ATLANTA - A sight familiar to motorists, either with dread in their rearview mirrors or with relief on a deserted road, is soon to be replaced as Ford Motor Co. winds up production of the Crown Victoria, the boxy model that commands 75 percent of the market for patrol cars.
The change has law-enforcement agencies across the country on edge as they say goodbye to an old friend and think about what their patrol officers will drive next.
The entire final production is sold out as police agencies stockpile Crown Vics for future needs, dealers and Ford officials say.
"Everybody is just sick because the Crown Vic is going away because they are having to look for alternatives," said Bobby Reed, a former police chief who liked the cars so much he started selling them across 13 states as fleet manager for Brannen Motors in Unidilla, Ga.
Like the lawmen of the Old West who grew fond of their horses, today's officers grow attached to their patrol cars, a place where they spend countless hours, write reports and even eat. It carries their equipment, prisoners, and sometimes lives counted on it, giving it almost as much personality as a faithful horse.
"The personality about it was it was the most dependable law-enforcement vehicle," Reed said. "Whatever the conditions, it always performed well. Whether it was on dirt roads, rain, cold, sleet, highways or whatever."
Other police veterans agree.
"It was very dependable," said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
That's why Rotondo, a former cop, drives a Mercury Marquis, the sister to the Crown Vic and the only option available to civilians after Ford stopped marketing a consumer version of the model in 2007. Rotondo jokes that only consumers with a little gray in their hair like him and a little more money than when they were younger still buy full-size American cars.
But over the years, lots of police agencies have bought Crown Vics. More than 300,000 are on the road today.
Ford first gave the name to a model in 1955 even though there was a Victoria version of the old Model A.
Starting in 1984, it restricted civilian access to the most powerful engines of the LTD Crown Victoria.
In those days, all the domestic car makers offered police interceptors, but as rising gas prices drove consumers to smaller models over the years, each manufacturer began phasing out their cruisers because the consumer version was no longer profitable. The last was the Cheverolet Caprice in 1996, leaving the bulk of the market to the Crown Vic.
"I didn't hear hardly anybody complain about the end of the Caprice, but they started phasing out the Crown Vic, and every agency started to complain: 'Why mess with something that works?'" Reed said.
The big Ford offered many benefits. It's roomy enough for the growing list of radios, radar, video cameras, guns and other equipment. Cars now include laptop computers and even printers.
The Ford had a powerful V8 engine for fast pursuits and rear-wheel drive, keeping it more stable in tight turns. And by not having the unibody construction of other makes, the Ford could be more easily repaired after minor accidents.
Minor model changes over the years also meant that fleets could stock parts that would work in cars from various years.
Many cops have spent their whole careers never having driving a different kind of cruiser.
Typically, rookies are assigned older vehicles that they will drive until 250,000 miles show on the odometers, said Lt. Paul Crosper of the Georgia State Patrol.
"The day, as a young trooper, that you get a brand new car, you think of it as if it's your own. You wax it. You polish it," he said.
That kind of attachment creates a sentimental bond.
Ford is looking for a suitable sendoff when the last Crown Vic rolls off the assembly line this fall, according to company marketing spokeswoman Marisa Bradley. The response from drivers has been as strong and emotional as when the automaker ended production of the Thunderbird sports sedan.
It hopes the two, smaller, V6 models it's introducing this fall to replace the Crown Vic will eventually gain acceptance and maybe loyalty. Their bodies resemble a Taurus but with modifications recommended by active officers during the three-year development.
"It, at first, shocks police officers to think of the end of the Crown Vic, but that's until they realize that the V6 outperforms the Crown Vic," Bradley said.
Chevy has brought back a smaller Caprice, and Dodge is selling a police version of its Charger. So, the era of cookie-cutter patrols cars for every state, local and federal police agency is over.
That means in the future, motorists may not recognize the silhouette ahead as a cop.