This 1961 CHP Dodge Polara Is the Perfect Police Car
Jay Leno meets one of California’s rare, surviving vintage Dodge Polara cruisers.
Back in the Sixties, the California Highway Patrol needed fleet cars that could take beating after beating and keep on humming. The preferred manufacturer of the CHiPs was Chrysler, with the police package offered on the Dodge Dart. However, the brass wanted a slightly bigger sedan. The 118-inch wheelbase on the Dart wouldn’t pass muster, so they coaxed Dodge into creating a special-order car solely for CHP use. The base model? The Polara, with its 122-inch wheelbase. “Those four inches must’ve made all the difference, huh?” Jay Leno wisecracks on this week’s Jay Leno’s Garage.
The CHP ordered up 1,200 of the Polaras decked in patrol trim. Of that sizable order, only two restorations are known to exist. It’s rare to find such a car, Leno explains, because patrol cars were typically flogged to within inches of death by officers before being sold off to eager buyers—typically teens—who then drove them right into the ground. This particular vehicle wasn’t doing so hot until the Automobile Club of Southern California stepped in and brought it back to vibrant, two-toned life.
As a result of being stored outside for years, the floors, trunk and quarter panels were completely rusted out when it was found, says Dave Skaien, who oversaw the project. It took a tremendous amount of time, materials and the kindness of strangers to get it looking as cherry as it does now. For example, that certified police speedometer from Motorola was proving impossible to find until a generous gent who’d been holding onto one for years heard about the restoration and donated it to the cause.
Other bits that Skaien hunted down to make it authentic to the period: the Plymouth steering wheel in white (to stay cooler in the summer heat), the side and rear service lights (a proper lightbar would’ve lowered the top speed as much as 15 miles per hour) a working radio unit and the bigger, 60-amp alternator that the CHP upfitted the cars with, since the enormous radio drew 30 amps every time the mic was keyed. Skaien even managed to find the proper radiator cap.
Under the hood is the Chrysler B 383 V8 big block. This was chosen over the 413 for better gas mileage, though the power was down about 40 ponies. Still, the 383 was no slouch. When Skaien dynoed it, the result was 332 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. The CHP had some serious gearheads in the motorpool given that they opted to use the high-performance dual barrel camshaft from the 413 in this 383. Skaien talked to a cop who drove one of the Polaras and learned that the expectation for these machines was to be able to sustain 100 mph for one hour in 100-degree heat.
And run it can. Leno gets it out on the highway—for the first time since the rebuild, Skaien says—and finds that "between 50 and 70 mph is really where it wants to be.” The pickup is good and the suspension is as firm as it needs to be, given the other mods. “This isn’t a show car,” Leno surmises. “It runs like it should. It seems very happy in it’s natural habitat.” Amen.