The way you feel when you spot a cop car probably has a great deal to do with your own life's experiences. Maybe to you they're the clarion sights and sounds of safety and order, or just the impersonal, mechanized face of the police force. Maybe they're an unfortunate reminder of a good night gone wrong, or that traffic ticket you haven't paid yet. Regardless, there's more to a police car than a cop motor, cop tires, and cop shocks.
In the nearly 120 years since the very first police cars hit the road, they've evolved into mobile offices-slash-surveillance units par excellence. There are probably a hell of a lot of things you don't know about cop cars; let's start with these 11.
1. The very first police car was all electric and had gongs for sirens
In 1899, the Akron, Ohio police squad fielded an electrically powered buggy that could hit speeds in excess of 16mph thanks to a pair of 4hp motors. It came complete with lights, a stretcher, and gongs as an early forerunner to sirens. Naturally, the first thing the Akron cops did with it was pick up a drunken disorderly.
2. One year later, rioters dumped that first squad car into a canal
Even though it weighed 2.5 tons -- roughly the same as the average SUV today -- rioters in 1900 did a number on that first cop car, sending it to a watery grave in one of the most intense riots America had seen at the time. An angry mob formed outside of police headquarters, demanding mob justice for a prisoner accused of rape (in the end, he was convicted). The police refused, and in the ensuing melee several buildings, including the HQ, were destroyed (not to mention the cop car). Things got so bad that President McKinley sent in the Army to maintain order.
3. Before it became a hot rodder's dream, the Little Deuce Coupe was the car to have for both cops and robbers
The Ford Model B, aka the Deuce Coupe in its smaller, "three-window" guise, sported under its hood what would become an outright legend of a V8. The ideal combination of cheap, reliable, and fast, the Model B was the cop car of choice in the 1930s and led to many precincts remaining loyal to Ford for years.
Of course, it wasn't exactly a secret, and seemingly every baddie from Dillinger to Bonnie and Clyde swore by it as well. There's even a somewhat controversial letter purportedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford praising the car's robust qualities.
4. The Crown Victoria was such a huge success for decades because it was easy to both maintain and drive
Structurally speaking, the Crown Vic shared more in common with a truck than a modern-day car, so when an officer crashed, it was super cheap to fix. Also, most police training is designed for rear-wheel-drive cars, which in emergency situations and some specialized police drills require different driving techniques than front-wheel-drive cars like the Taurus, and it took forever to update the training program.
5. Bulletproof doors might be the coolest factory option ever
Bulletproof Kevlar lining was available on every Crown Vic after 2006, in case law enforcement officers felt the need to recreate every TV police drama in history, and hide behind their door during a shootout.
6. You can't actually jump in a cop car and steal it
Whenever you see someone jump in a cop car and drive off in a movie, the chances are high that the director didn't do his or her homework. A feature called runlock enables an officer to remove the keys but keep the car running so the lights, etc. can still function. However, if anyone touches the brake pedal or parking brake, the car shuts off, so you really can't just hop in for a joyride. Well, unless the officer forgets to take out the keys.
7. All those different sirens serve different purposes
The classic "wail" is used for open roads when an officer is traveling at a high speed and approaching an intersection, because it's better at penetrating the cabin of a vehicle, meaning you'll hear it. The "yelp," basically a sped-up wail, is used in high-traffic situations, and if you still don't get out of the way, you'll likely get an earful of airhorn.
8. As technology advances, sirens might be on their way out
Short-range FM transmitters mean officers could be able to broadcast straight into your radio, and even if that fails, they've got something called a rumbler -- think of it like subwoofer that you can feel from 300ft away.
9. Almost 3/4ths of American cop cars are capable of Orwellian surveillance
Whenever you see an officer at a light and assume he or she is running plates, you're half right, since most cop cars automatically read your plates without the officer needing to do a damn thing. They'll snap your picture, too, and timestamp/geolocate the image and store it indefinitely. Unless you happen to have infrared LEDs pointed at your plate (they blind the camera, so definitely don't do that), "they" know where you've been.
10. A cop car's mileage doesn't matter much
Because cops spend so much time idling while doing radar/paperwork/thinking about donuts, the car's mileage doesn't really let you know how much wear the car has on it. So that a mechanic can know how long the car's been running, police vehicles have hour meters on them that measure how long the engine has been running, even if it's in park or neutral.
11. In 1971, the AMC Javelin became the first pony car produced for highway patrol duty
Four hundred and one cubic inches of American muscle pushed the men and women of the Alabama Highway Patrol up and down the highway from 1971 to 1979, and every Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger that's suited up for duty since then owes just a little bit of its greatness to the long-defunct American Motors Corporation.
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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He almost bought an ex-highway patrol Mustang once for next to nothing, but walked away from the deal. He still thinks about what could've been, from time to time.