Mustang SSP: The car that put a (temporary) end to outrunning the cops
Browsing Bring a Trailer recently, I came across this ad for a 1992 Ford Mustang Special Service Package police car, and it brought back a flood of memories—not to mention a palpable sense of dread. Flash back to the 1980s, when I was a high school student in Rochester, New York. Hair was big and the widespread adoption of fuel injection was newfangled. The 5.0-liter Mustang (this was before anyone figured out the 302 was really a 4.9) was hot and almost attainable, and the dream machine was the LX 5.0, which had the power of the GT and the stealthy looks of the otherwise pitiful four-cylinder cars. 1988 was the year we got word that our favorite car was going to our least-favorite people: the New York State Troopers. They were getting a fleet of LX 5.0 notchbacks with five-speed manual transmissions.
Try to imagine what a blow this was. Most of us in my blue-collar town were driving complete junkmobiles. My Plymouth Reliant, its halfhearted attempt to produce 84 wheezing horsepower routinely hamstrung by the vagaries of its abominable feedback carburetor, was typical of the genre, as was my friend Mark’s Iron Duke-powered Citation, a machine seemingly designed to turn gasoline into noise with motion as a secondary byproduct. We were jealous of our friends who drove clapped-out Monte Carlos and Regals with 110-hp 3.8 liter V-6s (“when I get the money, I’ll put a 350 in it”)—since they could at least get to the end of a highway on ramp at something approaching the 55-mph speed limit.
But most of these heaps could at least attain some respectable modicum of extra-legal velocity on flat terrain, and given enough of a head start—say, half the length of Monroe County—we figured they might, just might, be able to outrun the cops.
The Mustang SSP shattered those dreams.
Little did we know it in those pre-internet days, but the Mustang SSP program had roots that stretched back nearly a decade. The California Highway Patrol was looking for something lighter and more agile than the four-door cruisers they were running in the ’70s. Among the smaller cars the agency tested in 1979 was a Chevrolet Camaro Z28, but the Chippers weren’t happy with the results. The Fox-bodied Ford Fairmont fared better, so CHP asked Ford what could be done with the Mustang—and the result was the 1982 Mustang SSP.
The upgrades were pretty modest, all things considered: Oil and transmission coolers, beefier coolant hoses and clamps, a heavy-duty alternator, and calibrated speedometers (140 mph at first, 160 mph after 1989). Horsepower numbers were modest by today’s standards, but the 302 could get the relatively lightweight Mustang to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, which was supercar territory at the time, and the later 225-hp cars were even quicker.
Mostly, the Mustang’s advantage was that it was a 5.0-liter Mustang. I remember talking to a New York State Trooper about the car’s mission, and he put it succinctly (and with impressive alliteration): “The Crown Vics will do a hundred and thirty, but they can’t accelerate. The Mustangs can clean up the cars that the Crown Vics can’t catch.” It was always an event to see a scofflaw pulled over by the Troopers, but seeing some high-flyer with his head hung in shame, his high-dollar exotic brought down by a Trooper’s Mustang, was its own special sort of thrill.
CHP placed an initial order of 400 cars, with deliveries starting in 1982, and they went on to buy some 2,500 of the 15,000 or so SSPs that were built. Thirty-four states put the Mustang SSP to work, along with numerous federal agencies, several city and county police forces, and even Canada’s Mounties. All but a handful of early CHP cars were notchbacks, and they employed a mix of manual and automatic transmissions, with some agencies preferring the performance of the stick and others desiring that the driver’s right hand be kept free.
Production of the SSP ended with the rest of the third-gen Mustangs in 1993. By then, the big prowlers were beginning to approach the performance of LX 5.0s. In 1994, Chevrolet began offering the Corvette’s 260-hp 5.7 liter LT1 V-8 in the Caprice, which meant they could outrun the Mustangs—and they had a big enough back seat to take the bad guys to jail, whereas the Mustangs had to wait for a four-door car to bring their prey home.
Other performance cars would find their way into police paint; the CHP would revisit Camaros in ’92 and again in ’02, and other agencies followed. Still, nothing was quite as badass as those Mustang SSPs were in the ’80s (at least not until the Dodge Chargers came along). It made us amateur perps think twice about even wanting to speed. More notable than that, it make the New York State Troopers, largely regarded as a faceless force of anonymous mustachioed fun-spoilers, into the coolest guys on the road. At least for a little while.
The car listed on BaT is a late-model five-speed car that served with the Florida Highway Patrol from 1992 until 1996. It has 94,000 miles showing on its 160-mph speedo (“CERTIFIED CALIBRATION”). Seeing it stirred up long-stored mental images, as well as a rather unexpected urge to pop a Heart cassette into a Craig deck and go for a cruise. At the speed limit, of course.
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