By on May 25, 2012

Back in 2004, I was doing a typical East Bay highway commute to my job writing software documentation. Ten miles each way in a Tercel (I had my choice of an ’85 wagon or a ’90 hatch), and the ever-increasing numbers of badly-driven SUVs on the Dreaded Nimitz were making me feel quite vulnerable in my little rice-burners. I needed a more substantial daily driver, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be an 8-MPG truck with 64-ouncer cup holders. What I needed, I decided, was an ex-cop Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor!
My first thought was to get an ex-CHP car, with only highway miles on the clock and much better maintenance than most local police departments perform on their cars. Plus, highway patrolmen don’t do much arresting, which means fewer gallons of urine and vomit emitted by cuffed-and-stuffed drunken back-seat passengers. California state vehicles get auctioned off once a month near Sacramento, so I headed up I-80 to check out some black-and-white P71s. Unfortunately, every P71 aficionado in Northern California knows that ex-CHP cars are less thrashed and piss-soaked than Crown Vics that spent their lives driving over Oakland curbs or chasing miscreants down potholed Redding alleyways. Late-90s cars were selling for upwards of $3,000, which was about a grand more than I wanted to pay. The K-9 cars, with their cool-looking hood louvers and extra-oversized AC compressors, were going for even higher prices. So, I passed on the CHP cars.
Not long after that, I went to a big car auction specializing in ex-government vehicles. Hundreds of Crown Victoria Police Interceptors were going under the hammer every couple of weeks; most of them were completely trashed city black-and-whites (complete with spotlights, push bumpers, and icky odors), and they were selling to cab companies for a grand or less. Right in the middle of all these cars, however, was a group of a dozen or so ex-San Joaquin County unmarked Police Interceptors. Every one was a ’97 model, none had spotlights or cages or antenna holes in the roof, all had decent interiors, and all were bronze or dark blue. They were going for $2,500 to $3,000 apiece, but one of the bronze ones had a big shallow dent in the driver’s door and the bidding was much slower on it. I was willing to go to $2,000, and my bid of $1,600 was the winner. Sold!
At just seven years old, this was the newest car I’d ever owned. The trunk was full of stuff, including a bunch of paperwork indicating that it had been driven by a San Joaquin County parole officer. I also found crime-scene Polaroids, Parolee Handbooks, and urine test kits. Everything worked, it drove very nicely, and I decided that I needed to take it on a serious road trip as soon as possible. At the time, I was a serious fan of the Oakland Athletics, having attended 25 or so games a year going back a decade. 2004 was the height of the Moneyball era, with the “big three” of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson pitching, and the A’s were locked a nail-biting September battle with their archrivals, the Anaheim Angels, for the division championship.
I’d been shooting photos at ballgames for a while (here’s Hudson in his rookie year), and I decided that what I really needed to do was pack up my homemade stereo camera (a pair of Konica point-and-shoots, loaded with slide film and mounted on an aluminum bracket) and take my new car the 430 miles down to Orange County and shoot some 3D slide pairs of the A’s playing at Angel Stadium.
That meant, of course, driving the same highway as so many of my Impala Hell Project road trips, with the destination just a few miles from where the Impala had put in so much work lowering property values.
So, a couple of days after buying my parole-officer Panther, after having put only 15 miles on it and with no idea about any mechanical problems this 130,000-mile car might have, I gathered up some of my A’s-fan friends and headed straight to Interstate 5.
The game started at 5:00 PM and we wanted to get to Angel Stadium in time to do some barbecuing in the parking lot, so we departed early in the morning. I was a little concerned about the lack of license plates, but I figured I could just show any inquisitive CHPs my auction documents. The drive went smoothly, the car was very comfortable for four occupants, and I became increasingly pleased with the superiority of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. It was the kind of car that all the rear-drive/V8 Detroit sedans of the 1960s through the 1980s should have been.
The tailgate-party scene at Anaheim Stadium bore about the same relationship to the corresponding scene at the Oakland Coliseum as touring with the Pope does to touring with 2 $hort. I could make all sorts of Oakland-versus-Orange-County comparisons here, but you probably get the idea.
We ate a lot of sausages, drank a lot of beer, and threw a baseball around the parking lot. Then we headed into the stadium… where Mulder got lit up by the Angels and the A’s lost 6-2. In fact, this was the game that began the downward spiral for the ’04 A’s, leading to the team losing the AL West to the Angels by a single game. This ended a run of several postseason appearances for the team. I was still happy, though, because my new car had turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.
My ’97 Crown Victoria P71 remained my daily driver for several years; even after I picked up my ’92 Honda Civic DX, I still drove the Ford at least a third of the time. My Crown Victoria suffered from plenty of nickel/dime problems (including an average of one dead window regulator per six months and endless maddening Check Engine Light adventures triggered by flaky smog-control devices), but it never once stranded me. It managed to get 24 MPG on the highway (all Crown Victoria drivers claim 25 MPG, but they lie), and it served me well in many, many tailgate parties at the Oakland Coliseum (here we see it with the Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox in the foreground).
It made a fine 24 Hours of LeMons Judgemobile, and I brought it to most of the California races.
Then, while I was preparing to move to Denver in the summer of 2010, the Check Engine light came on again. The scanner code meant “Lean Condition, Bank 1,” and I just didn’t have the time or energy to deal with yet another chase-the-malfunctioning-low-bidder-smog-component game. So, I traded it to the Angry Hamsters LeMons team in exchange for a custom-narrowed RX-7 rear end for my Toyota 20R-engined Austin-Healey Sprite, with the idea that the Ford would one day be a LeMons racer. As it worked out, my ex-P71 is being used as a daily driver, and my Sprite is still in California, awaiting installation of that RX-7 rear. If I ever get another Panther— and I might— it’s going to have a supercharger and a manual transmission!

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34 Comments on “My Introduction To Panther Love: Inaugural Police Interceptor Road Trip!...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    The last two pictures embedded in the story look like the beginning of a remake of a Beastie Boys video… “SABOTAGE!”

  • avatar

    Not too long ago we had a rental Grand Marquis when we were in Las Vegas. Now I understand!
    I normally don’t like to drive big cars that I’m not used to in cities with lots of traffic. (I drive a Fiesta). But it was great. I could see all for corners of the car. Plus it was smooth and quiet and lots of other good things. Too bad ford didn’t have the money to do an all new one.

  • avatar

    My first thought after reading the headline was that you got a ride IN BACK of a police interceptor, as in being arrested and taken to the slammer!

    I was disappointed…I was expecting another epic tale!

  • avatar

    My preferences have always leaned toward Japanese and/or German cars, and haven’t owned a domestic since dumping my 86 Escort in 1998.
    But I want an ex-cop Crown Vic, it’s not some wannabe cop thing, or from reading too many TTAC posts, frankly I can’t explain it.
    And it only extends to Crown Vic’s, the Caprice’s from the 90’s never moved me.
    I troll the Provincial and Federal government surplus websites looking for that perfect P71 but it’s hard to find an example to gamble with.
    A big Caveat Emptor on these cars, well maintained yes, but thrashed beyond belief from the way they’re driven, the countless hours of idling, the stains, the holes all over, and the haphazard (reckless) way equipment is pulled once retired.
    But I’ll keep looking.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Hi Murilee, looks like something got chopped up here:

    “This ended a run of the I was still happy, though, because my new car had turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.”

  • avatar

    I still don’t understand why this car is so worthy of love. Sounds like yet another shoddy Ford with warning lights popping up every other week. I have owned 3 Fords- and every time I tell myself it’s the last Ford.

    Now -that 92 Honda Civic you mentioned in passing- that car is worthy of any amount love and devotion. That is a true workhorse of a car that easily returns 40mpg. Easily Honda’s best.

  • avatar

    While my LeMons team is on our second go around with the same 99 P71, it left our possession in 2009 and came back to us at the start of this year, I’ve never driven it on the track. I did have a rented a Grand Marquis when the trans in my Park Avenue Ultra went out at the end of an 800 mile drive to the CMP LeMons in 2010. I dubbed it The Blue Marshmallow because the suspension was so soft, it made my Buick feel like a Z06 Vette. I also can’t stand the design of the trunk that panther’s have, you need 10th level Tetris Kung Fu skills to get any use out of it.

    • 0 avatar

      “I also can’t stand the design of the trunk that panther’s have, you need 10th level Tetris Kung Fu skills to get any use out of it.”

      Misspent youth, indeed!

      I found the deep well trunk quite useful for long trips where you stow your luggage in the bottom and then pile miscellaneous things on top.

      I also recently brought all four tires on rims to the shop for a warranty replacement, and they fit even with the full size spare in there, so really there were *five* mounted tires stuffed into the trunk.

      The trick for the shelves on the side is, you get some velcro and put things in a bag, they’ll stay put. Plus the upper ledge beside the spare can be used to tuck away things like jumper cables, winter emergency kit and the like.

      Here is where I’d make some qualitative sweeping statement about these cars being some of the most utilitarian vehicles for the least money and TCO, but I won’t, because some stranger on the internet will use that as an opening.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        Actually I would drop a golf bag into that “well” and then make/purchase a cover for it so I had a flat trunk floor that would still be larger than 75% of the vehicles on the market.

        I still remember the first time my father looked into the trunk of an areo Panther. “Son, that trunk has a basement.”

      • 0 avatar

        You can fit more than one golf bag.

        The first thing my wife did (bless her goofy heart) upon us bringing the Vic home was climb right into the trunk and comfortably sit down!

      • 0 avatar

        The trunk on my PAU is actually smaller than that of the panther by 3 cubic feet, but because the floor is totally flat it’s much more useable. For my typical trips I’ll use every square inch of it along with some of the back seat, while the trunk of the Marquis would only hold my tools and everything else had to go in the back and passenger seat.

  • avatar

    I spy with my little eye a _______ bumper sticker!

  • avatar

    @icemilkcoffee- It’s a Pantherlove thang. I have it myself, even though I’m not a Ford guy, except for the Econolines of course.

  • avatar

    As an Emerald Club member, I get my pick of not-the-crappiest-vehicles whenever I’m on business travel.

    First pick is _always_ a Vic.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      What are you going to do once they are all retired?

      • 0 avatar

        Reminisce while expensing my booze.

        …in all honesty, I usually just go out of my way to choose the most ridiculous vehicle available. Picked up a crew-cab 4wd Dakota just because I could.

      • 0 avatar

        This is already starting to happen when we rent cars during LeMons trips. The Grand Marquis/Crown Vic has become harder to find at rent-a-car companies, just in the last six months. We had a Chrysler 300 in New Hampshire, and it was completely Butt Turrible (to use the LeMons terminology). I’d rather drive an Aveo than an SUV, so we’ll be stuck with big Chryslers for our full-sized rental car options.

  • avatar

    The best thing about panthers is when you recommend them to somebody. The people who want something cheap, but reliable. You know, the kind that this car would be PERFECT for.

    Then they grimace, ignore your advice, and purchase the MOST IDIOTIC CAR THEY CAN FIND. Like a flakey Audi for $4000, or a Land Rover.

    Happens every time.

    • 0 avatar

      I have recommended P71s as cheap, quasi-reliable (they rarely break completely, but something always needs fixing) fun-to-drive daily drivers to many people. None have ever taken my advice.

      Because of the cop springs/shocks, the P71 doesn’t have quite the comfy ride that you get with the Phoenix Octogenarian Edition Panther, but the handling is very good.

      • 0 avatar

        I think finding clean P71s is going to get more difficult in the long term as police will in some cases be holding onto them longer, and the usual livery/taxi suspects will be bidding them up high at auction. From what I understand some members of the PA State Police are holding out as long as they can on switching to the Chargers. Who knows some models may be approach 200K by the time they dump them.

  • avatar

    About every two years, my 1996 Town Car will display a check engine light, triggered by IIRC P0171 and P0174, meaning mixture adaptations are maxed out. Cleaning the wire portion of the air mass sensor using spray cleaner takes care of it. It’s been a great car.

  • avatar

    My wife drives a ’98 P71. We’ve had it for several years, and she’s put about 60k miles on it. It’s showing 190k now.

    It has the intake manifold problem and uses a gallon of water every few weeks, but that doesn’t seem to cause any other issues. Only one window regulator works (of course) and that, the driver’s, because we had it fixed. While we’ve had it we had to put shocks on it, and tires, and some front end work, and front brakes. The only real “problem” was the coils started to go bad, causing rough running. Replaced the whole set with Accels for about what the dealer wanted to change one. Oh, now that I think about it, we did have to replace the tranny. That was the biggest running expense, by far. We went with an OEM Ford reman and it was about $2500 installed. Nobody rides for free.

    Last week someone in a Nissan rear-ended her. Judging by the pictures the Nissan (Versa?) was drivable, but barely. Looked like at least $2k in damage, everything ahead of the fenders was trashed and hanging off. The Ford got a little hole in the bumper cover, maybe the size of a dime, that’s it.

    I keep trying to talk her into something newer/nicer, but she likes it. I think we’re going to get it painted instead.

  • avatar

    Glad to see others that appreciate the Panther! I grew up in the back of one….. a ’85 Town Car! Miss that car, my dad traded it on one of those flimsy Taurus based FWD Continental with the weak kneed 3.8 V6…. and don’t get me started on the rear ‘air’ suspension…. plus I remember my town using the shoe box shaped LTD Crown Victoria as cop cars, those might have had the 351’s in those. Want one actually, even with it’s variable venturi carb…. but’s it is still a 351!

    I don’t know, I guess I just have a thing for cop cars…. no bling, nothing you don’t need and a no-nonsense image. The P71 has become what the Dodge Diplomat once was, it was the iconic cop car. Plus the older P71’s (such as Murilee’s) if equipped with the highway gears top out at 136 MPH, the ’05 up P71’s are limited to 120 MPH. Plus the body on frame design is stupid durable and the 4.6 is damn near impossible to kill. Plus people move out of your way….. the only thing I’d have over the Vic is a ’69 ex-CHP Polara, that was literally a muscle car DESTROYER!

  • avatar

    I’ve been drivin‘ all night my hand’s wet on the wheel
    There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel
    And my baby calls that she needs me here
    It’s half past four and I’m shifting gear

    When she gets lonely and the longing gets too much
    She sends a cable comin‘ in from above
    We don’t need to talk at all

    We got a thing that’s called panther love
    We got a wave in the air
    Panther Love

  • avatar

    I drive an ’05 P71 as a daily driver myself. 203k miles, had it since 155k. It’s very reliable, done nothing but routine maintenance to it and everything works great except for the headlights – the headlight control module goes on the fritz and they don’t always work, but I can manually hold the hi-beams on when that happens. Drove from Yuma to San Diego last week holding it down the whole time, but I’m still too lazy to take it apart and try to solder the module up.

    Good car but I’m planning to replace it with a Mazda CX-5 as soon as they bring the diesel motor here. I saw diesel 10 cents cheaper than regular unleaded at a station today and had a nice daydream about a 6-speed manual in a sporty little CUV with a torque-y diesel motor and still getting 30+ mpg without paying more than premium unleaded. Hope they sell it with the 6-speed manual and diesel.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford had their headlight issues solved by ’05, but I don’t know about the P71s. On ’80s and ’90s Fords, I would bypass the whole mess and since the parking lights weren’t a problem, I would terminate the low-beams at the switch and add a relay near one headlight, tapping into a parking-light lead to trip it. I’d use in-n-out power right from the battery and problem solved. Then I’d go back and accessorized the parking light switch so they could only work when the car on. High-beams worked same as before except now the low-beams stayed on with the highs.

      The fun thing to do was trading power leads from the power windows and light switch. Windows worked after you got out with keys in hand and you never forgot to turn off the lights (or turn them on!) BTW, driving with your high-beams into traffic is an infraction (and rude).

      • 0 avatar

        I think they overlooked the panther platform headlights when they were fixing the electrical shortcomings. I have an 85 ford truck and have had some electrical problems with it, mostly seemed to be stemming from a bad battery though.

        So the way you describe, turning off the ignition will cut off the headlights the way it disables the power windows, but the windows will always work? That does sound pretty convenient. From what I’ve read, it might be easier to change or repair the module than changing wiring and adding relays and all that. But the window lead modification sounds interesting.

        I figured as much, and I know it’s not polite. I don’t do much driving on dark two-lane highways at night where it would be an issue, and I’ll fix it sooner or later.

        Slightly OT – Personally, I find plain old high-beams less bothersome than those xenon or HID lights that look blinding and blue compared to all the other headlights on the road. Maybe it’s just that people with xenons always leave them on high beams though, and the default setting isn’t as aggravating.

    • 0 avatar

      I think all car makers run headlight relays by now and it took the domestics a bit longer to catch on. Running them direct caused hot wires & switches and as wire connectors corroded, things got even hotter. Plugs will distort as they melt and no longer match up, male to female. All I did was put in the relays they should’ve come with in the first place. You wouldn’t run aftermarket foglights without a relay and they draw just as much amps as headlights. Relays are simple to install. Just a positive triggger, ground, and positive in-n-out.

      Windows with constant power (that was meant for the headlights for example) will always work, same as the horn or dome light. The only difference is the power isn’t routed through a separate switch first. Or you can just join the power lead going to the power doorlocks to the window’s. Newer cars feature windows that work after you pull out the key and open the door, but only for a minute or two.

  • avatar
    jeff steindler

    On the subject of gas mileage, my father’s 1997 Lincoln Towncar ( same car – right? ) gets 30.0 MPG at 68 mph with 4 adults, full luggage, and my heavy tool box with me at the wheel…….Did it 2 years in a row from Richmond, Va to the Outer Banks……level terrain the whole way…..I am still stunned about this incredible mileage figure…..When driving west to Charleston, WV with only me and the tool box, the gas mileage fell to 19 mpg…..but, the 30.0 MPG ( both carefully calculated and noted on the car’s trip computer ) remains a huge and under-reported plus for that car…..

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