Tales of a Police Car Hobbyist

by Dale Burkhardt

As an automotive hobbyist for over thirty-five years, I have enjoyed the ownership of 27 vehicles. Although in terms of all car collectors, 27 purchases and a current fleet of 5 is quite modest. Nevertheless, my wife of 30 years remains convinced this is wretched excess. My, or more accurately, our, experience has encompassed the distinguished and the indistinguishable. Although usually preferring Chrysler (or should I say "DaimlerChrysler") performance products, any make, in fact, any transportation mode may pique my interest.

Such was my state of mind in October of 1984. A picture ad appeared, selling a "1977 Plymouth Grand (sic) Fury" purported as an "(ex-)Arizona highway patrol (sic) car". The owner was a pleasant, talkative young man, with a nice family, who appeared experienced with police cruisers. The car being sold had over a hundred thousand miles on it. But, compared to several near-death experiences during test drives in other former police cars, this one was in decent shape and drove well. The full-size, four-door body was painted this unusual, and quite ugly, combination of a cream-colored top and a light lime-green body. A stock, E86 (the factory sales code) 245 hp high-performance 440 cid four-barrel engine softly growled through factory dual exhausts - a rarity at the time. Cool air came from the air conditioning vents and a Cadillac audiotape player (where did that came from?) had been installed. Sold!

The seller also claimed to have the car's Arizona department service log, and went into some detail about its contents. Unfortunately, it could not be found. Disorganization following a recent change of residence was blamed. Weeks later, he reported his wife had accidentally tossed it out. After parting with $1500, I was the excited owner of what would become the first of my four police cars.

Many people, including fellow auto enthusiasts, ask in an incredulous tone why police cars captured my interest. This is especially the case since I have no career ambition toward law enforcement (no non-career contact either!) nor am I a police memorabilia aficionado. To quote my standard answer: "My interest is in police cars, not in police work." In my own idiosyncratic way, I have always been a non-conformist. One may speculate this carried into my automotive hobby tastes as well.

Police cars first caught my eye in the fall of 1967. As a recent high school graduate on my way to nowhere, I was working at Fiedler Dodge in Blue Island, Illinois, washing and waxing cars. The dealer delivered a matched pair of blue 1968 Dodge Police Pursuit Coronets complete with 330 hp 383 cid engines and Goodyear Police Special tires. Although the classic "Muscle Car" era was in full swing, I noticed these nondescript Coronets gave no quarter to the Chargers and Super Bees of the era. A small neighboring town, Crestwood, Illinois, had ordered these potent machines to upgrade its P.D. pursuit capability. With a smile on his face and stars on his shoulders, the Crestwood Police Chief departed with his acquisitions. Later, a fellow car-washer provided a real-life testimonial concerning these Coronets. Evidently, his friend had tried to outrun Crestwood Police in his Plymouth Roadrunner. "He (the car-washer's pal) slowed down for only a second, because of a dip in the road, and wham! Both police cars caught him just like that!"

With its simple ornamentation, the police car projects practicality, competence and hidden strength found nowhere else under the automotive rainbow, except for the occasional "sleeper." I appreciate police vehicles because of their straightforward, no-nonsense persona. Most factory performance cars are sold with a wink-of-the-eye that they will flex their performance capabilities only at sanctioned, off-road events. In contrast, this official pretense has not, does not and will not include police vehicles. Everyone knows that these chosen chariots can, and often will, be taken to the limit on public streets and highways across North America every day of their service lives. What's not to like about a big, bad, understated road-warrior machine which carries North America's finest in the front seat and its most wanted in the back seat?

So much for the philosophical, romantic aspects of these vehicles. As a practical matter, you have to be seriously disturbed to buy and drive retired police cars as your private transportation. My wife, a clinical psychologist, claims that my automotive interests generally, and police cars in particular, reflect a vicarious, macho attempt to resurrect the male hunter/warrior instincts in a semi-socialized fashion. Yeah, so?

Why are police cars such a risk? Let's face it, police cars spend their service lives in brutal war with the elements, flogged by their drivers and, based upon what appears on the TV program Cops, also abused by unhappy back-seat passengers. Often they are found trying to occupy the same space as other vehicles or large, immovable objects. Please allow me to elaborate on the above statements with some of my own, true-life experiences:

My '77 Gran Fury was a monster. It was roomy, swift, and guzzled gas like I had never seen. It got between 9 and 13mpg, which easily emptied the giant 26.5-gallon fuel tank each week.

After purchase, the Gran Fury was treated to my usual used-car ritual of cleaning, filters, fluids, and tune-up regimen, including a set of Mopar platinum-tipped spark plugs. A set of new B.F. Goodrich H speed-rated tires was purchased after a couple of challenging experiences in slippery weather due to the Sure Grip differential. The soot-black Carter Thermo-Quad carburetor was replaced with a new one following two failed attempts at rebuilding. After the Electronic Lean-Burn computer went to its just reward, stranding me, it was replaced with a Direct Connection (this was before Mopar Performance) electronic ignition conversion system and a new battery for added reliability. Correcting an original oversight, a factory combination ammeter/oil pressure gauge was installed in the stock dashboard location. I was delighted with the result, and the engine was running exquisitely.

During the next summer at 60mph on Interstate 80, a terrible din suddenly erupted under the hood - like someone banging on a metal garbage can lid with a hammer. After towing the Gran Fury home and disassembling the engine, my wondering eyes beheld the total absence of piston number one. This calamity filled the oil pan with mangled pieces of deceased piston, destroyed both valves and left the connecting rod still holding the naked piston pin which had bashed back and forth, up and down against the cylinder wall until the engine was shut-down. After lengthy repairs, the car went back into service as my work ride. I sold it in April of 1986 for $1200.

Initiation into the uncertain world of retired police transportation was not restricted to the machinery, however. A search for more information on my car's previous life subsequently uncovered that the Arizona Department of Public Safety never had any '77 Gran Furys; and if they did, they would have been white. The truly unique cream and green combo, as I would learn, was the traditional colors of U.S. Border Patrol vehicles until the early 90s. Obviously, there never was any service record either.

Police car number two (speaking of number two...) was a 1984 Ice Blue (allegedly a Ford color) Dodge Diplomat which I purchased from a Ford dealer in August of 1986 for $3200. This dealer had four Dodges which had been traded-in by the village for new Ford Crown Victorias. Chrysler Corporation's downsizing was obvious with the Diplomat. Under the Diplomat's hood was the Corporation's strongest police engine, the ELE 165hp, 5.2 liter (318cid), four-barrel, heavy-duty "Pursuit" engine. A test drive demonstrated adequate, if not stirring, performance and a strong pull to the right. The dealer was told that a front-end alignment was required. If this made the car go straight, a sale would be made. A call to the police department that used the Dodge produced the following advice: "Those cars were strong runners, but I wouldn't buy one." What did he know? Alignment did straighten the car's driving path and off I went.

Trouble started when no title ever arrived. The dealer gave me one unkept promise after another. Finally, I went to the Illinois Secretary of State Police (an agency separate from the Illinois Department of State Police) and filed a complaint. As the story unraveled, neither the police department nor the dealer selling it to me had ever titled my police car. A Certificate of Origin (the car's "birth certificate") from Chrysler was all anyone possessed. Eventually, the state fined the guilty and issued a clear title.

This car was treated to my tune-up, fluids, filters, cleaning, carb rebuild, tires, and battery routine. Unfortunately, handling was disconcerting in wet weather and an ominous noise was becoming obvious from the front end. After four professional estimates on identifying and correcting the malady, including two for more than one-thousand dollars, a small body shop identified the problem as an earlier, incompetent, body repair job. The "K" member was damaged, rubbing on the front anti-sway bar. The K member (so named because it resembles the letter) is a two-piece welded front sub-frame that holds the front suspension and engine, which in turn is bolted to the main unibody. They straightened and welded the K member for less than $200.

Then there was the transmission failure. After flooring the accelerator to pass a slower vehicle, there was a muffled thump under the floor. All forward motion suddenly ceased to exist. Reverse was still working though, and I backed into a safe place to wait for the tow truck. Post-mortem determined the rear planetary gear set had taken leave of this world. On the morning following the police car's homecoming from the transmission shop, a large red puddle was oozing from under the closed overhead door on our garage. Either a mass murder occurred in our garage, or the transmission was hemorrhaging. Back to Aamco we went, dripping all the way.

Myriad of other less dramatic, although no less irritating, situations befell this car. These include, but were not limited to: the thermostat sticking shut (stranded again), or when the carpeting became swampy (the smell was reminiscent of New Orleans) due to missing floor-pan plugs, muffler/tailpipe replacement, not to mention the leaky air conditioning and porous, drippy fuel tank.

On a positive note with this car: in 1987 we were in the market for a new house. The police car served well at several functions. The spotlight and hardy suspension were useful in visiting new construction sites that often treated us to unpaved roads, no streetlights nor electrical service. When moving time came, the spare tire, the back seat and the passenger's bucket seat were removed, leaving the lone driver's seat in the car. It is amazing how cavernous the Diplomat's interior is with only a driver's seat. January of 1990 saw my '84 and me part company for $1,700. The buyer was delighted to buy my car. Before leaving, he related his own tales of woe while shopping for a retired cruiser.

After two less-than-satisfactory buying experiences, but still desiring a police car, the search commenced for a new acquisition method. The State of Illinois vehicle auction was a possibility, but all the vehicles were quite high in miles. Some towns also have their own auctions and I noticed one announcement published by Northfield, Illinois, a small, affluent village an hour's drive from my residence. This town was selling several '87 Diplomats. All were well optioned, relatively low mileage, always maintained and had even occasionally been waxed! A sealed bid was submitted and a month later, the police chief's secretary called me to say that my $2700 bid was accepted. This was more my style. No faked conversation, no unpleasant surprises. It became mine in November of 1989. The experience was such a positive one that I vowed to return when Northfield sold their '89s.

Police car number three was painted "Bright White, clear coat." This car had the ELE 5.2 liter (318cid) four-barrel, heavy-duty "Interceptor" engine that had been rated at 175hp since 1985. Carburetors also changed in 1985. The well-known Carter Thermo-Quad was no more, replaced with the Rochester Quadrajet. Other things had not changed; the Q-jet was just as soot-black as the T-Qs.

The white Diplomat was given my usual work-over. Main and rod bearings were replaced when a subtle engine knock became audible. Stranding experiences occurred when the fuel pump sprang a very bad leak (an unusual gasoline fountain effect), when the ignition computer bit the dust and of course when the rear planetary gear set in the transmission gave its last full measure. By now, the workers at Aamco knew me by name. I sold this car in November of 1990, to a lady who owned a cab company, for $2000. Her driver was noticeably pleased with the Diplomat as he departed in a spirited manner. This car did not serve as a taxi, as was feared, but was resold to a private party.

As some of you may know, 1989 was the last year for Chrysler Corporation factory police cars (Jeep doesn't count since it is a "sport-utility vehicle") until the introduction of the Dodge Intrepid police package in 2002. Production of Gran Furys and Diplomats ceased in December of 1988 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I was determined to buy one of these rare cars and keep it permanently. To this end, I called the village that sold the '87, inquiring about buying an '89. They ended up keeping their '89s an extra year for non-police official use. But in September of 1992, I drove away with police car number four - one of the nicest '89s in existence - for $2300. This car is the same color and equipped with the same powertrain as my '87. The only difference between the two cars is the driver's side airbag - introduced at the end of '88 and standard on the '89. Incidentally, the wiring harness trailing out of the Airbag System Diagnostic Module suggests that the pentastar folks had considered a passenger airbag as well.

This village bought their cruisers loaded. My Diplomat has the 175hp ELE engine, power locks, power driver's seat, power windows, cloth bucket seats, oil-pressure gauge, vented full wheel covers, chrome dual power outside mirrors, tilt steering, air conditioning with semi-automatic temperature control, power deck-lid release, electrically-heated rear window defroster, engine-block heater, Sure Grip differential, speed control, certified 125mph speedometer, additional dome light, left spotlight and a non-deleted AM/FM four-speaker radio.

The department was also kind enough to leave the original, (then) unused, full-size spare tire in place. Also they provided copies of the original dealer purchase order, the Certificate of Origin and (of course) their title. Documentation indicated my car was manufactured on 11-15-88. Schaumburg Dodge in Schaumburg, Illinois delivered it to the police department, on January 3, 1989, for the purchase price of $13,299. Inside the glove box was the original owners manual complete with certified speedometer calibration information.

As has been become historically evident by this time, the '89 was submitted to the usual cleansing and repair ritual including the ubiquitous carburetor rebuild. To enhance the exterior appearance, all the wheel-well edge molding and the trim along the bottom between the wheel wells was replaced, as were the wheel covers. Wheel restoration was completed with a set of brand new, same as original equipment, Goodyear Eagle GT+4 black sidewall tires. The non-functioning, totally corroded horns were replaced. Gas-charged shocks on the '89 were a welcome improvement. This sorely needed item smoothes the ride but does not compromise handling. It's a pleasure not to come home with kidneys the size of basketballs.

While driving home on the interstate one summer evening in 1993, something appeared in the roadway ahead. Only when very close did it become obvious that what looked like trash was actually a piece of concrete. As I swerved to avoid the obstacle, it pierced the sidewall of the right front tire, causing a gapping tear. The tire deflated in a matter of milliseconds. There I was, at 65mph having a blowout on the right front tire while in the middle of a left-hand swerve. I marveled at the stability of the Diplomat. Although the pop of a blowout was clearly audible and there was some vibration, only the smoke coming from the right front convinced me the tire was indeed killed in the line of duty. No need for a Runflat System on this car! Unfortunately, the pristine spare tire was pressed into emergency service.

As of this writing, the '89 has never stranded me (not counting the above). Prudence, however, dictates carrying a spare Electronic Spark Control System computer and treating the transmission very gently. The only recurrent problem has been the failure of two no-picnic-to-change electronic servomotors, a component of the semi-automatic temperature control. Failure of this part results in the temperature control door becoming fixed in place. Since this car emerges only during the summer, full A/C only is not much of a problem. Prophylactic engine and transmission rebuilds will be forthcoming, as well as other detailing.

In many ways, by 1989, the Diplomat/Gran Furys were anachronistic. No aerodynamic cab-forward design here, no ABS brakes, no self-adjusting suspension, no four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, and no fuel injection. And then there were those truly pitiful mileage figures of 13mpg city and 15mpg highway with the optional ELE "police only" 5.2 liter (318cid) four-barrel engine made even more financially uneconomical due to the recommended use of premium unleaded fuel. Competing 1989 factory police cars equipped with their most powerful engines' mileage was 14/20 for the 5.7 liter Chevrolet Caprice and14/19 with the 5.8 liter Ford Crown Victoria. Even the standard "police use" ELD 140hp 5.2 liter engine with two barrel carburetor, burning premium unleaded, only managed 14mpg city and 18mpg on the highway. The civilian vehicle equipped with the same two-barrel drivetrain, also burning premium unleaded fuel, did measurably better at 16mpg city and 22mpg highway. Unfortunately, 16mpg did not meet the 17mpg EPA minimum and the "Guzzler" tax was assessed. The Chrysler police engines were exempted from the Guzzler tax when used for police work.

In top speed, the performance gap was insignificant. The 119/120mph top speed reported by the Michigan State Police for this notably non-aerodynamic M-body Mopar sporting a relatively modest 175hp is amazing. This is particularly amazing since I have never gotten any of mine over 105mph no matter how long or how hard I pushed on the accelerator. However, in all fairness, Daniel Charles Ross, in a June 1989 Motor Trend article entitled "High-Speed Heat!" recorded a light-bar equipped '88 Plymouth Gran Fury hitting 112 mph. On the other hand, Rich Taylor, in the July 1984 issue of Popular Mechanics entitled "Why Police Can't Get the Cars They Need", recorded a top speed of only 105 mph for a 1984 Dodge Diplomat with no light bar. For a comparison of other 1989 police car performance, the Michigan State Police reported the 190hp Chevrolet Caprice hit 122 mph and the 180hp Ford Crown Victoria topped out at 119 mph.

Why old police cars? They are part of automotive history. Chrysler Corporation's M-body police cars ('81 through '89 Dodge Diplomat/Plymouth Gran Fury and '81 Chrysler LeBaron) were aptly described by Daniel Charles Ross in his June of '89 Motor Trend article as (at the time) "virtually the nation's official cop car." Although not actually a full-size car, Diplomat/Gran Fury competed in that market. All cruisers belong to that unique fraternity of working, not pleasure, transportation, which is concerned with enforcing the rules of civilized mankind. Police cars give that thin blue line its mobility.

At the time I purchased my first and second police cars, a national police car club did not exist. An occasional magazine article was all that gave the general public any recognition to this automotive sector. Until 1991, there were no popular references or literature on police vehicles. We owe authors John L. Bellah, Bruce W. Cameron, Robert Genat, Monty McCord and Edwin J. Sanow, among others, thanks for filling this glaring omission with their research and their writing. Hopefully, others will continue to emulate these notable authors.

For you neophytes not having had the experience of owning a retired police vehicle, my personal observations and opinions are written below. Although my experience has been with one manufacturer, much of what is said would apply to any vehicle. Technology of course has markedly improved fuel, braking and ignition systems, making recent police cars far more trouble-resistant. The '94 through '96 Chevrolet Caprice police cars are head and shoulders above similar offerings of only a decade earlier. I also would invite any readers to send in their own comments and experiences. Remember the police car hobby is in its infancy compared with other collectible vehicles. For more extensive information on this subject, please see the excellent reference work by Cpl. Edwin Sanow and Sgt. James Post entitled Police Cars - Restoring, Collecting & Showing America's Finest Sedans, published in 2001. The information and pictures are found nowhere else.

  1. Forget buying the "mint, unrestored, low-mileage original". Unfortunately, I've always been a sucker for this bit of mythology. Maybe the police chief had a car he never drove, maybe a private citizen ordered a police car and saved it. Maybe I'll win the state lottery. Don't count on it. Police cars will have higher than normal miles. This is even more likely the case today because of the pressure for departments to stretch budgets. The village in which I live sent out its fleet of Chevrolet Caprices for professional refurbishment to avoid the expense of buying new cars. We still are using 1992 Caprices for patrol duty. Hint: If a police car seller says the car's nickname is "Methuselah", walk on by.
  2. Don't buy or drive a police car unless you have copious financial assets and/or are mechanically inclined. Once while selling one of my cars, I inquired of a caller, who was considering buying for his teen-aged son, if he was a mechanic or enjoyed working on cars as a hobby. He answered in the negative. Once my car's flip-a-coin reliability and its open-your-wallet service history were explained, the gentleman elected move on to better prospects. Smart move in his case.
  3. Don't buy a police car for an investment, unless you find a mint-condition 1969 CHP Dodge Monaco. Mustang, Firebird and Camaro police cars have a distinct market also. Many private owners selling police cars apparently bought them because they were relatively cheap for their age - maybe thousands less. Undoubtedly they said to themselves: "This car is so cheap that I can sell it any time for more money than I paid for it." He or she quickly became disenchanted (and their significant other even more disenchanted) with the unreliability, the maintenance expense (if you want reliability) and the stiff ride. Upon trying to sell the car, he or she also discovers the police car market is a very limited one, filled with classic tightwads looking to pay nothing for something. Yeah, so?
  4. Due to the above factors, police car sellers may lean toward prevarication even more than most used car hawkers (imagine that!). As is always the case, a thorough knowledge of the car being considered prior to purchase is advised. If you don't know, talk to someone who does know before, not after, handing over your money. Resist impulsive buying. Remember that if you pass on the first car you look at, tomorrow's newspaper, a Jewel's bulletin board or a Web site will contain more once-in-a-lifetime purchase opportunities.
  5. If you are not to be dissuaded from buying a police car (you were warned!) then consider these points:

What is in my police car enthusiast future? If past behavior is any indication of future behavior, I'll be looking forward to finding a retired Dodge Intrepid in a few years. Obviously, the '89 Diplomat will remain a permanent part of my limited automotive collection.

Best wishes to all you police car hobbyists out there. You are part of the birth of a new automotive collector segment.

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