When police cruisers reach around 100,000 miles after five or six years of service, they're stripped of their police gear — radios, decals, light bars, computers, spotlights, and cages — and sent off to auction.
There, they tend to be bought up by taxi fleets, other police departments, or private citizens. After a paint job and some mechanical work, they're usually put back on the road unless a fleet manager has them cannibalized for replacement body and mechanical parts.
In the fall, we ran into a retired Rhode Island cruiser that found new life beyond an "undercover" vehicle. It had come back as a 1949 Buick, one that was a far cry from the typical "Your Father's Buick."
Most folks at the "Cars & Coffee" gathering at Herb Chambers Lexus in Sharon thought it was what it appeared to be: a '49 Buick hot rod, complete with a "skunk" hanging from the outside driver's side mirror and electric wolf whistle.
But John Johnson, of Mansfield, who retired after 30 years as an Amtrak maintenance supervisor, mated that '49 Buick body with a retired police car, a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria chassis and powertrain.
He found the Buick in a barn in Attleboro where it had been sitting for 30 years. "It was all there. It had some dents and rust and the right front fender was folded under," he said of his $800 purchase.
"I'd always wanted to own a police car. I figured it would be a good driver and handle well," he said. That car cost $500.
During the next year-and-a-half, he did all the work — mechanical, welding, painting — himself, in the process turning the 4-door Buick "Super" sedan into a two-door coupe, chopping the roof seven inches in the front and five inches in the back, and lowering the body a couple of inches over the Ford frame.
The 4.6-liter V-8 runs fine. "I can get 25 miles per gallon on the highway," said Johnson, who's done just that with numerous trips to New York State and excursions to Kentucky and Florida.
Inside, the velour seats are out of a '98 "civilian" Crown Vic and Johnson has modified the dashboard to include an air-conditioning grille.
There are many extra touches. He installed a "third" brake light — the eyes of a skull mounted on the shelf behind the rear seat — and a stereo with speakers behind the traditional Buick "waterfall" grille for picnics and car shows. He's also got light strips under the hood and under the vehicle, with a dashboard switch that allows him to change color and brightness.
He's also got another surprise for folks who admire his Buick at a car show.
"I took this big old Pooh Bear we had at home and cut off his head," said Johnston. "Then I took a windshield wiper motor and mounted it inside the head before sewing the bear back together." At a show the bear sits in the car and, thanks to Johnson's remote control, turns his head to follow passersby."
"Everyone gets a big laugh out of it," he said.
Instead of going for the expense of refinishing bumpers and chrome trim, Johnson stripped the chrome and painted those parts in the same hot rod satin black and green that cover the rest of the exterior.
When asked if he ever uncapped the side "lake pipe" exhausts, Johnson laughed.
"They're there for looks only," he said. "I recycled the pipes holding up my kids' old basketball net."
The project worked out so well Johnson is working on another conversion, mating a customized 1949 Dodge body on a Lincoln Town Car chassis.
"If I were to sell the car for $100,000, I'd probably be getting a nickel an hour for my time," he said.
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee