To swerve and protect

Feature Around the world, police cars are just as diverse as the roads and conditions that they serve on.

The Carbon Motors co-founder Stacy Dean Stephens hopes to start production of their dedicated police cars, the E7 in 2012.
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The flashing lights, the blaring siren - there are few things more effective at striking fear into the heart of an errant motorist than a police car. Yet while the reaction they generate is universal, the cars themselves show a remarkable diversity. Here in the UAE, police operate everything from Volkswagen Golf GTIs to Nissan Pathfinders, Chevrolet Caprices and Toyota Landcruisers. The colour schemes, differing as they do between emirates and even within an emirate, are as varied as the vehicles.

But venture outside the UAE, and police vehicles are not just diverse - they are sometimes downright bizarre. For example, Smart cars emblazoned with the police logo have done the rounds in Toronto and Hamburg, enforcing traffic laws. Other forces have taken delight in employing vehicles at the extreme opposite end of the motoring food chain. Down under in Melbourne, for example, officers last year took delivery of five Hummer H3s, which are being used to patrol the city's nightlife areas. Police hope the large size of the SUVs will give them presence and deter wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, police in Alabama unveiled a Porsche 911 as their latest vehicle, complete with full police logo and flashing lights. The car had been seized after 10kg of cocaine was found when it was stopped by traffic police. Officers use the 911 on public awareness campaigns, and police in East Sussex in England have employed a Lotus Exige in a similar way to educate young people about the dangers of speeding.

While a Porsche 911 or a Lotus Exige might seem slightly exotic for the boys in blue, the Italian police - or Polizia, to give their local name - take things a step further. And this time the car is not just for show. Appropriately enough for a country with a motor racing heritage second to none, lucky officers in Italy have the pleasure of driving a Lamborghini Gallardo while on patrol. There can be few more fun ways of earning a living than piloting a Lamborghini - and few cars better than the fearsome Gallardo at sending a shiver up the spine of the speeding motorist. Just imagine seeing one looming in the rearview mirror.

Late last year, a Gallardo LP560-4 was added to Italian State Police fleet after officers in Rome reportedly put 140,000 kilometres onto a Gallardo over a period of five years. Another Gallardo in the hands of Bologna police is said to have accumulated 100,000 km. Sadly, most police cars are slightly less exotic, and the head rather than the heart guides decisions on which vehicle to select. According to Hilton Holloway, an associate editor at the London-based magazine Autocar, several factors come into play when forces make their purchases.

An important question is where the cars are made, with forces showing an obvious preference for home-grown vehicles. German police like Mercedes and BMWs, although the 911 crops up again. Like the Italian police's Lamborghinis, the 911s in Germany are used for actual patrols. In Australia, the locally built Holden Commodore, better known in the Middle East as the Chevrolet Lumina, is a popular patrol car.

For many years in the United Kingdom, patriotic considerations meant Fords were popular, but with the American car giant having ended most vehicle production in Britain, the Vauxhall Astra, known as the Opel Astra here, is more popular because it is still made in England. "They support Vauxhall through the Astra but they also need bigger cars for police work. Jaguars aren't really suitable, so for this size of car they don't have to be seen to be using home-built vehicles," Mr Holloway said.

Given the punishment police vehicles take, reliability is a key purchase criteria, and this is why forces often choose what might be considered premium brands. "They put a huge mileage on their vehicles," Mr Holloway says of British police forces. "There are very big police workshops that deal with the cars and they know what works and what doesn't. They want cars that are pretty safe and cars that come with powerful engines.

"For many years, Volvo V70s were very popular, but recently they've started using BMW estates and some Mercedes E-Classes." While for larger cars British police forces are not constrained by country of origin, there are still restrictions on their choice of vehicle. "It's particularly the willingness of the manufacturer to convert the car," explains Mr Holloway. "With the Volvo, much of the centre console has to be removed so the equipment can be put on. With the Astra, it is taken out and changed to a touch-screen computer."

In the US, the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is the most popular model, although Dodge Chargers and Chevrolet Impalas are also drafted in for patrol duties. The Canadian-built Ford, often known as the CVPI, is popular for its tough, body-on-frame construction, which means accident repairs are easier as there is no need for chassis straightening. This also makes them a hit with taxi drivers.

The US has 450,000 patrol vehicles, and a company called Carbon Motors is planning to launch a purpose-built car, the E7, to take a share of this market. It will have a six-cylinder, dual-turbo diesel from an existing manufacturer, bulletproof panels in the front doors and dash and emergency lights built into the bumpers, bonnet and roof. There will be video and audio monitoring of the car's passenger compartment and of the exterior.

Stacy Dean Stephens, Carbon Motors' co-founder and sales development manager, insists that, currently, the police do not have "the appropriate level of equipment" to protect communities. "The fire department, hospitals, military, trash collectors and postal workers all have purpose-built vehicles," he says. "Our more than 800,000 women and men in uniform, however, are securing our homeland in a vehicle designed in the 1970s as a retail passenger car for Sunday drives and going to the grocery store.

"To add insult to injury, it is not even manufactured in the USA. This is not acceptable." Carbon Motors says mass-market manufacturers have little interest in niche markets such as police vehicles, as the modest numbers make it hard to turn a profit. This, the company says, explains why no one has ever before produced a purpose-built police car before. In fact, the company claims that two car companies have said they would be happy to see a specialist police vehicle made by another manufacture as this would let them concentrate on other sectors.

While the purchase price is likely to equal the cost of buying and converting a standard production saloon, the Carbon Motors car is billed as being more durable. E7 prototypes were unveiled last November and Carbon Motors hopes to start production in 2012. Initially, sales will be targeted at the US, but Mr Stephens believes there is "significant export potential". The company expects to make between 10,000 and 80,000 cars annually.

"We are well on our way to selling out our first year of production," says Mr Stephens.