In all of free marketdom, no customer is more serious, more focused, more driven than a man on the prowl for a car. Especially when he’s young, with no painful memories of buying clunkers to dampen his spirits. Especially when he’s alone, no trash-talking comrades or moody girlfriend to distract him from his mission. Especially when he’s searching for a used police car.
On the cramped, fenced-in Dakota Auto Sales used-car lot in Langdon, here is just such a customer, more devout suitor than prospective buyer. He is a tall, somber ladin impeccable logoless sweats, a corduroy baseball cap, and a pencil-thin moustache. He knows exactly what he’s after, so he strolls past the Lincolns, the BMWs, and the Acuras, and even the sweet behemoth sitting in the middle of the lot, a ’68 Cadillac Coup de Ville.
The poker-faced kid struts over to a row of solid-looking sedans along the chain-link fence on Bladensburg Road NE: Ford Crown Victorias and Chevrolet Caprices. Nothing flashy, really. Even boring. Hell, they look like something his gramps might be tooling around in. But look again. There’s only one visual clue, but it’s a dead giveaway to those in the know. Mounted on the driver’s door of each is a spotlight, signalling that this is a squadron of super-charged package cars formerly used by law enforcement agencies. Police packers, they call them. Hot rods disguised as geezermobiles.
At Dakota Auto Sales, you won’t find the junkers hawked to the public at police auctions, battered patrol cars with 100,000 hellish miles frozen on the odometer. This is a place for cop-car connoisseurs, and there’s a real dandy in this bunch, a chocolate-brown ’94 Crown Vic. Not brand-new, but it might as well be: It’s a sheriff’s car from the Virginia suburbs. What a sweet ride this one’s had: Some doughnut-eating softie clocked the breeziest 60,000 miles in the crime-fighting biz, making the rounds to the courthouse and serving papers in the subdivisions, always sure to take it easy on the speed bumps.
Yeah, that’s fine, the kid shakes his head, but what about the Caprice Classic? Nothing against the Ford, but Chevy’s his brand. This baby’s gold, and it has barely 50,000 miles on it. “$7,900,” says Frank, the salesman. That’s a tad above the kid’s price rangefor now, at leastbut the lingering gaze he gives the Caprice as he walks away means that he won’t be giving up.
Frank lets him go in peace. “This guy’s a young kid, probably got a nice job, credit union, stuff like that. He’ll be back.” Frank doesn’t need to do the hard sell. Used police packers sell themselves. This is a special car for special people: gearheads and collectors, cops and ex-cops, old ladies, security guards and turnkeys, and, increasingly, youngsters.
“We can’t keep the packers on the lot,” says James Parker of Capitol Motors on South Capitol Street SW. His lot, littered with the rare specimens of used police cars he hunts down all over the East Coast, is a lot more democratic than Dakota in its selection of packers. Some of them more resemble Roscoe P. Coltrane’s old ridejust a little too slow for the General Leethan the can’t-be-beat supercars of modern cops.
One of Parker’s recent sales, for instance, was a ’91 Crown Vic from the Metropolitan Police Department. It wasn’t much to look at: It still had faded blue stripes and, in the back seat, a K-9 cage. But it still went quick, for a cool $2,900. “They didn’t want anything changed,” says Parker. “They like ’em just like they are.”
Despite appearances, these oldies can move, if you know which screws to loosen: “They like ’em all cammed out,” says Parker’s mechanic. “These motherfuckers haul ass.” The mechanic has the pleasure of test-driving the packers after he has serviced them for resale. “I did one last week, we went down the one-way street down by the Navy Barracks running 135 [mph], and then we come back running 160,” he says. “Then we hit P Streetit was raining Saturdayand we hit a motherfucking spot, and that bitch spins around three times, and we slid two-and-a-half blocks.”
The appeal of used police packers has less to do with the power of the badge than the power of the cars themselves: full-tilt, wide-open, but still in control. The rear-wheel-drive cars boast bigger, more powerful engines and an extra-gear transmission, not to mention advanced balance, suspension, and braking systems. They’re built to handle well in high-speed chasesand, except on a rain-slicked street doing more than 100they usually do.
Down through the years, there’s been a whole range of cop cars made by different companies. Until the late ’80s, Chrysler churned out Plymouth Grand Furies and Dodge Diplomats. Recently, it’s been the Big Two: General Motors’ highly regarded Chevy Caprices, and Ford’s Crown Victorias. In ’96, GM stopped manufacturing Caprices, so Crown Vics have reigned supreme. (Even Falls Church, whose small police force sported Volvos for years, now uses Fords.)
Until recently, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department has been forced by budget shortfall to run its patrol cars until they’re only good for parts: According to Fleet Management Director Bob Rose, better funding will now make it possible to retire cruisers every four to five years. For now, the department uses mostly new-model Crown Vics, as well as GM’s new package car, the Lumina, a front-wheel-model that has been roundly criticized.
“They should have shot whoever went and bought the Luminas,” says Officer M.D. Marable. “Nobody likes ’em.” Taking a break from his 6th District patrol beat, Marable has pulled into the Dakota lot in his ’96 Crown Vic cruiser to check out some cars. He’s looking for a vehicle for his side jobs in private security. In the Ford-Chevy debate, he opts for the former. “I’ve driven both, and I’d rather have the Crown,” he says. “It seems lighter, and you can feel more acceleration when you’re merging on the highway.”
Marable sees the youngsters in police packers and often pulls them over for all sorts of violations. The kids, he says, believe that driving in Johnny Law’s car gives them some sort of protection. In fact, it makes them prime targets. “They’re trying to be cool, and they’re thinking nobody’s gonna mess with ’em,” he says. “I stop ’em and say, ‘I can look at you and tell that you ain’t the Man: You got your boys six deep in the car driving around the projects. C’mon now. We don’t ride like that.’ So we snatch ’em left and right. No insurance, I take ’em; no inspection sticker, I take ’em.”
Indeed, more than a few packer fans have ridden in police cars before under different circumstances. “They’ve been in the back seat, and now they want to ride up in the front,” deadpans Al, a Dakota salesman.
Of course, some youngsters have discovered that the packers aren’t the perfect car, after all: They’re not only road hogs but also gas guzzlers, getting barely 15 miles to the gallon: “They’re finding out how much gas they spend on them $60 a week,” says Marable. “It’s going to go out of fashion, maybe last until the summer, and after a while, they’ll go back to those old station wagons. It’s just a little fad they’re going through.”
A muttonhead from Maryland pulls up in his ’95 Chevy Caprice. It’s a packer, and he needs every bit of itincluding the spotlightfor his job serving eviction notices in the District. Last year, he put 80,000 miles on the car, and it stills runs like a champ: “It’s a heavy-duty, high-performance commercial car,” he says. “The regular Caprice wouldn’t hold up for the type of work I do.”
Al and Frank say their main customers for packers remain those who know the cars bestcops. Running a close second are the elderly: “Like, this old lady came in, and she’s had an accidenther car was small,” says Frank. “So she got Caprice, a nice packer. She wants to feel safe and know that she’s got a good, reliable car.”
A deep-blue Crown Vic eases into the lot, so shiny and buffed that it’s probably been through two car washes today. The proud new owner bought it recently here at Dakota, for a shade under $9,000; his mom co-signed the lease agreement. It’s a ’94 modelhas 52,000 milesfrom out in the suburbs: “I wouldn’t ever want a D.C. police carthey’re ragged,” he says. “They’ve been through too much drama.”
The new owner, a 21-year-old D.C. native, wears a goatee and a letter jacket, works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and claims his love of the Crown Vic has nothing to do with trends. “I’m not tripping for this Alabama stuff that’s out there,” he says. “I’m not in it for the pack or the lights or the antenna or none of thatthat’s fashion. I got it for the Crown Vic itself. The Caprice is all right, but I’m a Ford man. The Chevy will break down quicker than the Ford. I can get on the highway and keep on going, and that Caprice will have to stop.”
Still, he says, it’s really all about the dollars. “I could have gotten a regular Crown Vic that did
85 mph and still be satisfied,” he says. “Basically, you couldn’t beat the price. It’s for me and my family to get around.”
All the time, Goatee Man has been eyeing his car protectively as it purrs contentedly only a few feet away. His little sister sits in the front seat on the passenger side, some Christmas trees hang from the rearview mirror, and there’s the police light mounted on the driver-side door. “I’m gonna take that spotlight off,” he says. “Like I said, I’m in it for the Crown Vic itself.”CP