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.