Essay : Policing from behind the wheel
News that the UK’s last MG police car has been pensioned off* surely merits that oft overused ‘end of an era’ phrase.
‘MG Rover and out’ about sums it up – and it prompted a mixture of memories from ex-police PR officer Roger Blaxall who worked for Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and Lancashire Constabulary from the mid ’80s to 2000.
A life in crime…
I REALLY enjoyed my time with the police; whether they enjoyed their time employing me is, however, a moot point. It gave me a chance to indulge two passions of my life – ‘watching the detectives’ and getting up close and personal with a variety of police vehicles in some of the increasingly cosmopolitan UK police fleets of 25 years ago.
After joining GMP back in 1984… I can remember mentioning the new Austin Montego at my interview (and I still got the job) my wage doubled overnight from that of penury at the Ormskirk Advertiser – and there was an index linked pension to boot.
I fondly imagined my first day would be a meeting with Chief Constable James Anderton – dream on – but at least I did get to know all his drivers really well over the seven years editing the force magazine ‘Brief’ where I also started a regular motoring column.
Back to the cars though … and my early memories concerned meetings of the Police Committee where James Anderton met his match in its redoubtable Chair (never Chairman please…) one Gabrielle Cox. He’d travel to meetings in his force XJ6 driven by PC Ron Patient (an apt surname given the sometimes mercurial temper of his boss) while she’d come either by bus – or on her trusty Honda 90.
Needless to say, they were worlds apart not only when it came to transport but also political ideologies, and it was fascinating to see the power struggle that ensued when said Jaguar needed replacement back in the late ’80s.
I can still remember the huge row following a move to replace it with a… wait for it… Montego VDP.
Ronnie Patient’s demeanour visibly worsened as he realised the potential shame and ignominy of turning up at ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) events with his boss in the back of a humble Montego. There was a point of principle too at stake and James Anderton, a working class man from Wigan mining stock was NOT going to be beaten.
Cue one ex-Insp. Dan Ewington, who helped me write this article and supplied all the wonderful photos from his personal collection. He had to outline the case against the Montego and as the force expert on traffic patrol vehicles was asked his impartial opinion on it in such a prestigious role.
“I wrote a full and frank report about the beast,” he recalled.
“I can remember it had TDX tyres which were absolute crap and cost over £100 each,” he added.
“Normally when a Sergeant writes a report like this, it is checked by up through the ranks but not this one.
“I completed it during a morning, and having given my professional opinion, the report was taken by a motorcyclist from the force driving school direct to the Chief who took it with him to the Police Committee meeting.“As a result, he got the Jag.”
In fact, committee members had a lot to learn about sourcing police vehicles. For instance, there were cries of horror after they heard CID were getting a fleet of Peugeot 309GEs… until members learned they were built in Ryton, near Coventry; the fact they bought German made Granadas for traffic duties never even registered.
And when the force needed new riot vans (sorry, ‘protected personnel carriers’), the choice was narrowed down to an OTT version of the Sherpa V8 made by Kinetic of Hull. It looked like it had come straight from ‘The Terminator’ set … Judge Dredd wouldn’t have looked out of place at the wheel.
They sported protected front screens, large rubber skirts around the wheels fore and aft (to protect against petrol bombs) and made the most fantastic noise when driven in anger (also returning around 10 mpg)
And who wanted them on the force? James Anderton … and did JA get what he wanted? Affirmative.
Again, Dan Ewington came up trumps …
He recalled how the force Tactical Aid Group – or TAG – had written off a three litre Transit and wanted a replacement quickly. One problem – Ford was about to replace it with a new model, and the higher powered versions were a good 18 months off.
Dan remembers how a Sgt. at Openshaw, the force vehicle workshops, had a word with a contact at Longbridge and a few days later a unique one off Sherpa V8 prototype was delivered to GMP, finished in white with an orange stripe and blues and two’s.
‘Fright Rover’ might have been the best name for this one off monster with its 3.5 engine. It could hit speeds of around 115 mph at full chat – and that’s with the aerodynamics of a brick (and tyres rated to a maximum speed of 113 mph).
I always remember visiting the Openshaw garages where the Kinetic conversions were delivered to be told not to get in earshot when the sirens were being tested … they’d deafen any unwitting bystanders when used in an enclosed space.
And that blinkered committee attitude meant a plan to buy the Jaguar XJS 3.6 for traffic patrolling was also scuppered.
Officers at Hazel Grove traffic tried it and liked it … the Police Committee had other ideas and the last I saw of the car was ironically when Jaguar loaned the same demo. model to the force museum at Newton St. nick as a long term exhibit 20-odd years ago
Remember the original Sunbeam Lotus? How on earth the traffic Chief Super persuaded the force to buy half a dozen of them seems inexplicable … the very mention of the word ‘Lotus’ on the purchase order should have been enough to send someone scurrying for the ‘phone! As far as I know GMP was the only force to run these potent hot hatches in the early eighties; one officer boasted of driving from Wigan to Birch Services near Rochdale in around 15 minutes – that’s a distance of 20 odd miles on a busy motorway!
Needless to say that while the cars were great on the open road, driving round town was another matter; keeping them in any fit state of tune was hard enough as the plugs oiled up regularly and urban fuel consumption was less than 20mpg. That said they were a great Q cars in the fight against car crime; GMP still has a predilection for off the wall covert cars – Audi S3s were recently used by the auto crime unit.
If you want to read more about the Sunbeam Lotus cars, visit the excellent ‘www.police.car.uk’ website where you’ll find the restoration story of MNF 643W, the only survivor.
And what of Austin Rovers that GMP used back then?
One that didn’t go down too well was the Austin Montego. GMP had tested the MG version, and was very impressed, ordering two. The actual cars which turned up, according to Dan Ewington, were Austin two litre EFis; needless to say, they were only used as a last resort in central Manchester where the weapon of choice continued to be the last of the old Capri 2.8 injection (Corgi do a great model).
As ‘Brief’ editor, I was always on the lookout for a topical photo from the front page, and the Manchester motor show at Platt Fields was a great chance to get one. Here, MG stole the headlines as its new Montego turbo was previewed locally. I got into the event early waiting for the photographer and can still recall having a good look at the display car with its flimsy trim … I almost broke the front spoiler while flexing it.
Big stars back then – with the emphasis on big – were Renee and Renato (he died recently aged 68) who were wheeled in (literally for twenty stone Renato) to launch the rival Mitsubishi Galant turbo. And the officer having his picture taken came in a Sherpa general purpose van by the way … happy days!
While MGs and Rovers played a ‘bit part’ in GMP road policing, the Range Rover was very much a staple of the fleet.
And it stayed that way despite the best intentions of police committee jobsworths, sorry members, who were convinced that Sherpa vans could be just as effective on high density traffic routes like the M62. Police patrolling in fair weather is a great job for a Sherpa … the problem came in wintertime when bad weather could shut the motorway down and it’s then that Range Rovers came into their own.
Case in point – a Sherpa was sent to ‘rescue’ a jack knifed tanker on the M62 … said truck refused to budge and the driver literally ripped the back of the Sherpa trying!
In fact, two Range Rovers hooked up were more than a match for jobs like this – but no one could prepare for the best RR drivers for a mid winter episode when snow closed the M62 and every four wheel drive vehicle in the force was sent to rescue motorists stuck near Birch Services, which was turned into a makeshift over night ‘hotel’.
The weather was that bad that extremely high winds saw Range Rover doors being literally blown off …
One regular feature I arranged was ‘dream for a day’, a chance for officers and support staff to fulfil a personal dream or ambition.
We took a young female officer to the Leyland test track to drive a Leyland Marathon, and an inner city detective wanted to see the last of the Lancaster’s in Lincolnshire; I duly obliged.
But my favourite was a request from a fingerprints officer who wanted to learn how to drive properly off road.
‘Nuff said … I was on the phone to motor driving school and a few weeks later we travelled to rural E. Lancashire near Littleborough where the force leased a quarry from a Canadian landowner. It was a magnificent windswept place to test all manner of offroaders and the battered Range Rover test vehicle did us proud; with its tyre pressures reduced to 15PSI all round I also bagged a drive and still managed to get well and truly stuck on my third – and final – time round.
My average speed on the day was all of 10 miles an hour … one assignment a few months later was much more exciting!
GMP was about to bid a fond farewell to the last of its Capri 2.8is which had served traffic so well down the years – their replacement were new Sierra Cosworth 4×4 saloons.
It was a brilliant opportunity to get some photos for the GMP museum files; back in 1987 the M67 was one of the quietest motorways in the force area, and I accompanied photographer Chris Oldham who lent precariously out of the back of a liveried Range Rover as the Capri and Cossie drove side by side at a steady 60.
Brilliant shots, a brilliant day’s work – and some brilliant memories.
One of the Cossies made the headlines a short time later after an officer attempted to max one out all, ahem, in the name of ‘safety’. He was clocked at almost 150 mph and reported by another officer if memory serves and heavily rapped over the knuckles – I suppose he was fortunate not to be wrapped around the central reservation if he’d have lost control; the car survived but his days as a traffic cop didn’t…
Talking of speed brings me to the Rover 827 fastbacks. One was involved in a chase through Prestwich town centre following an Audi quattro which drove hell for leather at an incredibly dangerous 149mph… well that was the speed recorded on the pursuing Rover’s ‘Provida’ system which tried to keep up. It might not have caught the thief that time, but officers in Trafford division traffic came up with a novel idea for the cars, removing the back seats and replacing them with a dog cage so that police dogs could travel in air conditioned luxury around the division. I can’t remember the ‘Brief’ headline – but the suitably naff ‘hot dog’ comes to mind…
The mention of dogs and Rovers leads me to a few stories involving the mark two 800’s with the troublesome 2.5 KV6 engine. By 1991, I was working in the Lancashire Constabulary press office, and very pleased with myself for landing a job at such an influential force. In case you don’t know, Lancashire led the way in much of modern policing, pioneering the use of MG police cars back in the thirties, followed by personal radios for officers back in the late forties, the UK’s first underwater search teams, the famous ‘Z cars’, panda cars and latterly some of the best community policing in the country.
It also had a massive fleet of ARG products from its Metro and Maestro beat cars to Montegos, Maestro vans, Pilot’s, Range Rovers and the Chief’s own armoured XJ6. The force was so well respected that many manufacturers would send prototypes for evaluation – such was the case for one of four Granada ‘police car of the future’ concepts which arrived at Hutton in the mid eighties. With its raised streamlined roof, 2.9 injection engine and four wheel drive, it really looked the part … unfortunately only three of the cars were returned to Ford; the Lancashire loan model was written off in a high speed ‘incident’ on the M6, the rumour was that the driver fell asleep at the wheel but this was never proved.
My first week was interesting to say the least. A Frenchman who’d recently bought a Jaguar XJ220 was so fed up with the attention he got from lots of M6 drivers he put his foot down, landing right in the merde.
Unluckily for him, he was spotted at around 120 mph by two officers who promptly pulled him over, arrested him and impounded the car; one of them had to drive it back to Preston nick. Local MPs had a field day – needless to say, said tourist was not a little brassed off by his high profile Lancashire welcome but had learnt his lesson.
Back to the sorry tale of the Rovers, though. If you ever wonder why you rarely saw Rover 75 police cars and, latterly, MG ZTs, blame the abysmal record of the KV6 engine.
Suspicious police fleet managers make Sherlock Holmes seem like an amateur, and they smelt a big rat when the original 75 came with an ‘improved’ KV6 unit. They were having none of it – I can still remember double digit numbers of 800 patrol cars being off the road with work even farmed out to a dealer way out in the sticks. The die was cast and the 75, good though it was, was never considered ‘bobby proof’.
That said, there were some fans of the Rover 800s in Motor Driving School; here the cars led a largely pampered life, polished daily within an inch of their lives. Instructors, a mixture of police and support staff were all class 1 drivers, and usually a relaxed lot when not behind the wheel; I never saw them move so quickly during a trip by a group of youngsters from Chernobyl though which nearly ended in disaster.
The cars were usually parked up with their keys in and, for some reason, in gear.
I’d been asked to show the youngsters round and pointed out the cars … it didn’t take too long for one of the baby faced visitors to get behind the wheel and before you could say ‘glasnost’ he’d turned the key and car lurched dangerously forward. Seconds later, there was a blur of activity straight from The Professionals as officers dived into the cockpits to knock the cars into neutral and simultaneously retrieve the keys.
On reflection it was a great shame that the ARG era was coming to an ignominious end. The Lancashire force boasted a long and distinguished history with its cars, especially the MG; the Constabulary was the biggest user of cars from Abingdon from the mid thirties until the mid seventies in various guises, most notably on the fledgling M6 motorway where MGAs patrolled the UK’s first motorway aka the Preston by pass; incidentally one is still used at the Goodwood revival.
I played a very small part in a brilliant Police MG book written by Andrea and Malcolm McKay who spent a few days at Hutton HQ trawling through the excellent force transport records in the late nineties. A colleague dug out the relevant books recording the purchase of every single car, registration plate, chassis number, purchase price, where the cars were based, how long they were in service, their eventual disposal date – and even who bought them.
It was great when a letter from an old timer abroad who’d bought and restored a former Constabulary MG arrived. They were keen to discover its history … I was only too pleased to help and whiled away a pleasant hour or three mulling over selfsame records.
There wasn’t the same enthusiasm back then for cars like the Maestro and old SD1s the force had. The fleet manager made a little bit of history with a block order of any remaining SD1’s which explained why E platers were on patrol until the early ’90s. I once ran out of petrol on the way home from GMP and was stranded on one of the busiest roads into Ormskirk; a kindly PC took pity on me and gave me and my passengers a lift into town. We were in the car literally minutes – long enough though for me to notice how badly it rattled and was somewhat worse for wear.
(And talking of friendly officers and lifts home, I once blew the engine on a Cavalier on the M6 near Wigan and was rescued by a GMP Range Rover who not only towed me off the motorway … tut tut … but gave us all a lift home to a friends in Wigan).
Back to the SD1s – many officers were glad to see the back of them but the car they most detested were the petrol Maestros which were foisted on them in the mid eighties as a successor to the Escort. Lancashire must have ordered hundreds of them; if you ever watch Juliet Bravo you’re bound to see one in the background near Bacup nick. One Maestro fondly remembered was the Clubman turbo D which were introduced as CID cars in the early nineties and went down very well. And just to end this Maestro fest., while on holiday in the Cotswolds a few years ago I popped into Tewksbury library to check my e-mails and read one from a lady who was about to restore a Lancashire Maestro. It takes all sorts I suppose – does anyone know if the car was ever returned to the road, and, er, why?
Those family holidays there reminds me of how many Lancashire cars ended up locally on civvy street after being disposed of via Oxford Motor Auctions … it was strange to be shopping in Broadway and seeing a beige Montego sporting a Lancashire registration and suddenly realising it was a police spec. Clubman.
Moving on – literally and figuratively – and the next cars I remember were the Rover 220SDs, the weapon of choice if you needed a pool car for a long journey. As PR officer for the Police History Society, I attended conferences all over England and once chose a Rover for the trip to Kent County Constabulary where I had my first experience of driving on the M25.
A police sergeant who travelled with me turned a blind eye to the highly illegal speeds I travelled at to reach the Kent HQ in time and the 220 impressed with its overall refinement, economy and comfort. The fly in the ointment was an unpredictable alarm which would set itself off at random on petrol forecourts and the like.
By the way, if you’re into police history, I can recommend the PHS as a valuable resource for all aspects of the services’ work over the last 150 years or so. The fact that its file of irreplaceable police car and bike photographs was lost in the Lancashire Constabulary paper crusher is a mere sad footnote in its history, and in part down to me and a cleaner who one could only describe as ‘simple’ but enthusiastic.
It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who, entrusted with a valuable piece of police history, leaves a box of what look like old police car photos on a desk. With said cleaner on duty, I think you can guess what happened and I was thrown into a seismic panic as I tried to track them down.
The subsequent conversation was something like this: ‘Those old police car photos?
‘Why did you leave them on your desk, I thought you wanted them thrown away …’
One part of our work as press officers was promoting the force in a positive light. I still remember taking the initial call from an ex-Bill producer who wanted to do a gritty Northern police show – anyone remember ‘Cops’ which was set in Bolton, Lancashire and researched in Preston?
Granada TV also did a six part series on motorway policing which will go down in history for its opening shot of two motorway officers starting a stranded Range Rover with a 20p piece. Despite being one of the best selling police motorway patrol vehicles, the Range Rovers’ electrical gremlins could leave officers frustrated at the most inopportune times. So, when it came to getting a car started for a routine patrol, out came the 20p piece to open the battery cover, the jump leads were hooked up and hey presto, contact.
That the force replaced its RR fleet with Mercedes M Class was not universally regarded as a popular move but many officers understood why they had to go. The wheels have since moved full circle … from 2007 Discoveries were back on the police fleet – and you had to feel sorry for the transporter driver who got lost in Preston with some brand new Rangies (as the Range Rovers were known) on his top deck. He went under a low bridge, destroying three new motorway patrol cars at a cost of some £100,000 plus, one very expensive mistake.
I eventually left the force after a re-shuffle in March 2000, and now work for Liverpool’s largest hospice in Crosby, Lancashire; our office is adjacent to the main road from Liverpool to Southport and is frequently used for ‘bandit training’ by Merseyside Police; every so often there’s the scream of sirens as two or more cars speed past on a mock pursuit.
Does it quicken my pulse still? Guilty as charged!
That’s not quite the end of the story though, and every year I’m an invited guest at what I describe as ‘the biggest European motor show you’ve never heard of’. The National Association of Police Fleet Manager event is by invitation only and is where emergency service fleet managers from all over the world view the latest in police cars, bikes and vans, innovations in communication technology, etc. and also have their annual conference.
It’s a long day but a very enjoyable one, and an invaluable source of information about new police vehicles. Marketing departments pull out all the stops to boast the biggest and most impressive stands – in 2008, it was neck and neck between Honda and BMW and now Audi has entered the fray, all of which tells its own (sad) tale on how the emergency services market has evolved over the last few years …
My thanks to ex GMP traffic officer Dan Ewington, ‘the man who killed Denovo’ and Duncan Broady at the GMP museum for all their help. Dan helped source some of the pictures for this article from his personal collection. A former police Rover 3500S driver, his unique moniker was earned after he simply asked Dunlop ‘if your Denovo tyre can run while punctured 100 miles at 50 mph, can it survive 50 miles at 100 mph?’ The firm set up a test rig and ran one at 111mph … it lasted all of three minutes before exploding!
For more information on visiting the GMP museum, based at the old Newton St. police station in Manchester city centre, call +44 (0)161 856 3287.
*The last surviving police MG in a UK force was a covert ZT used at Castlereagh police station up until late summer, 2009.