History Of American Police Cars

Car Culture / 21 Comments

These are the cars that have kept are streets safe for decades.

The first police cars in America showed up at the end of the 19th century. In fact, the very first police car anywhere was a wagon powered by electricity used in Akron, Ohio, in 1899. Now police departments are testing and using electric vehicles, we've finally gone full circle, but the first cop vehicle was a motorcycle. The rise of police cars started when criminals starting to use cars. And as criminals gained access to more powerful cars, cops needed to be able to keep up.

Police cars didn't start out as utility and pursuit vehicles though. Through the beginning of the 20th-century police cars were initially used to save money. With a police car and radio, a single officer could cover an area that would previously have needed several officers.

The markings on early police cars were rudimentary at best, and the idea of a "police package" for a vehicle didn't show up until after World War I when automakers simply took note of the most common options police departments chose and bundled them together.

Underwood & Underwood

Ford's first police package appeared in 1950, followed by Chevrolet in 1955, and Dodge in 1956. Ford first built and kept its lead in the police car market through the introduction of the flathead V8 and the 1938 Model 18 it came in. It wasn't until 1969 that Chrysler broke that stranglehold with its strong and reliable V8s.

A Detroit police officer named Kenneth Cox and an engineering student named Robert Batts tried to install a radio in the back seat of a Ford Model T in 1921, but it took them six years to pull it off. New York City then picked up the idea and put together a fleet of Radio Motor patrol vehicles. It had previously been using radios to communicate information about things such as stolen vehicles and missing persons, but getting the radios into patrol cars changed the game.

In this list, we'll run through some of the key vehicles through the history of law enforcement in the US.

Underwood & Underwood

Chrysler Enforcer

In the 1960s, the Chrysler Enforcer was a Newport 4-Door Sedan with a Chrysler Police Pack that included power steering and drum brakes. It offered the cop that had to keep up a 5.9-liter V8 engine pushing power through the rear wheels using a push-button transmission. That huge lump of an engine made 265 horsepower and topped out at 130 mph.

Model Cars Mag
Model Cars Mag
Model Cars Mag

Dodge Monaco

By 1970, 85% of American police cars were made by Chrysler. Chrysler's 7.2 liter Magnum V8 was a tough act to beat right up until the fuel crisis of the 1970s that put an end to gas-guzzling engines. The Monaco was the last of its kind from Dodge as it started downsizing as demand for big engines dropped. The Monaco police car did, however, get the perfect swan song by being the hero car in the movie The Blues Brothers. It was perfect for the redemption story of two criminals on a mission from God as: "It's got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It's got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It's a model made before catalytic converters, so it'll run good on regular gas."

Wikipedia Commons

Ford LTD Crown Victoria

Before the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was the Ford LTD with the P72 production code designating it for police, taxi, and fleet duty. By the end of the 1970s, available police cars didn't have the power that law enforcement wanted, and that went for the instantly recognizable Ford LTD and Chevrolet Impala. The Ford LTD is mainly included here for fond memories of 70s and 80s TV movies where they were, more often than not, seen losing hubcaps or spinning out and crashing into things while the protagonist escaped.

Reddit / judok

Chevrolet Nova

When police departments wanted better performance and gas mileage, and could make do with a smaller car, the Chevy Nova was a popular choice. Chevy designated its police package 9C1, and the Chevrolet Nova 9C1 was tested as a prototype for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department before becoming widely available from 1975 to 1979. The feature set of the police package included oversized front and rear sway bars, a high-output alternator, four-wheel disc brakes, HD steel wheels, a quick-ratio power steering system, stiffer body mounts, a dual exhaust, anti-stab steel plates in the front seatbacks. and a performance 3.08 final drive ratio from the 4.3-liter L99 V8 making 200 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque.

YouTube / Jay Leno's garage
Flickr / BC Medic Boss

Ford Mustang SSP

California Highway Patrol needed something fast, and the normal patrol cars just weren't doing it for the department. Initially, the CHP used the 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and it demonstrated the effectiveness of a dedicated pursuit vehicle. Unfortunately, the Camaro didn't prove reliable enough for the CHP but it did pave the way for Ford to introduce the Mustang Special Service Package in 1982. The Mustangs went into service complete with 5.0-liter engines, a calibrated certified speedometer, radio noise suppression package, relocated decklid release and of course the CHP's black and white livery. Later on, the SSP included things like a choice of an automatic or 5-speed manual transmission, front disc brake rotor shields, reinforced front floor pan, upgraded upper control arms with stronger bushings, 130-amp alternator, and an air deflector.

Flickr / sspvortech
Flickr / sspvortech

Ford Crown Victoria

Ford's Crown Victoria became the gold standard of police cars as the pool of police packages shrank at the beginning of the 1980s to the Crown Victoria, Dodge Diplomat, Chevrolet Caprice, and Ford LTD. The name Crown Victoria was used with the Ford LTD, but the specific model of Crown Victoria was a different beast and came with its own P71 designation. It became the most widely used car for law enforcement in the US and Canada, as well as Saudi Arabia, and stayed in production through two generations from 1992 through 2011. It's still in use today in many places but is being phased out in favor of SUVs.

Flickr / JimG1948

Chevrolet Tahoe PPV

Chevrolet stopped making the Caprice in 1996, leaving Ford as the only company offering a rear-wheel-drive police packaged car. However, Chevy did make a V8 rear-wheel-drive police-packaged Tahoe. At the time, many police departments were slow on the uptake of a full-sized SUV, but it was popular in rural areas despite an all-wheel-drive version not being available. It was an inch lower and faster than a standard Tahoe, despite all the heavy-duty and performance components added to bring it up to law enforcement specification. The Chevrolet Tahoe is still out there in full "Pursuit" spec and a valuable tool for law enforcement.

General Motors
General Motors

2020 Ford Police Interceptor Utility

Now that SUVs and crossovers have reached a point in performance where they're comparable with cars, their wholesale use as police vehicles was inevitable. The Explorer-based vehicle has been around since the start of 2019, but for 2020, law enforcement can have a hybrid all-wheel-drive police car right out of the box. The base engine is a 3.3-liter Duratec V6 with 285 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque, but in top-spec officers have the 3.0-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 with 400 hp and 415 pound-feet of torque. The hybrid drivetrain means departments save a lot on the fuel bills without compromising on performance and utility.


F-150 Police Responder

Ford claims to offer the first pursuit-rated pickup truck in the form of a purpose-built F-150, although there's no set standard other than the one companies set themselves. Trucks have been used before, but Ford went to town to deliver something for cops that have to venture into the wilderness. It includes suspension pulled from the FX4 Off-Road package, Goodyear Wrangler tires with DuPont Kevlar reinforcement, a 240-amp alternator to power all the lights and accessories, and the 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 under the hood to deliver 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque.


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