Sergeant James Post
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF POLICE CAR ENGINES
(AND A FEW COOL CRUISERS, TOO)
We all think of history in different ways. Your high school history teacher probably traced history by the dates of significant events, while architects categorize history with building styles and sports fans track history by the big (or bad) games of their favorite teams. But, automobile fans (car guys/gals) organize their thinking by favorite years, makes and models. However, performance-minded buffs go even further and chart automobile history by engine type and size, aka horsepower. Because I spent the last 50+ years behind the wheel of police cars, I even take that a step further by identifying with police car engines.
Following, you will find my chronological history of significant police car engines and the emergence of police “pony” cars. This is not official and it is probably not universally shared; it’s just my humble opinion based on police cars I’ve owned and/or driven.
NOTE: Descriptions will alternate between numerical and litre designations, depending on what the manufacturers used at the time.
After building nearly five million Model As, Ford® replaced them with the 1932 Model B, aka “The Deuce.” The new Ford included their first V-8 which had the distinction of being loved by both cops and criminals alike. After years of the so-so performance of the Model A four-bangers, cops loved the new V-8. Gangsters like John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow were big fans, too. In fact, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn has letters from both Dillinger and Barrow on display in which both praised the Ford V-8. There is one from Barrow (dated April 10, 1934) and one from Dillinger (dated May 16, 1934); however, both of these have been disputed by family members and handwriting experts alike. But one from Dillinger (dated May 6, 1934) is probably genuine because it was sealed in Henry Ford’s safe for 75 years, perhaps because Dillinger, after praising the V-8 for giving him the ability to “get away from the coppers,” signed off by stating, “Yours ’til I have the pleasure of meeting you.” s/s John Dillinger. That meeting, or one with Clyde Barrow, for that matter, never happened, as both of their careers were terminated through lead poisoning (by law enforcement) later in 1934. Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a stolen 1934 V-8 Ford near Gibsland, LA, May 23, and Dillinger was shot to death on a Chicago street on July 22nd.
The original Ford “flathead” V-8 was a scant 65 horsepower (hp), but increased to 75 hp in 1933/34 and ended its 21 year reign in 1954 at 125 hp, when it was replaced by Ford’s first OHV, the 239 Y-block V-8.
A lot of today’s “young gun” Mopar® guys think the current HEMI® was born in 2006; however, the original Chrysler HEMI V-8 first appeared in 1951; although, at that time, they wore names like “Fire Power,” “Fire Flite,” “Fire Dome,” or “Fire Ram,” depending on the make of vehicle in which they were installed. These were also Chrysler’s first V-8s, replacing six cylinders. Weighing in at a scant 180 hp, those first HEMIs were discontinued in 1958, but would be reborn as humongous engines in 1964.
The small-block Chevy V-8 was unveiled in 1955 and is, hands down, the most popular American engine ever built. Naturally, they were soon powering police cars. Although starting out at a mere 160-180 hp, they eventually grew to simply being referred to by numbers such as 283 (230 hp), 327 (365 hp) and 350 (360 hp). That original configuration small-block continued until 2003.
In 1967, my department bought a handful of Chevys with the gutsy 4bbl 327. As was the practice, they rotated the cars among the precincts and officers. One dog watch night, I drew one of the Chevys and it was quite a departure from the six-cylinder Plymouths I was used to driving. I was dispatched to back up another officer on a particularly hot call and the car was amazing. As I approached (at a speed which was well over all sensible speeds), I saw the officer and I tried to stop…nothing. Then, I stood on the brakes with both feet and I slid a half block past him! Yep, they ran like the wind, but those drum brakes with bias tires wouldn’t stop you on a hundred bucks worth of dimes.
This was the first Chrysler small-block V-8, a 318. Most of you are probably more familiar with a different 318 which powered the popular Diplomats and Gran Furys decades later.
The first GM big-block V-8 appeared a scant three years after their small-block debuted. The first big-block was a 348 and was used until 1961. The 348 was replaced with a big-block eight which was so popular that a hit record by the Beach Boys was named after it…the 409. The 409 reigned until 1965 when it was replaced by the 396 which was replaced by the 454 which lasted throughout most of the Seventies.
During GM’s early V-8 years, most police departments opted for the small-blocks, but, occasionally, hot-rodders were surprised by big-block Chevy police cars in their rear view.
The small-block Ford V-8 was born as a 260 and, in 1964, it grew to a 289. Eventually, it grew to a 302 and then it became the very popular 5.0 in the Fox-body SSP Mustang police cars (1982 through 1993), but more on those later. The 5.0s were also found under the hoods of other Fox platform police cars, notably the Fairmont (1978-1982) and LTD (1984-1985), often called “4DR Mustangs.”
Chrysler revived the HEMI as a Gen II 426, the darling of NASCAR, NHRA and AHRA alike, with legends like Richard Petty, Don Garlits and John Force. From 1965 to 1971, Mother Mopar delighted street rodders everywhere with their “Street HEMI” installed in their Plymouth and Dodge muscle cars in aptly named promotions such as “The Scat Pack” (Dodge) and “Rapid Transit System” (Plymouth). The 426 also got its own tribute record from Jan and Dean in their song, “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and her “brand-new shiny, super stocked Dodge.”
Chrysler’s first 440 “wedge” engine was unveiled and, two years later (in 1968), a smaller hp version, the 383, was born. Soon, Chrysler added the name “Magnum” to the 383 and 440 engines, perhaps to attract even more cops to their cruisers. (What cop couldn’t identify with a name like Magnum?) Also offered (but not on police cars) was an option of three two-barrel carburetors on a high-rise intake manifold, called a “Six Pack.”
One of the most famous 440 Magnum powered movie police cars ever was not even in a police movie, the 1974 Dodge Monaco Bluesmobile, driven by Dan Aykroyd in 1980’s The Blues Brothers. His character describes the Monaco this way, “It’s got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks.” Aykroyd was so enamored by the car that he bought one for himself.
This was the year when we first heard of the 351 V-8 from Ford. They were often referred to as 351 Cleveland (1969) or 351 Windsor (1970), a reference to where they were built. Thousands of these engines powered Ford cruisers back in the day, but, when car guys hear 351, they fantasize about the 1971 Mustang Boss 351.
These were the glory days for Mopar gearheads and cops alike. Not only could performance junkies order the screamin’ 383 and 440 Magnums in their Cudas, Challengers, Road Runners, and Super Bees, WE could order them in Dodge and Plymouth police cars, too! And, there were thousands on the streets and highways of America. But, wait, there’s more…in 1970 and 1971, power-hungry buyers could still buy the last of the HEMIs, now rated at 426 hp. It’s rumored that a few might have ended up in police cars.
In the late Eighties, I purchased a used 1977 Missouri State Patrol Plymouth Fury with a 440 Magnum. As I was still suffering the pain of the oil embargo and the influx of imports and detuned domestics, I loaded my 13-year-old son in it and told him, “I’m so sorry that you will never be able to do this when you start buying cars. These days are over.” I pulled the old war horse out onto the street and nailed it, leaving black strips for (I swear) half a block! Okay, it was up a slight incline, but my son got the point. But, fast-forward 30 years and, wow, was I wrong about the future of police cars!
This ends Part One of our look in the rearview mirror (or should I say under the hood) of police cruisers. Stay tuned for Part Two and the birth of pony police cars, the “pocket rockets” from Ford and Chevy.
Sergeant James Post appreciates your comments and suggestions for future articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.