CC For Sale: 1989 Chevrolet Caprice Classic—Almost the Last Box

They say if you strap a piece of toast, butterside-up, to the back of a cat and drop the assembly, it’ll hover a few feet above the floor, doing lazy barrel rolls as the tendency of a cat to land on its feet is perfectly counterbalanced by the tendency of toast to land butterside-down. (“Don’t or you will regret it” –the cat)

From time to time I take a swim through the local Craigslistings to see what interesting stuff’s around. Here in Vancouver, “Interesting” usually means weird models from another planet Japan or unusually well preserved old Valiants, Volvos, Vanagons, and other suchlike.

Found the usual smattering of those when I went swimming this past Wednesday, inspired by Edward Snitkoff’s pointer at the Ziploc-condition Taurus. And then, all of a sudden: oh, hey, lookit there (archived here): an ’89 Chev Caprice Classic—scuze me, Caprice Classic LS Brougham—with 83,000 klicks (just under 52 kilomiles), for sale by the son-in-law of the original buyer. I’ll bet this car is like the hovering toastcat, a convergence of that perfect Taurus and Pioneer Fox’s ’89 Gran Fury, Helen.

On the one hand, at least from the few views given in the ad, it surely looks clean enough to eat offa. On the other hand, it’s thirty years old. Which is really messing with my head, because American roads were crawling with these boxy Caprices through my entire childhood, so they’re sort of stuck in the late-model file while the phrase “thirty-year-old car” still pulls up images of ’50s and ’60s models. This kind of distorted perception is a common symptom of certain strains of Mad Car Disease.

Power locks (“CLUNKa!”) and windows. Cruise control obnoxiously piled onto the turn signal/wiper/high beam/coffee switch, remember that? Remember the way GM circumcised their tailpipes back then, with the down-angled tailspout cut off horizontally at the bottom and vertically at the end? There it is, all original. “Some kind of a V8” which is probably a 305. All yesterday I resisted the urge to look up whether that motor had TBI in ’89 or was still running a Rochester Quadrajet carburetor (the urge won out: TBI).

How long has it been since I owned and regularly drove a car with a direct-drive starter and a longitudinal engine and a column gearshift and rear-wheel drive? It’s under an hour away from me. It’s done less than half the distance, and is priced at half what I paid for, my ’07 Accord two and a half years ago. And the Accord’s been perfectly dependable, including dependably admitting water into the trunk when parked in heavy rain at an angle that happens to correspond to that of my driveway—I dropped it off Wednesday at the leak whisperers (which is not their actual shop name, but should be; yesterday they rang to say they’d not only found and stopped the water entering via faulty taillight gaskets, but also repaired the backglass defogger everyone else said would require a costly glass replacement). And while reliability isn’t on it, I’ve got a little list of gritchments at the Accord, notably in the controls-and-displays and transmission-behaviour departments.

I caught myself mousing around to see if that pair of NOS ’86-’90 Caprice export taillight lenses with amber turn signal compartments is still on eBay (no). And that really was the snap-a-rubber-band-upside-the-wrist moment: Stop it, stop it, stop it! I really must resist; I’d just be trading one set of gritchments for another. There’d be plenty of room for my tall husband, and a refreshing lack of centre console boxing us in, but there’d also be three decades’ worth of missing safety engineering (and, um, every other kind). I’d miss the Accord’s extremely fast heater, its heated seats, its cupholders, and its (highway) fuel economy. I’d miss its 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, its traction control and seatbelt pretensioners and effective head restraints and sextet of airbags. I’d miss its utter lack of need for any tinkering and fiddlefutzing beyond occasionally checking the oil and windshield washer fluid levels.

Standards and expectations of vehicular dependability have risen quite a whole hell of a lot in the last thirty years, and odds are this Caprice wouldn’t be up to the best of 1989’s standards, even; it would present with a steady trickle—punctuated by unpredictable drenchings—of the usual ailments and needs of an underutilised machine. Mechanical parts will likely be available forever—though perhaps now with some downtime while they come in—but do I really want to go back to snapping up and hoarding (and storing) scarce body, trim, lighting, and interior parts? Back to single-seal doors, back to failmatic tape-drive window lifts? Back to wondering when the A/C compressor will lose its shaft seal again? Back to only-just-better-than-a-carburetor TBI driveability? Back to minimum-legal-size sideview mirrors? Back to loose and sloppy “tug it every so often to eliminate the slack” seatbelts with RCF-67 buckles that unfasten all by themselves? Back to lap belts in the rear so perhaps the bottom half of my passengers will remain in place in a crash? No, I really don’t.

I remind myself that my firsthand Caprice experience has definite downward trend lines for fit/finish, build quality, and ruggedness: the ’91 was worse than the ’84 was worse than the ’78. That’s not entirely fair, for the ’91 was a well-worn ex-police unit, but the chintz quotient really was much higher in the ’84 than the ’78.

Still, this makes my teeth itch. Even though I sold my last-but-one old car in April and have recently worked out an exit strategy for the last one…still, this makes my teeth itch—a symptom of my chronic elevated collecterall.

Not the first time I’ve heard a siren like this, either; about 15 years ago I was driving a beautiful but mechanically persnickety ’85 Volvo 245 Turbo when I saw an ad for a ’79 Caprice Classic, 350/350, black over silver, red interior, a near-Cadillac-spec one loaded with seemingly every possible option including sunroof, Comfortron, and F41 suspension, in similarly perfect condition, with 32k miles, for $3250. Couldn’t move fast enough; it was several borders away and gone by the time I had my act together. Guess it’s a good job this car isn’t that car, but it’s probably still best if I won’t go see and drive it.