Police COAL: 1978-2006; Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, AMC, Subaru, and Toyota – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…

I began my 28 year career in military law enforcement (USAF) in 1978.  It may not have had the excitement or splendor of flying an F-15, but it was enjoyable.  As a car guy, one highlight for me was driving all the various vehicles in the fleet – here are just some thoughts and recollections of some of the good ones and some of the bad.  Photos are not mine, but examples found on the web.

The Good:

1984 Ford LTD LX.  Most of the big-block Fords, Dodges, and Chevies were gone by the time I took the oath….so we were saddled with some real late 70’s-early 80’s gutless wonders – two outlined farther below.  So when these 5.0 engined LXs came out in ’84, they were a real revelation.  I’m sure CC readers are aware of the 1984-85 Fox-bodied LTD LX – Ford’s attempt at a RWD European sports sedan.  The Police Package had all the LX performance upgrades plus even stronger brakes and a firmer suspension.  The 5.0 throttle body injected Windsor V8 made 165 hp and 245 ft lbs of torque at a low 2200 rpm.  It was quick.  They weren’t without their downsides – the interior was very cramped, but I can remember laying a good six foot patch of rubber responding to a robbery exercise once – never did that in a Slant-six Volare…

Toyota Mark II Taxi – similar to police version


1989 Toyota Mark II.  Being a military cop stationed overseas meant we had a more varied fleet than a typical small town department – many of our vehicles were local purchase.  In Japan, we had several 89/90 Toyota Mark IIs, a mid-sized RWD sedan, with a 1.8 liter four cylinder.  They were mediocre in most aspects except for one – they never broke.  Most of ours had over 250K miles on them – still with the original engine and transmission, and all of those miles came from hard GI-level abuse.  Yet get in, turn the key, and off you went.  At around 300K we would turn them in for salvage – I can remember driving one that we were just about to dispose of – the steering wheel had been gripped by so many hands that the hard rubber had disintegrated – and felt like silly putty.  But it still ran just fine.

Honorable Mention:

Ford Crown Victoria – all years. Universally liked by all patrolmen, nothing outstanding but did everything well, most durable of the American models, only gripe was with the partition installed the rear seating was pretty tight.

1979 Plymouth Volare.  Slant-six and Torqueflight meant it always started and went (slowly), fairly roomy inside, seemed better built than later Chryslers.

Japanese Police 2002 Legacy – similar to our 1999


1999 Subaru Legacy.  Police-spec version of the B4 sports sedan, tight inside but AWD a real plus, the normally aspirated 2.0 DOHC engine and 4-speed auto transmission worked perfectly together.  Quick.  Japanese Police versions had the twin-turbocharged 256 hp engines.  Those were quicker…and we were envious.

The Bad:

1973 AMC Matador.  To be fair, this was not a police-spec vehicle – it was a regular Matador – one of many that served as USAF staff cars in the ‘70s and were passed down to the cops.  Maybe if it had been one of the upgraded LAPD versions like Malloy and Reed drove in Adam 12, I would have felt different, but this AMC was a poor police unit, for two reasons.  First, the power steering was one of the most disconnected and sloppiest I had ever driven.  It must have taken 8-9 turns to go from lock to lock, and it was absolutely lifeless.  I had driven 60s and 70s Fords, which I thought were bad, but this Matador was worse.  Second, it wallowed like a barge.  The police package would have likely addressed these two shortcomings, as the police-spec models received high scores in the LAPD tests.  But as it was, this was a scary vehicle to drive.

1997 Chevrolet Lumina. I’ll sum up the Lumina with this one anecdote.  I had an important meeting to attend downtown so asked for our newest vehicle to ensure I’d get there and arrive on time.  I received a brand new ‘97 police-spec Lumina with 50 miles on the odometer – still had the new car smell.  I drove maybe five blocks when the transmission completely failed – no drive, no reverse, nothing.  That pretty much summed up our experience with these Luminas – they were always down for something; transmission, ECM modules, alternators, brakes.  Maybe they were haunted by their X-car forebears…

The Ugly:

1981-83 Plymouth Reliant/Dodge Aries.  Hands down, the worst police vehicle I’ve ever driven.  No offense to any K-car owners, but I imagine even you would agree that these were not the most robust vehicles to ever exit a Chrysler factory.  Yes they were too small, yes they couldn’t out-run a diesel Chevette, but those things could be overlooked – as long as they ran.  And these K-cars didn’t – they literally disintegrated under constant police use.  Transmissions usually had to be replaced every six months.  Axles right after that.  The suspensions wore out and they tended to list, just like a ship taking on water before sinking – an apt metaphor.  They spent more time in the garage than on the road.  After two years at best, we’d turn them in – they had fallen apart.  I hope whoever thought these were a good decision to purchase gets to ride in one to their funeral.

1980 Ford Fairmont.  Small, under-powered, poorly built…did I mention under-powered?  These Fairmonts were a pitiful thing to drive.  They came with the old standby 2.3 liter SOHC “Lima” four cylinder, which may have worked fine in a Pinto, but was terrible for a police unit.  The old saying was, take the Fairmont for school zone duty because the only thing you might catch was a kid on a bike.  And they were constantly down for maintenance.  Like the K-cars, things would routinely fall off – “Quality Is Job #1” was still a few years away at Ford.  We had a derogatory name for these Fairmonts, which I can’t repeat…but it was well deserved…

There were other vehicles, good and bad – I’ll try to cover some of those in an upcoming post.