Many of us have spent seat time in a vehicle we didn’t choose ourselves. Rental cars, borrowed cars, usually circumstances don’t allow complaint, as the alternative is true punishment for those who love the freedom of driving. A few years ago, as my college career was winding down, my philosophy on a set of wheels was “I’ll take what I can get”. While I was able to beg and borrow my butt into the seats of a few of my relatives’ old cars, eventually the automotive Gods smiled on me, and the opportunity arose to pick up a car I had always wanted for an ATM trip’s worth of money.
The summer before my senior year in college I was working as an engineering intern, performing an array of mindless intern tasks, but mostly testing electrical receptacles and other household wiring devices. I became friends with a tech working there and we would spend a lot of time together testing, talking and hanging out. Inevitably our conversations turned to cars and he told me about an old Chevy cop car he had in his driveway.
He didn’t know much about it; the year, engine, and mechanical condition where all mysteries. He received the car as payment for some kind of handiwork and never got around to registering or driving it. I immediately expressed my interest in taking it off his hands, but my hasty offer must have revealed a tragic weakness; my excitement for cars can overwhelm my sense of reason. He didn’t really want to sell a mysterious old car to a 21 year old in college, even if it was only worth a couple hundred. The rest of the summer I patiently convinced him I could handle the repairs and general responsibility and towards the end of the summer he let me come to his house to check it out.
When I pulled into his street it was immediately apparent which house was his, the one with the huge, dirty, silver Caprice in the driveway. It was a 1991, with thinly sprayed silver paint covering some kind of municipal paint scheme. As I started my walk around I began marking the ex-cop car identification checklist in my mind. Hole in the A-pillar for a spotlight: check. Blue/green silicone coolant hoses: check. Giant, round interior map light: check. Certified speedo: check. With a jump the car started quickly and let out a quick puff of blue. It sounded good and with my foot on the brake seemed to shift into its gears solidly. There was almost no rust, and the body was straight, with the odometer reading around 90,000 miles. The idea of driving a full-frame, 350 powered Chevy was becoming irresistible. I just had to know what the police spec brakes and suspension felt like, I need to see how fast it was, and how solid it felt at 90 mph. Would it peel away from a light?
My friend brought out two Coors Lights and we sat on his porch with his dog. I told him I would buy it, but he wouldn’t accept the 3 or 4 hundred I had in my pocket we had discussed earlier. He wanted to give it to me. I didn’t quite know how to respond; I really wanted the car but felt awkward about it being a gift. My Dad had given me my first car, and my Uncle my third, and while I was thankful, I never felt strange about it. This situation was different, this was a car I would drive around proudly, and I wanted to earn that feeling. I thought about my bond with my car friends dating back to High School; there was nothing we wanted more than a cool car, but we were stuck with what we could get. Would they lose respect for me now that I was being given a cool car? Eventually I was able to put my pride away and graciously accept the gift. The car was falling into loving hands, and the little money I had in my pocket that day would be going right into parts and maintenance.
I returned a few days later to pick up the Caprice with my friend Jeremy who had access to a repair plate. We got it back to my Mom’s house and got right down to business. Will it peel out? Jeremy watched as I pointed it down my street and mashed it from a stop. The car took off with a deep rumble and loud squeal. This was the first time I had a car with some real torque and it brought a smile to my face. Under the trunk lid was a sticker listing the car’s option codes and I immediately recognized 9C1, GU6 and G80, the latter two indicating 3.42 gears and limited slip. This was a performance machine!
Doing some research online I learned more about the L05 350 under the hood. It featured a hydraulic roller cam which I thought was pretty cool, paired with some fairly restrictive heads and throttle body injection. The 9C1 version of the L05 was a little hotter than the others, using a more aggressive camshaft borrowed from an F-body. For 91′ the engine made 205hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. While not amazing numbers, they seemed to stand out from a lot of V8’s of the era. For some reason I cherished the idea that somebody at Chevy said “The normal one isn’t fast enough, the police version will be faster.”
The Caprice was a great cruiser. The handling felt sharp and the ride was smooth. The brakes never felt strained and the engine was willing whenever I pressed the gas. I liked slouching in the blue vinyl bench seat and resting my elbow on the armrest. The seat back had a slight relief that didn’t give very much support, but at least gave a sense of center. I really loved the gauge cluster; the small digital speedometer was to the left of an analog tach, with accessory gauges at the corners for oil pressure, water temperature, amps, and fuel.
Serving as my transportation my last 3 semesters in college, the Caprice offered a good mix of fun and practicality. One of my greatest joys was taking it out on rainy days and power-sliding around corners. I got pretty good at it after a while, where I could carry a little drift in the dry from a slow roll. I remember one occasion driving 4 of my buddy’s to a local Chinese restaurant and kicking it out around a corner. This invited backseat requests for brake stands, stoplight revving, and peel outs, all of which I was happy to provide.
Not surprisingly, my enthusiastic driving pointed out some repairs I’d need to make. First up was a front end overhaul consisting of new pitman and idler arms, tie rods and center link. Not long after getting the steering in order, the 4L60 transmission stopped going into 3rd and 4th gear entirely. I tracked down a used 700R4 on craigslist and installed it in my mom’s garage over winter break. I remember the weekend I chose to install it was unbelievably cold. My girlfriend at the time stopped by at one point with a book and thermos to hang out in the garage and keep my company during the install. She was frozen in about an hour and had to go back home, I gave her major points for the effort though!
As with any other car I’ve owned, I was frequently on Craigslist looking at other ones for sale or parts to improve my own. One day during the next summer I came across an ad for various caprice parts and a few 9C1’s for sale. In speaking with the seller I learned he ran a business buying, restoring and selling municipal vehicles. I made an appointment to check out his shop and see if he had anything I could use.
After an hour or so of driving I arrived at an industrial park and drove around until I spotted another 9C1 parked at a building, this must be the place! Inside were several 9C1’s, Crown Vic’s, and Tahoe’s in various states of repair. I had toyed with the idea of re-installing a spotlight and push bar and picked up one of each. I also went home with four, used Goodyear Eagle RS/A’s picked from a trailer of about a hundred used police tires.
I was curious to hear the seller’s thoughts about my car and Caprices in general. He didn’t seem very interested when he saw my car was a 91, but I wasn’t offended since he had probably seen hundreds of them over the years. When I explained that I had done front end work but it still felt a bit loose, he remarked it probably patrolled a city, as the cars that do highway duty tend to stay tighter, even after front end work. When I asked him if he ever raced an LT1 caprice against a P71 Crown Vic, he explained that they had out on I87 one night, and the Caprices were considerably faster.
Tantalized by his story, I asked to see the LT1 cars he had for sale. There were 2 dark blue 94’s parked side by side in the lawn behind the building. They were both a lot rougher than my car, sitting on flats and wearing dents and faded paint. He wanted 1500 each, at the time it seemed excessive and was totally out of reach for me, but on my drive home I fantasized about the steps I’d take restoring one if I had the funds.
The tires and spotlight I bought went on the car, but I never wound up adding the push bar. The spotlight seemed to give the car some cred on the highway; people were a bit more obliged to move out of the fast lane or would slow down when passing me. I think the fact that it wasn’t a Crown Vic was enough for most people to understand it was just an old car and not an unmarked cruiser. I definitely didn’t want anyone to think I was masquerading as a cop; I always thought of the spotlight as a cool touch that gave the car a little character and pointed out its history.
My last semester in college quickly came and went and soon after I graduated the used transmission I had installed started failing. With the car only fit to drive around at neighborhood speeds, I was left with a tough decision to make. Should I install another transmission or move on to another vehicle? Several treacherous trips in the snow had left me longing for another AWD car like my Dad’s Subaru. The 16mpg average was also starting to sting a little on my long commute to work. I decided to sell the Caprice and replace it with something a little better for commuting. While I don’t regret buying the next car, the Caprice was the first car I ever sold that I wished I had back.
After posting the car on Craigslist with some nice pictures and an honest description, I sold the car to a young guy like myself, who was planning to fix it up. I thought $500 was a fair price considering the car was pretty nice other than the transmission issue and I wound up taking $450. I was pleased a few weeks later when the new owner stopped by my house while cruising around with 4 of his buddies. I felt a moment of regret seeing my car fixed and on the road again, but the new owner’s happiness put my mind at ease. He clearly felt the same joy I had, cruising around with your buddies in a big old Chevy.