COAL: 1990 Chevrolet Caprice Iraqi 9C1 – How GM Canada’s Skunkworks And Saddam Hussein Enriched And Saved My Life

(Editor’s note: the veracity of this autobiographical story cannot be verified. A number of those familiar with these cars in general are adamant that there never was such a car built by GM.)     General Motors is a company that always confused me; when they did something right, they did it exceptionally well. When they did something badly, they did it exceptionally badly. In my experience this is directly proportional to their need to put up a good front at a particular time. I have written a lot about B-Bodies here, and not with any intention. It’s just I have driven some really gone ones, cars that GM made because they had to.

The topic of today’s COAL is a 1990 Chevrolet 9C1. In all fairness, it was not actually a 9C1 per se. It was an Iraq Caprice export, built by GM Canada in their Oshawa export factory. The cars were ordered, but the Gulf War interrupted their export. The cars were then very quickly sold off through government fleet channels. There was big money in these cars for GM, so they made sure they were perfect. The fit and finish was much better than regular Caprices. These cars were in fact made on a separate line with the best workers. In short, GM had to make these cars good and they really did. Shows what they could have done all along. The Oshawa plant was in those days like a Skunk Works; all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff came out of it that our American readers many not be familiar with. All the Caprices for the middle east came from Oshawa and all were equipped the same: all the 9C1 stuff, full power accessories, upgraded a/c, velour interior with bucket seats and the 5.7 litre V-8.

This was no plain Jane 350; it had no emission controls, a factory 2.5 inch dual exhaust with one can per side, higher compression, hotter cam and different carb and intake. As an interesting aside, there was an emission exemption in Canada so that the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) could use them. The purported rationale for this was so that the cars could be used up north on leaded fuel, which was still common in those days as the same fuel was often used for aircraft.

My estimation was the unsmogged motors made at least 300 hp and 350 lb/ft of torque. The Canadian cars were way faster than the US spec cars. These were the last of the shade tree mechanic cars. There were no electronics whatsoever on this engine, just a  nice Small Block with a four-barrel on top of it,  just like The Creator intended. They could be fixed almost anywhere for next to a pittance by anyone name Bob or Abdul. That is why both the RCMP and the Iraqi government wanted these cars. What is more, the frames on these cars were so strong you could keep bolting stuff on and off them for a very long time. They were tough as nails and very easy to repair.

I came across this car at the Crown Assets Auction in early 1991. It had a reserve price of $4200 on it and the best part was that it was already converted to LPG (more on that later). It had only 60,000 km on it. It had to be wrong so I had to look: it wasn’t wrong, the car was in perfect condition. What was scaring people away was the price of gasoline and the fact the media was, at the time, spreading fear about exploding LPG cars, kind of like the Toyota fiasco a little while back. I put in my sealed bid and much to my surprise, I got it.

The car was perfect and even with the LPG it still made gobs of power and wonderful rumbly noises off those fat duals. I then found out it had been part of the fleet in the City of Richmond, BC. I gave their fleet manager a call. I asked him why they had taken a bath on such a cool car and he told me that the car was racking up loads of photo radar tickets, which was a big cash cow for the government of the day, a blatant cash grab in the name of Political Correctness that led to their near annihilation. They had gotten the car cheap when Gulf War One broke out; then they found out it sucked gas like a semi when you booted it and resisting putting to the rug as often as you could was almost impossible for anyone. This led to the LPG conversion, as good as any we ever did. The tickets were the nail in the coffin for the car and it was sent to auction.

I was driving my Honda Accord at the time but my girlfriend also loved it, so I decided to drive the Caprice for a while. We didn’t want to make it a taxi right away, since the 9C1s always got the bark beat off them by the drivers. What we planned to do was sell the motor and put in a nice 305 done up for LPG. It was very easy to sell a Canadian spec 9C1 motor at more than enough profit to pay for the 305 swap. The Iraqi motor was the same block used in the GM Canada 2500 trucks, with forged everything in it, really strong and tough as nails. There were coolers for oil and power steering fluid and a huge extra transmission cooler. It was animalistic; the car just flew off the line with its 3.55 gears and would bury the 200 km/h speedometer with ease. It would also troll around the city with no complaints and was easy to see out of and park. With the 7004R transmission it was reasonably fuel efficient on the highway, too. It didn’t really matter since LPG was like $0.25 a litre and I got it for free anyway!

What was it like to drive? Well, in a word, a blast! The car had loads of torque and the suspension to handle all the power. The interior was like a real car, except for the awful, fixed back, bucket seats. The only downside other than the seats was the ox-cart ride that made that handling possible. On smooth roads the car was brilliant and you could add throttle to make it oversteer, which was tons of fun. The ride on rough roads was totally punishing and the seats offered no support at all. You sat on them, not in them. Still the car was a really nice road warrior so it was immediately set to road trip duty.

Cars of those days were really not all that powerful, and the Coquihalla Highway into central British Columbia was known as the Car Killer for a reason. The grade is long and steep and the climate very hot. You’d always see blown up Volvos, Audis and especially VW Vans at the summit. The Caprice didn’t even notice it. It was a really hot day, like 35’C and I had that Iraqi a/c blowing like a meat locker. I passed everything up that hill and crested it at like 150 km/h and what did I see right there? A Mountie aiming a radar gun at me! I almost had a heart attack and then the cop smiled and waved at me. He assumed I was a cop, too. I now had a get out of jail free car! I drove that car at ridiculous speeds in the barren wilds that are much of Canada, a huge and largely empty country. I took it across the prairie on that trip, and it was completely poised at 160 km/h and could go a lot faster. Several times I blew past cops and they just waved at me. It was really a blast, a totally fun drive!

That summer we traveled all over Canada in the Caprice and it was perfect at that duty. Fast, good handling, big trunk, cheap to run, ice cold a/c. We camped a lot and that huge trunk swallowed all our gear. When we were done five weeks later we had driven the Saddamobile (as we called it) more than 15,000 km. I loved the car and knew it was the last of an era and highly collectible some day. I decided to keep it and use it as a summer road trip mobile since it was the ultimate Q-Ship but you know, fate has a way of waving its fickle finger.

In September 1991 I was tooling along a street in Victoria at about the 50 km/h limit when I glanced at the intersection to the right, where there was a cross street. The stop sign and much of the intersection was obscured by a large Oak tree. I glanced to the right and saw a blue Honda Civic barreling right at me. I instinctively nailed the brakes and braced my right arm on the steering wheel. In an instant I had the nose of a Honda Civic about 50 cm from me. Coolant from the Honda was spitting all over me, burning my arm. The driver’s door was wedged against a pole.

At first I didn’t feel anything but numbness, and then I thanked Buddha that my girlfriend of many years was not with me. Then the pain hit and it was beyond description. The young woman in the Civic was dead and I was trapped in my Caprice. To get me out, they broke the back window and cut the back off the diver’s seat. I don’t remember much except the morphine shot going in. I do remember the three weeks in hospital and the year of recovery, though.

The stout cop car frame of that car had saved my life. The Civic was doing 70 km/h plus when it hit me. Apparently the woman had just been fighting with her boyfriend. The Caprice was a write off and I got a paltry $2500 for it. The insurance company wouldn’t even let my buy the wreck, stating it was against their policy to allow this. The injuries sustained from this accident still haunt me today.

The pictures here are from the web, but my car was identical except for the silly spot lights. Mine also had full wheel covers. The pic above is completely identical to what my car looked like, even the wheel covers. There are really none of these left now as they all got used by good old boys on the prairies or at the demo derby. The prairie cars ran a good fifteen years or so until abuse and rust got them, a testament to their toughness and ease of repair.

I loved that car and I knew what it was; I didn’t have a B Body driver after that, realizing that no B Body would ever rate with this Iraqi 9C1. I only ever saw a couple of them, too. I wanted to keep that car so much but really, it saved my life. Had I been hit like this in my Accord, I would never have made it. For that, I sincerely thank Saddam Hussein for ordering this car and then walking away from it.