Personally Mind-Blowing Moment of the Day

Among other sites I peruse on the time-waster that is Facebook is the Vintage Emergency Vehicles page. (As with many things, my interest defies explanation.)

That site one day included this photo:


This apparently is a photo from the Beltsville, Md., Volunteer Fire Department somewhere in the mid- to late 1970s. So is this:


What is the big deal, you ask?

The big deal is the 1975 Chevrolet Caprice coupe used as the fire chief’s car. The pictured Caprice is so close to the car I drove through the 1980s that I can tell you what’s different (other than the emergency lights and door decals, that is) from mine: (1) the lack of vinyl roof (ours had a full vinyl roof, not the vinyl landau half-roof) and (2) the tan (or what appears to be tan) interior instead of our red interior.

© 2014 Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department

This Caprice was dark red, like ours. You’d think a fire department would have chosen bright red (which was available). However, the owner of a fire truck manufacturer once told me his company offered 100 different shades of red for its trucks.

The poster of this photo said he got it from a friend of his. He didn’t know anything about the car; he assumed a car dealer had given the car to the department. (It apparently followed a 1966 Chevy wagon.)

A little background: Police cars (from which come taxicabs and fire department cars, such as this one) have existed since, obviously, cars have existed. After World War II, carmakers started upgrading cars for police departments with, for instance, slightly hotter engines, better brakes, heavy-duty frames, heavy-duty seats (usually of vinyl so they were easier to clean) and so on. Not all police cars were police-package cars, and if you know what you’re looking for you can tell whether a police car is actually a police-package car by looking at, for instance, tire sizes (police packages usually had bigger tires, and often had high-speed-rated tires in the days before widespread use of radials) and a speed-certified speedometer.

Carmakers that sold police-purpose vehicles usually had a name for them. Ford’s police cars were called Interceptors, Pontiac’s were called Enforcers, Chrysler’s were called Pursuit(s). Oldsmobile had an ApprehenderChevrolet‘s police package was called the 9C1, after its option number.

There were Chevy police cars in 1975 …

… but most were the then-new Nova (including in Madison) …

… with an occasional Blazer, Suburban or van thrown in. According to Jalopnik, there were no full-size 9C1 Chevys until 1976, one year before the downsized Impala was introduced.

The Caprice fire chief’s car obviously wasn’t a police-spec vehicle, and not just because it wasn’t a 9C1. For one thing, it’s a two-door, and while there were two-door squads (usually used by state highway patrols), they were in the process of going away by 1975. It appears to have the standard-size tires (the P225/75R–15, formerly known as the HR78–15, instead of even the LR78–15, now P235/75R–15, in the Impala and Caprice’s trailer towing package), which are also whitewalls, with the standard Caprice wheel covers, not the “dog-dish” hubcaps the Chicago squad and the Nova have. And no squad car I have ever seen had fender skirts.

The Caprice was the top-of-the-line full-size Chevrolet from 1966 until 1996. (When the full-size Impala was killed in 1986, the base model became the Caprice, and the upgrade was called the “Caprice Classic.”) I once saw a drawing of a ’76 Caprice squad in a car magazine ad, but I’ve never seen one in person, and a web search won’t find one from ’75 or ’76. Police departments didn’t buy luxury cars as squads, and neither did fire departments.

So I think to myself: How would my Caprice (a car I wish I still owned most days, despite its 11 mpg and 26-gallon gas tank — do the math at $3.40 a gallon) have done as an emergency services vehicle? Before you dismiss that question, there have been a lot of police departments that had officers use their personal vehicles as squads, paying them mileage, most famously in Hawaii. (The idea of McGarrett I driving his big Mercury, or Danno II driving a Camaro at work is actually based on reality.)

Our Caprice had the base 350 2-barrel V-8 (that’s a “two-barrel carburetor,” for those who have never heard of the term), so it wasn’t really fast, but Caprices through 1976 had a 400 4-barrel V-8 and a 454 4-barrel V-8 available. The 350 came with the Turbo-Hydramatic 350 automatic transmission instead of the Turbo 400, but other than leaks, we had zero transmission issues.

Certainly a four-door sedan or station wagon would be preferable, though our Caprice’s trunk was enormous. Ours had the trailer towing package, which consisted of a bumper hitch and trailer wiring harness, and it did have the 3.08:1 rear end, which made for slightly better acceleration than taller gearing. (No Positraction, though.) It didn’t have the heavy-duty suspension, which made it ride softly and, when said enormous trunk was full, bottom out on steep driveways. It also didn’t have the gauge package, which included a trip odometer, one useful additional gauge, engine temperature, and one useless gauge, the fuel economy meter (really an engine vacuum meter). Nor did it have split bench seats, which would be an issue for two officers of different heights if the short one is driving. (Ditto tilt steering, which it also didn’t have.) The only heavy-duty cooling it would have had was the cooling system used for air-conditioned cars. (And, I must say, the Caprice’s could make ice in a few minutes.) It wouldn’t have had a heavy-duty battery (though that’s easy enough to fix) or alternator (more complicated) to run the lights and radio. It was a great long-distance car, though not many fire calls could be called long-distance trips.

On the other hand, handling wasn’t bad for an 18½-foot-long, 4,300-pound car. The car was about as reliable as any 1975 car you’ll ever see. And the doors were so long and heavy that they could qualify as a weapon.

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