A hundred years ago this year, RCMP Commissioner A. Bowen Perry sought permission to buy the force’s first automobiles for general patrol duty.
He was turned down. He re-submitted the request each year until it was approval was approved and the first car arrived in 1916. It was a McLaughlin-Buick delivered to the Regina headquarters of the Royal North West Mounted Police, as the RCMP was then called.
By 1920, there were 33 cars and trucks and 28 motorcycles in the fleet. By 1928, RCMP cruisers (mainly Fords and McLaughlin-Buicks) finally outnumbered horses. Mechanics had to be hired to care for the fleet, and driving lessons were needed for the many officers who had never been behind the wheel of a car.
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Today, the RCMP has a fleet of more than 11,000 cars, trucks, motorcycles, snowmobiles and buses (including 217 hybrids). The most popular patrol car is the Ford Crown Victoria. There are about 2,800 in service. The model was recently cancelled.
There are also pickup trucks (used in rural areas and for towing) and sport utility vehicles, including Ford Expeditions and Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes, in both two- and four-wheel-drive models.
The large and diverse fleet is required for provinces outside Ontario and Quebec, where the RCMP doubles as the provincial police force, and patrols highways.
“Pickups and SUVs are used in the north and in rural areas, and sedans are used more in urban policing,” said Sgt. Julie Gagnon, the force’s media relations officer in Ottawa
By the 1930s, Ford was a popular choice for patrol cars. A 1934 advertisement in the RCMP’s magazine shows a Mountie, with his gun drawn, beside a Ford sedan.
“When lives hang in the balance, the Ford V-8 gives you a real advantage,” the ad copy reads. “Before you buy a new car, it will pay you to compare the Ford V-8’s top speed and acceleration with any other car practical for patrol duty. You can expect the Ford V-8 to excel in any test you care to make — flashing performance, rugged stamina, long life, dependability and economy.”
As more personal cars hit the roads in the late 1930s, police cruisers were needed, not only to chase criminals, but to enforce traffic laws. The first RCMP highway patrol started in Manitoba in 1937, with a fleet of five vehicles.
There were limitations: there were no patrols during the winter because of poor road conditions, and the only way to communicate with headquarters was to stop periodically and find a public telephone.
Starting in 1951, RCMP cars were painted black, with white doors. In 1974, they changed to blue with white doors. Since 1994, vehicles have been all white. (One colour is less expensive, and the vehicles have a higher resale value once they’re retired from service, typically after three years or 180,000 km.)
The emergency light packages have also changed over the years. In the 1950s, RCMP cars had one flashing light (known as a cherry) in the middle of the roof. In the 1970s, two cherries were standard. In 1980, a new light bar arrived from a company in New York. It was essentially a rectangular box across the entire roof with two enclosed lights that would flash.
“There’s one motor in the middle, and it drove the two lights at each side, connected by a nylon belt,” explains Sgt. Alain LeBlanc of Regina. “But on the Prairies, the belt would freeze up solid in the winter. So, you’ve got a big car crash, you’ve got to get there fast, but guess what? Your lights would light up, but they wouldn’t turn.”
The light bars were removed and shipped to British Columbia detachments, where the climate was a bit warmer.
LeBlanc was stationed in Nova Scotia in 1988, when the first air-conditioned patrol cars arrived.
“We were excited to get air-conditioning,” he recalls. “Before that, you had to roll your windows down in the summer. When you have to be in a car for six to eight hours with the windows down, it’s not comfortable. And . . . you couldn’t hear the police radio with the siren blaring and the wind blowing, and you’re driving 130 km/h.”
Although most cruisers have been full-sized sedans, there was a move to add a few high-performance and fuel-efficient cars in the 1980s.
Highway patrol in Regina acquired two high-performance Ford Mustangs on a trial basis for a year in 1986. With a fuel-injected turbo 5.0-litre engine, the Mustang could reach 185 km/h. And there were no lights or sirens on the roofs, as they would catch the wind and reduce performance.
The force also had eight Chevrolet Camaros in use from 1992 to 2002, with a special police package.
“The Camaro outperformed the Mustang,” says Cpl. Sean Chiddenton of Regina. “With a bigger engine and longer wheelbase, the Camaro was faster and handled better. It’s absolutely my favourite police car I have ever had the privilege to drive.”
“They were able to close the distance before most people even realized they were being pulled over. They were almost invisible because of the few numbers. People just did not associate them as police cars and were not looking for them when driving.”
The muscle cars were soon put out to pasture, Chiddenton says.
“The pursuit vehicles were expensive to purchase, maintain, and, with the exception of B.C., were limited by the weather and season, so they were not the most practical cars.”
The reliable Crown Victoria soon developed into a much better performer.
“The Crown Victorias of today would easily outperform the first 5.0 L Mustangs the RCMP purchased,” says Chiddenton. “The engine puts out more horsepower, the suspension is better, and, with bigger tires and rims, they handle better.”
Now that Ford has stopped making the Crown Vickies, police departments are searching for new rides.
“We anticipate a 20- to 30-per-cent fuel savings on the newer V6 motors, compared to the older V8 Ford Crown Victoria workhorse,” says Gagnon. “While the motors are smaller, they actually produce higher horsepower, and will deliver the same or better power at lower fuel costs.”
He adds the force will continue to test out new technologies (such as hybrids) as they evolve — just as it did 100 years ago.