COAL: 1988 Chevrolet Caprice Estate – Distinctive Aroma

246-1988_chevy_caprice_wagon_tan_vin1920-b(The images for this post were taken from Google image search)

I was looking to replace my 9C1. I knew I wanted another B-body, and I was very impressed by the utility of my Roadmaster Estate wagon. Searching online, I found a brown 1988 Chevrolet Caprice Estate with fake wood siding and 44,000 one-owner miles. I was immediately intrigued because it reminded me so much of my first Caprice.

The car was at Wigder Chevrolet in East Hanover, New Jersey, where it had been purchased and serviced since new. Its original owner was getting on in years and needed something smaller, so she’d traded it in for a brand new Malibu Maxx. Aside from a small dent on the driver’s side fender, the exterior was in nice shape. The paint was still shiny, and the fake wood looked fresh. It was obvious that this was a garage-kept car. Underneath, there was some rust, but nothing unusual for a nearly 20-year-old car in the Northeast.


 The cloth interior was in excellent shape. It was not at all faded, the carpet was mint and there were no rips in the upholstery. The car was fully optioned out with power seats, windows, locks and antenna, plus a premium sound system. It also came equipped with three details I thought were available only on Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs: It had Twilight Sentinel, exterior cornering lamps, and a tiny spotlight that shined directly on the headlight switch so you could see it at night when you started the car. To be clear, the switch was not backlit; there literally was a tiny spotlight that highlighted the headlight switch when you started the car. I had never before seen such a classy-broughamy detail on a Chevy.

The other feature I really liked was the power-operated rear window. Unlike the Roadmaster, the rear window was not held up by failure-prone struts; it rolled neatly into the tailgate. I loved how you could roll the window up and down by using the door key, and that the window could also be controlled by a button on the dash.

While my Roadmaster was nice, it obviously was used; this car, on the other hand, appeared to be very lightly used. What’s more, it met the criteria I’d set at the end of my last COAL,  it was V8 powered, and it had a third row of seats in the event that we had to transport guests. So a deal was struck, and after I’d handed over the 9C1  plus 700 bucks,  I was the new owner of this survivor and near classic.


The car was equipped with a four-speed automatic with overdrive, and powered by an Oldsmobile 307 V8 rated at 140 HP and with 255 lb./ft. of torque. This engine was put in new GM B-bodies until 1990 and was the last carbureted engine GM put into a car sold in the U.S. Ninety percent of everything I have read about this engine is not kind–in fact, it’s often referred to as a “dog.” Sources list its “theoretical” top speed at 103 mph, a 0-60 time of 13 seconds and a 19-second quarter mile– unimpressive for such a large engine. The relatively better performing Chevy 305 was offered as an option, but my car was not so equipped.

I experienced the problem driving it home: the car was S-L-O-W and seemed vastly under-powered, although I did appreciate how smooth and silent the engine was. Remember, I was coming from a 260 hp, LT1-equipped V8 car. I was on it pretty hard, but it did not seem like it was straining at all. It did not get loud or harsh or feel like it was going to explode. It was just S-L-O-W. On the highway, it was difficult to maintain 70 MPH. I was beginning to think that I’d made a big mistake.

I took it for an emissions inspection, which it failed. I was not surprised, since the engine was literally covered with emissions-related hoses and equipment! So, the plugs and air cleaner were changed, the carburetor was serviced (incidentally, this was the last carb-equipped vehicle I owned), and the EGR system was overhauled.

After its time in the shop, not only did it pass inspection but performance greatly improved. It did not accelerate like the 9C1, but it did accelerate like a proper V8 and no longer struggled to cruise past 70. In fact, on interstate trips I could cruise in the far left lane the entire time and cars actually moved over to let me by.


I have been told that the 307 had a lot of potential, but had been deliberately detuned for the sake of smoothness and longevity. I do know that despite its leisurely performance, this engine has a reputation for lasting upwards of 300,000 miles. While I was OK with its performance, fuel economy was another story, as I was getting between 16-18 mpg on a good day.


Its utility did not disappoint me. I regularly used its third-row seat as well as its impressive cargo-carrying ability. It was around this time that we sold our house and moved into an apartment while we searched for our new home. That meant a lot of our things had to go into storage until we found a house we were interested in buying. I discovered one of those cargo bags that you secure to a roof rack on an SUV which, along with the 87 cubic feet of space in the cargo area, really simplified our move. In fact, most of the move was done using this car and my buddy’s (and my former) Roadmaster wagon. I am reminded again about Robert Kim’s experience with his Olds wagon.


One other thing: B-body wagons have an almost 50-50 weight distribution, which made it awesome in snow. Indeed, that car handled deep snow better than many of my front-wheel drive vehicles. I was afraid that its carbureted engine would make cold starting difficult, but that was not the case–two pumps of the gas pedal prior to starting was all it took for reliable winter starts. I’ve also read that the “mild” gearing (for fuel economy), combined with the mild 307 engine, contributed to its surefootedness.


The car was my daily driver. Fuel economy aside, it was comfortable, practical and enjoyable to drive. There is, however, one unfortunate thing I’ve not mentioned so far: I was the only one who could stand to sit in its luxurious interior. Why? The cabin had a foul odor that was hard to describe. The odor could best be described as smelling biological–hair, sweat, vomit, feces, spit and urine. The smell was there when I bought the car, but I thought I could take care of it and it would eventually go away. Boy, was I wrong! We tried everything: baking soda, shampoo, air freshener, pouring perfume on the seats, even driving with all windows open (at 80 mph) for a week. Nothing worked. I remember picking up my mother in law from the train station one time. Within ten seconds, she remarked, “Oh my God, what is that smell?” The worst thing was that the smell would stick to your clothes, so pretty soon you were carrying the odor on your person, just like in the Seinfeld episode.


So I began a passive search once more. It did not take long before I encountered what was to me, at the time, the ultimate B-body….the Holy Grail (and I don’t mean an Impala SS)…and the subject of next week’s COAL.