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History of the Police Squad Car

The author has an interest in the evolution of police squad cars and law enforcement agency vehicles.

Police department vehicles across America have evolved over time to match the needs of the moment.

Police department vehicles across America have evolved over time to match the needs of the moment.


This page is an overview of the squad car. It’s a history of sorts, with information on different types of squad cars, and their uses.

There has never been a vehicle developed and manufactured specifically for general police use anywhere in the world. However, as the automobile has evolved, certain models became so popular with law enforcement that they might be regarded by some people as being “police” cars. The most recent example is the 1992-to-present Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, the 1991-1996 Chevrolet Caprice, and before that, the 1980-89 Dodge Diplomat and the nearly identical Plymouth Gran Fury.

The reason there has never been a specific “police” car is simple: law enforcement is not a large enough market to warrant a manufacturer investing the finances needed to produce such a vehicle. The annual market for police cars in the United States as of 2002 was approximately 80,000 units. Just to give perspective on this number, over 50 million cars were produced last year for consumer use. As you can see the request for police units is a drop in the bucket.

This situation is not likely to change. There is such a wide diversity of needs among the various law enforcement units (urban vs. rural, patrol vs. pursuit, hot climate vs. cold climate, mountain vs. prairie) that it is doubtful enough agencies would ever combine to form a large enough potential market for the vehicle of their choice. Also, there is such a difference of opinion among police officers as to what qualities make a good patrol car that reaching a consensus would be nearly impossible.

Squad Car History

Most people think of the early days of law enforcement as officers walking their beat while swinging a club. But police have always used vehicles, in one form or another, for support functions. Horses and carriages were common in the early days, as were bicycles and motorcycles. After the turn of the century, motorized vehicles began to appear in police fleets. One of the initial uses for trucks and large touring cars was to transport special squads of officers to trouble spots, hence the term, “squad cars.” Early on, auto manufacturers realized the importance of this market and catered to it by building special vehicles. This practice peaked during the Prohibition era when some vehicles were fitted with machine-gun ports, armor plating, and bullet-proof glass.

Then came the Depression, and law enforcement agencies were hit just as hard as the general public, and fleets were curtailed. Ford’s introduction of the potent flathead V-8 in the inexpensive 1932 Model B was a boon to police agencies working with slashed budgets. This period also saw changes in the traditional police network. During the 1930s, state highway patrols were organized to enforce safety on the expanding road systems. Radios, some being only one-way, were gaining strong acceptance in metropolitan areas. Also more and more police vehicles were being identified as such, and some departments have even retained parts of their original signage. The first red lights, which were derived from tail-lights, soon appeared on fenders, grilles, or rooftops.

During the '50s walking beats were abandoned as communications made it possible for fewer officers driving cars to patrol greater areas and respond more quickly to service calls. It was also the beginning of the “horsepower wars,” in Detroit. Going along with America’s love affair with speed, police cars of the ’50s were sometimes fitted with special high-performance engines not offered to civilians. This practice subsided in the ’60s, though many cruisers still carried potent big-block V-8s under their hoods. However, Detroit stopped short of offering the most powerful engines in police-package cars; either it was felt that the engines were too fragile and temperamental for the rigors of police duty, or that few agencies would be able to convince the elected officials of the need for a 400-horsepower patrol unit.

During this period the California Highway Patrol tended to favor Dodges, Plymouths, and Chryslers, which led other departments to do likewise. While cops loved some models and hated others, Chrysler products dominated the law enforcement market for almost three decades. Not until the company discontinued its full-size rear-wheel-drive cars after 1989 did Chevrolet’s Caprice and Ford’s Crown Victoria take over the market.

Municipal, State and County Squad Cars

In the early 1900s, agencies only had the choice of a black car. It wasn’t until later that the more adventurous departments experimented with white cars, some even going so far as to paint the word “Police,” on the sides. Then a few creative people used white doors on black cars and the “black and white,” was born. Eventually, agencies added more sophisticated identification to their vehicles, often applying a decal of the department’s badge or shield on the sides. Some even decided to abandon the now traditional black and white paint scheme and to order their vehicles in various colors. These were often chosen to match the officers’ uniforms; blue was most popular for municipal agencies, brown or green being the norm for Sheriff’s cars.

A similar transformation was seen in police car lighting. Early vehicles commonly used colored spotlights. These were followed by red lights installed on the rooftops; first a single turret with a revolving interior light, which became known as a “gumball,” then two turrets, often mounted on a crossbar. It didn’t take suppliers long to further improve on these designs. First, they added strobe lights, then additional lights such as blue lights, take-down lights, and alley lights, enclosing them all in streamlined fixtures.

Through the 1950s and on into the 60s as well, a wide variety of cars were tapped for police use, ranging from six-cylinder Studebakers to Buicks with huge V-8s. Not all were four-door sedans either; two-doors were quite common, and even station wagons were seen. By the mid-1960s, however, most agencies were using full-size sedans. Primarily Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges, or Plymouths, though AMC was represented by a fair number of Matadors and Ambassadors in the early-to-mid Seventies, after which it discontinued its full-size cars. That left the Big Three until Chrysler Corporation killed off the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Fury after 1989, and then there were two. From 1990 until the present day, Chevrolet Caprice followed by Ford Crown Victoria have been the preeminent police vehicles in the United States. However, Dodge has made a comeback by introducing a Dodge Charger Police Package. Since 2007 many police departments have been purchasing this package and have sprinkled in the Dodge Charger with their fleets of Ford Crown Victoria’s.

According to the Department of Justice statistics, as of 2004, there are 17,876 local and state law enforcement agencies in the United States. Of these, 3,067 are county departments and 49 are state agencies, Hawaii being the only state without one. Two agencies are widely recognized by their peers as being the leaders in vehicle testing. Each year, the Michigan State Police conduct independent tests of vehicles offered for law enforcement use. The tests include top speed runs, acceleration times, braking distances, and handling prowess. Representatives from over one hundred departments attend the annual trials, and the agency prepares a detailed report that it distributes to any police agency that requests it. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office also conducts its own vehicle test each year. While many of the tests are similar to the Michigan trials, this is more focused on urban law enforcement requirements. Unlike the Michigan trials, the Los Angeles test results are kept confidential.

The type of vehicles an agency uses depends largely upon its responsibilities. A Sheriff’s office charged only with court duties has no use for the pursuit-type vehicles reused by some of its counterparts, so the officers typically drive smaller, front-wheel-drive sedans without police packages. Being traditionally conservative organizations, state police agencies have only recently followed the trend toward more modern, contemporary graphics. There is also a move to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of unmarked highway patrol cars for two reasons; a concern over people being assaulted by criminals misrepresenting themselves as police officers in unmarked cars, and the absence of prominent emergency lights.

As the performance gulf between the typical police sedan and the sporty cars sold to the public widened in the '80s, many state agencies adopted high-performance coupes for highway pursuit duty. Many states count on their fleets of Mustangs, Camaros, and the like to reel in speeders traveling at triple-digit speeds. Other jurisdictions encounter extreme conditions of another sort. Where bad weather and poor roads are common, four-wheel-drive vehicles are often the norm. A longtime favorite for this type of duty and a staple with the U.S. Border Patrol was the Dodge Ram Charger. However, since the production of that vehicle ceased after 1993, other sport-utilities have been taking their place.

D.A.R.E. Squad Car

D.A.R.E. Squad Car

D.A.R.E. Squad Cars

In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department started the Drug Awareness and Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E) to appeal to children and young adults from elementary school up through high school. It has since been adopted by numerous communities throughout the United States and overseas. D.A.R.E. has also been credited with being the most successful anti-drug program ever created.

D.A.R.E., which is licensed by the Los Angeles Police Department, is operated by law enforcement agencies ranging from local police departments with just one or two officers to large state agencies. The basic concept is that when individual officers gain the confidence and friendship of students by participating in their regular school activities, they are better able to impart a lesson on the dangers of drugs and how to resist their appeal.

Officers quickly learned that a sure-fire way to gain the attention of even highly suspicious and distrusting students was through their fascination with cars. Even elementary school students were charmed by specially equipped vehicles. In the early days of the program, several departments gained success by outfitting small cars such as Volkswagen Beetles with special effects. Some of these were quite elaborate, including remotely controlled blinking lights and concealed speakers that gave the impression that the vehicle was responding to questions from the audience. It didn’t take long for the D.A.R.E. officers to discover that hot rods, muscle cars, and dragsters held a similar attraction for the older students. Only a few departments already sponsored such vehicles for other reasons, but as word of their success spread, many D.A.R.E. officers gathered their wrenches and paintbrushes and went to work on their own cars. One police agency in a rural area even customized a farm tractor.

In recent years, due to the laws allowing law enforcement to seize property belonging to drug dealers that were used in the commission of a crime, a host of unusual vehicles had been added to D.A.R.E. fleets. In many cases, they are identified as having been seized from drug dealers, providing a very effective message for kids.

Special Use Vehicles

The jurisdiction of the law enforcement agency, be it municipal, county or state, will determine the variety of vehicles and the number of units in its fleet. The largest of departments might have a dozen or more special use vehicles available.

While state agencies patrolling the wide-open spaces of the West have employed pursuit-type cars for many years, only in the past few decades have such vehicles been accepted by urban agencies. The California Highway Patrol was responsible for Ford developing the 1982 Mustang Police Special and promoting its ability to catch any speeder on the highway. It was the first effective pursuit vehicle with a police package that was affordable to all.

Chevrolet entered the competition with its Camaro and successfully gained a share of the business, but various departments considered other makes, such as the Pontiac Firebird and the Dodge Daytona. All these cars were fast but severely limited in interior space, which caused problems in transporting prisoners and in finding room for radios, radars, computers, and video cameras. The use of these small pursuit vehicles declined when the Chevrolet introduced its newly designed 1991 full-sized Caprice with a police package. Its performance compared favorably with the smaller cars, in handling as well as speed, and officers preferred its spaciousness. With the demise of the Caprice in 1996, the Ford Crown Victoria didn’t offer the same level of performance at the time. Although Ford improved the performance of the Crown Victoria, the Dodge Charger promises and hearkening back to the old Caprices.

Law enforcement agencies have tried various four-wheel-drive vehicles. The primary contender in this category was the Jeep Cherokee, which offered a police package. A four-door Geo Tracker was also available with a police package in 1996 but generated little interest. Nowadays, the SUV of choice is the Chevrolet Tahoe with a police package. It was introduced in 1997 and has been going strong since.

The motorcycle is another vehicle that has become popular among police agencies. While some departments have always had some cycles around for various duties such as parades, more are now assigning them regularly to patrol. Even state agencies other than the Famous CHP have added them to their fleet after many years. The Illinois State Police and the Michigan State Police both use Harley Davidsons to patrol the interstate highways running through metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Detroit. A motorcycle offshoot seeing service with many police agencies that have parks or waterfronts within their jurisdictions is the four-wheel ATV.

Agencies with waterways commonly include boats in their transportation fleets to enforce safety on the water. These crafts are most likely standard pleasure boats, averaging in size from 20 to 24 feet, which have been outfitted with police identification. In addition, some agencies have added personal watercraft to their fleets. Almost any vehicle you can name has been used by some police agency in some manner. Bicycle patrols are popular too, and some agencies have even pressed golf carts into service.

Support Vehicles

As in many business operations, a number of different vehicles may be needed to fulfill the variety of duties assigned to a law enforcement agency. A good example can be found in departments that have canine units. While some simply remove the back seat of a standard sedan or station wagon to make room for the dogs, others perform some slight modifications, such as installing a special cage or platform. Some even add special remote-controlled door openers. Due to liability concerns most agencies clearly identify their K-9 mobile units with warning messages, some officers even paint their dog’s likeness and name on the vehicle.

BATmobiles, used for administering DUI tests can be found in some agencies. Many departments with programs attacking drunk driving have outfitted a vehicle with the necessary testing equipment, allowing tests to be performed at various locations. Some of the vehicles have facilities for testing both breath and blood, as well as for confining those who fail the tests. Having equipment on the scene frees up officers from having to transport offenders long distances to take tests. Among the more exotic vehicles some departments have available are armored cars, but they are too expensive and underutilized for most agencies to include in their fleets. Many are converted money-transfer trucks from firms such as Brinks, while others are ex-military armored vehicles obtained from the armed forces. Few ever see action except as part of a SWAT training exercise or as a parade vehicle.

A vehicle that gets little notice, but performs a very important function, is the Command Center. Some are little more than a converted van with a communications radio and cell phone, while others are much more elaborate, with a wide array of communications facilities, conference areas, and washrooms. They come in all shapes and sizes, but their purpose is the same, to provide a central location for supervising an operation, be it SWAT, a natural disaster, or community relations event. Vehicles used in the collection of evidence at crime scenes may contain everything from basic fingerprinting items to extensive photography and video equipment. Some of these vehicles are outfitted for use in accident reconstruction.

Large agencies such as the New York City Police Department have entire divisions assigned to emergency response activities. These units consist of special teams of officers able to handle any event, along with suitably equipped trucks. Most smaller agencies are only able to outfit certain special units for specific activities such as bomb disposal or water rescue. Some support vehicles are common to most agencies such as “paddy wagons,” now formally identified as Prisoner Transportation Vehicles. In Chicago, these specially made trucks are called “Squadrols,” and they perform a variety of tasks.

Squad Car Scale Models and Toys

There is an increasing market for police memorabilia, as collectors become aware that there is a very limited supply of such items. Prices are rising as a reflection of this growing scarcity. What started out as a relative handful of ex-law-enforcement officers trading their old department patches or insignias for those of another agency has grown into an international hobby. Collectors’ items have expanded from only uniform patches to almost any piece of law enforcement gear.

A small but rapidly growing branch of this hobby is the collecting of model and toy squad cars. While most model manufacturers only include an occasional police vehicle in their annual offerings, one company Road Champs has stirred things up by introducing an expanded series of quality and inexpensive 1:43 scale late model cars known to have police packages. This company got the instant attention of collectors when it announced that it intended to produce a model representing every state police agency in the United States. It has also produced models with the markings of Canadian agencies too.

Several manufacturers have issued limited-edition models of squad cars that are true collector items due to their accurate design and attention to detail. One such example is an English company called Creaks of Camberly, which produced a series of models depicting antique trucks used by various police constabularies in England. Various other makers have produced certain models with exceptional detail. Corgi, a prominent maker of toy vehicles in England, issued a special limited edition combined package of a Jaguar MK II and a Morris Mini, both outfitted as English police vehicles, which was widely distributed in the United States.

True antique models, as opposed to reproductions, are extremely rare and expensive. Unlike fire department items, which have always enjoyed a large collector following, there was little interest in police models until fairly recently. As a result, there are few to be found in the typical locations, such as flea markets and antique shops. However, as of late, E-bay, as usual, has been the place to go for a true antique police item.

The ultimate interest in squad cars is displayed by those who collect actual road-weary patrol cars and turn them into sparkling historic treasures. To support this hobby, there is a Police Car Owners Club with regional chapters spread across the country.

There you have it folks, detailed info on the history of the American squad car.