RETIRED POLICE CHASERS
Mad Max. This cult Australian movie did lots to elevate the status of the humble police car in the minds of enthusiasts.
The car-chase scenes in the original 1979 movie featured police vehicles referred to by the film’s characters – the MFP or Main Force Patrol officers – as ‘Pursuit Specials’ and the almost-holy ‘Interceptor’. Since then, generations of Aussie car enthusiasts have adopted the terms – and another, ‘Chaser’ – to describe their bargain-buy ex-police highway patrol vehicles.
In fact, the genetics between the modifiedspecification police specials (built to order by Holden and Ford) and civilian-spec highperformance road cars are often shared: Ford’s legendary GT line had its roots in the XR Falcon V8 being developed for police use in the mid-1960s. In the 1980s, Ford deleted its cop-car favourite Falcon V8 but Holden’s efforts at upgrading V8 Commodores for hard-and-fast police use went hand-in-hand, with many of the tricks and tweaks that Peter Brock’s Holdenendorsed HDT Special Vehicles, incorporated into HDT-built Commodores.
In the second-half of the 1980s, Holden’s VL series Commodore Turbo (with a Nissan-sourced 3-litre OHC turbocharged six) forged itself a formidable reputation as a police pursuit vehicle and this rubbed-off on the sales of other models… Even though it had the pursuit special market to itself after Ford’s axing
spindle) front suspension. By turning around the US-market Ford Mustang’s upper intake manifold and developing a few new components (such as accessory belt drives and exhaust manifolds) the Yankee Mustang’s Windsor-type V8 engine could fit the new-for-the-90s Aussie Falcon.
As well as this across-the-range V8 engine option, Ford was able to introduce its first performance V8 sports sedan since the XE Fairmont Ghia ESP nearly a decade before: the Falcon S-XR8, a blue-blood competitor to Holden’s increasingly successful VN Commodore SS. The slightly clunky model name was later sharpened to just XR8 and remained part of the armour for the Ford vs Holden battle until the end of Aussie Falcon production last year.
It’s usually overlooked by the chrome-bumper car nuts but the 1990s was a hugely significant era of Australian motoring history: after 25 years of home-grown V8s – even with Ford V8’s absence from the market for a number of years – Holden and Ford were never more closely matched in size, model range, price, power and performance.
These two cars – a 1995 VS Holden Commodore and 1998 EL Falcon XR8 – represent the pinnacle of performance, Highway Patrol style, from 20 years ago.
Owned and restored by Jamie Gilligan, this 1998 ex-NSW Highway Patrol ELII Ford Falcon XR8 OPT20 represents the peak of Ford’s 1990s EA-EL Falcon generation. Thanks to Tickford’s handling improvements, by the mid-90s the EL Falcon XR8 was a respected driving enthusiasts and cop car. After having almost identical engine hardware and tune from 1991, the ELII XR8 picked up a more powerful version of the long-running Windsor 5.0-litre. From the 165kW/388Nm of the EB-EF models (EL claimed 170kW) the new power unit (fitted from around October 1997 into ELII) had 185kW and 402Nm thanks to better-breathing heads and intake manifold and a few other hardware changes.
It was only 15kW on-paper (less than 10 per cent) but the difference between the old and new EL XR8 was like chalk and cheese; as well as more grunt, a 3.45:1 diff (from 3.23 of the earlier XR8) allowed the engine to rev a little higher at the same road speed which gave the car a more willing character. Ford didn’t badge
JAMIE GILLIGAN is a panel beater/painter tradesperson and was a NSW police officer for four years.
His time in the cops may have been short compared to some long-serving officers but out of it grew a great hobby of sourcing and restoring former police cars in between tasks at his All Marques Body Repairs in suburban Sydney.
In 2014, Jamie bought an ex-NSW Police Highway Patrol unmarked EL Falcon XR8 car and decided to try restoring it to its in-service condition as a nod to his time ‘in the job’.
“I was General Duties, not Highway Patrol,” says Jamie.
“But these cars were current when I was in the police.
“I thought I’d have a crack at finding all the gear for these cars: all the radios and era-correct light bars,” he says. “It wasn’t easy! I re-acquainted myself with some of the people I used to work with. I sent lots of emails to various officers. It was a big task. Lots of detective work!
“I eventually got in contact with the blokes who used to drive it and got some pics of it when it was brand new, in-service at Mittagong [NSW police station]. Since that first project, I’ve done that with the other ex-Highway cars, too.”
As well as restoring these two fine specimens in our pics and his own EL Falcon, he’s restored another ex-unmarked Panther Mica VSII Commodore for Russell Airey (owner of the Commodore here) so together, the two men own beautiful examples of marked and unmarked versions of Holden and Ford police cars of the 1990s. Jamie has assisted other enthusiasts with police car projects and has another ex-HWP car, an XE Ford Falcon 5.8-litre V8, in-line for restoration, too.
Jamie and Russell also maintain a Facebook page, Classic Pursuit Vehicle Register Inc, as a resource and forum for enthusiasts of classic police cars.
the model as Series II – or as a 185 – so there are no external clues for the car’s power; it’s only with the bonnet up the cast corrugations on the top surface of the 185’s better-breathing intake manifold reveal the updated car’s extra potential. That’s a shame because the ‘new’ XR8 certainly deserved more razzle-dazzle – then as well as these days.
The remainder of the Ford XR8 was the well-regarded Tickford-tweaked package. Up front was the distinctive four-headlight front end debuted on the Tickford-developed XR6 and XR8 Falcons during the ED series – but with visual cues back to the Escort RS2000
of the 1970s. The Falcon’s live rear axle (vs Holden’s independent system – probably the biggest difference in hardware between the two brands) was set-up with lowered and stiffened springs and specially developed dampers and polyurethane suspension and sway-bar bushes. Most XR8s wore distinctive five-spoke 16-inch alloys and the seats – foamed and formed differently for XR8 compared to the lesser models – received new tartan-style trim.
Like the Holden, the four-speed auto featured two modes, accessed by a switch on the centre console.
The OPT20 was developed for police (and other government agencies) to provide a few tweaks for better performance and to satisfy other requirements. OPT20 specs varied depending on the car/model but generally added a fine 2km/h increment speedo (with a calibration ability), a higher-output alternator, power steering and transmission coolers, the Ghia’s extra interior lights, extra wiring pig-tails for police radios, a sump guard, and on lesser models, XR8-type suspension and seat foams and plain silver-painted steel wheels.
On non-XR models the 180km/h speed limiter was removed (in conjunction with the factory fitment of an alloy tail-shaft) and the auto trans was calibrated to shift at a higher engine revs at full-throttle.
OPT20 - national police pack ENGINE: 4942cc all-iron OHV two-valve V8 with electronic sequential multi-point fuel injection OUTPUT: 185kW/4500rpm. 402Nm/3100rpm.
GEARBOX/DRIVELINE: BTR electronically controlled dual-mode four-speed automatic with lock-up torque convertor. BTR diff with 3.45:1 ratio SUSPENSION (F). Short/long arm, long spindle layout with coil springs. Power assisted rack and pinion steering.
Polyurethane bushes SUSPENSION (R). Live axle with wide-based upper and lower control arms and Watts link. Anti-roll bar.
Polyurethane bushes BRAKES: Four-wheel disc brakes: vented front and solid rear. Four-channel ABS anti-lock braking WHEELS/TYRE: 16x7-inch alloys with 225/50 tyres
THIS VERY Falcon XR8 served at Campbelltown, NSW. After being decommissioned, it was sold via Sinclair Ford in Penrith west of Sydney and ended up in Coomera on Queensland’s Gold Coast. After restoring a Regency Red exunmarked Highway Patrol EL Falcon XR8, tradesman panel beater/painter – and former police officer – Jamie Gilligan saw this one for sale and bought it.
“The bloke who bought it after the cops, Brett, was looking to buy a brandnew XR8,” Jamie explains of this car’s transition to civilian life. “At that time, the new one was the AU [series Falcon]. He went to look at one and hated it! He was directed out to the yard to this car, second hand. He got into it and drove it and loved it. It was only when he got it home after buying it that he realised he’d been sold an ex-police car!
“When I first found it, the owner let me know it was an ex-police car – he still had the handbooks,” Jamie explains. “I asked him if he could tell me the original registration number…. As it turned out, I already had a picture of this car, sourced from the internet, from when it was in-service – the original rego plates in the pic I had matched the owner’s manual.”
Very little body and paint work was required after Jamie bought the car but of course it needed the full suite of police equipment to be installed, which took considerable effort to track down.
Owned by Fire & Rescue NSW station commander Russell Airey, this 1996 VS Holden Commodore perfectly represents Holden’s ‘chaser’ or ‘interceptor’ highway patrol cars of the 1990s. Badged Executive on the bootlid, but with SS seats, dual airbags, ABS brakes, 5.0-litre V8 motor with auto and lowered independent rear suspension (IRS) over plain steel wheels, this car is a Holden fleet-special build to provide all the performance/handling and safety hardware required by police operational requirements at a sharp price. Holden’s police cars are usually tagged BT1 however, not all BT1s have the same hardware as Russell’s car.
By the time the VS was launched in 1995, Holden had improved almost every aspect of its top-selling family (and police-spec) sedan that began with the ’88 VN Commodore.
Independent rear suspension (IRS) arrived in 1991 with the VP; standard under Calais and SS (and HSV’s sedans) the IRS (and the ABS that arrived with VPII) was built into some police-spec cars, too.
For 1993’s VR series, the body was made smoother with close-fit plastic bumpers wrapped around new nose and tail styling.
Underneath, there was a significant change in hardware for VR: The front suspension was re-tooled with different strut towers and new struts with better geometry to improve handling, roadholding and braking – especially important for police. Compared to earlier Commodores, the VR/VS’s wider track filled out the wheel-arches quite nicely, too.
Inside there was a smooth new dash with adjustable steering column – always an asset for fleet cars and sadly lacking in earlier Commodores – and a driver’s airbag. A passenger airbag was made available in the VS.
One thing that did remain the same, however, was Holden’s lusty V8 engine: even though HSV offered its 185kW/400Nm version of the
same Holden Engine Company-built 5.0-litre engine, police cars remained at the standard 165kW/380Nm rating with nothing more than an increased target idle speed in the management system to help keep police car batteries charged, while the car was stationary with flashing lights on. For the 1993 VR series (and of course the later VS) the new 4L60E auto transmission came under electronic control and had a power/economy button that changed the shift points in normal driving.
A distinctive feature of most Commodores built for police use is the silver-painted steel wheels. First seen on VL Commodore Turbos in 1986 this 15x6-inch wheel design was required to cover the bigger front brake callipers fitted to the Turbo. They were christened ‘Chasers’ or ‘Interceptors’ in the same manner as the police-spec cars they were fitted to. The suspension behind them for most police-spec cars was Holden’s FE2 performance pack of springs, dampers and swaybars.
1996 COMMODORE BT1 This 1996 Commodore Executive BT1 V8 served at Campsie Highway Patrol in suburban Sydney.
Being a career fireman, its owner Russell has fond memories of these police cars as he worked side-by-side with them on many incidences.
“My best mate was Highway Patrol and that’s what sparked my interest,” he says. “I restored a VL Turbo ex-Highway car about 10 years ago.
Family life changed, so I sold it but I wanted to get another.” His next project choice was easy: “I’ve always liked these VS-era cars with the fuel injected V8.”
Russell started hunting various sales sites for an ex-HWP Commodore, finding one in Adelaide.
“From its specs, it was likely to be an ex-NSW Highway Patrol car,” explains Russell. “I got in touch with the seller and asked him to send me a copy of the inside pages of the handbook and that verified it was a NSW car but it had been over there for 17 years. I did the deal and then
had it shipped over.”
Jamie Gilligan, whom Russell met through another firefighter and who assisted with the Commodore’s restoration, continues the story: “Condition wise, this one was pretty good,” he says. “It had been painted at some stage before we got hold of it but the paint was looking a bit tired and hungry. We ran a pad [buffer] over it and give it a good polish. Other than that, we added some new bumper bar covers. Someone had stuck on some shiny chrome-type tape along the sides and bumpers so we removed that.
“It had some mag wheels on it – that’s common for ex-police cars as not everyone likes the steelies – so we had to track-down and refresh the correct wheels for it. We had to refit the little grille inserts, too.
“But all up, although it was a little more work than the white Falcon, it was a good fun project.”
BT1 - national police pack.
ENGINE: 4987cc all-iron OHV two-valve V8 with electronic multi-point fuel injection OUTPUT: 165kW/4400rpm. 380Nm/3600rpm GEARBOX/DRIVELINE: GM 4L60E electronically controlled dual-mode four-speed automatic with lock-up torque convertor.
BTR diff with 3.08:1 ratio SUSPENSION (F). Struts with coil springs.
Power assisted rack and pinion steering SUSPENSION (R).
Independent semi-trailing arm suspension. Anti-roll bar BRAKES: Four-wheel disc brakes: vented front and solid rear. Four-channel ABS anti-lock braking WHEELS/TYRES: 15x6-inch steel wheels with 205/65 tyres