The Truth About Cars » vintage cop car The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » vintage cop car Cop Drives Classic Cop Car: 1991 Ford LTD Crown Victoria and 1996 Crown Victoria Mon, 03 Jun 2013 12:00:36 +0000 SAM_1902 Picture by David Hester

Along with the faux cop car 1972 Ford Galaxie Custom 500 that I reviewed a few weeks back, my department has saved two other examples of police cars once used on patrol. I can personally vouch that these two G- rides are the real deal, because they were both in service in 1997 when I started my career.

SAM_1828 Picture by David Hester

First up we have a 1991 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. I’ve never liked the “box” style Panthers. When I was going through the police academy, I had the misfortune to be stuck using one of these when we went through our pursuit and emergency driving training courses. Most of my classmates were lucky enough to have been assigned newer ’92- ’94 Crown Vics. The instructors insisted that there was no difference and that the two different models handled the same.

SAM_1827 edited Picture by David Hester

They lied. Other than being RWD four door sedans that are painted refrigerator white, the two models have nothing in common, particularly when it comes to handling. The design soldiered on basically unchanged from 1979 until 1991. The “boxes” were dinosaurs compared to the “bubbles.” My classmates who were in newer, better handling cars did significantly better on the exercises. I had to come back for retraining… which was done in a newer Crown Vic and I passed easily.

I graduated from the police academy and was assigned to 3rd shift patrol with my first field training officer.  His ride was a ’91 Crown Vic. On my first night, he put me behind the wheel and promptly went to sleep. This was to be the pattern of our time together for much of the next five weeks. I learned how to drive very, very smoothly so as not to wake him.

SAM_1837 Picture by David Hester

Smoothly is the best way to drive a first generation Panther. I have driven them in anger and the only thing worse is to be a passenger in one being driven in anger by someone else because passenger side airbags weren’t an option until the ’92 redesign. I hadn’t driven one at all in well over a decade before taking out P#717 for a spin.

A few weeks ago Murilee Martin asked the Best and Brightest during  which 10 year period they thought automobiles advanced the most. I didn’t participate in the thread, but after driving these two cars back to back (along with the ’72 Ford the same day), I’m convinced that the 1980s saw the most advancement. The ’91 LTD was designed in the mid ’70s and went on sale as a ’79. It passed through the entire decade of the ’80s basically frozen in time.

I was struck by how old- fashioned the car was, with whisper thin A- pillars, offensively fake wood trim, velour upholstery, chrome switchgear, tiny rearview mirrors, and all of the other little details that made the  driving experience of the ’91 model feel closer to that of the ’72 Custom 500 that was 19 years older than to that of the ’96 model that was only 5 years newer.

SAM_1849 Picture by David Hester

The power steering is over- assisted like the steering in the ’72, with the same floating sensation that encourages you to steer with one finger while using the hood ornament as a sort of sight to keep the car between the ditches. As you build up speed, air rushing into the engine compartment through the massive grille makes the edges of the hood start to flutter due to the fact that  the LTD has approximately the same aerodynamic properties as a brick. It serves as a natural speed governor. The faster you go, the more violently the hood shakes until the driver starts to worry that the latch might not keep it from becoming airborne and slows down.

SAM_1856 Picture by David Hester

The ’91 Crown Vics did have a couple of advantages over the redesigned ’92s. The first was their massive chrome bumpers that could actually bump stuff without showing damage the way the painted bumpers of modern cars will. The second one was ground clearance, an advantage I discovered one night my in my first months as a solo patrol officer. Although I was assigned a ’92 model when I finished the field training program, ’89- ’91 models made up the pool car fleet. When my assigned car was down for service, I would have to drive a pool car.

On this particular evening, I decided to drive through a construction area near one of the middle schools in my beat. As part of the school’s renovation the rear parking lot was being expanded. A layer of dirt and gravel had been poured and I decided to drive over it to have a closer look at some of the new construction to the rear of the school.

What I couldn’t see in the dark was that there was a drop of about 9 inches from the edge of the finished parking lot to the gravel. My front wheels dropped off of the end with bone-jarring thud. I had the presence of mind to immediately stop and get out. The oil pan was about an eighth of an inch above the edge of the concrete. If I had been driving my ’92 instead of the older pool car I probably would have been high-centered and unable to move unless I was willing to sacrifice various expensive parts of the undercarriage.  Instead I was able to build a small ramp out of scrap lumber and backed the ’91 up  onto higher ground.


Ultimately, except for their innate ability to take a beating, there is nothing to recommend a ’91 Crown Vic over the ’92- ’97 models. The ’92 and later models feel and drive like modern cars. They’re equipped like modern cars as well, with airbags, ABS, and traction control. The steering isn’t completely numb, although it could use a little more feedback. Drive the ’91 and a later model back to back as I did and the newer car just feels so much more capable.

SAM_1896 Picture by David Hester

’92 and ’93 models came equipped with bench seats, but bucket seats were available for police package models beginning in ’94. The gap available to fit a console between the seats was just over 9 inches wide, a distance that Ford continues to pretend exists between the buckets in a new Ford Police Interceptor Sedan.

SAM_1888 Picture by David Hester

Most of my time as a patrol officer was spent in ’92- ’97 Crown Vics. I was assigned a ’92 (wrecked), a ’95 (wrecked, but not my fault), a ’94 (wrecked), another ’92, another ’94, and a ’96 (See. I got better.) before being entrusted with a brand new 2001 (which was also wrecked, but it also wasn’t my fault.) I managed to walk away from all of my misadventures without injury, something I’m not sure would have been true in one of the old boxes.

SAM_1878 Picture by David Hester

The model pictured here is a ’96, which was the last year that Ford would have any real competition in the police market for nearly a decade. Chevrolet would be dropping the Caprice until the Caprice PPV returned in 2011. Dodge had already given up the market and wouldn’t return until the police package Charger dropped in 2006. From ’97 until ’06, Ford had the RWD police sedan market sewn up.

They’ve abandoned it now, trying to push the Taurus as a worthy successor. GM and Chrysler both returned to the market with RWD sedans, for now at least. Perhaps Ford will as well.


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Curbside Classic: 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 Police Interceptor Fri, 12 Mar 2010 19:08:57 +0000

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.

More new Curbside Classics here

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