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He's big....he's bad...he carries a badge...and he really hates crime...oh, and he weighs 3,500 pounds. No, it's not Clint Eastwood after a night gorging himself at the Golden Corral restaurant! It's a Mopar restoration years in the making and my very first attempt to preserve an original piece of B-body history. So, sit back and prepare to be either thoroughly entertained or perhaps just bored silly. This featurette is about a car...one of the last surviving members of a bygone era:
My 1974 Dodge Coronet (WK41) Police Pursuit.
As one of the last surviving 1974 B-body police cars, it may be one of the most unique Mopars you are likely to encounter. Sure, you've probably seen cars like this one countless times in classic TV reruns and immortalized on film while being piloted by famous 70s and 80s action heroes like Eastwood. But when was the last time you actually saw one of these cars in person? For most of us in Generation X who grew up during that time, it could be since childhood. These functional and forgettable four-door anachronisms are so fascinatingly forsaken, that today surviving members here in the USA can be counted using only your fingers or toes.
In fact, the first time I pulled up to my local Cars and Coffee meetup in an affluent neighborhood in east Detroit, I was immediately approached by a fellow Mopar owner who not only congratulated me on my wheels, but also commented "Hey, you know that car is rarer than a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Six-Pack, right?" Still others wanted to know immediately how fast it could go...was it a real police car...could it jump and handle like the famous 1974 Dodge "Bluesmobile"...and just where in the Sam-Hill did I ever manage to find one?! Yep, that is the allure of the famous Dodge Pursuits. A combination of screen celebrity mixed with that rare time during the malaise era of automotive history when police officers drove the fastest cars in the USA.
The Mystery and Legend of the Dodge Pursuits
What is a "Pursuit" you ask? Simply put, the Pursuit was the title given to all specially engineered police-package passenger cars manufactured by Chrysler between 1957 and 1981. In the 1960s and 70s, Chrysler had a unique VIN code designation for any vehicles built with a special fleet trim along the assembly line. This trim designation was "K" for POLICE. The VIN code defines this particular car as Dodge Coronet (W) Police (K) four-door sedan (41). Although the police service options were available for any trim package as code A38 beginning in 1974, the K-code cars prior to that were always factory built for police service. They even included extra unibody bracing along the C-pillar which was most commonly found in the Hemi-powered cars of the era. Of course, no factory police car was ever outfitted with a 426-Hemi motor by Chrysler because of warranty costs, but many of the specially built, race-drafted items found on the R/T package B-bodies were carried over and installed as standard equipment on the Dodge Pursuits. Were they really faster than their civilian counterparts? No. Were they really built with top-secret parts so they could leap over drawbridges and sprint past anything on wheels? No. Did they really have special police-only Pursuit engines? Sort of. Truth is, the Dodge Pursuits were never engineered to be faster than their civilian brethren. Rather, they were built with as many heavy-duty parts as possible to be reliable and durable enough to be routinely operated under extreme conditions while in police service.
What's Under the Hood of a Detective Special
Maybe Dirty Harry got to burn rubber in a 440ci torque monster on screen, but most real-world detectives drove cars with a bit more emphasis placed on practicality and fuel economy. Big-block cars were typically reserved for interstate and freeway duty. As a result, my 1974 Coronet is a bit more down to Earth. However, as a factory-built police car it is equipped with all the special heavy-duty features that made these cars so legendary.
Here are the specs: 360ci 4-bbl V8 (standard cam rated at 200hp, 310lb-ft), dual exhaust (model made before catalytic converters), Torqueflite 3-speed automatic transmission, 8.75" open rear axle with 3.23 gears, HD Leece-Neville 85-amp dual belt alternator, transmission and engine oil coolers, 11" rear drum brakes, tinted glass, F33 6" driver spotlight, 120 MPH certified speedometer, Air Conditioning with hi-pressure cutoff during throttle, Maximum engine cooling package, HD pursuit suspension with front sway bar and HD shocks, Chrysler "firm-feel" power steering, 15" pursuit rated tires, body color wheels, HD front and rear bench seats, power rear deck release, and all dressed in Dark Metallic Silver paint.
A Proud and Noble Career as an Arizona Detective's Car
Sure, the special engineering is cool and all, but Dodge built bigger and faster cars the 1970s. What really sets these cars apart as pieces of automotive history are their unique stories. My 1974 Coronet served as an unmarked investigation unit with the Pima County Sheriffs Department in Tucson, Arizona from 1974-1979. After an honorable career moving Major Crimes detectives to and from robberies and bloody homicide scenes in air-conditioned comfort, the car was suitably retired from the Sheriffs fleet and sold at auction to a local Tucson man as an early Christmas gift for his 21-year old daughter who needed a car. The car was evidently repainted an unflattering copper color and eventually taken off the road by the family in 1982 (perhaps due to some mechanical failure) and never registered again. It sat behind the family's desertscape residence for some 25 years until the now elderly owner retired to an assisted living facility and the family began clearing out some of the old "junk" at their homestead.
An Undignified End and the Height of eBay Blues
After gathering dust for over two decades, the family sold the car to another local Tucson man in 2007. Perhaps he fixed it and drove it for a short time, but the new owner apparently had little use for the car because he listed in for sale on eBay in 2010. It was then purchased by a group of antique emergency vehicle collectors in Illinois who added it to their fleet of disused police cars for TV and movie rentals in the Chicagoland area. It sat for the next ten years and was occasionally cannibalized for parts to keep other 1974 Dodge Coronet police cars and clones in their fleet operational. The car was offered up for sale several more times via eBay between 2014-2019, but the price was probably too high as no serious offers developed. So, after ten more years of gathering dust, the Coronet was finally auctioned off again via eBay to a Mopar collector from North Carolina who took delivery of it in 2019...just in time for a tornado to strike his property!
Fortunately, the car survived this encounter with mother nature's wrath as did nearly all the other cars in his collection. However, the damage to his land was substantial and he decided to sell the 1974 Coronet and use the funds to clear the trees downed in the storm. This owner's Mopar collection was impressive, but he admitted that he was really a resto-mod guy and wasn't sure what his vision for the Coronet would be. Police car or four-door dynamo? So, he decided to list the car for sale on Facebook during the height of the COVID shutdowns of 2020.
A Series of Fortunate Events During a World-Wide Panic-Demic
It was at about that time that I was learning to use social media as an outlet for my car show hobbies since everything in the world had come to an abrupt standstill due to governmental overreach and the utter incompetency of members of the technocratic elite and their respective political class. Still, my bank account was flush with newly printed "Biden bucks" so I decided now was a good time to think about starting a new car project. That's when I noticed a 1974 Dodge Coronet unmarked police car listed for sale down south in Hickory, North Carolina. Incredibly, the first police car I ever purchased and preserved came from this same Carolina suburb and I had an uncle who was an expert auto mechanic living only minutes away. I called him up and excitedly told him I was considering purchasing another disused squad car in his neighborhood. I could sense his disgust at the idea of me spending my newly minted funds on a malaise Mopar (he's more of a Chevy guy...oh, well). Still, he agreed to inspect the car and arranged purchase with the owner until my mechanic friend Eric and I could gather my resources and get down south with a truck and trailer.
The next 72-hours were a whirlwind of activity as we hitched a trailer to Eric's hard-driven F-250 and made our way south and back to Detroit in just 24-hours during Memorial weekend 2020. Yet, despite the holiday traffic, the prize was well worth the effort. We happily lugged the big, old Dodge squad car to Eric's house and immediately set to work on what has become the most complicated and arduous restoration either of us has ever attempted.
Deciding What Role to Cast a Veteran Police Officer In
Casting decisions are never easy. That turns out to be true with cars too. 18 months and many hard lessons later, my original vision for the car has evolved full circle. Originally, I wanted to cast it as a popular big city or State Police unit with celebrity cache. To my surprise, however, I discovered through my research that very few law enforcement agencies purchased the Dodge Coronet in 1974 and practically no State Patrols used it. After all, this was a time when big-brother C-body was still armed with the mighty 440ci V-8 and the undisputed king of the road. A midsize car was not seen as a premier enforcement class vehicle. At least, not yet. Without a clear vision, I decided to reach out to friends and associates of mine who own and collect classic police cars. Rather than dress it up in a uniform, they advised me to stick to its roots and return the car to its Day-Two specifications: as an unmarked, big city detective's car with its original silver paint.
Assembling my Dream Team for the Restoration
Organizing a big budget car restoration is a lot like a big movie production. Few people can do it alone. Heck, we've all seen first-hand the disasters that can happen on screen when George Lucas tries to go it alone! You have to surround yourself with talented people that can help you achieve your vision and trust in their abilities. So, over the last two years I've managed to put together a team of phenomenal body, paint, electrical, and mechanical experts to help me realize my vision while keep the project on-time and relatively on budget. My Mopar expert was quick to tell me once we set to work that a full restoration of a 50-year-old car can easily cost $40-50K. Yet, despite its rarity and unique history as a police car, a malaise-era 1974 Dodge four-door with a small-block V8 is still a glorified grocery getter. It is never going to bring six-figure money even in this burgeoning classic car market. So, we responsibly set my budget at a more realistic $20-25K and set to work. This budget included buying the car itself along with a donor 1974 Coronet sedan for parts and those hard-to-find pieces of 70s police equipment.
Every Action Hero needs a Donor/Stand-in
As the project moved forward it became obvious that this car was a very challenging one-off year for Dodge. The body panels, trim, and important bits were a one-year only because of Dodge's 50th anniversary in 1974 and the newly minted Federal safety regulations. The 1974 Coronet/Monaco four-door is different than the models before and after it. As a result, parts are nearly impossible to find! Yet amazingly, I obtained a decent 1974 Coronet parts car a couple hours away from Detroit for just $1,000 in the fall of 2020. This car was your typical little-old-lady who smoked like a Night Court balliff daily driver. It was a heap. Still though, it had a beautifully original interior, good glass, a nearly perfect dashboard, and a number of hard-to-find plastic bits that had been obliterated in the police car by the heat of the Arizona sun.
Getting an Action Star Back into Shape
To say this Dodge squad car was out of shape is an understatement. As with any desert survivor, this car needed a fair dose of everything! Engine, transmission, fuel system, brakes, electricals, body, paint, tires, seats, dashboard, gauges, etc. The only thing we didn't have to address were the factory rubber floors which were still in remarkable shape and just needed a touch of cleaning. With the basic mechanicals completed and the alternator resurrected by winter 2020, I began recruiting a body and paint team. My interior upholsterer advised me about a shop in Wayne, MI so far off the grid that hardly anyone knows they exist. Despite all my inquires to paint and body specialists in Michigan and Ohio, the shop's owner, Tim, was the only one to personally inspect the car and quote me a schedule and price. His only conditions were that I had to pay cash up front to cover his initial supply costs, and that the job begin the first week of March 2021. At first, I was somewhat leery about a paint shop that operated out of a disused furniture store. However, his references were impeccable and I felt that his appraisal was very thorough and agreed with my vision. His price was also 30% lower than any other estimate I'd been given. So the as turnaround time was written into our contract, I crossed my fingers and dutifully delivered the car to him. It turns out that the best shops do not advertise their services or pelt you with noisy ads on social media sites. Their businesses can rely exclusively on personal referrals and word of mouth and the reasons become very obvious.
Lights, Camera, Action!
From the 200+ photo record I've included with this article you can see the lengths Tim's team went to restoring the body. No MAACO special here folks; this was masterful body work. Each body panel was stripped to bare metal and meticulously bonded and sanded to bring out every crisp line that had been sandblasted by years of abandonment in the desert. Fortunately, the body was so rust free being from Arizona it did not require an engine-out, frame-off job down to the unibody subframe. This car ain't no 69' Charger R/T folks! No $100,000 buyer markets here either. This production was on a tight budget. Therefore, I was relieved when Tim advised me that I'd made the right decision to avoid the rotisserie. I dutifully checked the progress of the work every 2-4 weeks and Tim sent me photo updates routinely to keep up my confidence in our agreement.
One of the worst positions a classic car owner can find themselves in is the dreaded "painters jail". Fortunately, I'd made the right decision hiring a team that surpassed my expectations and delivered everything they agreed to do. After 3 months, the car looked factory fresh in its sharp silver paint job. After sealing the steel body work in a state-of-the-art protective shell and a generous number of coats of primer, Tim sourced a modern single-stage enamel that was a dead-ringer for the original 1970s metallic flake lacquer. Even though I was nervous about restoring the factory paint color from the beginning, I was very pleased with how attractive silver can be...even without the typical 70s racing stripe kit!
Setbacks, Technical Problems, and Failures
Typically, nothing goes right the first time; be it with movies or antique automobiles. No sooner had Eric and I recovered the car and set home to start the interior restoration, when the old 727 transmission gave out. As we exited the I-94 expressway and coasted down the off ramp, I found that the car had slipped out of gear and would not move forward. One generous pushing session later, we were within sight of his rented garage with lift rack. Dropping the pan revealed a cornucopia of gray sludge; a sure sign of disintegrating friction plates. Fortunately, my friend is a brilliant Mopar mechanic and even though he had never rebuilt a 727 before, he had the old Torqueflite apart, repaired, and reassembled within a couple months on his kitchen counter. He also credited the Chrysler engineers with designing a brilliantly simple and rugged unit that was easy to take apart and only went back together one way. It turns out that years of sitting with a leaky selector-shaft seal had lowered the transmission fluid level to the point where the clutch bands were exposed to atmosphere. The lack of fluid saturation caused the bands to dry out and the material rotted. It was only a matter of time until the unit failed. Still, while the transmission was out, Eric replaced the freeze plugs in the motor and the shaft seals for the transmission. He also sealed up the u-joints to the driveshaft and serviced the rear differential. As I said, this car needed a fair dose of everything. 40 years of stagnation is never good for a car. It's a bit like asking a former Olympic athlete who hasn't competed in decades to throw on the USA jersey and run the decathlon without even stretching first!
Following that 2-month setback, we set to work replacing the sun-beaten vinyl interior and substituting the donor. To be fair, I was a tad disappointed that I could not afford to rebuild the original police interior. However, repadding the dashboard and using original NOS vinyl on the seats and door panels was calculated to cost an additional $10,000 according to my upholsterer. Unfortunately, my B-movie budget couldn't swing that. Not when I had a beautiful tan interior from the donor car ready to go in. As the donor interior was also a Pursuit color option that year, I decided to keep costs down and recycle the donor car for everything I could get. Yet, there was something wonderfully austere about the original dark-brown (chestnut) vinyl. However, as Eric and I were pressed for time to have the car suitably ready for the 2021 Woodward Dreamcruise police display that summer, we decided to play it safe and move forward.
Historical Props and Vintage Pieces
After salvaging as many police-only interior components as we could, we combined them with the pieces from the donor car. Police trim Coronets had solid black dash pad inserts with plain air vents while higher trim civilian models typically came with wood-grain inserts. Pursuits also had the certified speedometer and gauge package. We simply mixed the very best pieces from both cars and mated them together....Voila! At last, we had an interior setup that was as spotless and lovely as the newly waxed paint. Following that, a few sessions installing the vintage 1970s era police radios, siren controllers, and flashing red lights made for a memorable series of late nights. Hours before the deadline, we were swatting off mosquitoes and sweating buckets in the reigning heat of the August night. Finally, after days toiling, wiring, soldering, and hours of blinded, back-breaking labor, we were preparing for our first public show. By mid-August the 74' Coronet Pursuit was finally ready to debut at the biggest annual car show in the Midwest.
The Big Debut on the Red Carpet
It was a glittering gala filled with thousands of adoring fans and flashing camera bulbs. Ok, maybe it wasn't just my car the people were there to see, but the 2021 Woodward Dreamcruise in the northwest suburbs of Detroit was a welcomed return to normalcy after the events of 2020. Needless to say, it was a very memorable and enjoyable experience as I was finally able to relish every minute sharing my story and knowledge gained during this restoration project. The Coronet performed exceptionally well considering we were still wrenching on the car mere hours before starting our drive to the event site. At the showcase in front of Ferndale City Hall and Police Headquarters, my Coronet was parked and displayed in fine company. Over 50 current and antique police cars and fire trucks were lined up in attendance to celebrate the history of public safety vehicles since the beginning of the 20th century.
Once surrounded by my friends, fellow car collectors, and dazzled police officers with smiling faces who grew up watching films like Dirty Harry, I unveiled my restoration to the group and was immediately showered with praise and thanks. As the only mid-70s B-body police car in attendance it felt great knowing that my efforts over the last year had been well worth emptying my wallet. It was there that I christened my car "SILVER" after the Lone Ranger's horse, but also because of its connection to the silver mines of 19th century Arizona which created the economic boom that created towns like Tucson where the car served. Once again, the silver-clad detective proudly displayed his Arizona Sheriff plates and belted out a screaming tenor song from the grille mounted siren as we raced along Woodward Avenue to the delight of the crowds.
Don't Worry! We'll Fix it in Post!
Still, by the autumn of 2021 the Coronet had experienced a few more teething problems; most notably a head-gasket failure. It turns out that old cars sitting in the desert may be filled with water instead of antifreeze. That can create a rusty mess. No sooner had the Coronet's debut wrapped up then the car began running a temperature. At first it seemed minor, but then the radiator bubbled over and the smell of boiling coolant mixed with exhaust gas was evident. After limping the car to basecamp, Eric explained to me that this was a sure sign that something was very wrong with the old soldier's beating heart. Further diagnosis and disassembly confirmed his suspicions: a failed #1 exhaust valve and a slightly warped cylinder head. A voltage test of the car's temperature gauge revealed it was only giving us a false sense of security. The engine had been running hot all along due to low coolant flow in multiple water passages in the heads, but the gauge told us everything was cool and copacetic. Sigh, just my luck! A few hits with an infrared temperature gun might have given us an early warning sign, but we didn't think to because the temperature gauge appeared to be working normally. Regretfully, the motor ran so well at purchase that we did not take the time to complete a tear down and rebuild or we would have discovered the cancer eating away at the motor.
It took some time to source the parts and complete the tear down, but Eric expertly removed and rebuilt the cylinder heads. After porting them out and matching the new gaskets, he then flushed every coolant passage in the short block and reassembled the motor once again. By Halloween, the Coronet was back in service, running well, and adding some crime scene ambience to a party held by our friends at the Jack Frost Auto Museum. Once again, the car was a big hit with Mopar and police car fans alike.
One Last Ride into the Sunset
By early November, it was time for one last ride and then old Silver was returned to the stable for winter. But those brief couple of hours I spent cruising Lakeshore Drive along the picturesque scene of the Detroit River meant the world to me. Like the ending of Eastwood's "Gran Torino", a classic 1970s car was rumbling along happily in the town of its birth. The calming air of the flowing blue water, the whirl of fresh blacktop under its wheels, and the inspiring site of the Grosse Pointe lighthouse in the distance transcended the mundane reality of the moment. After all the time spent working, repairing, and fussing over my Dodge Coronet, it was so reassuring being able to quietly cruise along at 32MPH with my arm lazily hanging out the window, a pair of aviator shades atop my brow, and a satisfied grin on my face. It was like the happy ending of a movie and Dirty Harry was my co-star.
I know we still have plenty more work to do this year, but the restoration of my 1974 Dodge Coronet is an experience that will stay with me forever. I am very proud to own and pilot one of only 5 known and fully restored 1974 Dodge Coronet-K Pursuits left in the USA. I may be the sentimental type when it comes to my cars, and yet, deep down, I think this old police car somehow knows that it's my hero.
That's a Wrap!
Thank you for reading my story and sharing the experience with me. Drive safe and keep em' between the lines!