Curbside Classic: 1978 Plymouth Fury Ex-Cop Car – I’d Recognize That Shape A Half-Mile Away In My Rear View Mirror

(first posted 2/16/2012)   The smartest move I ever made was moving to California in 1976. It was then still truly the Golden State; I just couldn’t believe how incredibly beautiful it was, and all the opportunities it afforded me:  nude beaches, mountains, deserts, beautiful girls, career prospects. And near the top of the list: driving fast, otherwise known as speeding, essentially with impunity. All one had to do was recognize this shape in the rear view mirror at great distances. I don’t like to brag, but I don’t think anyone outdid me in that regard. It was a skill finely honed as a kid, and now it finally paid off. “Coronet dead behind, at 440 yards, closing quickly”.

It seems positively quaint now, but the CHP (California Highway Patrol, for you non-Americans) did not start using radar on California’s Highways until 1999! (Why do you think I moved away a few years before then? I knew it was coming). It’s not that radar was legally banned per se, but the Legislature never authorized the expenditures necessary to buy radar equipment. Talk about self-interest, of the best kind! That and a very effective trucking industry lobby.

Blame it on the feds: they started making money for speed enforcement more readily available around the end of the nineties time, and there was some growing concern about the very high average speeds on the freeways, especially those away from the densest urban areas. I remember being “on the conveyor belt” in the left lane at no less than ninety; meaning everyone was rolling at that clip. Pretty amazing.

Curiously enough, there are still legal restrictions (at least as per the article I linked above) that make radar difficult for the CHP to use in the vast network of secondary county roads and such. California has (had?) a “speed trap law” ban, and a speed trap is defined as just about anything that guarantees speeders will be caught. I’m not sure of more recent developments that might have changed that. Back to the seventies…

When I arrived in 1976, the ridiculous 55mph convoys were already a thing of distant memories. I can’t find a picture, but when the double nickle was imposed federally in 1974, the CHP would get on some of the long-distance freeways like the I15, straddle the two lanes, and drive at exactly 55 the whole way to the Nevada border. That’s why I didn’t come sooner.

By the the later seventies, gas was cheaper and plentiful again, but the double nickle was here to stay, for what seemed like decades yet. So one almost had to speed; it was a way of living, getting by and staying sane; the question was how fast to go, and how to avoid the cops.

The main speed enforcement by the CHP was just sneaking up on folks, and then they had to tail them long enough to get a reading on their calibrated speedometers. A favorite trick was to “play the ramps”; they’d swoop down the on-ramp with gusto, hoping to quickly catch a speeder in the left lane. So one just had to get good at spotting them before they spotted you.

I always kept a constant eye on the rear view mirror, looking for the distinctive shape of the Dodge Coronets that were used during this era. Our featured Plymouth Fury is essentially identical to the Coronet, except for some obscure details of the grille. Now there was another boon to living in California: nobody drove these cars except the cops. I mean almost literally nobody, except maybe some bureaucrat in a state motor pool car. Regular folks just didn’t. This was California, after all. American cars fell out of favor a long time ago, starting with dull bland sedans like these. Thankfully! It was so annoying to have to slow way down, and wait for an eternity to find out that it was just some ag agent or such.

The CHP had been a loyal devotee to the Dodge Brothers brand going back some time.

But there’s little doubt that the Coronets were the best Dodges they ever had, and the best cop cars until the very modern era.

I’m not exactly sure which year the CHP switched from the last of the big Polaras (above) to the mid-sized Coronet, but it may well have been when the new Coronet/Satellite (CC here) body style came out in 1971, or shortly after. A great move, since the Coronet was not only lighter, but much more aerodynamic, with a slipperier shape and a substantially smaller frontal area.

But the same nasty 440 big-block was still under their hoods. In 1971, that was still a high-compression unit rated at 370 horses or so. That number slid throughout the eight-year run of these cars, due to switching to net ratings, lower compression, and smog controls. By 1977, that was down to 195 hp. I may be wrong, but I believe that the cop cars were still getting some goodies to make their 440s a bit punchier right to the end. But even 195 was a lot more than most cars had at the time, and the 440 still packed a mean torque wallop. Especially in comparison to what followed them.

The Coronet and Fury had their last year in 1978, and the much-maligned R-body Dodge replacement was the St. Regis. And in CA emission tune, the 318 four barrel was rated at 155 hp. Nothing more was available. These cars were a disaster for the CHP; the word was soon out that the big boxy St. Regis could barely hit ninety or so. Now impunity meant just driving away from them. Took some guts, and a decently fast car, but let’s just say that some of us had both back then. My ’83 Turbo Coupe was good for 120+, and the 300E that followed did 140 rock solid. Bye – bye!

It wasn’t just me either; this became a state-wide embarrassment/opportunity, with plenty of press. Around this time, Californians were well-past fed up with the double nickle, and civil disobedience on the freeways was a fact of life. What’s a cop to do when there’s an endless conveyor belt of cars all doing 75 or 80? Frankly, they all thought it was a joke too.

Now I did get a few tickets during those years, but never once going really fast, which I did most of the time. I got nailed once or twice driving home from work on the Santa Monica Fwy, because I was distracted and doing 68. But it’s a bit hard to be distracted at 110.

I also got nailed by the “Bear In The Air”  twice. The CHP had a little fleet of Cessnas  that would putter along over some nice long straights, like I5, and radio ahead the speed and descriptions of the cars to a big passel of patrol cars down the road. Sometimes they just stood on the side of the highway, pointed at you, and waved you over. You! And You! Game up. Times change. I took to turning my driver’s side outside mirror skyward on those kind of roads, which actually worked. Nobody else flies a Cessna 172 182 right along a highway at 300 feet.

But it was all a sportsmanlike cat and mouse game, and one couldn’t be sore on those rare occasions. Got to let them win once in a while; almost felt sorry for them. But NOT when doing 115 or so. That might have been a bit of a problem. Keep those eyes peeled on the rear horizon; check every ramp as you whiz by; scan the sky; and full speed ahead!

Now I’ve hardly talked about this particular car, which is all-too obviously an ex-cop car. The most telling sign, after the lack of front door molding, are the slotted wheels and the drilled-out hub caps. Man, did I love it when those came along! Brilliant. Why not just a slotted steel wheel, with a little center cap? No; we’re going to punch holes in our dog dishes, so that nobody will ever be tempted to use them as actual dog dishes. Call them strainers.

I was curious as to what this Fury was packing under the hood. Could it be the vaunted 440? I kinda doubted it, given the single modest-sized exhaust. So I did what I just finally started doing after all these years: took a shot of the VIN plate, and deciphered it. Sure enough; it’s got a 318 two barrel, big wheels, tires and strainer hubcaps notwithstanding. Oh well. But then it is a Plymouth…

A little postscript: the St. Regis debacle had to be dealt with, and the CHP did the unthinkable: ditched Dodge and ordered a bunch of Mustang LX 5.0 notchback coupes to augment the fleet; the only thing that would do the trick. And a nasty little trick it was indeed. Not only were they fast, but the Mustang GT was a very popular car at the time, even in California. So they were stealthy too.

My regular Sunday morning drive up the 280 (America’s most beautiful urban freeway) from Los Gatos to San Francisco was normally taken at 110; four lanes, almost no traffic (that time of day on Sunday, back then, anyway). But I learned to slow down right about where that shockingly ugly statue of Junipero Serra is, pointing down accusingly at the speeders on 280. Up there on the connecting road to the rest area always sat one of those Mustangs, driven by a young female trooper, just waiting for a date with me. “My girlfriend” Stephanie used to call her. That’s because I always slowed down and waved to her.

Here’s another CC on a very unique Coronet Police car