Curbside Classic: 1967 Chevrolet Caprice Estate – Nice, But Not Nice Enough

(first posted 7/23/2012)    I have always been fascinated by the Chevrolet-Ford rivalry. As Henry Ford’s bare-bones Model T hit its stride, the Ford Motor Company had a kind of market dominance that we will never see again.  But once General Motors’ Chevrolet Division took an inexpensive car and made it nice, the race was on.  By 1927-28, Chevrolet’s formula of offering a nicer vehicle for slightly more money proved to be a winner; by 1931, Chevrolet had overtaken Ford for good, with a display of sales dominance that would run largely uninterrupted for over fifty years.  During the glory years, Chevrolet’s stock in trade was high style for a low price.  Once the V8 hit Chevy showrooms in 1955, Chevy’s place atop the automotive pecking order was, with rare exceptions, solidified– except, that is, in one segment: station wagons.

In the 1950s, Ford advertised itself as “America’s Wagon Master”, and for good reason.  With a few exceptions (particularly in the early 1960s), Chevrolet never seemed able to put away Ford  wagons as they had done elsewhere in the model lineup.  As the 1960s unfolded, this situation would become more and more lopsided–even when it came to sales materials. This Chevrolet brochure shows a family walking away from a Chevy wagon.  The Ford family seems to be having so much more fun.

For whatever reason, Chevrolet started losing ground in wagons with the 1965 restyle.  But the boys at Chevy were determined not to give up, and for 1966 brought forth a proper opponent for Ford’s wood-paneled Country Squire–the Caprice Estate.  Unfortunately for Chevrolet, Ford outsold them by about 15,000 wagons.  In 1967, the margin would open up to about 25,000 units and would only grow wider from there.  So just what about this wagon is so unattractive?  Or put another way, in a world where  people were disposed to buy more Chevys than Fords, why was this wagon the bridesmaid and not the bride?  Good question.

Was it looks?  Looks are always subjective, but the ’67 Chevy was a very attractive car (as were all big Chevys of that period).  But as proven by Chrysler’s minivan sales a generation later, maybe wagon buyers really are practical folks who just want a big box.

Was it performance?  This particular wagon had at long last remedied Chevrolet’s main weakness, the old two-speed Powerglide transmission.  The PG (History here) was indisputably a tough old unit, and Chevy’s high-revving small block certainly disguised the old PG’s lack of ratios. But the three-speed Turbo Hydramatic was finally (though optionally) on the job.  The new tranny showed up behind the big block engines in 1966, but eventually was offered with the midrange 327 in 1967.  At last, the Chevy wagon buyer had an answer to Ford’s dull-but-torquey FE engines and Cruise-O-Matic trannys that were perfect for the stuff that wagons do.  The tightwads who insisted on the old 283 (or the six) would continue to experience powertrain deja vu with the same pieces they had known and loved in their 1963 (or ’60 or ’57) Chevys.

Certainly it wasn’t the interior appointments: The Caprice Estate in particular was a very nice car inside.  Although this one has certainly seen (more than?) its share of wear and tear, you can see that this would have been a very nice place to endure the endless queries of “Are we there yet?” that surely dogged most of the drivers of these big wagons–and especially so when they were equipped with factory air…ahhhhhhh, a luxury I could only dream about while stuck to the blistering black vinyl seats of Dad’s Squire.   Of course, the Country Squire offered a very nice interior as well.  One quibble with the Chevy – if you are designing a dashboard with three greeeeeat big gauge pods, do you really waste the entirety of one of them on the world’s biggest gas gauge?  All the better to actually watch it moving towards the ‘E’.

One thing this Caprice Estate did not have was Ford’s Magic Doorgate.  The Ford two-way door gate (which evolved into a three-way door gate that opened as a door whether the window was up or down) might have been the canary in the coal mine that signalled the end of Chevy’s dominance over Ford.  This Caprice Estate was, essentially, the same station wagon that Chevrolet had built in 1964 or 1959 or 1955.  Although Chevrolet continued to produce and sell a stylish and throughly competent car, Ford was taking the  same basic car and raising the stakes with some innovation.  Chevy reacted with a doorgate of its own in 1969-70.  Then, just after getting this game-changing feature, along came the clamshell tailgate on the 1971-76 GM wagons which had an unintended effect of actively repelling customers towards Ford.

As for this ad, they must have taken this picture in Lake Wobegon, where all of the Catholics buy their cars at Krebsbach Chevrolet and the Lutherans drive Fords from Bunsen Motors.  I always wondered what Carl Krebsbach looked like.   These children certainly look above average.

This decrepit Caprice wagon has been having the last laugh over Country Squires in much of the country. Its frame has avoided rusting to the point of  breaking in two despite all the years of apparent abuse.  Chevy wagons of this vintage generally enjoy the kind of long, long life evidenced by this particular example.  I wonder what happened to the wood on the sides.  Vinyl-eating termites perhaps?  Actually, the ’67 Chevy wagon looks better to me without the wood.  I wonder why I prefer my Fords with but my Chebys without?

Another thing that Ford could not boast of in 1967 was a cool gold- vinyl interior.  The Chevy also gave its buyers a proper telescoping steering column instead of a big foam mushroom mounted in the steering wheel.  And is there any more prototypical color combo for a late-1960s big American car than gold inside and out?  Except maybe for avacado green, I mean.  I recall reading once that gold cars finally outsold white ones in 1970; at any rate, the color’s popularity was already building a head of steam in 1967.

This is one car I somehow never rode in.  A high school friend had a ’68 Fury wagon, and I have previously written about my father’s ’66 Country Squire.  The closest I can get to one of these is that my little sister had a friend whose family had a strippo ’67 Biscayne wagon with a three-speed.  Also, I once test drove a ’67 Impala hardtop for a friend.  Otherwise, the rest of my ’67 Chevy experience came from the outside.  Still, there were worse cars to look at a lot, which I certainly did; once upon a time, these were everywhere. However,  I recall that there always seemed to be a lot more Impalas than Caprices around.

If we all were permitted to step through a wormhole and onto a dealer lot packed with new 1967 Chevrolets, it would be fun to watch the stampede to claim a Corvette, Camaro, Malibu SS, or even a Custom Deluxe C10 pickup.  There would even be at least one guy looking over a new Corvair (can anybody name him?)  As for me, I would be standing in complete solitude while looking over a wagon just about like this one.  Is this what I would pick to drive back home?  That depends.  Are we allowed to go to the Ford dealer next door?   No?  Then I’ll take one of these – perhaps the gold one with the 396 and air.