Cars have been on American streets since the 1890s, with the Duryea Motor Wagon Company the first automaker in the United States.
Founded in 1893 by brothers Charles and Frank Duryea, the company produced the first-ever gasoline-driven vehicle in America. With new companies emerging after Duryea, the car industry developed steadily. Due to the huge market demand, the United States soon became the world’s largest producer of cars.
With the appearance of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler in the early 1900s, mass-production of automobiles began, and streets became overwhelmed with vehicles. Considering this, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to use cars in the police service.
One of the first people to have such an idea was Frank Croul, a police commissioner in Detroit. With his city being the center of the American auto industry and home to Ford, Packard, Cadillac, and Studebaker, Croul wondered if he could use the vehicles in his department. The commissioner, who was in office from 1909–13, inquired with city authorities about buying a car for the police, but his request was turned down. Croul then invested his own $5,000 (equivalent to $100,000 today) and bought a Packard.
He was proven right after only a few months when the city reimbursed him and purchased another six vehicles for the protectors of the law. Since then, cars became widespread in Detroit, and by 1913 every service in the city had a car at its disposal. Croul’s idea proved to be brilliant. However, he was not the first to purchase a vehicle for the needs of the police.
The first police car was actually in Akron, Ohio, purchased by city authorities in 1899. The Collins Buddy Company produced the car for $2,400, or $65,000 in today’s money. Two 4hp electric motors powered the battery-run vehicle. With a top speed of 18 mph and a range of 30 miles with the batteries fully charged, this 5,000-pound “paddy” wagon was equipped with electric headlights, a gong, and a cell for prisoners. The first horseless police vehicle ever introduced in the States, it had seating space for 12 people and was operated by Officer Louis Mueller Sr. The car, which was designed by the mechanical engineer Frank Loomis, was often called a squad car, since it was used to transport a squad of police officers to a crime scene.
The new vehicle’s first assignment was to arrest a drunk man from the streets of Akron, who was causing trouble at the corner of Main and Exchange streets. After this incident, the car was regularly used in everyday police activities until 1900, when the city experienced the worst riot in Ohio’s history. The riot was caused by the assault of a six-year-old girl by a man named Louis Peck, who was caught and confessed to the crime the very next morning. On the same day, a mob of 300 people gathered on the streets of Akron, with the purpose of lynching Peck. The mob attacked the City Building with bricks and dynamite, trying to draw the police out and get to the criminal. The rioters set fire to the Akron fire station and burned it to the ground, also attacking the firefighters who tried to put out the fires at the City Building.
During the protests, the police wagon was stolen by rioters and pushed into the Ohio Canal. It was pulled out the next day, cleaned, repaired, and returned to service. Although the wagon served them well, city authorities never requested another one to be built. With Akron being one of the first cities where the Mafia and organized crime appeared, they recognized the need of purchasing faster, gasoline-driven cars. The wagon was used until 1905 when it was sold as scrap for $25.
By 1904, motorized patrol vehicles had appeared in most of larger cities, replacing horse-drawn carriages. In 1911, motorcycles were introduced to the police, becoming the most popular police vehicle before cars were widely used. The first patrol cars were almost identical to ordinary civilian cars, most often painted in dark colors, with the PD sign written by hand.
In 1912, Detroit police first attempted to fit a radio in a car. Red lights were added in the 1930s. Ford’s Model 18 was the most popular police car at the time, being cheaper and more reliable than their competitors. The first rotation lights were introduced in 1948, and in the 1950s most car manufacturers in the United States began to offer the police custom-built, faster, and more powerful cars than those available to the public.