Since the dawn of the automotive age, police cars became an irreplaceable tool in fighting crime. Not only have cars allowed the police officers to get to the scene faster, but they also gave them a strategic advantage when patrolling the streets and apprehending suspects. It might come as a surprise, but the first police car in America dates back to the late 19th century. In 1899, the police force of Akron, Ohio, used a locally-built, battery-powered carriage that could achieve 16 mph and had 30 miles of range. It was exceptionally fast by the standards of the day and late 19th century criminals never stood a chance. Special vehicles, designed and built for law enforcement use, have a 120-years long tradition in this country. Continue reading to learn more about the main types of police cars in America.
The History of Police Cars
The Akron Police Department realized just how practical and capable cars were back in 1899, but their colleagues from big cities across America started using cars much later. The first police car fleets were introduced in the early 1920s simply because cars, in general, were still scarce, expensive and very few police officers had driver’s licenses. Due to the large size of big cities, a sharp increase in crime following the Great Depression, and prohibition in the late 1920s, law enforcement accepted cars in massive numbers as an essential tool in fighting crime. By the 1930s, all American manufacturers had four-door models with decent power and performance and law enforcement agencies everywhere could afford police cars in more significant numbers.
As the car became an important part of police equipment, manufacturers started offering improved versions of their standard sedans, specially designed for heavy-duty use. Stronger suspensions, tougher axles, better cooling, bigger bumpers, and slightly more performance gave an advantage to police officers dealing with hot rod bandits and bank robbers. By the 1960s, all police cars were equipped with bigger engines and CB radios, turning them into very capable pursuit vehicles and mobile police stations.
Mainstream American manufacturers paid a lot of attention to the law enforcement market, partly to increase brand recognition and loyalty in the public. If the car proved to be rugged, fast, and dependable, this would be a good selling point for civilian users. For the most part of the 20th century, police cars were strictly four-door sedans, but in 1982, Ford made history with the introduction of the Mustang SSP. In the early 1980s, California Highway Patrol had a problem catching speeders with their slow and outdated Dodge Diplomats and asked Ford to come up with the solution. Ford responded with the SSP (Special Service Package) version of their Mustang equipped with heavy-duty components and a potent 5.0-liter V8 engine. The Mustang SSP proved to be so good that soon CHP immediately ordered several hundred cars and other police forces in America did the same. Finally, police officers had a muscle car interceptor built according to their specifications that could catch fast cars driven by civilians.
The advancements in technology, vehicle dynamics, and communication equipment greatly influenced the police car market, and today’s vehicles are filled with state-of-the-art systems, powerful engines, and computers. Suspects try to outrun the police on a regular basis, so police cars need to be safe, capable, and dependable to withstand high-speed chases as well as countless hours of patrolling the streets. Modern police cars in America came from three major US manufacturers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
Main Types of Police Cars
There are several types of police cars that are classified by their use and abilities.
Patrol Car: Patrol cars are primarily police vehicles used to patrol the streets and respond to calls. They are used mainly in urban areas. Patrol cars are equipped with light bars, sirens, and are clearly marked as law enforcement vehicles.
Pursuit Vehicle or Interceptor: This type of police vehicle is usually equipped with a more powerful engine to achieve high speeds. Also called a “Response Vehicle,” this type of police car is designed to be first on the scene and it is usually equipped with push bars in front.
Highway Patrol Vehicle: With more power than a standard patrol car and highly trained officers behind the wheel, highway patrol vehicles are used for controlling the traffic and apprehending speeders. This kind of police vehicle is also equipped with speed cameras. Highway patrol vehicles must be able to catch cars that are evading police and be able to get to the scene of traffic accidents swiftly.
SUVs and Trucks: In the past, SUVs and pickups were used by law enforcement agencies in rural areas or by border patrols. Today, SUVs and pickups are very popular with US police departments due to their versatility, comfort, and strong performance. Thanks to modern technology and engineering, SUVs and pickups are as fast as patrol or response cars. They can carry more equipment than sedans and often use all-wheel drive.
Specialty Vehicle: Police departments need several specialty vehicles for special situations. Specialty vehicles include vans and tow trucks.
Unmarked Vehicle: In order to perform surveillance, police personnel may use unmarked vehicles. Unmarked vehicles may be a different model from the department’s patrol cars.
Most Common Police Car Models Currently in Use:
Dodge Charger Pursuit
In many ways, the Dodge Charger Pursuit is the epitome of a classic American police cruiser. It is one of the last domestic sedans with a powerful V8 engine. In production since 2007, this model is one of the favorite cars of thousands of police officers in America. Currently, there are two distinct versions offered by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The first is the patrol car model, powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine with 300 HP and 264 lb-ft of torque. Equipped with an all-wheel-drive system and automatic transmission, this Charger Pursuit is perfect for colder climates and challenging driving conditions. The V6 provides enough power and performance for most police car duties.
Dodge also offers a Charger Pursuit with an optional high-performance 5.7-liter Hemi V8, which delivers 370 hp and 395 lb-ft of torque. With significant power under the hood and rear-wheel-drive, the Charger is a great muscle car for pursuit and highway patrol duties. Fast, stable, durable, and roomy, it has everything that a modern law enforcement vehicle needs.
Dodge offers many unique improvements for its pursuit vehicles. It has heavy-duty brakes, suspension, and push bars, as well as a special electronic package for communication.
Ram 1500 Special Service
One of the best examples of how full-size pickups can be turned into very capable law enforcement vehicles is Ram 1500 Special Service. Powered by 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 395 HP and 410 lb-ft of torque, this police truck has even more power than Charger Pursuit. However, this is not just a highway patrol car; this is an excellent standard patrol car, response vehicle, or pursuit car.
With plenty of space, tow capacity of over 10,000 pounds, and payload of over 1,500 pounds, Ram 1500 Special Service is cable of assisting in a broad range of tasks. It also comes with an all-wheel-drive and is equipped with heavy-duty suspension and undercarriage protection. This police-spec Ram can be used off-road and on regular roads.
Ford Police Interceptor
Ford has a long history with police vehicles, and everybody still remembers the eponymous Crown Victoria models, which served in various law enforcement agencies from the 1980s until the early 2010s. The replacement was introduced in the form of Taurus Interceptor, which was sold until 2019 and is still widely used across America.
Offered as front or all-wheel-drive, the Taurus Interceptor was the modern and well-engineered vehicle. Powered by a 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V6 or turbocharger EcoBoost V6 engine, it could match Charger Pursuit’s power with up to 365 HP. Although this was a dependable and well-received police car, Ford’s decision to drop all sedans and concentrate on SUVs and trucks meant the Taurus production was ended after just a couple of years on the market.
There is a good reason why the Ford Police Interceptor is one of the best and most advanced law enforcement vehicles currently in production anywhere in the world. First, it is based on a well-known Ford Explorer, a powerful and dependable SUV. Second, it features numerous improvements, electronic equipment, and additions. For example, Ford claims that it is the only vehicle in the world to meet the 75 MPH rear-impact crash test.
Ford also offers a Police Interceptor with a hybrid powertrain, with an impressive 318 HP. The 3.3-liter HEV V6 engine with an electric motor can achieve 24 mpg. Ford knows that police cars spend hours in idle, so it is important to keep all their systems working without burning gasoline. Other engine options are available, like the 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 with 400 HP, and all-wheel-drive is standard on all models.
Ford Police Interceptors can be equipped with Perimeter Alert System, which will analyze the movements around the vehicle and alarm officers if there is a potential threat. Every Interceptor comes with a Ford Telematics system for communication and a big 12.1-inch integrated computer screen on the dash.
Ford F-150 SSV (Special Service Vehicle)
The F-150 is one of the best-selling vehicles in America and also a popular police vehicle. Ford calls it the SSV (Special Service Vehicle), and it is a very capable and well-equipped truck that is offered with the choice of three engines. The law enforcement agencies can choose the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 with remarkable 400 HP, 3.5-liter V6 with hybrid technology and 430 HP, or a 5.0-liter V8 with 400 HP.
This F-150 SSV is not only a highway interceptor but also a popular patrol car, first response vehicle, or traffic enforcement truck. With standard all-wheel-drive, a host of electronic upgrades, heavy-duty components, and suspension, it can go anywhere and do anything it takes to protect and serve.
Chevrolet Tahoe PPV and SSV
The Chevrolet Tahoe has two distinct models for law enforcement agencies. SUVs with firm, ladder-type chassis are considered to be more rigid and more durable than unibody models.
The Tahoe PPV (Police Pursuit Vehicle) is designed to be used as a patrol car, pursuit car, or highway patrol vehicle. With standard 5.3-liter V8 under the hood, rear-wheel-drive (all-wheel-drive is optional), heavy-duty suspension, and particular components, the Tahoe PPV is tough and fast.
The Tahoe SSV is equipped with the same 5.3-liter, 355 hp V8 engine as well as a standard AWD system, heavy-duty brakes, and high tow capacity. The SSV version (Special Service Package) is designed to be more of a specialty vehicle, patrol car, and used for duties that could involve off-road driving or carrying special equipment.
Honorable Mention: Lamborghini Huracan
Although supercars are highly impractical for police use, a handful of law enforcement agencies use them. The Dubai Police Department has a fleet of Ferraris and McLarens, which are mainly used for promotional purposes.
A few years ago, Italian police acquired a Lamborghini Huracan powered by a 5.2-liter V10 engine with over 600 HP that can do 0 to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds. Even though the Italian public criticized the government for funding such a purchase, it turned out that police-spec Lamborghini has been used to transport organs for life-saving transplants.
Popular Police Cars from the Past
Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
One of the most recognizable police cars ever is the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Introduced in 1992 and manufactured until 2011, these classic, body-on-frame sedans with rear-wheel-drive and V8 engine are still being used today. In fact, it was one of the best-selling police cars ever made and used not only in North America but in Russia and the Middle East as well.
The Crown Vic is a typical classic American police car. Built on the Panther platform, it was a simple but highly durable and dependable vehicle. With a 4.6-liter V8 and 220 to 250 HP under the hood, the Crown Vic served as an interceptor, patrol car, and an unmarked vehicle. The officers loved the simplicity and strength of the Crown Vic Interceptor, but in the late ‘90s, it was evident that it was slowly falling behind and could not keep up with more modern and faster cars. It also consumed a lot of fuel and was potentially dangerous if hit from behind due to the location of the gas tank under the truck. Affordable price and low maintenance costs kept it in production until 2011, and you can still find them today in remote areas.
Chevrolet Impala 9C1
In the 1980’s, full-size Chevrolet sedans were a popular choice for law enforcement agencies throughout North America. Spacious and well-built, Chevrolet four-door sedans were also used as taxi cabs. During the 1980s, the best police car in America was arguably the Chevy Impala 9C1. Introduced in 1977 and sold through 1991, this generation of Chevrolet’s well-known model had recognizable styling and quality mechanics. Despite its body-on-frame construction that was common at the time, it had good handling and decent steering.
With the 9C1 package, Chevrolet offered two engine choices – a 3.8-liter V6 engine with 120 HP and a more powerful 5.7-liter small-block V8 with 170 HP. The versions with smaller engines proved to be great patrol cars, while the V8-powered Impalas were excellent police interceptors. During some model years, Chevrolet also offered a 5.0-liter V8 engine. Although these stats seem subpar, all cars at the time had low-compression, carbureted engines.
While lacking in power, the Impala 9C1 was popular for its low price and easy maintenance. This model proved to be one of the most popular police cars of the 1980’s. The Impala 9C1 was replaced with the more powerful Chevy Caprice 9C1 in 1992.