As the nation’s peacekeepers are learning to live without the venerable Ford Crown Victoria it is also a time to reflect on what police cars were like in the time before the Panther platform debuted in 1978 for the 1979 model year. In 1972, the cruiser of choice for the City of Lexington was the Ford Galaxie 500.
This particular car wears the blue and gold livery of the now defunct City of Lexington Police Department. In 1974 the government of the City of Lexington was merged with the government of Fayette County to create the Lexington- Fayette Urban County Government. All city and county services and departments were merged as well. This car was given as a retirement present to Chief E.C. Hale when he retired on June 1, 1972, which makes for a significantly better retirement present than the cheap gold watch I expect to get.
Chief Hale had served 40 years with the city department and passed away in 1974. The car sat on the street near his home, exposed to both vandals and the elements, for many years before his family returned it to the city. Originally a white unmarked unit, it was restored to patrol duty specifications and is now used for parade duties, although it still retains an official government property number (P# 0462) and its trunk is equipped with the fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and other equipment required by policy.
So what’s it like to drive a police car that’s older than you are? Kind of boring, actually. There’s a myth that runs through our popular culture that police cars, particularly the police cars of yesterday, were fire- breathing muscle cars equipped with “cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks, made before catalytic converters” that could run down the Mustangs, Barracudas, and GTOs stalking the nation’s streets with ease and sound like Death himself was chasing you while they did it.
Like all good myths, the myth of the invincible old police car is rooted in truth. I was once told by a veteran beat cop that back in the old days when you were alone at night in an alley, trying to avoid taking a beating yourself while handing out “wood shampoos” to unruly drunks and screaming for help on one of the original 10- lb Motorola portables that could be counted on to work 25- 30% of the time, you didn’t listen for approaching sirens coming to your aid because the sirens weren’t worth a damn and you couldn’t hear them half of the time anyway. Instead you listened for the roar of the secondaries opening up as your backup thundered down the final straight leading to your last known location. That’s how you knew the cavalry had arrived.
But P#0462 is not one of those mythical cars. 1972 was a rough year, automotively speaking. Newly introduced smog controls were strangling all of the power out of our engines. Of course, power was already down across the board, at least on paper, since the manufacturers had been forced to abandon their wildly optimistic gross horsepower ratings for somewhat more realistic net ratings. Police service vehicles were no exception.
And then, as now, the vast majority of cop cars weren’t sold with the biggest, most aggressive motor. This car left the factory powered by a measly 177 hp 351 Cleveland 2 barrel. 335 lb- ft of torque help offset that number when taking off, but acceleration is still best described as “leisurely.”
You don’t really want much more than leisurely acceleration, however, given the overly assisted power steering. When you read an article about a new car in which the author complains about the steering being “numb,” you have to understand that the author has either forgotten or has never driven a car from the days when power steering was an option on most cars. The goal was to make the steering so effortless as to enable the driver to steer with just a finger, a mission which was accomplished (and then some) in this particular car. The steering wheel feels completely disconnected from the front wheels and spins as freely as the plastic Fisher- Price steering wheel attached to a toddler’s car seat. I couldn’t imagine driving this car in an emergency situation with so little feedback from the road. The modern tires added during the car’s restoration would help, but not enough to overcome the soft suspension and drum brakes.
For non- emergency duties, particularly the parade details it serves in these days, the Galaxie works just fine. Visibility is great, as it is in most old cars, even though a passenger side wing mirror was an option not selected when the car was ordered. Every couple of years during our annual in-service training we go out to the skid pad and practice our low speed precision driving skills. Much of the course is done in reverse, backing down “alleys” and reversing into “driveways” built with orange traffic cones. I would rather perform those backing exercises in this car with only one external mirror than in a new Taurus with a video camera.
There’s plenty of room inside, especially with the bench seat. The car was equipped with air conditioning, which still works. I had assumed that the A/C was ordered on the car because of it’s intended use by the Chief and that the rank and file would have made do without it. I checked with a couple of old guys and was surprised to learn that by the early 70’s we were ordering A/C on all our cars. The optional AM radio in this car was a special feature reserved for commanders and it wasn’t until the end the decade before stereos became common in all of our patrol cars.
As far as emergency equipment goes the Galaxie seems almost naked with only the two rotating blues on the roof compared to the low flying alien spacecraft theme you get from a modern patrol car at night. Since P#0462 was originally an unmarked admin unit, it even lacks a spot light. The old mechanical siren with it’s long, drawn out fade when you turn it off as compared to the instantly silent electric models of today is a hoot to play with in the parking lot of Comm Tech until you start to get dirty looks from the people who are actually at work inside the building.
So what’s the final verdict on this piece of history? I left my drive in P#0462 with a greater appreciation of how difficult street work was back in the day, when your radio only worked half the time and your car handled like a yacht. Just getting to your call was an adventure. We tend to forget just how much basic automotive technology has advanced and what each of those improvements meant. How many accidents, for example, have been avoided by the simple recognition that maybe dialing back in a little resistance into our power steering systems was a good thing because it provides the driver with vital information during emergency maneuvers?
Like most historical artifacts P#0462 is best appreciated through the soft focus haze of nostalgia heavily saturated by myth. It’s most impressive when viewed from behind the cordon as it rolls slowly past you in a parade with blue lights slowly spinning and the low rumble of a V-8 punctuated by whoops and yelps from a siren that slowly fades away. Any modern police car, including the lowliest V-6 powered FWD Taurus, would run rings around this car and any of it’s four- barrel equipped brothers. But the crowds watching from behind the barricades don’t know that and I doubt any of them will look at a 2013 Taurus, Charger, or Caprice forty years from now and speak approvingly and with a touch of envy about how special those cars are with their “cop tires, cop suspension, and cop motor.”