The 2012 Ford Police Interceptor unveiled today is the latest in a long line of Ford squad cars. Here's why the sight of even a civilian Crown Vic now induces Pavlovian application of brakes in all motorists.
A history of Ford police cars starts as a history of police cars themselves because prior to the company's release of their first special police package there were no purpose-built squad cars offered in the United States. Going as far back as the 1919 Model T Police Truck pictured above, police departments across the country used Ford products as squad cars, adding equipment on their own, but they were rarely different from civilian models and not approached as a market.
Seeing an opportunity in the rapidly expanding police fleets of the post-WWII boom, Ford made the industry's first effort at creating and marketing special black-and-whites to law enforcement with the 1950 Ford sedan, boasting better handling, ample trunk space for "bulky radio equipment," increased Stamina, and fuel efficient performance. According to an advertisement from the era Ford was already well established as the main police car player:
The preference for Ford Cars for police work is evidenced by one of the largest orders ever placed by any department — the purchase of 430 Fords by the New York Police Department!
Ford products in the 1950s into the early 1960s represent an evolution of full-size and mid-size vehicles under various, often confusing names. The initial popular police choice was the Mainline, the base-level model, followed by various models including the Fairlane and Custom depending on what level of luxury and style police departments wanted.
The old, rounded style was phased out by Ford in the early 1960s and the vehicle representing the change to the longer and more modern look was the Galaxie. There was also more power to be had. The big Ford could eventually be had with a 427 V8, but the darling of police fleets was the 390 pushrod V8 putting out more than 400 HP when equipped with three two-barrel carbs. There were other Ford police cars, but the Galaxie was what Andy Griffith drove.
Malaise era Ford police cars were generally offered as either the exciting V8-equipped Ford Torino sedans (or Gran Turino coupes if you were Starsky & Hutch) or the Custom 500 trim of the full-sized car range. The popular Custom 500 choice for fleets was the 289 V8 or the newer 351 V8, but the baddest engine series were the "Police Interceptor" versions complete with aluminum intakes, high-po camshafts, strong internals and other tweaks to produce more and more reliable power.
The introduction of the Ford Fox platform gave Ford an opportunity to offer smaller, more efficient police cars including the Ford Fairmont/LTD sedan and, more intriguingly, the Ford Mustang SSP (Special Service Package) for highway patrols. Advertised with the slogan "This Ford chases Porsches for a living..." the highly customized and relatively lithe 5.0 'Stang was the baddest car on the road with nearly 15,000 units produced from 1982 through the redesign in the early 1990s.
Packed with the High Output version of the 5.0-Liter V8 with significant upgrades including power disc brakes, forged pistons, dual exhaust, larger fuel tank, heavy duty stabilizer bars and other pieces designed to make it the toughest ride on the road. Popularized by the California Highway Patrol, they were available everywhere in filled the dreams of teenage car freaks from Brownsville to Casper.
The Panther RWD platform is still in use today as the basis for Ford police cars and debuted in 1979 on the Ford LTD, but it's the redesigned 1983 Ford LTD Crown Victora that marks the start of the Dearborn's dominance. Out with the old design and in with the new, including electronic fuel injection and a heavily redesigned and modernized exterior. It's what the cops drove in numerous jurisdictions and even more numerous films during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Ford dropped the "LTD" but kept the Crown Victoria for the P71 Police Interceptor. While the rest of the market started its migration away from big, RWD body-on-frame cruisers the Interceptor remained on the rugged Panther platform. It's the Police car of the last two decades. You can't jump a curb in a Dodge Intrepid and a Lumina? Really? Lumina?
All police interceptors come equipped with a beefed up 4.6-liter modular V8 designed to run for longer periods of time, more aggressive shift timing, and drivetrains designed for higher speeds (up to 150 MPH). Dual exhausts, black steelies and beastly shock absorbers also come standards. A redesign in 1998 brought a "second generation" easily distinguishable by the large lights and taller greenhouse but mechanically very similar to the previous generation.
Sure, there have been serious safety concerns with the Crown Victoria, but as the only vehicle seriously in the game for nearly 20 years it's all police fleets purchased and is now completely ubiquitous in nearly every corner of the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, an anemic V8 and outdated design meant it was only a matter of time until someone else came up with a better package and the debut of the Taurus Interceptor means it's Ford who thinks they have one.
The Crown Victoria may be the most numerous Ford police car on the planet, but Dearborn has pushed out its share of other oddities. These include the Mercury Maruader, a limited production version of the Panther platform with a more appropriate 302 HP V8 and black-on-black graphics.
There's also the limited-in-scope first-generation Ford Taurus police package, which is discernible by the slotted grille and offered as an alternative to the big RWD squad cars. While a hit as the car in RoboCop, it didn't take off with police fleets. A more popular choice, actually, is the Ford Explorer and Expedition SSV (Special Service Vehicle) models used by police forces and federal agencies for heavier duty applications. Unlike the Interceptor, modifications for fleet vehicles are limited.
Ford was the first to recognize a new market in the 1950s and also the last-man standing in the police game until the 2006 introduction of the Charger Police Edition. Others are gunning to be the car of choice for the mustachioed and darkly sunglassed officers charged with patrolling our cities and towns, but it's Ford with the history and the will to make sure those walking the thin blue line do so behind a wide blue ovaled badge. The market's theirs to keep or lose.