Sergeant James Post
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF POLICE CAR ENGINES
This is the second part of our retrospective covering police car engines starting in 1932 when Henry Ford’s first V-8 appeared. We’ve covered other significant engines, too, such as the big- and small-blocks from Ford® and GM and, of course, the Gen I and II HEMI®s from Chrysler. Along the way, we also discussed some of the significant police cars which were powered by these engines.
Part two begins with the first true American “pony” police car and those it inspired. We will conclude with what high performance police cars you can drive today. So, sit back, buckle up and join us for this car chase through the years.
This year marked the debut of the first true LE pony car, the AMC Javelin. The Alabama Department of Public Safety purchased 71 civilian Javelin SSTs powered by AMC’s potent 401 V-8 and the DPS troopers were so pleased with the results, the agency purchased another 62 units in 1972. During the two year run, no violator ever escaped the reach of the law and, more importantly, no trooper’s life was ever lost, despite top speeds recorded in the 140s!
Few of these Javelins are known to exist today, as most were returned to the dealer which sold them originally. Several are now in the hands of collectors and one (each) can be seen at either the Highway Patrol Headquarters in Montgomery or the NASCAR Talladega track museum.
After years of poor performing police cars resulting in embarrassing pursuits and losses, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) conducted an experiment using alternative patrol units. Chevrolet provided 12 1979 Camaro Z28s for the trial which were assembled at the Van Nuys plant. They were powered by 350 small-blocks, rated at 170 hp and were bone stock – other than some suspension parts and brakes borrowed from the Nova police package and a higher gear ratio. GM painted them the traditional CHP black-and-white paint scheme and added twin spots. The Camaros were rotated between four CHP patrol areas – West LA, El Centro, Redding, and Bakersfield – to evaluate them in all weather conditions and altitudes. They were also rotated among officers on all three shifts.
During the test period, nine of the engines failed due to probable sabotage on the assembly line by disgruntled workers (usually nuts and screws dropped down the carburetor). However, the CHP got the last laugh (the good guys usually do) because GM replaced the two-bolt main 350s with the superior four-bolt main engines. In addition, three years later, the Van Nuys plant closed in 1982 after 35 years of operation, probably leaving some of the saboteurs unemployed.
When the 18 month study concluded, the Camaro performance was deemed a success and, other than a few comfort complaints, the CHP officers praised them. The quick acceleration and top speed of 123 mph helped, too. Based on the test results, CHP ordered 100 new Camaros. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, GM could not fill the order due to the Camaro’s production being moved to Canada; however, Ford stepped up and the SSP Mustang was born.
Following the experiment, the 12 retired Camaros were painted various solid colors and auctioned off to the general public. I was very fortunate to be an owner (custodian) of one of the original 12 Camaros for six years. Mine was one of the three assigned to the Bakersfield office. Naturally, friends would ask how it ran, but I must admit it was disappointing. Still fully laden with California emissions and many hard miles on the clock, it was pretty weak. Fortunately, I was able to meet two of the CHP officers who had been assigned to my Camaro and hear their war stories. I also had the pleasure of sharing this historical vehicle with several thousand visitors who toured my museum before it was retired to a private collection.
The birth of the most popular police pony car ever happened that year. With the CHP not being able to purchase Camaros, Ford sold them 394 Special Service Package (SSP) Mustangs with the potent 5.0 engine. Soon, Ford offered them to all North American LE and they continued to improve and sell the notchback coupes until 1993, the last year they were offered. Some had automatics, but the majority were equipped with five-speed manuals.
Ford sold over 15,000 SSPs during the run and over 60 police agencies and the Federal government bought them. This includes 34 state police and highway patrols, a couple of dozen municipalities, the RCMP, and several “initial” agencies, including DEA, ATF, FBI, etc. Even the U.S. Air Force used them as chase cars to monitor landings of the U-2 spy plane because their 140+ mph was far superior to the El Caminos previously used.
There were a few drawbacks to the Mustangs. The light coupes did not like slick roads, so departments (from the Rust Belt north) usually grounded them during the winter. Because of the miniscule back seats, troopers had to rely on other troopers (in full-size sedans) to transport their arrests. Also, state agencies which depended on LE sales of used cruisers had difficulty selling them because the majority of their customers needed four-door sedans.
Some out of service Mustangs did filter down to smaller agencies and D.A.R.E. units, but most were sold to the general public. Several dozen have been restored and there are a couple in state patrol museums, but the vast majority can be found doing wheelies on drag strips across the country.
I have owned two retired state patrol SSP Mustangs (a 1992 and a 1993) and they were awesome in the Ozark Mountains I call home. As we drove them to car shows all over the Midwest, I gained a new appreciation of state troopers who drove them. They had to chase offenders while shifting gears, operating radios and light and siren controls, balancing a cup of hot coffee, and maybe even a tobacco product. Talk about multitasking! I often described the SSP Mustangs as the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on. The 5.0 Mustang troopers never had a bad day, but the violators sure did.
The 4.0 190 hp straight six was introduced in JEEP® Cherokees, including the AHB police version. They were surprisingly powerful and gutsy, but the 4.0 was replaced in 2006. For many pleasurable summers, my 50th anniversary 1991 Cherokee Sport powered up Rocky Mountain trails like a billy goat as the fuel-injected six left the carbureted Blazers and Broncos in the dust.
After nine years of dominance by Ford in the police pony car business, Chevy introduced the first B4C Camaro. The first B4Cs were modified RS models powered by the L98 350 rated at 245 hp and they received all sorts of HD upgrades over stock RSs. The top speed for the 1991 B4Cs was 150 mph. In 1992, that increased to 152 mph, but, in 1993, with the Corvette LT1 350 rated at 275 hp, their top speed increased to 154 hp. However, GM wasn’t finished – in 1998, they dropped a 5.7L Corvette LS1 in the coupe which boosted the top speed to 163 mph! The B4C’s last year in service was 2002 and, like the SSP Mustangs, many live on in the garages of collectors.
With the performance and speeds of contemporary police sedans and SUVs, it is unlikely we’ll ever see police pony cars like the SSPs and B4Cs again in America, but the memories for everyone fortunate enough to own or drive one will never fade away.
In 1994, Chevrolet dropped the Corvette LT1 in their already popular Caprice 9C1 police cars and police sedans have never been the same. The 5.7L V-8 produced 260-275 hp and was also used in the Impala SS. The top speed for the 1994 9C1 Caprice was 141 mph, setting a new record for a police sedan. Sadly, the Caprice and Impala sedans were discontinued in 1996.
The new 5.7L “Gen III” HEMI was first installed in a Dodge Ram® pickup. In 2005, it was wedged into two models riding on their new LX platform: the Tenth Generation Chrysler 300 and the new Dodge Magnum wagon. In 2006, the LX platform Dodge Charger first appeared and, shortly thereafter, both the Chargers and Magnums were offered in police packages, with either a 3.5L Pentastar V-6 or a 5.7L HEMI V-8; however, the civilian and LE Magnum were discontinued after the 2008 model year. In 2009, the LX platform was shortened to accommodate the new 2009 Challenger and dubbed the LC platform. Since 2009, Mopar cop car fans and operators alike have fantasized about a Challenger police package, but the folks in Auburn Hills have been silent.
The first Gen III 5.7L HEMIs generated 345 hp and later (civilian) versions have grown to 425 hp, 707 hp and now even 840 hp in the Dodge Challenger Demon, while the police Charger retains the 5.7L. It’s unlikely we’ll see 700 or 800 ponies in a Mopar police car, but FCA has wedged HEMIs in JEEP Grand Cherokees, Durango SSVs and Ram SSVs.
I was immediately attracted to the new Chrysler 300 with its low roof line and high sill side windows because it reminded me of the 1949 to 1951 Mercury sedans I loved as a teenager. It looked like it had a chopped top. My first LX experience was when I rented a Chrysler 300 in Michigan while covering the MSP tests. It was an AWD with the V-6 and, after a few miles, I actually stopped to pop the hood to verify it was a six; that Pentastar 3.5L was that impressive. That’s why so many city departments have opted for the V-6 engine instead of the HEMI.
Those of you who have followed my column know that I am a big fan of the Mopar HEMIs, but I put my dollars where my pen is, as I’m now on my seventh (a Ram, a Magnum, two 300s, a Charger R/T, and two Pursuit Chargers in all) and they’ve all been trouble-free and a real joy to drive. Of course, I’ve modified them all just to see how much I can beat the EPA mpg estimates with amazing results, while still lighting the fires and burning the tires! If you haven’t driven one, do yourself a favor and try one out. Chargers, Challengers and 300s can all be rented at most of the national companies. You’ll experience for yourself what I predicted to my son (some 30 years ago) that I thought would never happen again.
And, now it’s official: North American LE can now purchase pursuit-rated Dodge Durangos – HEMI powered with AWD standard. We’ll cover these in detail in a future installment, but, be assured, these Durangos are going to give Tahoes and Interceptors a run for the money!
Thankfully, our American automakers have given LE powerful police vehicles which are safer and more economical than those in the past.
Sergeant James Post appreciates your comments and suggestions for future articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.