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The very basics of police car collecting: A few decisions and facts

1974 Satellite pursuit vehicleThere has been a definite lack of a great deal written on the collecting and restoring of police cars. These important pieces of automotive history have only in recent times been made more noteworthy. Those of us in the hobby know the works of Post, Sanow, McCord, others. However, there are several very basic and important things to know and consider if you want to be a part of this growing segment of the collector car hobby, and a few if you already are. Owning and restoring two police cars myself and being active in the hobby for several years, there is much that I have learned. I am hoping to pass on some of the knowledge that I consider to be the most important.

Like anyone interested in purchasing any vintage car, there are decisions to be made and things to be considered. Let's look at a few of them rationally and simply one at a time, ones that I personally consider of great importance. I'm only addressing a few irrefutable facts. You can make your own opinions as you see fit to do so.

If you are looking to this segment of the collector car hobby to make an investment grade purchase, look elsewhere. It is not uncommon for a collector to invest much more than the car's "book value." While these days, the stated value of any car is relative to what someone is willing to pay for it (and we can thank the auction houses and eBay largely for this), many in all segments of the classic car hobby invest more than the vehicles are financially worth in print to restore them. It becomes more of an emotional, sentimental, or personal thing.

The accessories needed to make a detailed and correct police car can become pricey, especially the older the car represented is. This is the first issue that you would need to address to yourself in advance. How much are you willing or able to spend and can you exceed this by how much during the entire process? Yes, you will definitely exceed your initial budget by the time the project is completed and ready to show, so be prepared.

police equipmentAre you looking to obtain one for a daily driver or for a show and parade car? This can make a significant difference. If you just want one to drive, you just need to look at mechanical and cosmetic restoration. There is no such thing as an old cop car that needs no mechanical repairs, no matter if it was a patrol vehicle or a chief's buggy that saw limited use and only a couple of drivers. Expect that if you want to drive it all the time, you will have to invest significantly in mechanical upgrades or you will find yourself cursing at it on the burm of the road one day in the foreseeable future. The more you are going to drive it, the more that will have to be fixed, simple as that.

If you are looking to show the car as a replica of an agency's vehicle of times past, the cost of the accessories to do this will raise the end cost of the project significantly. The supply of obsolete police car accessories is not as plentiful as it once was, and of course, the prices asked for them reflect this.

Some items are just downright impossible to find. A good example of this is my own experience when I was looking to obtain the proper light for my Pennsylvania State Police Diplomat. The Whelen 5000 light/speaker combo was nearly impossible to find. I did find one thanks to my wife who is my partner in crime with my vehicles and a lot of dumb luck. I have not seen another available since with the exception of one that went to a friend in California who is restoring another PSP car from the 1980s. Both of them required extensive rebuilding electronically to make them work as they were designed to. Fortunately, I have the knowledge and ability to have done this, but this also needs to be taken into consideration when obtaining obsolete used accessories. If it doesn't work, can you fix it or find someone who can? More importantly, can it be fixed at all?

Many of us lament the fact that departments dumpstered much of what we desire now, and if they didn't, the accessory dealers did when the departments upgraded their fleets. We have developed a network in the hobby to help obtain what we need for our cars. I would be happy to help anyone get into this network if they are serious about participating in this segment of the hobby. It's not uncommon for us to trade lights, sirens, radios, etc. and just give to each other what is needed for a project, though we also sell items to wherever it is needed. You will see items on eBay from time to time, but expect to pay well over value for them. They haven't exactly helped us in this regard. There are few avenues to have insignias reproduced, but this can be done. There is an important consideration to having agency decals reproduced and please pay particular attention to what is stated later in this article.

The particular car desired is an important consideration. The cost of the car based on condition and rarity is a usual part of the picture as with any collectable car. The most desired cars are the true police package cars, Mopars being the most desired through the 1980s. These came from Detroit equipped for patrol and pursuit out of the box. The lighting and other accessories were added to the specifications of each individual agency aftermarket, which is still largely the case today. Many of us have done replicas of non package cars, which is sometimes borne by necessity due to availability or cost. These are referred to as "clones." They can be made to look exactly like the real car from the agency's past.

One thing that is absolutely verboten in this hobby is to try to pass off a clone as a real package car. If your project is a clone, be honest about it. Nothing will get you ostracized by other copcar collectors faster than getting caught passing off a clone as the real thing.  There are easy ways to tell if a car is a clone or not, like the fender tags, etc. Each manufacturer assigned a particular code to police package cars. For example, Chrysler assigned the code AHB to package M-Body vehicles and this is one of the letter code combinations on the fender tag, Chevrolet used 9C1 for package Caprices, etc. Police car collectors get very educated on these cars and tend to look for misrepresentation.

1988 dodge diplomat squad car

Another no-no is stating that the car originally came from the agency represented when it did not. It's not uncommon for a restored police car to have actually served with another department in its past life so do not be too concerned that you cannot find a car that actually served within the agency you wish to emulate. Making a police car look like nothing that came from a particular agency or just throwing a bunch of lights and a siren on anything with four wheels will get you the most disdain. These are referred to as "clown cars" by some collectors. They are commonly seen on eBay auctions. If you wish to be the brunt of ridicule, do one of these cars. I've seen it happen, right or wrong. A number of hobby purists refer to TV/ movie police cars in this category also. I'm not advocating a position either way on movie cars, but I just wanted to relate the facts as they are and you make your own judgments. The public loves to see one of Sheriff Roscoe's Mopar police cars at shows, but expect some flak from some within the hobby, not the majority, but some.

Okay...you got the car you wanted and obtained the lights, siren, insignias, radio, etc. that you needed to do the car as you wanted. You invested much time, money, sweat, and a bit of blood into rebuilding the powertrain, dying the interior along with new seat covers, body and paint, installing the equipment correctly, and everything else that goes along with it. Now what? Have you missed anything? OOPS!!! The agency you represented you now find out does not allow representations of their cars to be owned by private individuals.

dodge intrepid squad cars

You need to do research before you try to represent any police agency. Some have laws prohibiting what you have just done, some just have copyrights on their car insignia, even occasionally obsolete ones. Either way, you might have broken the law and ignorance of the law is never a valid excuse. After you have been pulled over by the real deal on the way to a car show, your car impounded, and you possibly put into handcuffs, is not the time to reevaluate your decision making process. Yes, it could go that far. You have helped to do possibly irreparable harm to the hobby also, aside from the grief you find yourself in now.

We are constantly guarding against irresponsible behavior by other police car hobbyists. The impersonators have helped to make our lives a bit harder also. Some legislators do not see the difference between hobbyists and impersonators. Many of us are working very hard to try to change this and there has been some success and the work is ongoing. There also have been some failures such as in New Hampshire where the mounting of any lights on any vehicles now (as of 2007) requires a permit which is almost impossible for hobbyists to get. In Colorado, the ownership of red and blue lights by private individuals is illegal. We can only hope that this doesn't continue to spread to other states, or worse…become Federal legislation. It is up to each and every one of us to see that this does not happen. Responsible ownership and operation of our vehicles is paramount.

north caroline dodge charger

What about the vehicle codes and other ordinances in each state where it pertains to the operation of your car on public roads, much less ownership in general? Did you build the car just to sit in your garage? I didn't think so. You have to remember one very important issue here….Your car is not a commissioned police vehicle belonging to any municipality or governmental entity!

plymouth satellite squad car

Even if you are carrying tin legitimately, the car is privately owned. There is a big difference between your car and the one that your local police department restored for parade duty. The department usually is the registered owner and therefore is covered as if a regular duty vehicle. You may actually have to get written permission to represent the agency you wish to do so. You might not be able to get the decals reproduced without written permission, much less stay out of trouble.

When traveling anywhere, you must cover or remove the emergency lights, cover or remove anything saying POLICE on the body, and NEVER blow the siren on the road. Many of us go the extra distance and place signage on the car while traveling that says "OUT OF SERVICE." Some disable the emergency equipment electrically when driving it to and from events.

1977 Plymouth Fury police carWhile you are participating at an event, act responsibly. There have been situations with a very few acting irresponsibly with their police cars at an event and this can reflect nearly as badly on us all as irresponsible highway etiquette, sometimes actually worse. If you are hailed by someone in distress because they think a police car is coming down the road, be honest about what you are or are not, but help as you can as a citizen (unless you are really a commissioned officer or other public safety person). This does happen on rare occasion. Not only will this help keep you out of trouble by not allowing yourself to be misrepresented, but it reflects well on the responsibility of the hobbyist, and on us all in the end.

Owning and operating a replica police car is a great responsibility and should never be taken lightly. You are held to a different standard than the owner of a 1969 Road Runner or a 1971 Charger. Everyone that shirks their responsibility as an owner and operator jeopardizes us all. This hobby could be easily legislated into oblivion by the stroke of a pen, and never think that it cannot be.  Then what?

A lot to consider and you haven't even bought a car yet, you say? Good. A few things you never realized when you put together the car you now possess? Even better. Talk to other collectors, ask questions, get facts, read the books written, get educated before you build. If I, or our Association can be of help to anyone wishing to become a part of this segment of American automobilia or who may already be, I can be contacted directly at this address or through the Association.

Other columns

Introduction | The basics of police car collecting | Who are collectors? Why do we collect?

Emergency lighting | Sirens | Where to find retired police cars | Emergency vehicle shows | Investing in police cars

Restorations: Rules and regs for restorers | Chevy Malibu | 1949 Ford | Do-it-yourself bodywork | Do-it-yourself mechanical work

Shows: Chicagoland Emergency Vehicles Show | Aquidneck Island Police Car Parade (2008 | 2009)

Also see the EVOOA home page

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