An Arresting History of the Police Car

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.

Ever see a police car in your rearview mirror and think, “Hey! Where’d that come from?” If so, you probably weren’t wondering about the origin of the police car, but in case you were, here it is.


Frank Croul was the Police Commissioner of Detroit, Michigan, from 1909 to 1913. Then, as now, the city was the heart of the American auto industry. Ford, Studebaker, Packard, and Cadillac were all headquartered there, and as Croul saw an ever-increasing number of cars buzzing around the city streets, he wondered if they might have some use for the police.

He wasn’t the first person to contemplate such a possibility: In 1899, the city of Akron, Ohio, paid the Collins Buggy Company $ 2,400 ($ 65,000 today) for a battery-powered “paddy wagon,” complete with a stretcher, a cage for prisoners, electric headlights, and a gong. America’s first horseless police vehicle left a lot to be desired. Weighing 5,000 pounds, it had a top speed of just 16 mph and a range of 30 miles before the batteries had to be recharged. A year after it was built, an angry mob pushed it into the Ohio Canal during a race riot. Though the wagon was returned to service, the city never bothered to build another one.


As Croul could tell from watching the traffic in front of his office, motor vehicles had improved a lot since 1899. Cars with newfangled gasoline engines had none of the problems with range that older electric cars had. Now that automakers had been building them in quantity for nearly a decade, gas-powered automobiles were becoming quite reliable. Some, like Ford’s Model T, were even affordable. Croul thought the time was right to buy a car for the Detroit Police Department. But when he asked the city for money to buy one, they turned him down. Croul was adament. He was so sure that “police cars” had a future, he bought the department a Packard with his own money, $ 5,000— more than $100,000 today.


Croul’s hunch proved to be correct: His Packard was a lot more useful than Akron’s electric paddy wagon. It was speedy and reliable, needed less care than a police horse, and it allowed police to get to the scene of an emergency faster than if they went on foot or in a horse-drawn wagon. After just four months, the city reimbursed Croul for the Packard and made plans to buy six more cars. These proved so economical to operate— less than half the cost of the horses and wagons they replaced— that by 1913, even the city dog catcher had his own truck. Detroit’s last horse-drawn vehicles were phased out forever.


Even in those very early days police cars were also known as “patrol cars.” But they didn’t do much patrolling, because there was no way to communicate with them once they were away from the station. Police radios hadn’t been invented yet, so patrol officers had to wait at the station for emergency calls to come in. Then, as soon as they finished with one call, they had to return to the station to wait for the next one.

In 1917, Detroit began deploying automobile patrol officers to special telephone kiosks set up around the city. One officer sat in the kiosk waiting for the phone to ring, while his partner patrolled the beat on foot. When a call came in, the kiosk officer hopped in the police car, went looking for his partner, picked him up, and responded to the call.

Some cities installed special red lights at major intersections and on top of tall buildings as a way to signal patrol officers as they were driving around. When the lights were lit or flashing, the officers knew they needed to find a telephone or a police call box and check in to receive their assignment.


It was obvious that if a way could ever be found to install radios in automobiles, police cars would become much more effective law-enforcement tools. But in the 1910s and early 1920s, it wasn’t clear that such a thing was even possible. Automotive electric systems generated lots of static interference, but they weren’t powerful enough to provide electricity for add-ons like radios. The radios themselves were very bulky, and the vacuum tubes that made them work were fragile, not the kind of thing that would do well vibrating and bouncing around in a speeding police car.

In 1921, a Detroit police officer named Kenneth Cox teamed up with an engineering student named Robert Batts to try to install a radio in the back seat of a Model T Ford. It took them six years to do it. Their radio had trouble receiving signals in tunnels, under bridges, and around tall buildings; and the radio’s batteries, which couldn’t fit in the back seat and had to be installed on the running boards, needed to be recharged every four hours. But the radio worked.


Just like the radios you use to listen to music, Cox and Batts’s radio was a one-way radio: It could only receive signals, not send them. Patrol officers still had to find a phone or a call box to check in with headquarters, but it was enough of an improvement over phone kiosks that in 1928, the Detroit Police Department began operating its own radio station, KOP.

Because the Federal Radio Commission saw broadcasting as primarily an entertainment medium, it required the police department to play music on KOP when it wasn’t broadcasting police calls. Anyone with an ordinary AM radio, even criminals, could listen to the station. More than once, the FRC suspended the station’s license when the police department didn’t take its entertainment responsibilities seriously enough.

Luckily for law enforcement, though, the FRC soon realized the error of its ways and stopped requiring the police to act as disc jockeys. Then in 1933, engineers working for the Bayonne (New Jersey) Police Department developed the first two-way police radios. Within a few years, General Electric, RCA, and Motorola were making them for departments all over the country. They weren’t cheap— the radios cost more than $700 apiece, more than some police cars— but they became standard equipment everywhere.


Early police cars were almost indistinguishable from other cars. They were typically dark in color and might have the word “POLICE” or “P.D.” hand-painted in small letters on the driver and passenger-side doors, but that was about it. They had no extra lights— early automotive electrical systems couldn’t power them— and what few sirens there were had to be cranked by hand. (The Detroit Police Department didn’t bother with sirens; it issued its motor vehicle officers “loud-sounding whistles.”)

New York City’s first police cars were convertibles, to enable citizens to see the officers’ police hats so that they’d know they were police cars. Patrol officers were under orders to keep the top down so that the hats could be seen, unless a superior officer gave special permission for the top to be put back up. Rain or even snow was no guarantee that permission would be given.

By the late 1920s, some departments were beginning to use police cars with special paint schemes. The NYPD’s cars had green bodies, white roofs, and black front fenders. The California Highway Patrol, founded in 1929, preferred white cars with black roofs. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a style began to appear in police departments all over the country: black cars with white doors and roofs— the first “black and whites.”


Police cars began adding spotlights for extra visibility as soon as the electrical systems could handle them, but red police lights didn’t become common until the 1930s. The first ones were re-purposed tail lights— which explains why they were red— and were mounted on the front fender, the front bumper, or the roof. Some cars had them in pairs, and others had an extra light mounted on the front right fender, facing rightward, that read “PULL OVER” or “STOP” when lit, which was used to stop speeding drivers.

The first 360° rotating “gumball” light, called the Beacon Ray, was introduced by the Federal Sign and Signal Company in 1948. Red (and later blue) gumball lights remained popular through the late 1960s, when they began to be replaced with horizontal “light bars” that included multiple rotating lights, mirrors to reflect their light forward or wherever else it was needed, and a siren.


For all the changes that police cars have gone through in their first 100 years, one thing has not changed, at least not since that angry mob pushed the City of Akron’s custom-built electric police wagon into the river in 1900. Police cars have always been modified versions of standard automobiles, nothing more. Automakers didn’t even offer special law-enforcement upgrades (such as improved brakes, tires, steering, and suspension components) until Ford added them to its first “Police Package” cars in 1950. GM, Chrysler, and other major American automakers soon followed, and American police cars have been made that way ever since. So far, none of the Big 3 automakers have ever designed a “purpose-built” police car from scratch, because annual police car sales are too small to justify the expense.


But that hasn’t stopped other people from trying. In 2003, former Ford Motor company executive William Santana Li teamed up with a former police officer named Stacy Dean Stephens to found Carbon Motors, a company that planned to build purpose-built police cars. By 2012, the company had a prototype patrol car called the E7, and a factory in Indiana where it planned to build it.

The E7 had all of its equipment— lights, siren, radio, gun rack, night vision, license plate scanner, and more— engineered right into the car. The doors and dashboard were bulletproof so that officers could hide behind them during a shoot-out. The rear compartment had front-opening “suicide doors” that made it easier to get handcuffed suspects in and out. The rear compartment also contained a hidden camera and microphone to record any incriminating statements the suspects might make while they were sitting back there. Did an intoxicated suspect barf in the back seat while being transported to the drunk tank? Not a problem: the rear compartment was waterproof and designed to be cleaned out with a hose.

So how soon can we expect to see the E7 and the police van on our streets? Probably never: In 2012, Carbon Motors was turned down for a $ 310 million Energy Department loan. It spent a year trying to line up other investors and when that failed, in April 2013 it moved out of the Indiana plant, took down its website, and went out of business. (It looks like the Big 3 were right after all.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information. Open up to any page and you may find an interesting origin (like the origin of the snowglobe) or a piece of obscure history (like the true story of the man who tried to repeal the law of gravity).

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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And now it looks like the Ford Explorer based Police Interceptor SUV is going to take over the world. The CHP chose it as their exclusive new vehicle, and local agencies all over are buying up big numbers of them at a record clip.

"While clearly based on the Explorer SUV, Ford insists that the PI Utility is a purpose-built vehicle."
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