In Germany, you might recognize a cop car by the large green or blue stripe that stretches around the vehicle. It might seem like a police car is called a Streifenwagen (“stripe-car”) because of this, but it’s a misleading term. Cars were called Streifenwagen even back when they had only a single color and no stripe. The German word Streife, in this context, means “patrol”. But in Hamburg, police cars go by a different name: Peterwagen, which means “Peter-car”.
But who is Peter?
After World War II, the city of Hamburg was under control of the British Forces Germany. In 1946, the British administration decided that Hamburg would be equipped with new radio patrol cars. These cars contained radios that allowed police officers to communicate with one another – a new type of technology for the police force. These cars were therefore called Radiowagen (“radio cars”).
As the story goes, the German word Peterwagen arose from an encounter between a German government worker and a British officer in 1946. The officer did not understand the word Radiowagen, so the German explained, “Radiowagen – it’s like a patrol car!” Due to the government worker’s German accent, the British officer did not understand him correctly, and asked him to spell out “patrol car.” The German man explained that it starts with “P – like Peter”, and the British officer wrote Peterwagen in his documents. Ever since, Hamburg residents have used the word Peterwagen to describe a Radiowagen.
Although many Germans might know what a Peterwagen is, this term is used primarily in Hamburg. In other places, a police car is usually referred to as a Funkstreifenwagen or Streifenwagen.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy