that Chrysler engineering was particularly appealing to hard core police work. In the pre-disc brake era, Chrysler offered big 12″ drums that were as good as it got. Here’s an excerpt from that article about a cop stopping a runaway tractor-trailer truck:
A Nevada Highway State Trooper, while patrolling in the mountains near Sparks in his 1957 Plymouth, spotted a tractor-trailer going down the mountain. The driver signaled wildly that the air brakes had gone out. The Trooper wheeled around in a “bootlegger’s turn” at 40 miles an hour. He then accelerated to over 120 mph to catch the run away truck. Momentarily blocked by on coming traffic, the Trooper had to stay in line behind the free wheeling 18 wheeled monster. He clocked it at 85 mph, as it was accelerating climbing towards 90. As soon as he got clear, the Trooper accelerated past the roaring 60 tons of rolling menace. Once in front of the tractor, he backed off the throttle, slowly allowed the tractor’s front bumper to contact the rear of the Plymouth. Using his service brakes, the Trooper steadily pumped the brake pedal, keeping the front bumper of the truck against his car. At first, it didn’t seem to have much affect. However, with smoke coming from all four of the Plymouth’s service brakes, the speed began to steadily decrease. Slowly, then more rapid. 80…75…65…60…50…then 40…30…and finally down to 20 miles per hour where the tractor driver was able to stop by using his transmission downshifting, and the soft edge of the road. It was a good thing because the Plymouth had precious little left to give. As the Trooper stopped the two front tires explosively blew out from the tremendous heat. The fins and truck area were bashed in, as well as pushed downwards from the force of the weight of the truck. However, Once again, MoPar engineering had saved lives! Had that truck entered the small town at the base of the mountain, who knows how many could have been injured or killed.
It might also be relevant to know that hardly all police cars were the high performance versions. Chrysler offered three distinct levels: the six cylinder “Sentinel” for economical city operations; the “Metro Patroller” with a mid-level V8; and the “Pursuit Special” with the highest output big-block V8. A 1964 Dodge Polara with the 413 wedge had a top speed of 129 mph.
But the real golden era for high speed cop cars were the 440 powered Dodges and Plymouths, as favored by the CHP. A 375 hp special-cam 440 in a 1969 Polara sedan held the record for fastest police car, timed at 149.6 mph at the Chelsea test track. That would not be bettered for twenty five years, when an LT-1 powered 1994 Caprice finally took the crown away.
But the years in between those two were a deep valley. Smog controls and CAFE regs utterly destroyed cop car performance in the seventies. The absolute nadir was in 1980 and 1981, when the Dodge St. Regis police cars came with no more than a 318 rated at 165 hp. According to the allpar article, this sad “police pursuit” topped out in CHP testing at 105 mph without the light bar. Since I was an inveterate speeder in CA during that time, I know as a matter of fact that these Dodges petered out at about 90-95 with the light bars installed (and flashing). Don’t ask.
It was a major embarrassment for the CHP when this became public knowledge in California, especially since radar was banned at the time. If the CHP couldn’t keep up behind you to pace you properly… Anyway, there was a good reason the CHP grabbed the first batch of new Mustang GT coupes available for pursuit work as soon as they became available in about 1983 or 1984. Yes, it all seems like a distant dream now, when speeding was still a fun cat and mouse game, with a level playing field. Or unlevel, in the case of the St. Regis.
We haven’t talked much about this Ford car, but if it had been a top-line pursuit car, a 390 would have been under the hood, since the 427 was not police-friendly, and the 428 was still a few years away. That alone helps explain Chrysler’s popularity with the police departments during this era. But it’s probably just as well that any seriously fast cars were kept well away from Barney Fife.