Today’s Wimpy Police Car (Sep, 1982)

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Today’s Wimpy Police Car

By Darius Green

WE ALL KNOW what’s happened to the cars that we drive over the past decade. They’ve steadily gotten smaller, lighter, slower and less exciting—although stingier with fuel. But what about police cars?

If you think they’re still as fearsome as ever, take a closer look at the next police car you see. You’re in for some surprises; they’ve also changed with the times.

A decade ago, a typical police car would have been a full-size Chrysler, Ford or General Motors product. It would have been nearly 19 feet long and would have weighed well over 2 tons, with a 400- to 454-cubic-inch V8 putting out around 300 hp. Zero to 60 mph would have taken about 10 seconds, the quarter mile, about 17. Top speed would have been on the high side of 130 mph.

By 1978, most patrol cars were still full-size models, but were smaller overall and had smaller, punier engines. Even though 500 to 800 pounds lighter, they were still short of wind. The Pontiac Catalina that MI tested in May ’78 couldn’t top 100 mph and the Dodge Monaco tested with it could only just do it.

By then, however, many patrol cars were less-than-full-size models. With the skyrocketing cost of fuel, more and more small, fuel-efficient cars appeared in police fleets. And where progressive administrators once looked to intermediates for better economy, they were suddenly looking at compacts, subcompacts, and imports.

America’s current 250,000-car police fleet is radically different from that of a decade ago. Pontiac has completely left the police-car business and there are no longer any true full-size Chrysler products. Intermediates are far more common— Fairmonts, Malibus, Diplomats and Gran Furies. They’re 3 feet shorter than the ’72s, and 1,200 pounds lighter; but their engines range from puny 2.2-liter (135-cubic-inch) Fours up to occasional 5.7-liter (350-cubic-inch) V8s. Performance is, generally, less than inspiring.

Many departments rely heavily on compacts and subcompacts for routine work, with a few huskier pursuit cars carefully dispersed as backups. Vans also have become increasingly important because they offer larger engines.

What’s really lacking today is a true pursuit car. So, many forces have begun to examine alternatives.

The most attractive of these are the Mustang/Capri GT and the redesigned Camaro/Firebird twins.

With their large V8s, four-speed transmissions and well-thought-out suspensions, they are quick, impressive in handling and fast. The Mustang, for instance, is geared for 135 mph. The California Highway Patrol, duly impressed, has ordered 400. So California, you’d better watch your mirrors!

If you’ve ever wondered whether police cars are really special, the answer is a qualified yes: Some models have reinforced chassis, heavier-gauge frames, sturdier suspension components and soon. They also have higher-performance engines, transmissions, cooling systems, alternators and tires. (What you probably won’t see, though, are steel-belted radials. Many aren’t suited to extended high speeds. Textile-belted radials are the general rule there.) Other police cars are just ordinary civilian models with the necessary police equipment hung on. Sometimes this is because they’ll see only light duty, but frequently it’s because their departments buy only from the lowest bidder. Suddenly flung into rough service, many of these low-bid specials quickly self-destruct.

Police cars developed in two ways. Originally, law enforcement organizations gave manufacturers detailed lists of design specifications, stipulating things like shock-absorber diameter and frame thickness. The manufacturers then incorporated those requirements into their cars. But the result was frequently a heavier and costlier car with no performance improvement.

Recently, however, the trend has been to give the manufacturers performance standards, detailing what the cars are expected to do. This way the manufacturers can develop optimum solutions without adding needless weight or expense.

Some departments are so affected by costs these days that they are fixing up old units and keeping them considerably longer. Of course, some do this just because it’s the only way they can get bigger cars or better performance. . , A bit of the mechanical work does get out of hand, though. You see, with the exception of a couple of recent exemptions in California, the same federal and state standards for safety, fuel economy and emissions that all cars are subject to also have emasculated police cars. Certain jurisdictions, however, have taken matters into their own hands and have been caught and fined heavily for removing catalytic converters and running their cars on leaded fuel. Others have likely fiddled with equipment to boost performance. As this is written, the International Association of Chiefs of Police is trying to gel a few minor emissions-standard exemptions so that police cars can perform better.

As much change as the past decade has brought, the next should bring even more. Ultimately, like other cars, most police cars will probably be front drive. In 1983, for instance, Ford’s front-drive Topaz series will replace Fairmont and Zephyr, popular police cars, and a police variant would be logical. In 1984 Chevrolet will offer a police version of Celebrity, replacing the Malibu. And Chrysler’s K-Cars, of course, are already available with police packages.

Coincidental with the changeover to front drive is a philosophical change about high-speed pursuit. Many police departments are giving in to their better judgment and to the growing public outcry about the dangers.

Oh, there still will be fast pursuit cars out there, but fewer and fewer actually will engage in all-out highspeed chases. They have lots of friends patrolling; and even if the fleeing driver should happen to have a full-race engine, he’s going to find it virtually impossible to outrun the police car’s full-race- radio. Up ahead a roadblock will be patiently waiting.

16 comments
  1. Larry says: March 22, 200910:22 pm

    just think the next police cars are going to be hybrids and/or electric.

  2. Rick Auricchio says: March 22, 200910:46 pm

    This does make sense, because so many police cars in urban areas don’t need to be muscle-cars.

    Of course, getting the officers to accept a less powerful car takes a long time.

  3. Mike says: March 22, 200911:05 pm

    Are you kidding? The police are already using Segways, the criminals just fall over laughing.

  4. Jim Dunn says: March 23, 200912:14 am

    How many innocent Americans became criminals back then, just so they could scoff at that Rabbit?

  5. Larry says: March 23, 20092:01 am

    you wouldn’t want a firetruck or ambulance to be downsized and slow just to save fuel would you?

  6. sweavo says: March 23, 20097:55 am

    This is so funny reading from a European perspective. Suspension, handling and weight are much more the focus over here than raw power, and the rabbit (here called the Golf) GTI was a famously fast car that accelerated and handled great.

    But then European roads are much twistier than US ones, so the requirements to corner at speed and to accelerate are probably a lot more important in general than to be able to sustain high cruising speed.

  7. HollowCat says: March 23, 20097:55 am

    New American cars in 1982 were generally pathetic, in both performance and quality. If you needed a big car back then, better off fixing up a 1970 American car. For the average American who needed a new economy car, during a recession with high fuel prices, a new Cavalier or Escort were underpowered lemons compared to Corolla or Civic. This is when Detroit handed its future over to the Japanese.

  8. scud says: March 23, 200911:43 am

    Hybrid police cars in US…

    And meanwhile in Italy:

    http://news.motorbiker….

    (more on Google) ;)

  9. JMyint says: March 23, 200912:43 pm

    In the 1980′s I had two Honda Civics and two Ford Escorts. My first Honda Civic was used 1978 bought in 1981 it lasted me a whole two months before the crank shaft broke. The shop told me it was going to be $2000 to $2500 to replace the engine, that was more than I paid for the car. My second Honda was a 1980 Civic Wagon that I bought in 1983. The car never had power. In order to travel at highway speed with any pasengers I had to draft on semis. Sure on level ground with no wind and just me I could run 55 mph, but change any of those and I was lucky to hit 50 floored. Every time anything broke on that Honda (and things were always breaking) it cost an arm and a leg to have fixed. Finally after three years the head cracked and I sold it to the junk yard. In 1987 I bought a used 1985 Ford escort off of my brother and that car was a joy. It had pep, it got 32 miles to the gallon, it had an air conditioner that actually cooled the air, and it had a real radio. I drove that car 400 miles a week for eight years with nothing more than regular maintainence. Sadly the radiator hose blew out on me one day while on my way to work and by the time I got off the highway the damage was done. My other Escort was a 1989 wagon that I had for fifteen years and went through my wife, me, my daughter, and my son. I might still have it today if my son hadn’t wrecked it on three different occaisons. And don’t get me started on what a piece of crap my 1982 Nissan was.

  10. Toronto says: March 23, 20094:37 pm

    My! Do the cars try to hide when you walk onto a sales lot?

  11. Larry says: March 23, 20097:04 pm

    sweavo- the other difference between Europe and the states is . by the time the rabbit (Golf) was fitted to meet US emissions it lost some power.

  12. Tracy B. says: March 23, 20097:36 pm

    It’s not necessary to have 400 cu. inch displacement to have 400 hp now. In the early 80′s most gas engines used carbs; now we use fuel injection– much cleaner, better gas mileage and best of all POWER!

  13. Frank says: March 24, 20095:08 am
  14. fred says: March 24, 20096:57 am

    That cop looks absolutely disgusted standing next to his crimebuster ’81

  15. K!P says: March 24, 20094:07 pm

    wel it would sure be cool to drive a 911 targa as a squad car :) And for the euro perspective: VW now has a 1.4 liter engine that delivers 160 BHP, couple that with a 1200 kilo car, and its rather quick.

    even a few year old VW Jetta TDI does 230 KM/u quite easy, thats about 140 mp/h

  16. Urban says: March 24, 20095:51 pm

    A 911 police car, used in southern Sweden 1970-73: http://www.samlaren.org… (The “right arrow” icon leads to full size photos.) There was only one.

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