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Beloved police partner headed for retirement

Ford to phase out Crown Vic in 2011

Officer Jason Montalbano and his Crown Victoria, long a police favorite. Officer Jason Montalbano and his Crown Victoria, long a police favorite. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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Medford police Officer Jason Montalbano loves his Crown Victoria, its bulk, its toughness, its engine’s quiet purr.

He takes his police cruiser to the car wash at least three times a week. He dangles a yellow “Vanillaroma’’ scent tree from the console to mask the stench of stogies smoked by the overnight patrol officers. And sometimes, late at night when the city is quiet, Montalbano, the son of a cop, will take the 250-horsepower sedan out onto Interstate 93 and hit the gas until he is flying down the open road.

“For years, my father would say ‘You’ve got to take it on the highway and open it up,’ ’’ Montalbano said, grinning as he sat behind the wheel of his Crown Vic during a recent night shift.

Like his father and thousands of other officers across the country, Montalbano is a diehard Crown Vic devotee. For more than 30 years, the hulking, blunt, long-nosed car has been an officer’s battering ram, mobile office, dinner companion, and stoic partner. But now, that love affair is headed toward the scrap yard.

In 2011, the last Crown Vic will roll off the Ford assembly line to make way for a new police vehicle — the 2012 Ford Interceptor, a sleek cruiser with all-wheel drive, better gas mileage, and new gadgets, such as rearview cameras and radar sensors that detect vehicles in surrounding lanes. As the Crown Vics wear out, police departments will have to look for new options, and that realization has left some officers feeling despondent.

“Ford is making a big mistake,’’ said Quincy Officer Mike Foley, who has been driving Crown Vics for at least 12 years. “I will probably shed a tear when the last Crown Vic goes down the assembly line.’’

The first Crown Victoria was rolled out in 1955 as a regular sedan, but it was not until 1978 that police departments began using the car in their fleets. Over the years officers fell in love with the car’s rear-wheel-drive action, its ability to withstand hits and keep going, and the feeling of safety the large frame provided.

Today, most cars in police fleets across the country are Crown Vics, which cost between $21,000 and $25,000. In Massachusetts, they are bought through a bidding process. Of the 3,000 vehicles owned by Massachusetts State Police, 1,700 are Crown Vics. In Boston, they account for more than half of the department’s 908 vehicles.

Departments have flirted with other models, such as the Chevy Impala, which is fast but was dismissed by many officers as too small for their bulky duty belts and equipment. The Caprice, which resembled the Crown Vic with its rear-wheel drive and large frame, was wildly popular with law enforcement, but when Chevrolet abruptly stopped making the model in 1996, police departments returned in droves to the faithful Ford.

“We’ve seen a lot of models, but none of them hold a candle to the Crown Vic,’’ said Montalbano, a 13-year veteran.

He recalled the story of one Crown Vic that was almost destroyed after a bank robber smashed into it. Six months later, the car was back on the street, its engine purring, the body gleaming and without a scratch. Foley remembered a head-on collision with a teenager speeding down Quincy Shore Drive. Foley said he walked out of the car, not a scrape on him.

“It’s a great car,’’ said Medford police Officer Harold MacGilvray. “You can’t kill them.’’

But with average drivers now going for smaller sedans, it did not make economic sense for Ford to continue producing the large car for a specialized market, said Ed Sanow, editorial director of the magazines Law and Order and Police Fleet Manager.

“Law enforcement is so traditional. While they would miss the Crown Victoria, they would miss anything that they’re used to,’’ said Sanow, a sheriff’s deputy in Indiana. “It’s a real struggle to get the message across that volume drives choices. If there is no volume for the car, I’m sorry, the police version of that is going away, too.’’

Around 2005, Ford put together an advisory board of law enforcement officials from across the country, including Sanow, to provide feedback on new police models.

State Police Sergeant Mark Caron, who also sat on the board, recalled deep resistance when the members learned the Crown Vic would be replaced entirely.

“I thought there was going to be a mutiny at one meeting,’’ said Caron, the department’s fleet administrator.

Then the officers got to try the two Interceptor models, one a sport utility vehicle and the other a sedan based on the Taurus. They drove the cars on highways, over rough terrain, and through police obstacle courses. They tested the high-tech accessories. They sat in the roomy seats, which are sculpted to fit an officer’s utility belt and gun holster.

Caron said he quickly changed his mind.

“It hugs the corners, it really handles well, and it fits like you a glove,’’ he said of the Interceptor. “What I’ve been telling my guys is once they get into the new car and drive it, I think they’ll like it.’’

Lieutenant Jeffrey Silva of the New Bedford Police Department said the Crown Vic will eventually become a nostalgia piece.

“I think we would all agree that we’re trading in the radio, if you will, for the flat-screen TV,’’ he said. “While no one wants to go back to the radio, our parents and grandparents probably would tell you they miss those Saturday evenings and Sunday evenings with the family all together, huddled by the radio, listening to different programs.’’

It is hard to predict what will replace the Crown Vic. Its demise will encourage police to consider choices beyond Ford’s two new models. Dodge is rolling out its own police car, and Chevrolet is bringing back the Caprice, a potential comeback that has many officers excited.

“This is going to be wide-open bare-knuckled competition. No holds barred,’’ Sanow said. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out. If you’re a car guy . . . this is fingernail-biting exciting.’’

Asked whether a new model will give police an edge in sneaking up on perpetrators, who have learned to be aware of Crown Vics, some officers scoffed.

“Everybody knows what the police are driving,’’ said Boston police Sergeant Detective James Fong, who drives a unmarked Taurus on patrol in his district in Brighton. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look in the police lot and see what they’ve got.’’

Whatever hits the road, letting go of the past will be hard, Caron acknowledged.

He predicted he will have to harass many troopers who will undoubtedly drag their feet when they are told to turn in their worn-out Crown Vics.

“We’ll put black flags on the building here,’’ Caron joked. “We’ll have to put black shrouds around the Crown Vic.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.