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The Crown Vic is dead; long live the Crown Vic

The iconic cop cars no longer roll off production lines, and eventually will pass into legend. But the ultimate grandma car — affordable, reliable and fast — now inspires driver fan clubs.

May 14, 2012|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • David McKenery with his Crown Victoria in Santa Fe Springs. Though the last of the vehicles popular with police departments rolled off the production line last October, the car lives on in pop culture.
David McKenery with his Crown Victoria in Santa Fe Springs. Though the last… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)

My neighbor's Honda was stolen from our street — twice. The second time it was recovered, its rear windshield had been blown out in a gang shooting.

It was time for a change, a drastic one. So my neighbor bought a Ford Crown Victoria with tinted windows, side spotlights and a metal plate on the trunk lid reading "Police Interceptor." Now it sits, black and brutish, among the Camry Hybrids, Mini Coopers and Volvo station wagons in our Echo Park neighborhood.

In September, the last of the iconic cop cars — a veteran of countless street chases, both actual and theatrical — rolled off Ford's production line in St. Thomas, Ontario. Hundreds of Crown Vics continue to serve and protect throughout Southern California, but it's only a matter of miles before the law enforcement workhorse passes into cop legend.

Like a cockroach, however, the Crown Vic is resilient. It's already begun quietly colonizing civilian car culture, notably in Los Angeles County, where the number now in private hands — 38,000 — is second only to that in metropolitan New York, according to auto information company Edmunds.com.

This is confounding on multiple counts. The Crown Vic, the last of the roomy, rear-drive American sedans, is the ultimate grandma and grandpa car. Like the trucker cap before it, is irony its appeal?

The Crown Vic is dead. Long live the Crown Vic.

And who knew you could stay on the right side of the law while driving with push bars, spotlights and police nameplates?

The fact is, with the economic crisis continuing, the Crown Vic is the right car at the right time: affordable — you can pick one up at auction for under $5,000 — reliable, safe and cheap to repair. For its size, the gas mileage isn't bad.

But for a growing number of enthusiasts, it's also an obscure object of desire.

In Atlanta, a car club called the Crown Vic Boys styles its automobiles with hip-hop bling, including huge rims and thumping sound systems. They like the car because you can fit four or even six speakers in the trunk, cofounder Terris Williams said. Some of the club cars are posterized and painted to look like an advertisement for Fun Dip or Cracker Jacks candy.

The club has chapters in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Florida and elsewhere. Members get together at car shows and barbecues, sometimes 45 strong, to play impossibly loud music and lay doughnuts in the parking lot.

"We've been in a few music videos," Williams, 25, a robot programmer, said in a phone interview.

Southern California Crown Vic fans are more traditional. They buy their cars cheap, soup them up and show them off.

"I just think it's a beautiful car," said owner David McKenery.

McKenery, 25, says he has spent at least $15,000 jazzing up his swift and sassy 2003 former Riverside PD squad car. Inky black and gleaming, it sat outside the Santa Fe Springs machine shop where McKenery works, looking like a stray from a presidential motorcade.

McKenery and other Southern California members of a global Internet forum called crownvic.net caravan up Angeles Crest Highway on weekends, or gather at local car shows. He was kind enough to take me on a test drive last week, and I can vouch that the car goes fast. And loud.

McKenery posted a clip on YouTube called "Exhaust Video" so fellow enthusiasts can watch his pipe and listen to the distinctive stutter as he guns his engine. Apparently that's riveting if you're a Crown Vic fan.

McKenery said it's kind of nice when drivers see him and drop their cellphones or slam on their brakes. "Getting the respect of the road," he calls it.

Car thieves are less likely to mess with Crown Vics but some people will spit on your car, or even vandalize it, McKenery said. Police officers are also split: Some are happy the cars are still on the road but others pull drivers over and hassle them over their cop equipment.

For every online ode to the Crown Vic, there's a comment like this on another car forum:

"It just ... tickles me that there's a group about an ex-police vehicle modified for almost the exact opposite type of drivers and purposes."

"Some people like it and some people hate it," Williams said, shrugging off the criticism.

Crownvic.net is vigilant about banishing cop wannabes that add police lights or sirens to their cars, McKenery said. Still, there's nothing illegal about the Police Interceptor plate (the official designation for one Crown Vic model), the side spotlights and push bar, as long as they're not used improperly, or tinted windows, as long as they're not totally dark.

Departments are not always careful about how they dispose of their Crown Vics. McKenery found a spike strip, which police use to stop fleeing motorists, on the floorboard, and a traffic citation pad in the glove compartment.

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