By John L. Bellah
“There’s a holdup on the Bronx. Brooklyn’s broken out in fights. There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights. There’s a Scout troop short a child and Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild. Car 54, where are you?”
Those were the opening lines of the song for the TV comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?,” a police satire set in New York City during the early 1960s.
Move west some 2,000 miles to the beachside city of Santa Monica, a few miles west of Los Angeles, and you’d find the jurisdiction of our featured car during the same era. Some years back, the Santa Monica Police Department was looking to restore a vintage police car for parades and as a PR tool for the department’s upcoming centennial celebration. Many would opt to take a vintage sedan and paint it, affix police insignia, red lights and siren, and then pass it off as a retro-cruiser. Members of the department bent over backwards to find an original 1964 Plymouth Savoy police car and then made their period cruiser as accurate as possible down to the original-style Goodyear bias-ply blackwall tires.
The project was spearheaded in 1996 by now-retired SMPD Sergeant Pat Armstrong. The Savoy was actually a former unmarked Los Angeles Sheriff’s detective unit assigned to the City of Industry Station. Discovered by Bobb Kosoff, an emergency vehicle collector, the aging Savoy was found deteriorating in a back yard in Pasadena where it was dusty and sitting on blocks. Kosoff purchased the car and later sold it to the Santa Monica Police Officers Association (SMPOA). Ergo, the city taxpayers do not fund or contribute to the upkeep of Savoy, which was dubbed Car 84. While Kosoff began some of the basic restoration, the SMPOA contributed the lion’s share of funding to this meticulous restoration.
The intent was to make Car 84 as correct and authentic as possible. The basic car was correct as SMPD did run police-specification 1964 Plymouth Savoys back in the day. (I remember seeing them patrolling the city when I was growing up.) Often, SMPD purchased vehicles under the sheriff’s department bid and, for the record, police-package vehicles differ from civilian vehicles by the nature of heavy-duty options designed for superior handling, stopping and reliability. Also included with the police package is a sheet metal brace attached to the roof, above the headliner, to bear some of the weight of the heavy siren and emergency lights. Input from photos of the era and older department members and retirees ensured accuracy of the project.
The 361-cid V-8 engine was pulled from Car 84 and a freshened and slightly massaged 383 four-barrel was installed. The remainder of the mechanicals were also brought to spec. Old-time mechanics and technicians from Claude Short Dodge, Santa Monica’s long-standing MoPar dealership, assisted in getting the mechanicals up to snuff. Mosher Musclecar Motors, MoPar restoration specialists in Monrovia, completed the actual restoration. The upholstery remained period correct; unlike today’s modern cruisers with cloth-weave front bucket seats for officer comfort, Car 84’s front and rear seats are upholstered in thick battleship gray vinyl. These seats are cold in winter and hot and sweaty in the summer. There is a heater, but air conditioning was the “4-40” type: lower all four windows and travel at least 40 mph. It would be several years before Santa Monica officers patrolled in air-conditioned comfort. Likewise, it lacks power steering and brakes.
Police vehicles utilized rubber floor mats and vinyl upholstery, which were easy to hose clean if a drunk made a mess inside the cruiser. Under the carpet of Car 84, Armstrong discovered the original rubber floor mat beneath and it was in pristine condition. This is a good thing, because while replacement carpeting is easily obtained, rubber floor mats in decent shape are rare.
Car 84 was set up as a sergeant’s vehicle, meaning there is no security screen between the front and rear seats, as SMPD’s standard patrol vehicles were equipped. A two-year quest located a very rare hot-sheet holder. The hot-sheet desk was designed to be a writing desk and hold a note pad along with a list of stolen vehicles. This simple, low-tech technology predates NCIC computers, and today’s Automated License Plate Recognition Technology. Back in the day, the department’s teletype system regularly published a list of stolen vehicles which was placed in the hot-sheet holder. At night, the hot-sheet was illuminated by a bulb to backlight the information on the teletype print-out.
Back then, SMPD used low-band (45.5 mc) two-way radio technology. A period-correct General Electric two-way radio is installed under the dash with the transmitter and power supply mounted in the trunk. However, a current UHF radio control head is hidden in the glove compartment when Car 84 is actually in use for communication with other units. The original-type radio utilized vacuum tubes which drew gobs of electricity, necessitating a heavy-duty alternator and oversize battery to handle the load. Hand-held walkie-talkies, common equipment today, were many years in the future, and once the officer left the cruiser, he was pretty much on his own. Back then, officers were instructed to stuff a dime at the bottom of their handcuff case to call the station in case of emergencies.
The B&M siren and emergency lights were mounted on a triangular aluminum “platter,” a roof mounting system unitized by numerous southern California agencies of the era. The siren is of the old electro-mechanical “growler” type. They draw lots of power and are very loud! Old timers of the era related that on some makes of cars — especially those not equipped with heavy-duty alternators — the “growler” siren drew too much power (about 100 amps). Heavy-duty alternators of the era produced about 60 amps on a good day, so excessive use of the siren ended up as deficit spending and would rob the ignition system of power, almost stalling the engine. It only took about eight good siren blasts to drain the battery. Savvy cops would use the siren sparingly, such as when decelerating into corners.
A 12-gauge Remington 870 shotgun was secured to a bracket attached to the front of the bench front seat. A couple of years later, this practice was modified to a vertical shotgun rack on the right side of the dash. The reason for the change came when it was discovered that the shotgun trigger could be activated when an officer, upon rapidly exiting the unit, tossed his seatbelt aside. The flying buckle could hit the trigger and with a live round in the shotgun’s chamber, extensive damage could be caused to the passenger door. Oops!
An exclusive but hidden feature on SMPD cruisers of the era was a series of three toggle stitches tucked under the instrument panel. One switch shut down brake, tail and reverse lights for covert operations in dark alleys or other locations when a low profile was required. Another toggle switch disconnected the left headlamp while the other switch disconnected the right headlamp. This enabled the officer to somewhat disguise the cruiser’s appearance when following vehicles at night by simulating a burned-out headlamp.
1964 was the last year of Chrysler Corp.’s push-button selector transmissions. Past experience with MoPar cruisers clued the officers to be gentle in selecting gear ranges, as violent punching of the buttons could cause the unit to stick or otherwise malfunction. For various reasons, the following years Chrysler went toward a conventional steering column or console-mounted shifter.
Car 84 remains an official emergency vehicle and is often utilized for parades, special events and car shows. One recent event was to escort retiring Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks from headquarters after her last day of service to the city.
When not in use, Car 84 occupies its own space in the police garage where the distinctive whine of its starter and its throaty, slightly choppy exhaust bark set it apart from the modern cruisers.
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