My Introduction To Panther Love: Inaugural Police Interceptor Road Trip!

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
my introduction to panther love inaugural police interceptor road trip

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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  • Madman2k Madman2k on May 26, 2012

    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.

    • See 2 previous
    • DenverMike DenverMike on May 27, 2012

      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.

  • Jeff steindler Jeff steindler on Nov 20, 2017

    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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