Throughout automotive history, speedsters of fast-moving classic cars have forced law enforcement departments to up their game and sporty police cars that at the time were pragmatic in chasing felons, but are now coveted icons for classic car buyers everywhere.
For both classic car collectors as well as American history enthusiasts, revisiting the most iconic vintage police cars through the years will accelerate your passion for classic cars.
As Pontiac advertised in ’57, their Chieftain model evolved from America’s number one road car to the county’s top police car. Appearing first in the 1955 model year as the “Strato Streak,” the V8 engine’s stroke was increased to 3.5625 inches by 1957 and Pontiac for the first time offered Tri-Power, three two-barrel carburetors with a sequential linkage, according to General Motor’s archives.
Though not as commercially successful as its classic Bonneville model released that same year, classic car buyers everywhere admire the ’57 Chieftain for both its handling and aesthetic. Even modern law enforcement officers covet the vintage car, such as Senior Constable Mauro Tonin of LaSalle Police in Windsor, Ontario, whose vehicle fleet includes a restored 1957 Pontiac police car.
“The reason we got the idea,” Tonin explained to the Windsor Star, “it gives the citizens fond memories of when the car was actually on the streets on patrol back in the ‘50s.”
When people think “vintage police car,” most will picture the Chevrolet Bel Air, a full-sized car popularized by law enforcement throughout its 30 years in production. Considered the first time that a General Motors vehicle achieved 1-horsepower-per-cubic-inch in a production vehicle, the Chevy Bel Air featured the heft and the power to intimidate any suspect in pursuit.
A highly desirable vehicle by collector car buyers, the ’57 Bel Air is widely reproduced as a model toy car to further highlight its timeless repute. Additionally, popular video game Grand Theft Auto even featured a modification to upgrade the police simulations to this classic car model.
Comparable to the Chevrolet Bel Air and the precursor to the Crown Victoria, the 1961 Ford Fairlane is a classic car popularized for fleet use by taxi drivers and law enforcement alike. Featuring the manufacturer’s big-block 390 CID V8 engine, the top-horsepower option at the time, the Ford Fairlane emerged amid the “horsepower wars” that raged between automakers of Detroit in the 1960s.
To further memorialize the Ford Fairlane as a classic police car, stars of the equally classic television show The Andy Griffith Show, Andy and Barney, patrolled the town of Mayberry in this vintage vehicle.
As the official blog of Dodge explains, the 1970 Dodge Coronet is “one of the most distinctive-looking muscle cars of the era.” This coveted collector car featured the 440 Magnum V8 engine from Mopar motor parts organization, yielding 400 horsepower to this classic cruiser.
Its appearance in 1974 American action film Gone In 60 Seconds helped establish the Dodge Coronet as a truly vintage police car and a favorite among classic car buyers. As the film’s police chase depicts, the signature headlight design of the 1970 Dodge Coronet 440 inspired both awe and anxiety in any driver who spied this police car in their rearview mirror.
Indistinguishable except for their dissimilar grills and tail lights, the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury were popular police cars throughout the 1980s. Their competitively low price points made them a common purchase for law enforcement fleets across the country, and their 318 V8 engines, common in most M-body cars, permitted officers to drive at speeds up to 120 mph.
As any fan of action films from the 1980s and ‘90s will recall, the utility of the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury came as much from their moderately high speed as their renowned durability. The vintage police cars made hundreds of appearances in film and television during this time, primarily as police cars for dangerous and high-speed chases. From hurtling over highways to exploding in fire, the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury endured as much abuse on screen and off. Now, their reputation continues in the garages of car collectors everywhere.
Considered an upscale performance car, the 1955 Buick Century featured the manufacturer’s largest and most powerful 322 cubic inch V8 engine, which, combined with its lightweight body, allowed the classic car to produce up to 236 horsepower. Its performance attracted the interest of California Highway Patrol, which, in 1955, commissioned a fleet order for 268 Model 68s, its 2-door body style, of which only 270 were produced that year.
Though most prominent along the West Coast, the 1955 Buick Century became an instant classic police car with its appearance in the popular crime drama, Highway Patrol, starring actor Broderick Crawford. The show heavily dramatized high-speed chases along California’s scenic highways, forever imprinting the image of a high-flying Buick Century driven by the husky-voiced police chief in the memories of an entire generation.
A mid-sized car produced by manufacturer American Motors Corporation, the AMC Matador was powered by a 401 cubic inch V8 engine that, when put head-to-head with a 2006 Hemi Charger police car, matched the modern copper’s zero to 60 miles per hour times of within 7 seconds. This high-performance muscle car was commissioned by many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the largest reported user of Matador patrol cars.
Due to its prominence as a popular police car, the AMC Matador appeared in numerous film and television shows throughout the 1970s, including Police Academy and The Rockford Files. The Matador coupe was even featured in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, making it even more popular among classic car buyers.
“The Matador was an extremely good police car,” said Jerry Bush, an LAPD driving instructor, in a 2005 interview with Hemmings Muscle Machines. “It was fast, it had superior brakes to the Plymouths, and it handled pretty well.”
Popularized throughout the mid to late-20th century, the Chevrolet Nova was a compact car first introduced by General Motors in 1962. Most Baby Boomers will remember its success throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but purveyors of collector cars seek the Nova, otherwise known as Chevy II, for its high-performance 9C1 model. The first compact car certified for police duty, the Chevrolet Nova 9C1 was first developed to be used by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department as a prototype in 1974.
“[It] is the most important police car Chevrolet ever made,” writes one autoblogger. “The Nova 9C1 revolutionized the police use of mid-size patrol cars in exactly the same way as the special service package Ford Mustang got copy to rethink pursuit cars.”
All classic car collectors share the same reverence for automotive achievements throughout the years, but police car enthusiasts further epitomize this characteristic nostalgia. Their twin roles in American culture and automotive history make chasing vintage police cars an indelible pursuit for any classic car collector.
Hollywood is no stranger to the appeal of a quality classic car – entire franchises such as the mega-grossing Transformers and Fast & Furious flicks have been built around America’s love affair with metal and chrome. Let’s take a look at six of the most iconic movie motors of all time – how many of these vehicles have you dreamed of taking for a test drive?
Arguably the most iconic car in pop culture, the Batmobile has been through more aesthetic changes than the actors that play its driver. Batman’s vehicle made its first appearance on the silver screen in a 1943 serial, simply entitled Batman, in which the caped crusader drove a Cadillac Series 61 convertible. By 1949, with the release of sequel serial Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne had traded in his Caddy for a Mercury Eight.
It was with the 1966 feature-length movie connected to Adam West-starring TV series that the Batmobile as we know and love it started to appear on the screen. This incarnation was custom designed and built using a prototype 1955 Lincoln Futura, and first introduced such space-age gadgets as automatically inflating tires, a blade for snipping through cables on the vehicle’s nose, and – of course – the fabled Batphone. Street legal replicas of the ’66 Batmobile can actually now be purchased for just $150,000.
Michael Keaton’s stint in the suit was the pop culture event of 1989, and his ride didn’t disappoint (as Val Kilmer would later comment while playing the role in sequel Batman Forever, “chicks dig the car”) – set designers created a unique art deco vehicle using the chassis of a Chevrolet Impala. As the franchise moved into the 90s the Batmobile became more and more outlandish, scaling sheer walls and firing grappling hooks.
More recently, Batman has taken to driving street tanks. The Batmobile driven through the Chicago-inspired Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was dubbed The Tumbler, while Ben Affleck steered a similar vehicle in Batman v. Superman. A reboot of Hollywood’s favorite car is promised for the impending Justice League, and we can’t wait to see they come up with next.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Herbie has been delighting young audiences for decades with his Disney-produced misadventures.
A 1963 VW Beetle, Herbie made his first appearance in 1968’s The Love Bug, where it was initially revealed that the car takes firm control of his own destiny, helping his down-at-heel owner enjoy a great deal of unexpected success on the racetrack. Herbie would return in 1974 with Herbie Rides Again, live it up in the millionaires playground in 1977 with Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and conclude his initial run in 1980 with Herbie Goes Bananas – released a year after VW ceased production on the model used in the movies. Proving that you can’t keep a good sentient vehicle down though, a reboot entitled Herbie: Fully Loaded was attempted in 2005.
The relationship that Herbie enjoys with his owners is something that any gearhead could learn from – anybody that loves this quirky little bucket of bolts has that affection returned in spades. Seven original models from the first wave of Herbie movies remain out in the world (though not tearing it up on a NASCAR racetrack), but sadly VW concluded production of their evergreen Beetle range in 2003 after 65 years. At least we’ll always have Herbie to remember the car by.
Every bit as terrifying as Herbie is lovable, Christine is – to quote the George Thorogood track so memorably played over the opening credits of John Carpenter’s cult 1983 horror flick – bad to the bone. Or should that be bad to the chassis?
A cherry-red 1958 Plymouth Fury, Christine is in a bad way when bullied teen Arnie Cunningham first lays eyes upon her in the front yard of a neighbor. Putting his auto shop classes to good use, Arnie restores Christine to the shimmering, shining glory of her heyday from three decades before – but soon realizes that this vehicle has a mind of its own…
Taken on its own merits as a slice of disposable entertainment, Christine is an above-average horror movie that even Carpenter admits he took for the paycheck after The Thing stunk out the box office. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find an allegorical tale that any American can relate to – the love affair between a teenager and their first car, and the freedom that finally getting behind the wheel represents.
As the possessed automobile starts acting more and more like a jealous lover, Arnie finds himself in a twisted love triangle between his popular girlfriend and his homicidal vehicle. You may not first-hand have experience of a murderous motor driven by a hunger for revenge, but we defy you not to fall in love with Christine – this muscle car is a genuine beauty.
Britain’s favorite superspy was always destined to make an appearance on this list, with the only question being with iconic car would make the cut.
The Aston Martin DB5 introduced in Goldfinger? The Mercury Cougar XR-7 displayed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? The Toyota 2000GT Roadster of You Only Live Twice? Fine vehicles one and all, but many childhoods were defined by the Lotus Esprit S1 featured in The Spy Who Loved Me – also named Wet Nellie, due to the fact that it doubled as a submarine.
That’s right – 007’s Lotus took a dip in the Sardian sea (please don’t try that for yourself if you’re lucky enough to get behind the wheel of one of these classic cars). The models delivered to the set actually disappointed the filmmakers due to their lack of speed and grip, and were set to be returned and replaced with an alternative that could generate more excitement for the screen. In an act of serendipity, the engineer of the vehicle turned up and did a little stunt driving himself – an action that was captured on film and has been immortalized to this very day.
A handful of Esprit S1 models are still available for purchase today despite production ceasing in 1978, but good luck finding one that’s roadworthy – the car was plagued by issues with its drivetrain.
Bond isn’t the only Ian Fleming creation to make an impact on the world of classic cars on the screen; the author was also responsible for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the magical flying car from the beloved 1968 movie musical of the same name.
Inspired by banger racers of the early 20th century and named after the racket the engines of such vehicles produced, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may not have been a dream to handle (star Dick van Dyke described it as having, “the turning radius of a battleship”) but it’s one of the most instantly recognizable cars in Hollywood history. Having the ability to fly, ride over water and, well, drive on the road will have that kind of impact.
Replicas of the vehicle are dotted around the world to this day, some of which are even street legal. Just try to avoid getting the infuriatingly catchy movie theme tune out of your head if you get stuck behind one at a set of traffic lights.
Seminal time travel movie Back to the Future could have been so very different. In some early drafts of the script, Doc Emmett Brown and Marty McFly were set to travel back to 1955 using a refrigerator, an idea nixed due to concerns that kids would lock themselves in iceboxes trying to imitate their celluloid heroes, and a DeLorean DMC-12 was chosen instead. Movie history and lovers of classic cars are equally relieved about that.
Back to the Future changed the fate of the DeLorean forever, as the car would otherwise surely have been largely forgotten. The DMC-12 was the only model that the manufacturers ever managed to create, and production had ceased by 1983. Maybe this was because none of them featured a Flux Capacitor or were capable of flight.
Once Doc Brown hit 88mph, however – an interesting choice, seeing as the vehicle’s top speed was closer to 110 – eyeballs around the world were saucered, and the top-opening doors of the DeLorean would forever become shorthand for effortless cool. Which is more than could be said for Michael J. Fox’s bodywarmer in the year 2017.
Six versions of the car were made for the filming of the Back to the Future trilogy, and three of them still exist today, making frequent appearances at Universal Studios. A handful of street-legal replicas of the DMC-12 are in production as you read this though, so if you have a spare $100,000 in your pocket looking into placing a pre-order. Just don’t expect it to fly – despite the predictions made in Back to the Future part II that we’d all be sailing through the skies by 2015, we’re still waiting for that.