Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Estate Wagon – Still Doing Its Big Job

Although I’m not the world’s biggest fan of GM’s big passenger cars from 1971 – 1976, I can’t resist the lure of the wagons. Their sheer size and technical ambition is compelling, even when they inevitably succumb to GM’s typical overreach. When they arrived I was literally bowled over, and on an unprecedented scale.  With their extended wheelbase, unique rear suspensions and forward-facing third seats, they share a few qualities with my beloved Peugeot purpose built wagons. However, it’s their “clamshell” tailgates that, for better or worse, really set them apart: Only GM could have come up with those. Oh, well…

Let’s take a look at this fine ’73 Caprice wagon that Mr. Green posted at the Cohort. It’s still hauling kids, just as it was intended to.

The new-for-1971 big GM wagons encompassed many of the basic design features of the 1964 Olds Vista Wagon (and similar Buick Sportswagon) (CC here). They were a size smaller, using a lengthened version of the A-Body to achieve a similar result: a forward-facing third seat that allowed room for a moderate-size luggage area behind it. Wagons with rear-facing seats couldn’t offer that, and it was a major shortcoming.

The Vista/Sport wagons also needed to raise their roofs in order to allow enough headroom for the third seat, which was positioned directly over the rear axle differential. The solution at the time was to exploit that necessity by adding lots of glass.

Not this time: Despite the obvious raised roof, the Scenicruiser days were over. Was GM so forward-seeing as to know that portable electronics would supplant any desire of kids to look out the windows?

The Chevy sedan’s already-healthy 121.5″ wheelbase was stretched to a whopping 125″ that was very much Cadillac territory. These big wagons simply were the Suburbans of their time: A vehicle to take it all and tow it all.  It should have come as no surprise when Suburban sales really started taking off in the late ’70s.

Sadly, there are no pictures of the clamshell in action here, but you all know how it works; if not, here’s a video. Seeing is believing–at least until it doesn’t work anymore.

For all of you non-Americans, this is what you missed out on. The big GM wagons of this era are as all-American as a Big Gulp or Big Mac. Big dreams, big people, big cars, big thirst, big families, big love, big life. What more can you ask for? Well, it depends… GM did know its customers. Some folks never have fallen out of love with these big wagons, and why not? Beats a Buick Enclave in my book.

Unlike its recent predecessors, the ’73 Caprice offered only two engine choices. A 150-hp, small-block 400 (6.6-liter) V8 was standard, and quite adequate for typical use, thanks to its healthy torque curve. And of course, the big-block 454 (7.4-liter), rated at 245 hp, was optional. I’m guessing the 400 resides in this one, but the lack of the 454 emblem admittedly makes that guess an easy one. Since these big wagons weighed about 5,000 lbs, their available-engine palette makes a fair amount of sense–or at least it did before the energy crisis hit the drivers of these big boys, and hard.

I’m not a big fan of the hard-molded lower half of the 1971 door trim, but what can one do? Buy a Country Squire, perhaps. The clamshell wagons were GM’s big bid to make inroads in Ford’s Country Squire gravy train. In 1973, Chevy sold 174,000 big wagons vs. 217,000 for the Wagon Master. Is that better than in years past? Unfortunately, my encyclopedia doesn’t provide breakdowns for all years. I suspect that GM did get a bit of a bounce, but was it a good enough return on all the development money they spent? That’s another question.

Of course there were Pontiac, Olds and Buick versions too. I do wish Cadillac had made one, but maybe this is why they didn’t: The Caddy doors don’t really jive with the clamshell rear section. And how many of these have been made?