1978 Michigan State Police Patrol Vehicle Test – The Beginning and End of an Era

(first posted 5/11/2017)    While the early 1970’s spelled the end of the muscle car era, police cars were able to keep performance alive a little longer.  Despite the ever tightening emission regulations, 1970’s police cars were some of the most powerful cars of the decade.  This was primarily done by using good old fashion cubic inches; as the saying goes there’s “no replacement for displacement.”  However, by 1978, the changing automotive landscape lead to the end of the big-block performance oriented police cars.  GM was the first to abandon their large engines. 1976 was the year Chevrolet said good bye to the 454, as did the Buick, Olds and Pontiac to their 455 engines in both civilian and police roles. Ford and Chrysler managed to keep their 460 and 440 on the Police options list, but 1978 marked their last year.

While this was the end of the big block squads, it also marked the beginning of a new era.  It was the beginning of new smaller sized, smaller displacement police cruisers that had to function with much less horsepower.  This eventually led to the development of more well-rounded police cars to compensate.  Even though power was on the downward tumble, handling, braking, fuel economy, ergonomics and other aspects of the cruisers improved as time went on.

Furthermore, 1978 was Michigan State Police’s inaugural year for police car testing.  They performed an extensive standardized test battery on police package cars; this test became the benchmark test for the industry.  Police car tests existed previous to the MSP testing, such as the tests performed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept.  These test procedures were essentially done to determine if the car was capable of passing the minimum standard set by the police agency and also focused on estimating overall operating costs of the vehicle.

The Michigan State Police tests were different.  While they did have some minimum standards, the test results were weighted based on performance. Cars with better performance received an advantage where a portion of the bid price was adjusted lower for better performance.  This meant that the car with the lowest adjusted bid price had the best performance for the dollar.  Since the inaugural test, MSP has tested police cars on an annual basis.

MSP’s last full-size squad

In 1978, MSP like many police departments of that time had moved beyond the traditional full-sized squads of the past.  Formerly police fleet operators had a belief that a long wheelbase was necessary for high speed stability.  By the 1970’s, it was realized that a squad car did not require a long wheelbase to be a competent highway patrol car.  MSP was one of many departments that had moved away from the traditional full-size cars to the (slightly) smaller intermediates.  For the 1978 test they looked at several intermediate cars and GM’s newly downsized full-size cars, which were actually smaller than the older style intermediates from Chrysler and Ford.

Source: pontiacsonline.com

From Chrysler, two cars were tested, a Dodge Monaco equipped with the E68 400-4bbl and a Plymouth Fury with the E86 440-4bbl.  Ford provided a Ford LTD II equipped with a 400-2bbl engine.  Although Ford still produced a 460 Police Interceptor V8 in 1978, this engine was limited to the full-size Ford.  The 400-2bbl was the largest and most powerful engine for a Ford LTD II police car.  From GM, there were three entries.  A Chevrolet Impala, powered by the LM1 350 4bbl, a Buick LeSabre with a Buick 350-4bbl engine, and the Pontiac Catalina with a Pontiac 400-4bbl.

After the smoke all cleared, here are the end results:

Looking at the results, for me two cars stand out.  First is the obvious, the 440 powered Fury is by far best performing squad.  No other car in this test comes close to its acceleration or top speed.  The second is the Chevy Impala.  While the Impala doesn’t look like much on paper, it did very well in all categories.   The Pontiac Catalina performs well too, but I chalk up the 400’s lack of high end horsepower to its slower 0-100 mph time and top speed. The Chevy small block generally did well with high RPM performance, even in a de-smogged setup.   The big 400 Powered Monaco was about equal performance wise to the Pontiac, while having a faster top speed, but worse braking.

source: imcdb.org

Both the LTD II and the LeSabre were disqualified from the MSP bidding for not being able to make the minimum 0-100 mph time.  MSP still performed full testing on disqualified cars, for other agencies who had different requirements.  The LeSabre’s Buick 350 engine was a torquey low-rpm engine not all that well suited for high speed police use.   It also had the by far worst braking of the GM B-bodies.  The LTD II was the heavy weight of the bunch and had the worst brakes.  The 400-2bbl, while torquey, doesn’t breath well at high RPM due to restrictive 2-bbl carb.  Surprisingly, despite this, it did have a very good lap time, and even out ran the quicker Pontiac around the track.

source: copcardotcom.fotki.com

The Fury Squad was powered by the E86 440, pumping out a very respectable 255 hp in 49 state trim, or 240 hp in the California emissions setup.  This was a “cop motor” as Elwood Blues would say and it lived up to its reputation. Civilian Mopar B-bodys were limited to the 400-4bbl, while the much weaker 195-hp E85 440 was available in the larger Chrysler C-bodies. These Mopar B-bodies truly were the end of an era, but maybe it wasn’t all such a bad thing.  They had strong acceleration which was great for Highway Patrol cars chasing down speeders, and they were fairly durable for the times.  But they weren’t all that well balanced.

source: marooncruisers.com

Car and Driver was able to perform an instrumented test on a 1977 E86 powered fury.  While they claimed the 60-90 mph acceleration was very strong, they didn’t walk away impressed with the overall performance.  The police Fury had steering that offered more feedback than the typical Mopar of the day, but they also complained of heavy oversteer, and only saw .69g of lateral grip on the skid pad.  The stiffly sprung rear axle was easily upset on rough roads, under hard braking and on hard acceleration which caused serious losses in traction. Not exactly the description of a performance machine.

On the other hand, the Impala with its 350 under its hood had a big power deficit compared to the 440 Plymouth, but the Impala also weight over 400 lbs less.  This resulted in the Impala having the second fastest acceleration, the second fastest lap times, the second strongest brakes, and the third fastest top speed.  On top of that, the Chevrolet was tied for best fuel economy, 50% better than the abysmal 10 mpg 440 Fury.

A this time, Chevrolet was not nearly as heavily involved in the police car market as Chrysler and Ford, and so Chevrolet Police cars got the same engines as the civilian cars.  Chevrolet just didn’t sell enough police cars to have to justify getting emission certification for a police only engine.  But then again, the LM1 was the same engine the Z/28 owners had to contend with, so maybe it wasn’t all that bad.   Chevrolet did make improvements to the rest of the car including a heavy duty frame, metallic impregnated brake pads, larger oil capacity, quick ratio firm feel steering, and a police tuned suspension setup.

Car and Driver also got their hands on a 1977 Chevrolet Impala 9C1.  This wasn’t a factory press car either, they tested an actual in service 1977 Impala squad.  Sylvania Police department allowed Don Sherman and Rich Ceppos to perform an instrumented test on one of their cruisers, under strict supervision.   The LM1 350 was reported to be as smooth and quiet as the one any ordinary Caprice, and it knocked off a 0-60 mph time in 9.6 seconds while it stopped from 70 mph in 166 feet.  Not bad considering it had 300 lbs of police equipment.   What really sold them on the car though was the driving dynamics.  Handling was said to be even better than a factory F41 car, and they called the police suspension F41+.  They called the Impala 9C1 the most sophisticated handling American sedan and claimed on bumpy roads it behaved more like a BMW than a police car.  Unlike the Fury, C/D walked away impressed, and even provided instructions on how civilians could order a 9C1 spec Impala.

source: classiccarstodayonline.com

Although looking back the Chevrolet Impala did pretty well in police testing, it was not widely used by police departments during 1978.  The vast majority of the police cars sold were the Plymouth Furys and Dodge Monacos.  Most state patrols were trying to get the last of these big-block Mopars before they were gone for good.  Those who did try the new B-body GM’s tended to favour the Pontiac Catalina, likely because they believed the larger displacement engine was better for police use.  Eventually the B-body Chevrolet would become the mainstay in policing, and by the late 1980’s would even go on to dominate in MSP testing.

So what do CC readers think of the MSP testing results?  Michigan State Police chose the Plymouth Fury as its police car of choice.  What police car would you choose?  I think you know what my choice would have been.