(None of the pictures in this article is of the actual car but pictures borrowed from the internet using Google image search.)
By the time of my last year in college and the beginning of my grad school career, I had experienced a wide range of automobiles. On one end, I had my 76 Camaro; on the other end, I had my J Cars; and in the middle, my Buick Century and Skylark.
My next choice of vehicle was influenced by the V8 power of my Camaro, the cargo room and versatility of my J-body wagons, and the comfort of my Buicks. The numerous commercials for the Lexus LS 400 and Infiniti Q45 also made me look to large, V8 powered sedans for their smoothness and power.
In addition, the TV show Cops was in its heyday as was Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. Every week, I saw the Chevy Caprice in action. I saw a powerful, rugged vehicle that could go anywhere and endure all kinds of abuse. In addition, I saw all the equipment that could be crammed into them and had an appreciation for how roomy they were. I immediately let it be known to all that I was in the market for a Caprice. My friends and family helped with the search but a few misunderstood me. They thought I was looking for a Capri (as in Mercury Capri); I had to clarify more than a few times that it was a Caprice that I wanted.
A few weeks later, I was awakened by an early phone call from my Dad. In his travels, he had run across an estate sale–and lo and behold, there was a 1978 Caprice Classic in the driveway for sale with 50,000 one-owner miles. Needless to say, I got out of bed and hightailed it over there.
The car was indeed a one-owner (recently deceased), low mileage original in a two-tone dark and light blue combination, just sitting in the driveway. The first picture in this post is a twin of the actual car. My jaw dropped when I first saw it…I thought I was seeing a ghost! The asking price was $700, but I had Dad and his negotiation skills with me that day, which allowed me to leave with the car for $500.
Despite the low mileage, the car was not in mint condition. I suspect this was primarily because it had been stored outside most of its life. The paint was faded, as was the powder blue, button-tufted interior, and the dash pad was cracked from exposure to the sun. The equipment told me a little about the former owner’s priorities. The car had air conditioning, a rear defroster, and power windows and locks, my first car to be so equipped, I was so excited! However, it did not have cruise control and only had an AM Radio with just one speaker in the center of the dash! I thought that the windshield-integrated antenna was kind of neat.
What really closed the deal for me was that the engine was basically the same 5.7 liter 350 V8 found in my Camaro. I subsequently tested its prowess a few times in the Caprice through the impromptu drag races of youth, when I beat an ’87 Camaro, ’84 Dodge Daytona and ’90 Mitsubishi Eclipse.
The car was huge compared to my friends’ newer cars at the time. Its capacity for people and cargo made it a popular vehicle for our outings or when a friend needed help moving. I routinely used the full capacity of its six-passenger seating and occasionally exceeded it. Using bungee cords allowed all manner of items to be placed in its enormous trunk, including a filing cabinet,a small couch, and a refrigerator. Folks began referring to it as a truck due to its size and versatility. It certainly had presence. I loved the wide expanse of hood from the driver’s seat and the way it dwarfed the other cars around it. I usually had club music or the theme from Cops blaring out the window “Bad boys, Bad boys…what you gonna do when they come for you!” The V8 engine was so smooth and gave a satisfying hum when pushed.
Until the radical restyling in ’91, you can trace its evolution from its ’75-’76 predecessor just by studying the front end;
I absolutely love the big grille and wide stance! You can trace the look all the way back to ’76.
The latest Caprice looks very different. It still looks pretty rugged, though.
Anyway, getting back to my ’78; In the wintertime, I thought it’s rear-wheel-drive setup would be a problem but it really wasn’t that bad. I passed many a redesigned round Caprice or Roadmaster stuck in the snow spinning its wheels. In fact, a South Orange, NJ police officer whose department just transitioned to the round Caprices remarked “that’s a better Chevy than the new ones since they’re not so light in the back.” Not that the car was as good as my previous front-wheel-drive vehicles. There were several times accelerating or turning in the wet when I was reminded which end was doing the driving and had to wrestle with the car to point it in the right direction.
One of those occasions was the infamous blizzard of ’96 that effectively shut down New Jersey. I had to go to a funeral that week. It was like driving in the North Pole. You couldn’t see the road, let alone the lanes. Everything was covered with layers of snow. There were quite a few close calls when I skidded right through red lights. White-knuckle driving all the way. Believe it or not, the Caprice got me there and back. I was stuck just once, but got out of the way just in time to avoid being creamed by a fire truck.
I replaced the stock AM radio with a Sony cassette head unit and added two speakers in the rear parcel shelf to supplement the lone speaker in the dashboard. I compensated for the lack of dual side mirrors with a huge panoramic rear view mirror. To this day, the best rear view mirror I’ve ever had–literally getting rid of all the blind spots and eliminating the need for side view mirrors altogether. Unfortunately, there was one unintended “modification.” A few nights after I got it, my sister accidentally backed into the driver’s side with my old Sunbird. The damage was actually quite minor but my attempts at repair worsened it as I banged the dent out too much so that it bubbled out. The inside door panel was never quite the same after my “repair.”
The car did begin to show its age under my ownership. The AC and power locks stopped working, the radiator and water pump needed to be replaced, the carburetor needed to be rebuilt and the windshield wiper motor failed. I remember having to limp home from Grandma’s house with a damaged master cylinder. It was a very tense 45 miles with only half the brake system operating. These repairs were not cheap (for a first-year grad student, at least). I never did fix the AC or power locks. I remember having to borrow money from my school for the funds to keep it going.
This is the car that I think of when I reminisce about my college road trips. A particularly memorable one was when we decided one night to see how far we could drive in eight hours in a randomly selected direction. The direction chosen was west, so we ended up driving 500 miles from South Orange, NJ, leaving at 10 pm and arriving and having breakfast at the shores of Lake Erie, in Ohio, eight hours later– and then turning around to return to NJ shortly after. That was one of the many times when I wished I had a camera!
On the trip back, I was impressed with the V8 engine’s performance as we kept pace with a Jaguar XJ6 through the mountains of Pennsylvania, with the speedometer pinned beyond its 80 mph limit for well over two hours. We ended the chase only because we ran low on fuel. The mountainous terrain and our high speed meant about four refueling stops. We were back in New Jersey in time for dinner, with some great stories to tell our friends.
It is hard to put into words my feelings toward this car…I loved it! When I think of the friendships and good times of my youth, this is the car I associate with them. It was the ultimate road trip mobile!
Why did I part ways with this car? One reason was that I was continuing my graduate studies in Baltimore and wanted something newer, trimmer and more fuel efficient. The second reason is that a good friend of mine who loved the car as much as I did (her previous ride was a C-series pickup) was graduating and needed a car for work. As much as I loved the car, I loved our friendship more. So, I promised her the car as soon as she secured a parking spot for it, a few weeks after her graduation.
Here is a funny postscript to this story: As reliable as the car was, the day she and her boyfriend came to get it was the only time it didn’t start! The car refused to leave my side! No amount of pumping or jump starting would wake the Chevy from its slumber. What finally worked? A command from its new owner. She told her boyfriend to pour fuel down the carb. He was terrified and I grabbed the fire extinguisher. She got behind the wheel, held down the accelerator and turned the key, and the car miraculously roared to life under new ownership. It was a bittersweet feeling watching her drive away in the car I loved the most.
The car served her well. She took it on many more road trips and adventures, including a run-in with a new BMW. The Bimmer had to be towed from the scene, while the Caprice suffered only a badly mangled license plate. She kept the car until the early 2000s, when it finally wore out and was traded in for her first brand new car.
As for me, I replaced the Caprice with something much different that was a bridge to a new chapter in my life. I’ll discuss that one next time. And don’t worry, there are seven more B-body vehicles to discuss further in this series, so stay tuned!