From the past few COALs I had learned a few things: 1) I was in love with the B body design 2) I missed the LT1 performance of my 9C1 3) I liked the white non-descript color of my 9C1 4) the utility of the B body wagon was essential 5) I liked cushy brougham interiors 6) I liked the big fold away heated side view mirrors of the 95-96 B bodies.
I was passively searching for a replacement for my last COAL because nobody wanted to ride in it anymore and came upon the following:
1) 1995 Chevrolet Caprice wagon with big, fold-away heated side view mirrors
2) Cranberry red cloth interior with power windows, locks, seats and antenna
3) Bright white exterior with no fake wood (a huge bonus for me)
4) Station wagon with third-row seat
5) 5.7 liter LT1 V8 with 260 HP
6) Definitely a B-body
A point-for-point match…it couldn’t get any better than that. It looked like a wagon version of my 9C1. It was not easy convincing my wife to support me in bringing home yet another B-body. Eventually, she grudgingly relented and I made the appointment to see the car, knowing full well there was no way I was leaving without it.
The car was at a small used car dealership in Belleville, not far from where I work. When I saw it, I was even more convinced that I had to have it. It was a one-owner car with about 120,000 miles on it. The car spent its winters in Florida which accounted for the non existent rust underneath. Moreover, the car had recently had its transmission rebuilt. I saw this as a good thing because these cars were equipped with the 4L60E transmission, about which I have heard many horror stories of early failure. I was glad that this car’s trans had already been redone.
The cranberry red cloth upholstery was in good condition. One thing that I did not mention in my previous write-ups about these cars is that the window rollers were very common failure items on the 91-96 B bodies which resulted in windows coming off the track and not being able to close properly unless manually guided upward by hand. This wagon was afflicted with this problem, which rendered the left rear passenger window inoperative. The fix was apparently very easy but I did not have the proper tools to remove the door panel as required. In addition, the factory cassette player was not working. The radio worked fine but it would not accept cassettes. This was not really a problem, since most of my music was on CDs and I was slowly transitioning to MP3s. I had one of those transmitters that allowed me to play my portable music trough an unused radio frequency on the car stereo.
The Corvette derived LT1 ran well and was recently serviced. I did find that the suspension was much softer than my 9C1 but this was to be expected since it did not have the police or towing package. By the way, Chevy did have a special service/police package for Caprice wagons, called the 1A2. Only 846 were made so they are relatively rare. Unfortunately, the few I have encountered were pretty well used up. Finally, like my previous Roadmaster wagon, the anti-lock feature of the brakes was no longer working. I wonder if this was a common failure item with these cars. I had another B-body wagon after this with this exact problem.
Despite these issues, I was sure that I would not be looking for another car again….I finally had my dream car. It was a very nice car that I maintained meticulously–at first (although I never did repair the misaligned window or ABS light). This was in part due to a fuel pump failure early in my ownership that was not cheap to repair and broke my budget in terms of repair/improvements to the car aside from the installation of XM satellite radio. I did make sure oil changes and such were done according to schedule.
I must say the Caprice wagon was a fine vehicle. It was competent, comfortable and fun. Like my last two wagons, it could haul an impressive amount of stuff. For example, our current dining set was delivered via the Caprice wagon. In one trip that car hauled the dining table, diner-style sectional bench, and three dining chairs. The other customers where I bought the furniture, many with full sized pickup trucks, watched in disbelief as the entire dining set fit in the wagon and on the roof rack. Later that same day, I used the Caprice to deliver an oversize antique sofa to my brother-in-law’s home in Baltimore.
Handling was nowhere near as tight as my 9C1 but it handled pretty competently. The LT1 pulled strongly and was entertaining in a straight line. I remember one Sunday morning, I had to get to an early morning graduation. It was about 7 AM and the highway was deserted. With absolutely no traffic around, the car got to triple digits quickly and easily. I was cruising at about 108-ish in the right lane. Out of nowhere, this motorcycle flashed past me like I was standing still, quickly leaving me in the dust to the point where I could no longer see him. If I was doing 108, I wonder how fast he must have been going!
My use of it as a daily driver ended because I made a serious blunder purchasing a vehicle for my wife. I will discuss this in detail next week. Suffice it to say that she needed a car so, for the second time, a Caprice was relegated to baby-hauling duty.
The car served her well for a few more years, surviving a series of parking encounters with larger vehicles (and our house) which resulted in a creased fender and dented tailgate. This car actually survived and outlasted the next six COALs, which you will be reading about in the next few weeks.
In the end, it was my perpetual lack of funds to properly take care of it which led to its rapid decline from flagship to liability.
The first problem stemmed from an aftermarket alarm system. When I bought the car, I was told that the system was inoperative. A few years into our ownership, I realized that inoperative was not the correct word: It was actually only hibernating. One day it came out of its slumber. The alarm would sound at random moments and then shut off by itself. This happened maybe once every two weeks. We didn’t have a fob or any other means of shutting it off, so we just let it be. The real problem came when the second feature of the alarm system became active once again. Namely, the starter interrupt feature. Without the fob, we couldn’t disarm it; therefore, we couldn’t start the car. At the same time, we were more broke than ever, so we didn’t even have any money to tow it somewhere to have someone look at it. While we were pondering this, my wife had to walk to get to where she had to go (which entailed having to cross a busy highway; thankfully, there was a crosswalk). I finally realized that funds to fix the problem were not coming anytime soon, so for the second time since my Saab, I performed a DIY auto repair. I went through the car, pulled any fuses that were not in the owner’s manual, and removed any parts that did not look stock. I also took a great risk by cutting any wires that looked out of place. Well, I was lucky. I cheered loudly as the LT1 roared back to life; I screamed and danced around in victory as my three-year-old looked on proudly.
The LT1 B-bodies had two main weaknesses. One was the 4l60E transmission, with its debatable reputation for early (and expensive) failure. Are the transmissions inherently bad due to a design flaw, or is the failure rate due to neglect and abuse? I have heard both sides. I’ve also heard that the 94′ 4l60Es were stronger than the ones in the 95-96 B cars. The second weakness was the Optispark. What is an Optispark? The Optispark was essentially an advanced distributor that used infrared and optical sensors to operate properly. Because it was such a high-tech piece of equipment, it was not cheap. In addition, it is difficult and tedious to gain access to it. At the time, a genuine GM Optispark cost between $600-$800 before installation. In addition, like replacing a timing belt, replacing the Optispark meant replacing the water pump because water pump failure almost always meant damage to the expensive Optispark. These two components are what have led many to give up on their LT1 dreams, and probably why they are not more prolific today.
As I said, the transmission on my car held up pretty well. The oil was pink, in good shape and serviced regularly. There came a time when the car began running roughly and eventually missing, running on seven cylinders. The driveabilty issues began to worsen until it became obvious that the Optispark was failing. I did not have the $1,600 minimum needed to replace the Optispark, the plugs and the water pump, so my mechanic suggested an alternative. At the time, various companies offered “generic” equivalents to the Optispark. Some were of better quality than others, but all were considerably cheaper than the OEM part. So, I gambled. And lost. We tried replacing the part twice, both efforts ending in failure and stranding me on the side of the road.
It was heartbreaking to make the decision to cut my one-time dream car loose. This vehicle was our last GM product to date. Incidentally, after it left our service it was replaced by a vehicle that we kept until November of 2014. You’ll read about that one next month..
Since I parted company with my Saab, I had been enjoying an unprecedented eight years or so of automotive reliability. This would change very quickly. My next few COALs will feature some of the worst automobile decisions I have ever made, leading to some of the darkest days in my car-owning history.