Morris Minor: the unlikeliest police car ever

·4-min read
1968 Morris Minor panda car
1968 Morris Minor panda car

Five years ago, Michael Burgess, a retired police officer, acquired a rather special Morris Minor. Not only was it a genuine former London Metropolitan Panda Car, but it was also the very same Bermuda Blue and Police White example that he drove out of the Surbiton station yard in April 1968 when it was brand new.

In 1965 Lancaster Constabulary had experimented with “Unit Beat Policing”, in which officers in the Kirby area patrolled in cars rather than on foot. Their black and white-liveried Ford Anglia 105Es gained the nickname “Panda Cars”. By 1967, the Home Office invested £2 million in expanding the scheme, and the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins believed: “People will always go to a policeman on foot or in a small car, but they would hesitate to stop a big black patrol car.”

The Minor was a popular choice of many constabularies, and the capital’s Metropolitan Police was probably the highest-profile user. Simon Mitchell of the Morris Minor Owners’ Club Ex-Police Register observes: “The ‘Police Specification’ models varied from county to county, and the Pandas came off the standard production line at Cowley [near Oxford].”

Some forces encountered problems with the layout of the car’s pedals; Derby had to allow its PCs to wear shoes behind the wheel, as their regulation boots proved too big for safe driving.

1968 Morris Minor panda car
1968 Morris Minor panda car

When the Met Police commissioned SYT 709F, the Minor’s design was nearly 20 years old, but it was incredibly robust, handled well and was easy to maintain. Unlike the contemporary Ford Escort Mk1 or Vauxhall Viva HB, the Morris still featured a starting handle for those moments when it failed to proceed. In 1970, a Minor Panda was the focus of the Dixon of Dock Green story Waste Land, an episode that completely belies the series’ reputation for “cosiness”.

Burgess recalls his Morris “was intended to be used by a single officer unlike the Jaguar S-Types and Wolseleys, which were crewed by a driver and a radio operator. As far as its equipment is concerned, it was not much different from a civilian Minor”. That means this police car was devoid of a wireless set – Burgess used his personal radio if necessary – although it was fitted with a blue light, two-tone horns and a bell. Scotland Yard thought the latter three might tempt a keen police driver to pursue villains, rather than leave this task to more powerful Area Cars.

1968 Morris Minor panda car
1968 Morris Minor panda car

In reality, a tyre-squealing Robbery-style chase would have proved a slight challenge as the Morris’s top speed is 73mph. Burgess wryly observes: “Police vehicles with souped-up engines is a myth, but the Minor was more than capable of covering my beat, which included Tolworth, Chessington and extended up to the Surrey Constabulary boundary at Leatherhead. At times I flagged down speeding motorists on the A3.”

The Morris was also the epitome of luxury to a young PC used to walking the beat in all weathers and regularly using a Police Box to call the station. Burgess says: “At least the Minor was equipped with a heater. Before then, Met patrol cars tended to lack them as it might discourage officers from leaving the warmth of their vehicle.”

1968 Morris Minor panda car and Jaguar S-Type
1968 Morris Minor panda car and Jaguar S-Type

The Burgess Morris remained in service until around 1969, when it was replaced by another Minor. He remembers: “They covered 24-hour shifts and amassed a vast mileage. At times I used my car in a way that was not officially approved of – I once drove mine off-road. By the time the Pandas were auctioned off, they were usually very tired.”

In the early Seventies, the last of the Met’s Minors were replaced by Austin 1100 Mk3s, which in turn were succeeded by the Allegro.

1968 Morris Minor panda car
1968 Morris Minor panda car

Mitchell believes that only 15 of the London Met’s Minor fleet survive, which makes this example a priceless piece of social history. The term Panda Car now seems as redolent of a lost past as three-channel television, but Burgess’ Minor was once as much part of life in the capital as a Routemaster bus.

And as a 1968 recruitment poster stated: “Where Have All The Policemen on Bicycles Gone? Into ‘Panda Cars’ – fighting crime with computer efficiency.”

Thanks to: Michael Burgess, Simon Mitchell and the Morris Minor Owners’ Club Ex-Police Register.

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