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Desk Duty

This ’92 SSP still serves with the Michigan State Police

Barry Kluczyk - October 27, 2011 10:00 AM

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Established in 1917 as a temporary emergency force for domestic security during World War I, the Michigan State Police (MSP) included motorized units from the very beginning. The fledgling force of only 300 men comprised mounted, dismounted and the motorized units.

In the more than 90 years of the MSP, tradition has infused its operations and public presence, perhaps no more visibly than the distinctive blue state police vehicles. The cars have changed with the times, but they’ve almost always incorporated visual cues that are among the most unique in the nation, including:

•A MSP-specific (special order) blue exterior color used since 1956

•Door shield graphics that have remained unchanged since 1956

•A red “gumball”-style roof light exclusive to MSP cars, making them instantly identifiable from a long distance

•A lighted, hood-mounted “stop” sign known as the “shark fin” that predates modern roof lights and was originally developed to provide an indicator for motorists to pull over – when the MSP pulled alongside your car and the stop sign lit up, you pulled over.

When it came to patrol cars, the Michigan State Police tried and used all the conventional full-size sedans. Thanks to its proximity to the Big Three, they became — and remain — influential in field-testing police-package models. The agency’s annual testing of all special service vehicles is followed by police agencies throughout the country.

In the late ’80s, the MSP cruiser of choice was the stalwart Chevy Caprice 9C1, but the department launched a several-year experiment with higher-performance patrol cars, starting with the Mustang SSP. According to www.sspmustang.org — an excellent online reference site for the cars — 14 of the cars were pressed into duty in 1989. Another 20 Mustangs were employed in 1992.

This means there were only 34 MSP Mustang SSPs, which was a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 2,500 purchased by the California Highway Patrol and 1,600-plus ordered by the Florida Highway Patrol. Of the 34 MSP cars, we don’t know how many are left in private hands, but the fully dressed 1992 example seen here is still owned by the Michigan State Police. It’s not on road patrol any longer, but it’s still in the department – think of it as desk duty for a seasoned veteran.

With the assistance of Sergeant Matt Rogers, a driving instructor at the MSP training academy and keeper of the historic cars’ keys, we photographed the Mustang on the grounds of the Michigan State Police academy and peppered him with questions. They started with: Why are the bumper covers a darker color than the rest of the car?

His answer: Painting the bumper covers in the special MSP blue color wasn’t possible at the factory. So, they’re dark blue.

And so it went …

The car, like all the MSP Mustangs, was outfitted as a “slick top” (no roof light). Those red gumball lights on the full-size cars are seemingly as large as the Mustang roof and probably too heavy. While the roof light wasn’t part of the Mustang emergency lighting equipment, tradition wasn’t totally abandoned since all received the iconic shark fin on the hood.

A quick inspection of the Mustang reveals a well-kept car that shows some obvious signs of wear commensurate with its years on the road. The trunk has the full-size spare tire, as well as the road duty equipment, including a small shovel. The interior has radio equipment, but the radar system is removed. Other telltale cues of a true SSP abound, including the optional relocated trunk release button (mounted on the dashboard) and 160-mph “certified calibration”-labeled speedometer.

We poked around under the hood and found no surprises, just a stock 5.0-liter engine hooked to an AOD four-speed automatic transmission. Heavy-duty blue silicone hoses were typical on SSPs, too, (they were a popular option) but this one has black replacement hoses.

The blue silicone hoses and relocated trunk release are assumed to be standard items for an SSP, but they’re not. Many of the police-spec features were optional, including the full-size spare tire, single-lock key, automatic transmission cooler and more. It’s true that most police agencies opted for them, but their inclusion wasn’t automatic.

Under the hood, we also spotted the dog tag-style buck tags clipped to the core support behind the driver-side headlamp that outlined the DSO number and SSP identification. “DSO” stands for Domestic Special Order and all true SSPs have one, which is a code for the regional sales office through which the cars were channeled. The car also sported the original VIN tags on the front fascia, front fenders, doors and trunk lid, suggesting it led an accident-free life running down speeders and bad guys on Michigan’s freeways and byways.

Considering it’s been 20 years since this car was put into service, its condition is pretty remarkable. It shows only 58,000 miles on the six-digit odometer, which is very low for a police car. That it survives in Michigan these days is a testament to the importance of heritage to the department. The state has been hit by the economic downturn and statewide budgets have been slashed. It would be all too easy to get rid of the historic cruisers to save a few bucks.

The cars are popular four-wheeled ambassadors for the MSP and are loaned to different state police posts throughout the state for display at special events. Not surprisingly, the Mustang draws plenty of attention.

Here’s to hoping the historic cars of the MSP are never fully retired.

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