The History of Police Cars

Many people think that law enforcement in the late 1800s was simply walking around on their beat. This is true, of course, but police departments have always used vehicles, in one form or another. Horses and carriages were common in the 1800s, as were bicycles and early motorcycles. In the early 1900s, cars and trucks began to be built and police departments started using them. One of the initial uses for large touring cars was to transport groups (“Squads”) of officers, hence the term “squad cars.” By the 1920s, automobiles were common and most police departments used them. They were stock models perhaps with special paint and lettering on them.

The 1930s saw changes in traditional police forces. Towns and cities still had their dedicated forces but the development of road that crossed multiple jurisdictions (highways) generated a demand for state highway patrols.  It was during the 1930s that radios, some being only one-way, started to be used by law enforcement agencies.

During the 50’s, few policeman and women walked beats anymore as wireless communications made it possible for fewer officers driving cars to patrol larger areas and respond more quickly to calls. It was during this era that police departments were beginning to own large numbers of vehicles.

The 1950s were also the beginning of the “horsepower wars.” The issue was that the car makers in Detroit were making cars with more and more horsepower and police officers needed to keep up. As a result, some police cars of the 50’s were fitted with special high-performance engines. Many of these engines were not available to the general public.

However, the practice of putting hotrod engines in police cars began to subside in the 60’s. The problem was that these highly-modified engines were often finicky and unreliable. In their place, most police departments simply ordered the most powerful big block V-8s that the car manufacturer offered.

While cops loved some models and hated others, the folks at Lynch of Mukwonago, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in Mukwonago, WI, proudly tell us that Chrysler products dominated the law enforcement market through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It was not until Chrysler discontinued its full-size rear-wheel-drive cars (1989) did rear-wheel drive Chevrolet’s Caprice and Ford’s Crown Victoria take over the law enforcement market.

Despite what some have said, to this day there has never been a special police car model made from the ground up by any of the car manufacturers. And why is that? It’s simple, the law enforcement population is not a large enough to warrant a manufacturer investing the resources needed to produce such a vehicle. Let’s look at the statistics. The annual market for police cars in the United States as of 2010 was approximately 80,000 units. Just to give perspective on this number, over 60 million cars were produced last year for consumer use. 80,000 units is less than 1%. As you can see the request for special police units is just a drop in the bucket.

And this situation, building a dedicated police car is unlikely to ever happen. Consider the criteria. There is such a wide diversity of need 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.