The History of Police Cars

Written by sharon l. cohen
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­The first motorised police car at the end of the 19th century barely could outrun a horse and buggy. Since then, police cars have evolved significantly. Today's patrol cars are sophisticated vehicles, outfitted with the latest technology to enforce the law.

First Police Car

The first police car was actually an electric vehicle patrolling the streets in1899 Akron, Ohio. The car, which needed recharging every 30 miles, barely reached a speed of 16mph. Akron was one of the few towns that bought an automobile for its police officers. At the time, horses and motorcycles were more efficient ways to patrol the streets. As the speed of cars increased, it became more necessary for cities to buy these vehicles.

Makes of Cars

The earliest police vehicles frequently were called "squad cars," since they transported a "squad," or group, of officers to crime scenes. The vehicle was usually not any different from others on the road, except for a couple of modifications, such as special lights. The 1932 Ford became popular among police departments because it was more powerful and reasonably priced than similar Chevrolet and Dodge models of the time.

Police Vans

The police van, which was a combination of truck and jail, was used for many years to transport prisoners. The derivation of the word "paddy" continues to be controversial. Some believe it refers to the derogatory word for the Irish, since many early police officers were from Ireland. Others say it was because the word paddy also meant padlock.

Special Police Car Packages

Custom-built police vehicles began to appear in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, all of the major car companies were selling models equipped solely for police. Since then, the number of law enforcement vehicles has increased dramatically. Most cars are "police pursuit vehicles," which are equipped for high-speed chases and quick responses to emergencies. "Special service vehicles" are usually sport-utility vehicles, and "special service package" patrol cars are usually sports cars.

Colours and Designs

Until the 1970s, most police cars were black with white doors and roofs, so that they would stand out from other vehicles. Now, police departments decorate their cars with unique lettering and striping. Some cars retain the black and white colouring, but other colours have emerged, including blue and green.


Many modern police cars use LED emergency lights, which use less power and last longer than traditional lights. The lights come in many different styles, including ones that can be raised and lowered to increase visibility during freeway traffic stops and accidents.

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