Police rush to buy Crown Victorias, retired by Ford Motor Co.

| Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011

Monroeville police are buying four or five new Ford Crown Victorias this year as usual.

But "next year is going to be my headache year," police Chief Doug Cole said, because he'll have to pick another car.

Ford Motor Co. is retiring its iconic Crown Vic, the cruiser of choice for police forces nationwide, after more than 30 years. Sales to consumers ended three years ago, and law enforcement agencies are stocking up as their budgets allow on the last of the durable, iconic vehicles to roll off production lines.

"We love the Crown Victoria. Our whole department is Crown Vics," Cole said on Friday. Monroeville has 35 of them.

Ford is preparing to introduce new police vehicles based on its Taurus large sedan and Explorer sport utility vehicle platforms. But some Western Pennsylvania police officials are concerned that the smaller Taurus especially, as well as other automakers' police vehicles, won't accommodate computers, cameras, special consoles and prisoner transport equipment as easily as the Crown Vic.

The patrol car has become "the office for an officer out on the street during an eight-hour shift," Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Aaron Lauth said.

A majority of Mt. Lebanon's 14 marked patrol cars and six unmarked vehicles are Crown Vics, and the department is outfitting two new ones, as well as a new Chevrolet Caprice, with light bars and other patrol equipment.

Nationwide, Crown Vics hold 70 percent of the patrol car market. Last year, 33,725 were sold for use as police and other fleet vehicles.

Sales for the first seven months of this year were up 64 percent. Fondness for the car is one factor, but Lauth said police departments also placed orders out of necessity. March 1 was the deadline to order the 2011 Crown Vic, he said, and Ford won't start taking orders for the new police models until November for delivery in January.

Tony Gratson, Ford manager of government sales, said Ford's new police cars will have the same 9-inch space between the two front seats as the Crown Vic and will meet the same durability standard tested at rear-impact crashes at 75 mph. Ford also said its new police car and SUV have more horsepower and better handling and are just as durable as the Crown Vic.

The Crown Vic debuted in 1980 and consistently has been available, unlike other models. But the police car market has become somewhat more competitive lately, with the return of the Chevrolet Caprice and an improved Dodge Charger. Pittsburgh police use Chevys now, spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton started switching his department to the Chevy Impala about six years ago, when rumors swirled that the Crown Vic would be discontinued soon.

The front-wheel-drive Impalas, it turned out, worked better than the rear-wheel-drive Crown Vics. "We found that here, with the winters we have, our guys liked it better," Burton said.

He's seen the new Explorer and is impressed, but he said patrol cars in general have gotten smaller, and that can be a problem for big officers who travel with more equipment these days.

Day Auto Group in Monroeville sold close to 500 Crown Vics to the Pennsylvania State Police this year, up from about 400 last year, said Don Phillips fleet and commercial sales manager.

"They knew there would be a lull in production, and were buying ahead so they wouldn't be caught without enough vehicles," Phillips said.

Originally, state police talked about ordering 1,000 Crown Vics this year, but spending cuts nixed that idea, and overall, tight municipal budgets have dampened sales this year. Day sells 20 to 30 Crown Vic, Chevy Impala or Caprice police vehicles in an average month, he said.

Police departments pay about $22,500 for a Crown Vic, and the Taurus and Explorer models price out at $4,000 to $6,000 more, Phillips said.

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