(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
NEW YORK — Brad Brewer, a Vancouver Police Department sergeant, and Mohamed Zakout, a New York City taxi driver, get wistful when they talk about it.
"A lot of people were really freaked out by the Crown Vic going away," said Brewer.
"This is a strong car," said Zakout.
The last Ford Crown Victoria, the backbone of many police and taxi fleets for more than two decades, rolled off the assembly line in 2011. Now, Ford, facing the biggest challenge to its police and taxi dominance in decades, is bringing out an array of cars and sport-utility vehicles to keep those sales going.
"The Crown Victoria was a wonderful vehicle and it was difficult for us to see it have to go away," Gerry Koss, marketing and product strategy manager for Ford's North America fleet operations, said by telephone. "We started four years before the end date to work on creating these new products so that the industry would have something that was as good or better."
The bulky Crown Vic sedan traces its roots to two-door, six-seater coupes in the 1950s. A redesign for the early 1990s took on the Chevrolet Caprice and was embraced so widely that its rival exited the market. The Ford became a fleet staple because it was tough, relatively inexpensive to maintain and roomy enough to accommodate police equipment and luggage.
While sales to fleets usually aren't as profitable for car companies as those to retail buyers, the Crown Vic underwent few elaborate updates over the years, limiting the cost for Ford to produce them. And the automaker sees value in having its brand associated with being the vehicle of choice among cops who race in to save the day and cabbies whose cars endure the toughest service.
In an age of lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, however, the Crown Vic became a dinosaur.
Ford has new offerings to stretch its police fleet to the broadest it has ever been: from its first-ever four-cylinder patrol cars to an Interceptor utility vehicle equipped with its highest-horsepower engine. The company also has made extensive changes to its Transit Connect van to meet the needs of taxi buyers in the U.S. market.
Still, law-enforcement agencies in markets such as Los Angeles that loaded up on Crown Victorias are being courted by other Detroit automakers. And while Nissan's so-called Taxi of Tomorrow suffered a legal setback in New York that reopens the market to Ford, other manufacturers also are poised to jump in.
A New York judge this month quashed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to mandate a uniform fleet of van-like yellow Nissan NV200 cabs, ruling that the administration does not have the authority to dictate a specific vehicle. The Taxi of Tomorrow plan for the city, the largest market for cabs in the United States, will die when the mayor leaves office unless the city wins an appeal before Dec. 31.
The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The demise of Taxi of Tomorrow would be welcomed by Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, who was asked about the city's taxi market by a shareholder and former New Yorker during the company's annual meeting earlier this year.
"It's never over until it's over, and they are always looking for the latest innovation," Mulally, 68, said at the meeting in May. When asked by the shareholder if Ford was still pushing to sell taxis for the city, he replied: "You bet."
Cabbie Zakout, 36, who has driven Crown Victorias exclusively since he began shuttling passengers in 2000, said his next taxi will be a Toyota Highlander because Ford's Transit Connect drives like "a decoration."
Ford remains the market's leader. While researchers such as R.L. Polk & Co. lack U.S. registration data on the taxi business, Ford estimates that it captures about 60 percent of the market, down from about 70 percent in the Crown Victoria's heyday.
Combined sales of the police-package Taurus sedan and Explorer utility climbed to 16,234 this year through August, already surpassing total deliveries for all of last year, according to Polk. Deliveries of Chrysler's Dodge Charger sedan and Durango utility police vehicles totaled 8,876 through the year's first eight months, followed by GM's Chevrolet Tahoe utility and Impala at 8,793.
More than one-fifth of the cabs in New York, the most populous U.S. city, are replaced every year. Taxi and Limousine Commission rules mandate that taxis retire after three years, or after five for vehicles that run fewer shifts.
James Vasey, the third-generation owner of Cab Management Corp., said he plans to replace the 53 Crown Victorias in his Long Island City-based fleet with Ford's Transit Connect taxis.
"We have found Ford to be responsive to the needs of our business," said Vasey, 54, who has been running the business for 32 years.
The Crown Victoria still has a few years before largely going extinct. New York's orphaned cabs have long found a second life in parts of New Jersey and Long Island, where they're repainted and rejoin fleets.
"These cars will probably start up mini fleets across the country," Lorenzo Tulsi, manager at the Wailing Management cab company in Long Island City, said of the last Crown Victorias in New York. He said the garage has sold old cabs to buyers from Canada to Georgia.
Brewer, the sergeant in Vancouver, said one of his colleagues on Ford's Police Advisory Board bought 1,200 Crown Victorias for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department before the car went out of production. The department is starting to exhaust that pool.
"It was the iron maiden of law enforcement for 15 or 20 years," Brewer said in an interview this month in Dearborn, Mich., where Ford is based. He along with dozens of police personnel visited Ford's test track, where engineers dedicated to police vehicles ride shotgun with officers and fleet managers and gather information.
The new cruiser of choice may no longer be a beefed-up passenger car like the Crown Victoria or Chevrolet Caprice of yesteryear. Ford's Interceptor Utility, a souped-up Explorer, has been running at 60 percent of the company's police vehicle sales, said Jonathan Honeycutt, police vehicle marketing manager. That's about double the mix that the automaker was anticipating, he said.
"Space is key and durability is key," Honeycutt said in an interview. "The police guys have so much stuff they have to put in their car. It's amazing all the amount of equipment: guns, safety items, laptops. The utility, they love it from the standpoint that it's got more room."
The Seminole County Sheriff's Office near Orlando, Fla., owns about 650 vehicles, said John Blackwood, the department's fleet manager. The county decided last year to replace its entire Crown Victoria fleet with the new Interceptor utility.
"We have a 4,000-pound vehicle that's actually larger than the Crown Vic, it's getting 20 percent better mileage, and it's faster, it stops better, it turns better, and it's safer," Blackwood said in an interview.
Still, Seminole County's fleet plans call for hanging onto vehicles five to seven years from the time of purchase, or 80,000 to 100,000 miles.
"We have a lot of Crown Vics," Blackwood said. "We'll keep driving those as long as we can."
Trudell reported from Southfield, Mich.