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Officers can get revved up over their cars

Ever since an Akron police officer climbed aboard the first police car in 1899, cops have enjoyed an intimacy with their professional transportation that makes a lifelong marriage seem like a cocktail party conversation.

Police officers rely on their vehicles to perform a range of tasks few civilians would ask of their family station wagon. Who among us needs a car that can get us to the Luby's cafeteria, chase down a speeding Corvette and ferry an ornery suspect to jail _ all in the space of 10 hours?

Of course, such forced intimacy breeds love and, just as often, contempt.

At the Tampa Police Department, whose vehicles of late have been so much in the news and in other people's yards, there is no shortage of opinions about the four types of patrol cars officers now drive on active duty.

Herewith, a sampling:

"Junk" is the terse review of the Ford Taurus offered by Officer J. J. Mannor.

Like many officers, Mannor ranked the Taurus, a mid-size car that seemed to shrink to economy size when it was stuffed full of police equipment, as the worst of the four.

Third in popularity were the two years of Chevrolet Caprices.

Administrators liked "the Manatee," as the wide-bodied 1991 model was known, for its roominess.

"It's like a Barcalounger on wheels," said police Cpl. Charles Wolf. "They made a great office."

The Dodge Diplomat, which made its first appearance in 1983 and was last purchased in 1989, is reverently called the "workhorse" of the fleet. Police cars come and go, and all of them are supposed to meet the same heavy-duty specifications, but the Diplomat has endured beyond all expectations.

One day last week Officer Charles Trigo had to swap a new Crown Victoria with 16,000 miles and a bald tire for a 1988 Diplomat with more than 110,000.

"You can't kill 'em," he said.

Which brings us to the famed Crown Victoria.

"In the Crown Vic, at the end of the day you don't feel like you've been beat up," Mannor said.

In speed, police cars have come a long way since the first cruiser in Akron, which was powered by an electric motor and topped out at 15 mph.

Wolf fondly recalls the unchained power of the Dodge Satellites that officers drove when he was a rookie 22 years ago.

They had a 383-cubic inch engine with a four-barrel carburetor. So powerful were these cars that, in Wolf's words, the "rear ends would break loose. You'd spin your wheels for a few seconds before the tires would grab."

If the Satellites represented the glory days, the fuel-strapped '70s saw the introduction of the Dodge Aspen, "a squirrelly little car," in Wolf's estimation. "It was like trying to stuff a baseball into a tin can."

And detectives, who don't conduct many chases, had to bite their lips when they climbed into their AMC Gremlins.

But don't think that any of these opinions explain why so many officers have wrecked their patrol cars since Mayor Dick Greco relaxed the department's high-speed chase policy in May. It has nothing to do with the cars.

The officers "were exceeding their abilities" as drivers, said police Maj. Steve Hogue.

As Mannor, a 14-year veteran said, quoting Clint Eastwood, "A man has to know his limitations."

FORD CROWN VICTORIA

Vintage

1994 - 95

Number in fleet

144

Specs

V-8, 260 cubic inches, 4.6-liter engine, 210 horsepower

Handling

Rear-wheel drive, but loses nothing in the turns. Officers say the Crown Vic handles like a dream. "It responds immediately in the turns."

Pickup

Quick. Will handle highway chases without trouble

Ergonomics

Roomy front and back, even with addition of the shotgun rack that fits vertically between the two front seats.

Miscellaneous

By acclamation, the favorite of all four models. The only disparaging comment an officer made about the Crown Vic is that the plastic interior surfaces tend to crack.

CHEVROLET CAPRICE

Vintage

1990 - 91

Number in fleet

61

Specs

V-8, 350 cubic inches, 5.7 liters, 260 horsepower

Handling

Despite its wide-bodied look, the 1991 Caprice handles acceptably, though it isn't the slim car you want to whip down an ally in.

Pickup

Dubbed "The Manatee" because of its shape, the 1991 Caprice is a rocket in pursuit.

Ergonomics

Spacious. A favorite with the over 6-foot club. Its one major drawback is its numerous blind spots caused by rear window posts. Some say the shallow pitch of the front window causes dangerous glare.

Miscellaneous

Some of the 1990 Caprices are outfitted to run on propane instead of gasoline. The fumes give officers headaches.

FORD TAURUS

Vintage

1992 - 93

Number in fleet

83

Specs

V-6, 3.8 liter engine, 140 horsepower

Handling

The only front-wheel drive vehicle among the last four models the city has purchased. Front-wheel drive tends to grab hard in turns, especially to the right, and officers worry about over steering.

Pickup

The only V-6 among the last four models purchased. Tuned-up, the Taurus is "plenty enough car for city police work."

Ergonomics

Atrocious. The Taurus would be tolerably cramped if police didn't need to put their radio chargers, computer consoles and now shotgun racks in the front seat. Tall prisoners have to put their knees up to fit.

Miscellaneous

Best gas mileage of all.

DODGE DIPLOMAT

Vintage

1983 - 89

Number in fleet

70

Specs

V-8, 318 cubic inches, 185 horsepower

Handling

Some say you have to start turning about a half-block early, but at least it is consistent from car to car.

Pickup

The least flattering thing anyone can say about "the Dip" is that it is slightly underpowered. Just as many defend it to the hilt.

Ergonomics

No frills. Front bench seats in the older models.

Miscellaneous

There is still one 1983 Diplomat that is in service and capable of being used on patrol. It's this kind of longevity that makes officers talk in reverential tones about "The Era of the Diplomat."

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