Combining my passions for writing and a lifelong affair with everything on four wheels makes being an automotive journalist a dream come true for me. Each month, I get to sit down in front of my computer and offer you automotive features, show coverage, technical articles, and movie reviews. I honestly love every minute of the work.
On occasion though, it occurs to me it would be nice to write about something that deviates from traditional muscle cars, as my adoration of vehicles extends beyond them to include anything possessing raw power and speed.
Such was my excitement last month when I attended the Altadena Sheriff’s car show, in Altadena, California, and saw a flawlessly and lovingly restored 1969 Dodge Polara police pursuit vehicle.
Having the chance to discuss the car at length with its owner, and learning the massive beast packed one of Mopar’s finest — a monster 440 Magnum — I realized this would be my chance to finally write about a muscle car that wasn’t really a muscle car!
So without further ado, let’s have a look at this fabulous car and learn a bit of law enforcement history in the process.
The CHP Polara’s owner, Derek Scouler, is a cool guy. A native of Sunderland in the United Kingdom, Derek moved to Los Angeles in 1990, where he currently works as a set dresser for movies and television shows.
Within moments of meeting him at the Altadena show, we hit it off and launched into a rapid-fire, wide-ranging discussion about cars. In particular, about those used by the California Highway Patrol through the years. I was duly impressed with his enthusiasm and knowledge.
“I have always been a fan of police cars,” Derek explained to me that warm and sunny day. “Over the years, I learned everything I could about them. I knew that one day, I wanted to own a vintage one. The more I learned about the history of police cars in general, the more the 1969 California Highway Patrol Polaras kept coming up.”
This was for good reason. In the annals of police car history, the ’69 Polara holds a high throne in Valhalla.
Sporting wide, long, and streamlined styling dubbed the “Fuselage Design,” the new-for-’69 Polara four-door hardtop was a massive car by anyone’s standards. It has an overall length of 220.8 inches, a width of 79.3 inches, and a wheelbase of 122 inches.
In spite of being just a shade smaller than your average attack submarine, The Polara was nonetheless a relatively lightweight car for its size, hovering around the 2-ton mark depending on powerplant, owing to its unibody construction.
A 225 cubic-inch slant six and three of Mopar’s best V8s were available for the car, including the 318, 383 in two- and four-barrel configurations, and the big 440 Magnum which provided 375 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque.
While the 318 and 383 cars came in base form with a three-speed manual transmission, all four motors could be equipped with a three-speed 727 TorqueFlite automatic, and the 440 could only be had with the latter.
Add to those powerful drivetrains a 3.23 rearend, heavy-duty front independent suspension, and massive 11-inch front discs and 11 x 2.5-inch rear drum brakes, and you have a car that possesses performance which betrays its visual mass.
Indeed, with the 440 Magnum and its 10.1:1 compression ratio on board, the 1969 Polara is capable of a 0 to 60 time of 6.8 seconds, and a quarter-mile time of 14.8 seconds at 94 mph. What’s more, it possesses an astonishing top speed of 147 mph, which made the ’69 Polara the fastest four-door police car until the 1994 Chevrolet Caprice 9C1 came along.
The California Highway Patrol noted these impressive specs and ordered 1,564 of them for use as pursuit vehicles.
Very quickly, word of the Polara spread amongst police ranks, and it quickly established a vaunted reputation as the car you wanted to do your patrols in and give chase to bad guys with. That reputation still holds true for today’s police car enthusiasts, and is the prime reason why Derek knew he had to have one.
And that’s precisely when Derek ran into problems. It was common for 1969 CHP Polaras to rack up 100,000 miles in just a year of patrol work, and then be decommissioned and often sold off as scrap.
“There was thought to be maybe 12 to 15 survivors,” Derek recalls, “fewer than half of which were running. Of those surviving cars, maybe three to four were numbers-matching cars, which was what I ideally wanted.”
Derek embarked on an intense search for a car that lasted longer than he ever thought it would. “Over the course of a decade or so, I looked for one without success,” Derek says. “The only one I knew about locally was a friend of a friend who had one sitting in his garage in need of restoration. I regularly bugged my friend to see if this guy wanted to sell, but was always rebuffed. He knew exactly what he had and was not about to let it go.”
Undaunted, Derek continued the quest for his unicorn.
“Fast forward to September 2012, and a 1969 CHP Polara showed up on eBay, right in North Hills,” he remembers. “It was one of the remaining numbers-matching cars, with original engine, transmission, Carter 4-barrel carburetor, and Leece-Neville alternator. The car was an in-service CHP car based in Chico, Northern California, and was one of the later, and perhaps even latest, model year survivors.”
Although Derek was short on funds at the time, he monitored the auction. “It ended with no bids, and I e-mailed the seller to see what he wanted for it. We spoke a few times, and I went to look at it. It was exactly what I wanted, and I somehow scraped the money together and bought it!”
His search was over, but the work was only just beginning.
When Derek purchased the Polara, it was in relatively rust-free condition with the exception of the trunk lid. “It had a pretty straight body, but the car was definitely going to be a project. I knew that from the start,” admits Derek.
“The good news for me was that the previous owner had, in the decade he owned it, tracked down and bought everything the car needed. All the period-correct police equipment including the CHP-specific Motorola radio, shotgun rack, sirens, whip antenna, et cetera were all there. The interior was already removed in anticipation of restoration by the seller.”
The bad news was that the entire car needed to be redone.
Derek brought the Polara to Restorations By Julius, a Mopar restoration outfit in in Chatsworth, California. For the next 18 months, the car was completely torn down and the body and interior worked on.
The body was taken to Custom Enterprises in Canoga Park, where it was blocked and primed twice to ensure a distortion and blemish-free finish, and then a single-stage of PPG paint was applied.
“One of the bigger decisions I had to make regarding the rebuild was whether to do a full CHP-accurate restoration, including black & white paint scheme, decals and so on, which would effectively make it just a show car,” Derek recalls. “I decided against it. I would only be able to take it to shows, as you can’t drive a vehicle that impersonates a police car in California. This thing needs to be driven! So I went with all gloss black, which frankly I think looks better anyway. It looks more menacing!”
The interior was meticulously restored, including the CHP cars’ unique pearl white steering wheel (intended to cut down on burned fingers owing to the California heat), factory air-conditioning, and manual steering. The bench seats were covered in the original heavy-duty vinyl and cloth.
All of the aforementioned period-correct CHP appointments, such as the CHP-specific Motorola radio, spotlights, shotgun rack, package tray lights, sirens, and whip antenna were cleaned up, painted, or otherwise refurbished and installed.
The drivetrain was then built back up, with the assistance of friend and police car expert Ron Hurwitz and the original owner, Tom Yeager.
The 440 was afforded a 505 stroker kit, allowing it to yield 500 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque. It was then treated to a nice, heavy coat of Hemi Orange.
The three-speed TorqueFlite transmission was likewise rebuilt, and the differential was given an upgraded 3.23 ring-and-pinion kit. Next, the suspension and exhaust were given some love. Both were cleaned up and all bushings were replaced with brand new parts. A Firm Feel front sway bar kit and RCD Bilstein shocks were added.
An MSD electronic ignition, Holley Carb, external transmission oil cooler, carburetor heat shield, and Griffin aluminum radiator were installed for some extra performance over how the Polara was originally born. The drivetrain and body were remarried, and correct ‘H’ code, heavy-duty rims with dog dish hubcaps and 235/70/R15 Cooper Cobra GT tires were fitted.
It took a substantial amount of time to correctly tune the car, troubleshoot problems, and get it properly dialed-in. Once it was finished in 2014, Derek immediately began to drive the car at least once a week and show it once or twice a month. The Polara won Second in class at the fantastic Spring Fling Mopar show in Van Nuys, California, hosted by the Chrysler Performance West Club in 2016, and Best in Class at the same show in 2019.
When asked what he loves most about his mean machine, Derek is resolute. “Aesthetically, I would say the grill and front end. Performance-wise, I love the sound of that 440 and the burnouts you can do with it! It was my dream car. I’d waited more than ten years to find one, so when the chance came along, I had to pull the trigger.”
I, for one, am respectful of Derek’s perseverance, and for bringing this example of automotive and law enforcement history back to life so we can all enjoy it.