History of the term
Panda cars were named after pandas because they were originally painted with large panels of black and white, or light blue and white.
The first use of panda cars seems to have been in Lancashire Constabulary area in about 1965, the chief constable described the use of blue and white Ford Anglia panda cars in Kirkby in an article in The Times on 26 January 1966. These were blue with a white line painted around them. In 1967, the Dunbartonshire force bought two Hillman Imps (subsequently nicknamed Pinky and Perky) for escort duties on the A82 road; one blue and one white. The boot lids, bonnets, and doors were then swapped to create a panda car style scheme.
In the 1980s, police cars in the United Kingdom began to be ordered in white to save acquisition costs, usually with orange or red "jam sandwich" reflective stripes. Today, patrol cars use Battenburg markings or stripes, although many forces still use a mainly white colour scheme. The name panda car or panda is still sometimes used.
In many areas, the panda car replaced the traditional "bobby on the beat", when it was seen that larger suburban or rural areas could be more effectively patrolled by officers in cars, as opposed to on foot, bicycles, or motorcycles. The provision of shelter from the weather and a two-way radio were also benefits.
The panda is distinct from the "area car", a larger and more powerful vehicle which acts as support to the beat constables, usually carrying two officers.
Current usage within the Metropolitan Police Service uses the term "panda car" to refer specifically to a marked car driven by a basic driver (i.e., one constrained to drive within normal traffic rules, and who may not use the vehicle's siren), as opposed to an IRV—"immediate response vehicle"—which could be exactly the same vehicle but driven by a response driver (i.e., one trained and permitted to disregard certain traffic laws and use the siren, as one would normally expect from police vehicles). The callsign attached to the vehicle for the duration of the shift should normally make it clear whether it is functioning as a panda or IRV at the time. These vehicles are sometimes referred to as a "lemon sandwich", if they have/use the colour scheme of white with a yellow stripe.
- Article by the chief constable of Lancashire in The Times (Mobility Answer to Police Shortage (News) Colonel T. E. St. Johnston - The Times, Wednesday, 26 January 1966; pg. 13; Issue 56539; col F)