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?
Ouch! That Caddy’s C-pillar is a train wreck.
Did any Cadillac hearses use the clamshell tailgates? Seems perfect. Your Portal to the Next Life glides open, and then closes. (Wait a minute, it’s stuck…)
I think that because the makers of the professional cars fabricated the rear bodies, the clamshell did not make the transition. The backs were so much higher than in the factory station wagons, and I don’t think you could get them fully open without them curving back into the cargo area at the other end. Or multi sections like a rolltop desk. Regular hinged doors were on the back of every hearse I ever saw.
No Cadillac hearses used the clamshell since the bodies were custom build by their respective manufacturer, Superior, S&S, etc, but there were some combinations made using a clamshell for low priced hearses. This Estate Wagon hearse was made by Armburster/Stageway and sold by Superior, its a streched Estate Wagon hearse, with a clamshell rear door.
Carmine, when do we get a COAL about your own clamshelled cruiser?
I’m going to get one together, and take some more pictures next time I’ll bring her into the light of day.
What make, model & year is it?
1975 Buick Estate Wagon, loaded.
Oh wow, I’m looking forward to this!!! 🙂
That Caddy hearse must have looked mad
futuristic in its day! 🙂
Recently, Hemmings blog posted some pictures of a 1974 Cadillac Sedan DeVille customized into a wagon http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2012/09/07/hemmings-find-of-the-day-1974-cadillac-sedan-de-ville-station-wagon/
Maybe it should had been called “Wagon DeVille”. 😉
Given the work they did to convert the car into a wagon, they could have used the c-pillar and rear door glass from the donor car also. Otherwise I believe there are some people who can cut toughened glass, to modify the rear glass.
On the other hand it is a fairly small part of a large car…
My family had numerous wagons while I was growing up, but somehow we managed not to have any of these GM creatures, to my lasting dismay. However, I had a couple of school friends whose parents bought them, so I got to enjoy them vicariously on occasional rides home—one was a Buick, the other a Pontiac, both top-end models with the woodgrain sides. The Pontiac was my favorite; brown (of course) with the classic Rally wheels.
Most of my friends’ parents had Colonnade wagons or the Ford/Mercury equivalents (e.g., my mom’s Torino), but a few had the clamshell GM wagons, usually a Chevy but occasionally a Pontiac or Olds (rarely a Buick). Brings back memories of 1970s suburbia, bouncing around in the rear cargo areas, and soccer practice with our moms camped out on the sidelines, smoking (horrors!) and gossiping without a cellphone or iPad in sight.
If I were going to get a GM car of this vintage, it would be one of these. Although I am partial to the Olds and Buick versions. It’s not that I really love them, but in today’s world, they are just so impressively, otherworldly BIG.
It’s amazing how few of these I saw during my childhood in the mid-’80s. The downsized B-body wagons of the era, though, were EVERYWHERE. I saw far more early to mid ’80s Caprice/Electra/Custom Cruiser wagons than I ever saw of their coeval FoMoCo counterparts. Did Ford lose its lead in wagons or did their customers all go over to the Taurus?
I believe that when the 77 B body wagons came out, people flocked to them and the big Ford wagons suffered. For years (starting in 1966), the Ford doorgate was an advantage in a lot of buyers minds, and the 77 GM B body wagons finally just copied the Ford design. I think that Chevys outsold Fords in wagons from 1977 on until the end of the B body. The panther-based Ford wagon never sold all that well. I think that a lot old Ford wagon buyers went to Club Wagons or conversion vans, too.
I would say the one of them that’s the rarest Would be the downsized GM A-Body wagons, those never seemed to be as popular as the GM-B wagons, The Ford Panther Wagons or even the Fox Body Wagons.
I think by the early 80’s The Panther Wagons were sold a good deal more upmarket, Especially the Country Squire compared to the Caprice, while the Buick and Olds B-Wagons of the 80s could be had rather plain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Colony Park without Leather, but I’ve seen plenty of cloth Custom Cruisers and LeSabre Estates.
Plus, with a 4 to 2 ratio of sales, there’s just a more diverse number of B Wagons to choose from. Then add in that the majority of them had only one superficial update around 1980 that lasted for them until 1990 and it seems like a plethora of them.
You could have gotten no wood Country Squires with vinyl and crank windows too, and I’ve seen Colony Parks without leather, though Country Squires without wood should have been Country Sedans or Ranch Wagons.
Also remember that until like 1989-1990 or so, Buick still had BOTH a LeSabre Estate Wagon and an Electra Estate Wagon, so there was a cheapie and a full on woody, usually I remember seeing more Electra Estates than LeSabre Estates, after the Electra nameplate was dropped, only the loaded up wagon was available under the generic ESTATE WAGON moniker, with no Electra or LeSabre prefix.
The Country Squire name traditionally equated to the top-trim big Ford. They started offering a wood-delete option in the early ’70s; After Ford killed the Galaxie 500/Country Sedan name for ’75, the cheap wagon was simply the LTD (Unless you wanted a fleet-only Ranch Wagon).
From ’83 to the end, all non-wood wagons were called LTD Crown Victoria, with all the same options as the Country Squire.
I’ve seen woodie LeSabre Estates, and I think I’ve seen plain Electra Estates. Buick waffled on the nomenclature several times. It was simply Estate Wagon through ’79.
Wood option vs wood delete, until 1979 it was just an Estate Wagon, with different trim levels, from base to fancy, 1979 was the first year they had a “Limited” option for the wagon, which became the Elecrra Estate after 80, when Buick started with the LeSabre/Electra Estate Wagons(not to mention Skyahawk, Century and Regal Estates as well) thats like 5 wagons in one car lineup.
Chevy had Impala/Caprice trims on their wagons, and Pontiac too, they still listed a Catalina trim and Bonneville Safari through 80-81, Olds only had a Custom Cruiser.
The funny thing is that the C-body FWD Electra was still available in 1990, though for the last time. I don’t know why Buick tooled new “Estate Wagon” badges for the otherwise-unchanged ’90.
I’ll always remember the Electra Estate Wagon from the classic ’80s movie Adventures In Babysitting. And I’d be remiss not to mention the burgundy ’87 Cadillac Brougham that had a more minor, but memorable role.
Oh mercy Tom, I LOVED that movie for just that reason!!! I soooo wanted one of those Buick wagons!!! And I sure wouldn’t have turned down that beautiful red Caddy either 🙂
I think all the major cars in that movie are GM cars, even the parents had a baby-Eldorado.
Except the bad guys-they had a Town Car.
I wonder if it lists GM as a sponsor at the end, I always look for that, like the Chevrolet sponsorship in Live and Let Die, where they provided a highway full of 1973 Chevies.
The fact that the “bad guys” had a Ford product almost certainly means that GM provided all the cars. Ford used to like to do that with the TV shows they provided the cars for going back to the early Perry Masons where Perry had a Lincoln and the bad guys drove a Buick or Caddy.
Does anyone recall the movie “The World According to Garp” with Robin Williams? Garp’s family car was a ’71-’72 Buick Estate “clamshell” Wagon. Garp (Robin’s character) accidentally rear-ends it with his ’60’s Beetle, in his driveway, while his wife was giving oral sex to her paramour in the front seat of the wagon. Garp’s transsexual friend Roberta later remarks, “I had mine removed surgically under general anesthesia. But to have it bitten off in a Buick…”
There were lots of the downsized A wagons around here, mostly the Chevy version. After they passed to their 2nd and 3rd owners there were lots of hotrodded versions around here in the 90’s too. The FWD A wagons were also quite popular around here, even more common than the Taurus wagons.
These were popular with the demo derby guys- there’s lots of structure in the rear to support the clamshell stuff.
A downside to everyday use was when the rear bumper got a little bent, it would peel off the wood & other stuff on the tailgate.
A friend’s father has one of these 73’s , in the same color/wood combo as in the blog, from new until about 1984. It was a complete east coast rust bucket by then but still worked. He traded it in on a 1984 Renault 18i sportwagen OUCH! NUFF SAID!! That was gone in 2 years then they moved.
I remember trying to diagnose and repair that clam-shell contraption. Dirt got into the mechanism and eventually ground the plethora of guides, tracks, rollers and motors into dust. It was useless trying to replace just one bit of it because if you did, something else was sure to go wrong very soon. We’d replace the whole shebag it often cost upwards of $1000, a lot of money in 1985 for a ten-plus year old wagon.
I recall one older gent who tossed up his hands on one and sold it to me for $500. I then called up my demo-derby buddy and had it out the door the same day for $1000! Those were the days!
Do the rear doors only open clamshell style? I seem to remember them being able to swing down, or swing out, or both maybe? Maybe I’m just thinking of the Fords.
These were clamshell-only (you could raise the window into the ceiling, or raise the window into the ceiling and drop the gate into the floor), an attempt to outdo Ford, which had a three-way tailgate: retract the integral rear window into the door, retract the window and lower the gate like a truck tailgate (hinged parallel to the bumper), or open the gate swing-out style like a door, window up or down. My parents’ Ford wagon had this design, and by the time I owned a GM B-wagon (’87 Caprice), GM had adopted it as well.
Ford’s dual-action tailgate was invented by Ford engineers Gerald Coker and Boleslaw Bodek. The patent was filed in August 1966, presumably just in time to make the 1-year filing window after the ’66 wagons came out. It issued in June, 1968. The old 17-year term would have meant it expired in 1985, clearing the way for others to use it after that.
Thanks for the patent background–I did sort of wonder whether the patent had expired or GM had finally paid Ford to license that approach after trying so many others for so long.
Just wondering if anyone ever managed to get
that gate to open “both ways”(!) at once and end
up plop on the pavement behind the car.
I could see the owner now, on the phone to the
dealer trying to explain how their whiz-kid teen
managed to completely separate the rear gate
from their shiny new mid-70s Ford wagon!
If you want a classic car and have a family nothing beats an old wagon.
Never ran into a problem with the clamshell gate or heard of anyone having an issue with it. They had either a manual pull-up handle lift or motorized gate. Only knew one family with the manual as a kid. I always assumed it was counter-weighted somehow but never asked. Was there a reliability difference between the two options? These big boys were built like tanks. My dad probably still wants to be buried in his. That Pontiac Safari would swallow 4’x8′ sheets of plywood/drywall by the pallet and keep on truckin’. Probably still on the road somewhere with its 455 still purrin’ along. Maybe it was the rear-end weight from the clamshell but as I recall that wagon road very well and didn’t seem to hop or wallow like so many wagons did. The B-bodies that came in ’77 always seemed very small to me after the clamshells.
I know a neighbor of ours growing up had one of the last clamshell Chevys a 75 IIRC (while we had a 77 Caprice) and it often had problems with getting stuck in the position as shown in one of the pictures above, the glass not going fully closed leaving a ~1′ gap perfect for sucking in exhaust when driving and dumping a ton of water into the back when stopped. The gate often stuck in the full down position too and this was in 78-9.
The manual gates were spring-loaded. You actually had to push them down past the 1/4 down spot. You pushed hard and when it reached the bottom it locked down as you hit a catch. When you went to open it, you turned the key and the spring sent it back up the track, you grabbed it at the 3/4 up (1/4 down) position and yanked it up to the top, where it latched again.
The window was power operated on both manual and power gate models.
My Parents’ had a ’72 Buick Estate Wagon with the power gate. It worked perfectly for 6 or 7 years but when rust set in to the bottom part of the track, you had to be careful. If you lowered the gate too far it would fall off the track. If you were careful, it would work just fine.
My Parents’ car had the standard interior and it looked a LOT like the interior on the pictured, we even had manual crank windows and manual door locks (no cruise-control, either). A neighbor had a similar car, but they purchased the deluxe interior, it was much nicer. My Dad always said that he had regretted not buying the deluxe interior.
One of the main reasons for the forward facing third seat was the clamshell gate itself didn’t allow for a rear facing seat. Keep in mind the third seat was typically forward facing before the late 1950’s when the rear racing seat started to come in vogue. This was for easier entry and exit. Also of note, GM in 1969 GM used a 2-way gate that opened like a tailgate and a door. This was on intermediate and fullsize wagons.
I have always liked the clamshell GM wagons, and the ’73 Caprice is one of the nicest. They were built tough, and were fairly reliable, but suffered from severe rust problems.
Me thinks it was the other way around; GM obviously liked the forward-facing third seat, having done them in the Vista/Sports wagons. The clamshell was possible because of the forward-facing third seat.
I am pretty sure you are incorrect. I just pulled the Collectible Automobile magazine for the 1971-76 Chevrolets, and it actually shows an early engineering drawing of the clamshell with a rear facing seat. Obviously this was changed for production because of the limited space. It also states in this article, that the clamshell was meant to “one up” Ford’s magic gate. The rear frame was also drastically changed for this door mechanism to fit. All suggesting the door was the primary design goal.
I don’t think the forward facing third seat was GM’s main goal. It had too many drawbacks, which is why they went away from it in the 50’s (for the most part).
See the complaints in this Popular Science article from 1971 re the third seat:
Great article, the review cited above from Popular Science of big American wagons from Ford, GM, Chrysler, AMC.
I learned how to drive on a 73 Impala wagon with a 400. It seemed to improve a great deal in power and less noise after removing the ‘AIR’ pump and plumbing. Like most of the GM cars my parents owned, there were engine troubles at low miles. On this one, the heads required reworking for bad valves. After that, it was great. Sold on at 120,000 miles. Aside from the rust in the rear quarters, needing a new gas tank, and new leaf springs.
It was a great freeway cruiser. Good handling and steering feel for the size, excellent Turbo-Hydramatic transmission, lazy-spinning 400 with a tall final drive ratio, comfortable vinyl bench seats.
The 3rd seat was fine. As a 6′ 140 lb teen, I fit OK back there. They really did hold 9 passengers, although the rear middle, with the cabbage between your legs, was not much fun.
My friend’s dad was an AMC engineer; they had a top-of-the-line Ambassador wagon. I rode along on a road trip once. It had sports car acceleration and handling compared with our Impala wagon.
Well, it wasn’t all fine. I remember it needed in addition an alternator, an oil-pressure sending unit, the a/c compressor seized, a starter, a timing chain (I did that myself & have a scar on my thumb as a souvenir). Some noisy lifters, typical Chevy. The accelerator pump didn’t work right, and as a result the motor would threaten to quit when it got to dead-center crossing the highway; a precision dance on the accelerator pedal usually saved it. Once warm it was ok. In addition, frequent points and plugs, but that’s almost all cars of the era and not too hard to do. Those are just the things I remember.
So what’s the difference between a Kingswood and a Caprice Estate?
“Beginning in 1973, Chevrolet reverted to using the same model names for wagons as the rest of the line, and the Kingswood Estate was rebranded Caprice Estate.”
That was my question, as I remember that our family’s 1970 Chevy wagon (non-woodgrain siding) was a Kingswood, and I remember the 1971 models were called Kingswoods.
My dad was planning to get a 1971 GM wagon, but the late 1970 strike meant that when we needed to get a wagon in January 1971, there were none available. So we did the next possible thing and got a preowned 1970 Chevrolet wagon, white, from Hertz Car sales. Had that car for years, on countless road trips. Heck, I even learned to drive and parallel park that bad boy, land even used it to transport my college friends to a basebal game.
Cool, my first car ride ever was home from the hospital in one of these! 1972 model, green minus the woodgrain – the old man was too cheap. Actually, my first and only car accident was while my mother was pregnant with me in the same car. While on a family vacation to Florida, a young woman pulled out in front us. She was damn near killed, my dad apparently threw an arm over to protect my mother while my two brothers and sister were thrown forward Clark Griswold “Vacation” style. The car never ran well to begin with and drove worse after the accident so the old man eventually traded it for a Vega wagon of all things. This lasted until the new 77 Caprice came out and my mother insisted on a new car. The Caprice was at the shop as much as the Vega. For some reason the old man still drives GM vehicles??? He recently got stuck far away from home because the engine in his well maintained Chevy Trailblazer had a catastrophic failure. GM – the Standard of the World.
The difference between a Kingswood and a Caprice Estate is the model year. Before ’73, Chevy had different names for their wagons than the shortroofs. They were, from top to bottom, Kingswood Estate (woodgrained), Kingswood (non-woodgrained), Townsman, and Brookwood. I believe only the Kingswood Estate and the Kingswood were available with 3-row seating, but I could be wrong. Starting in ’73, the wagons carried the same names as the shortroofs, although Bel Air and Biscayne wagons may or may not have existed by that time.
Townsman? Don’t remember ever seeing that one.
The separate model names for fullsize Chevy wagons were used from 1969 to 1972. The four models correspond to the Caprice, Impala, Bel Air and Biscayne. So the Kingswood was the equivalent of the Impala, while the Kingswood Estate was the equivalent of the Caprice. The Bel Air and Biscayne were not selling in large numbers by this point (recent discussion here suggested that the Biscayne may have been a de facto fleet-only model from 1970 on), so I’d guess that relatively few Brookwoods and Townsmans were made.
When Chevy re-integrated the wagons into the regular model lines in 1973, all three remaining fullsize models had wagons (Bel Air, Impala, Caprice). The Biscayne was dropped entirely in the U.S. at the end of the 1972 model year, although it continued to be available in Canada through 1975.
Chevelle wagons also had their own distinctive names from 1968-72, similar to the 1969-72 fullsize wagon lineup. The four versions were the Nomad, Greenbriar, Concours, and Concours Estate. They were badged as Chevelles, but did not use the subseries names used by other Chevelles (i.e., the Chevelle Concours was the wagon equivalent of the Chevelle Malibu).
Going back further, Chevy had also used separate model names for its fullsize wagons from 1958-61. Before 1958, the wagons had their own distinctive names, but they were marketed as part of the regular models. The 1955-57 Nomad was part of the Bel Air line, for example, while the 1958-61 Nomad was a separate model. The Corvair wagon introduced in 1961 was also given a distinctive name for that one year only, Corvair Lakewood, in keeping with the naming conventions of contemporary fullsize wagons.
I have to confess something, a B-Body wagon was my first dream car as a young child!
When I was quite young, I had an aunt and uncle that had a mid-70’s Caprice Estate. It was in awful condition, as the front end was pretty banged up and it was a bit rusty (this was in the early 80’s) It didn’t matter, I was smitten! After that my next dream car was a 1983 Caprice Estate, in brown with brown interior. It was featured in the very first showroom brochure I was ever given.
As I got older my tastes changed somewhat, I soon grew to fall in love with the 1985 Cutlass Supreme Brougham Coupe, which to this day is still my all-time favorite car.
But I still love me some wagons, and this one is a beaut!!!
It’s funny you mentioned the ’85 Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupe, as I had a desire to own one, too. I was too young to buy a car. I liked the sedan, too.
1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupe:
Ah, I know the 1986 model quite well. My dad bought one in 1987. It was oddly optioned, a Brougham coupe, black with cranberry leather, super stock chrome wheels, V6, NO power options but had the UM6 stereo. It didn’t matter, that car was stunning to behold and turned heads everywhere we went! I almost cried when he traded it the next year for an F-150.
Years later I acquired a 1987 Cutlass Supreme Brougham, best car I ever had…I still miss it.
I have the 1985 Cutlass brochure pic as the header on my Facebook page. Not sure why, but that is my favorite year for them, style-wise…
A friends of mines dad had one like this, except black with burgandy leather interior, you hardly ever see Supreme Broughams with leather, that car was awesome.
Wow, I didn’t know you and I were friends back in the 80’s!
You just described exactly my dad’s car!!!
Small world. Another leather brougham, eeeeenteresting……
At the same salvage yard where I bought my ’71 GMC Sprint and ’72 Pontiac Ventura, a young Austrlian fellow snagged a ’74 out of the “Cars For Sale” section.
This was one of those features that was more about the “show” than providing any real benefit. Sorta like Ford’s swing away steering wheel.
As a kid I was sure impressed when my uncle demonstrated his new Pontiac Safari’s tailgate to the family one summer. When another uncle pointed out that you couldn’t use it in a traditional tailgate manner and sit there while swinging your legs it was a bit of a buzz kill but the point stuck with me.
Agreed, if anything it is a detraction in robbing space under the floor and imposing a highly-angled rear window, plus the longer term issues noted above.
I’d class it as a bit similar to the BMW 5-series GT, with the hatchback that also has a smaller bootlid type opening within it. Sounds good in theory, but from the brief look at it I had it appears to be overengineered with some really large and thick steel pieces making up the hinges etc, adding weight for a questionable benefit.
Holy cat — I am pretty confident that the blue ’76 Custom Cruiser in the video is the one I used to own. I recognize the dent in the rear bumper as well as the click or clunk sound you hear just before the gate fully closes. I found it in the car corral at Carlisle in 2003, and sold it in 2005 to a fellow in Pennsylvania who is a serious clamshell collector (who I think is operating the gate in the video). He told me he was using it for trips and that he had installed a CB or ham radio or something with a big antenna like the one you see there.
I sold it for two reasons. One was that I was moving and it helped to have one less car to relocate. The other was that the actual experience of owning one was mixed. It’s not like having a Ninety Eight with a really big trunk. The leaf spring rear gives it truckish ride and handling qualities, and the big open area in back adds to the noise level. Also, the wagons were trimmed out to Delta 88 level (base LeSabre for a Buick) with vinyl seats. The upside of the truckish suspension is you can work these as hard as trucks. The cargo capacity is phenomenal and even with the third seat up you have an amazing amount of space behind it. However, my next big GM wagon is going to be a box or bubble (1977-96) Buick Estate/Roadmaster, which is the closest thing you can get to a Caddy wagon without actually cutting up a Caddy and welding the business end of a wagon onto it, as some have done.
“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 had posted production figures for full-size Ford and Chevy wagons in the thread below. 1973 was one of two years where my reference source didn’t have a figure for Chevy, however:
The short answer is, those figures were pretty typical for both brands in the late ’60s and pre-energy crisis early ’70s. Ford led in full-size wagon production every year from 1966 to 1976, often by a sizable margin. This was true even though during that period Chevy almost always led in overall fullsize production, often by a sizable margin. Ford was over 200K every year from 1968-73.
Both brands would see their full-size wagon sales nosedive in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis. They would eventually bounce back, but never anywhere close to where they had been before ’73. Ford managed to stay on top through 1976, but the downsized ’77 Chevys finally broke through into a commanding lead. The ’79 Panthers failed to achieve the comeback Ford was hoping for; Ford built fewer fullsize wagons in ’79 than in ’78, and Chevy’s ’79 full-size wagon production was nearly double Ford’s.
My dad actually bought a leftover 1970 Buick Estate Wagon instead of a clamshell ’71 when he had a choice. I think it was because the ’70 was a well-equipped demo priced to sell. It was our first car with power side windows and a power seat. Our ’64 Chevy wagon only had a power rear window. The ’70 was also very close to Electra level in trim, but not quite.
Anyway, the ’70 had a rear-facing third seat and a tailgate similar to the Ford in that it could flop open normally or swing out like a door. The difference from Ford was that there was no outside handle, so the window had to be lowered to access either latch.
We occasionally borrowed a company ’73 Pontiac wagon which, of course, had the clamshell gate. I was impressed by it and wondered why my dad didn’t just pick up a ’71, but looking back I think he made the right choice.
Sounds like your dad’s choice somewhat mirrors my father’s. As mentioned earlier, depending on when your father was car-shopping, it’s possible that there weren’t hardly any ’71s due to the 1970 labor strike at GM.
As mentioned we had a ’70 Chevy wagon – and the 3rd was rear-facing with the 2-way tailgate. The Ford wagons had the tailgate/doorgate that didn’t necessitate lowering of the window glass to swing out like a door, which was an advantage; that may have accounted for Ford dominating the wagon sales for years. The ’77 GM B-body wagons used the same tailgate design as the Fords, was more efficient in space utlization and fuel economy, so it’s not too surprising that the GM full size wagons started to outsell their FoMoCo counterparts from then on.
Chevy bounced back and forth with wagon model naming. Our ’59 was a Brookwood, while the ’65 was an Impala. My uncle bought the Buick Sportwagon and it was definitely upmarket compared to even the top Chevy. The Buick was longer, but narrower, owing to its stretched A-body platform.
By the time the clamshell wagons came along, and we called them a “hearse” back then, we had a Dodge Sportsman to carry camping gear and dirt bikes. The Dodge was a big step backward in comfort and style, but I had nearly destroyed the Impala finding remote camping spots in the desert.
I never did like how small the back window was on the Ford and ’77-up GM wagons. I guess that’s part of growing up riding in the wayback of a ’71 K-Wood with glass all around you. I bought a ’76 Impala 3-seater when I was 19 for the 350 crate motor it had in it, but that car was just too good to part out. I drove it for a few years until I couldn’t afford tires, exhaust, A/C repair, and it’s 12.5 MPG appetite (I was in college and money was a bit tight). I replaced it with an ’80 Malibu Classic Estate with a leaking rear main seal, rusted out frame, and worn out front suspension – big mistake!
I’m amazed this thing only had 150 horsepower. I remember pealing out in dad’s and thinking it was the most powerful thing on earth. That’s torque for ya!
Of course compared to the 6 in my Comet anything felt strong…
My parents bought a loaded 72 Estate Wagon (including the “boat” trim) as a demonstrator. I loved that car as a junior high schooler! Beige vinyl top over copper on chrome wheels.
I give GM credit for trying something different but the space utilization was remarkably bad (at least as a cargo hauler). Note how GM switched back to boxy for its next-generation wagon.
Under Bill Mitchell, GM had always put style ahead of space (and buyers didn’t seem to mind, judging by the sales figures). A friend had a 1968 Dodge Dart, and he said that it was as roomy as a 1968 Impala in certain interior dimensions.
Wow ! I wasn’t aware these things had an electric, automatic back door , it’s pretty cool! I vote for the Custom Cruiser as my favorite of the bunch
To answer a question about BelAir wagons upthread, they were offered from 1973-75 in the USA. Usually were Police Canine patrol cars. But saw a few as civilians and grocery delivery cars, too.
By the way, did anyone notice the roll-up windows and power door locks on our featured car? Kinda silly, because power windows and locks usually went together, but those were the days when you picked options individually rather than in packages. Want a blue car with a green interior? Might raise a few flags at the factory, but you could get it once they were sure you really wanted it.
Power door locks and manual windows were a common combination for these wagons as I recall–at least most in my vicinity. I guess moms were more concerned with making sure that all the kids’ doors were safely secured than they were with power window convenience. Plus power windows were a bit pricier option.
I used to have a loaded moonroof/4-speed ’79 GrandAm with every available option except power windows and digital clock. I still have a very rough ’73 Buick Century Gran Sport with manual windows & power locks. Odd.
I always found the endless flavors of these cars intriguing. The almost infinite array of choices the General offered us back then is one of the biggest reasons I am hooked on collecting ’70’s & 80’s GM products.
Probably the weirdest-ordered vehicle I own is a ’73 Bonneville coupe with 400-4 engine & all the “sporty” options: RTS handling package, special order paint, rally gages, rally wheels, positraction, dual exhaust, sport mirrors, heavy duty air cleaner……….and “economy axle ratio”.
My Dad had a 1971 rust colored Pontiac Grand Safari with the 455 V-8. My brother would race that thing against anyone and he usually won! LOL I remember my Dad complaining about two things with that car – the clamshell tailgate getting stuck in the freezing cold winter, and the automatic climate control not working right. Talk about weird options? It had auto climate control, cornering lamps, tilt and cruise but no power windows or locks! He had that car until 1977 and replaced it with a loaded brown Chevy Caprice Estate – that car was an absolute lemon!!
Mission Chevrolet in San Gabriel! Long gone now, replaced by O’Donnell Chevrolet/Buick.
Man, that’s a sweet Chevy wagon. Another one I’d take in a heartbeat today.
Amazing big car with an amazing feature that in my opinion, should have been lasted a little bit longer or retaken in models as the ’91 Impalas or other GM products of the time. It is space-saving and easy to load, either passengers or cargo. I was too young when they were rolling around, and, by the way, they actually were sold in other countries. I also think that the statement “For all of you non-Americans, this is what you missed out on.” is somewhat wrong; in fact a great deal of drivers outside the US were able to drive one. “Americans” are all of us people who were born and live in this continent, from Alaska to Argentina, as Europeans are all the inhabitant of the several countries from the subcontinent called Europe, or Europa.
1) America = USA. Except if you are Canadian.
2) Europe = France+Germany+their client states. Just ask Russians, Greeks, Turks, even many British, if they consider themselves `Europeans’.
My friend, you need to go again to the elementary school:
“The Americas (or America) are lands in the Western Hemisphere that are also known as the New World. Comprising the continents of South America and North America, linked by the isthmus of Panama, along with their associated islands, they cover 8.3% of the Earth’s total surface area (28.4% of its land area). The topography is dominated by the American Cordillera, a long chain of mountains that run the length of the west coast. The flatter eastern side of the Americas is dominated by large river basins, such as the Amazon, Mississippi, and La Plata. Extending 14,000 km in a north-south orientation, the climate and ecology varies strongly across the Americas, from arctic tundra of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, to the tropical rain forests in Central America and South America. When the continents joined 3 million years ago, the Great American Interchange resulted in many species being spread across the Americas, such as the cougar, porcupine, and hummingbirds.”
“American(s) may refer to:
Americans, citizens or attributes of or from the United States of America See also: Citizenship in the United States, Names for United States citizens
A person or attribute of one of the nations of the Americas
The indigenous peoples of the Americas
A person of American ethnicity…”
See? You people from the United States are not the only “Americans”, the rest of the people of all the countries in the American Continent also can call themselves “americans”, with no capital A.
Prior to the clamshell wagons, the 69-70 GM A and B body wagons all used the 2 way tailgate and Chevrolet in particular billed them as “Walk In Wagons” because when the gate was opened as a door, there was a section of the rear bumper that swung with the door, leaving a step in the bumper. I always liked the 65-70 full-size wagons better, they looked sleek, yet were somewhat smaller than the 71-76 models, and they were a bit more space efficient as well. A probably long ago forgotten fact: the 70 full size Chevrolet wagons used a tailpipe design with vanes in it, made the opening look somewhat like a dash vent. this was not used on any other year or GM vehicle and it somewhat mimicked the front and rear side marker light design. The 70 B body Chevy wagons also had small reflectors in the rear bumper ends, again not shared with anything else. As these cars got older, you rarely saw one with the original style tailpipe, and many had the reflectors missing from the bumper.
I had almost completely forgotten about those weird side-exit tailpipes with the strange honeycomb or meshlike “end”. I do think I remember seeing this style pipe on some of the mid-seventies Suburbans though….and I want to say I thought I saw some on some of those late seventies H-body hatchback cars (Monza, Starfire, etc).
There has to be some sort of reasoning for that design — this is going to bug me now…just like the crazy dual tailpipes that exited the driver’s side of many 80’s era G-vans & Chevrolet pickups.
Although the ’71-3 Clamshells are my absolute favorite wagons, I find the 1969 Chevrolet to be the most handsome wagon GM ever built.
Speaking of tailpipes, this car has it on the wrong side. The exhaust pipe runs down the passenger side of the car, but then it does a 90 and runs straight across and out the driver’s side between the rear spring shackle and the tailgate housing. The spare tire well gets in the way of it going straight out on the passenger side, so it is hanging a bit low on this car. I’m not sure why it’s been called the “clamshell” for so many years, considering a trunk lid resembles a clamshell more than the tailgate and window on these cars. To me, it’s more like a garage door, or perhaps a double barn door turned on its side!
If you’ve ever seen a live clam open, then watched it close
its shell its exactly like those wagon tailgates. Both the
upper and lower shells close by moving together.
Horizontal elevator doors!
I felt I should post this being that you mentioned Cadillac wagons. The doors on this one line up better to the window than the one you posted though.
Plus it’s a hardtop – even better! $6G is a steal!
I need a key switch for 1973 caprice estate, the motor finally burnt out on the clam shell. please let me know if anyone has one or where i can buy 1.
Check out the demo derby websites. These cars (unfortunately) are popular with them since they are built like tanks. Some derbiers have stockpiles of wagons, and might be willing to pull one off for you.
Bought a total of 4 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagons which were
used for family trips and our home remodeling business.
We had a ’71 and 3-’72 models.
Nobody mentioned that those clamshell tailgate wagons you could
fold both rear seats down, load a dozen or more 4×8 sheets of
drywall, plywood, paneling, etc in the back, then CLOSE THE TAIL-
GATE- ensuring your materials would stay high and dry in any
Our ’71 was a “Sally Rand” with A/C but little else. 2 barrel 455
and no 3rd seat. I traded for it with a guy I did a remodeling job
for and LOVED IT, so we bought 3 more.
The 3 1972 models were LOADED. Every option including the 4
barrel 455, climate control A/C, 8-track quadrophonic stereo,
power seats, windows, door locks & 3rd seat. We used those
5,100 pound land yachts for everything!
We put over 150K miles on them and had NO trouble with the
tailgates, (we did maintenance on our own vehicles and kept
them lubed, however), or anything else.
Only 1 thing could have been a problem. When used in winter
or off-road those wagons had no protection for the driver’s
side rear fender mounted fuel tank. Any gravel or road salt
would be thrown up by the left rear tire directly onto the gas
tank, causing pinhole leaks.
We fixed the first one with “liquid steel”, then I added steel
plates directly behind the rear tires of all 4 wagons to block
trash being thrown on the tank. No more problems. I think
those wagons were the BEST IDEA GM ever had. Aside
from a large pickup or van, I don’t think you can buy any vehicle
now you can load 4×8 sheets of anything into, let alone close
a tailgate and lock them safely inside!
Any questions feel free to ask. My brother and I worked on
those wagons and kept ’em running 20 years til we retired in ’95.
Looking for a new tailgate seal/westherstrip. Any tips?
Looking for a new seal/weatherstrip for our ’72 Kingswood tailgate. any tips? Thanks
What a nice sled! How wide are those tires? 275s all the way around?
I saw a comment on YouTube just yesterday that a company does make a back seal kit. It’s pricey ~$750. No further details were posted that I recall.
I’m looking for a electric tailgate key switch for a 1972 chevrolet kingswood estate wagon can anyone help
Had a 1975. Bought in 1988 for $250. Clamshell worked for another 10 years before the trans went out. Miss that damn wagon.
I have a 1974 Caprice classic Estate Wagon I am considering purchasing. It has the power rear tailgate and window. The door portion is stuck down, under the rear floor. Will a Chevy dealer work on these?
The dealer will probably not work on the car. Your best bet is to find a clam shell restoration mechanic or a regular mechanic familiar with the cars. That’s rear window tailgate motor and door motor can be rebuilt. The tailgate motor is easier to find than the window motor and can probably be found on a car website For used parts that they purchas through junk yards throughout the country. It took me a while to find a spare window motor and a spare tailgate motor for my 76 Caprice Estate That I currently own. I’ll enclose a picture if possible. Good luck with your wagon. I’ve always loved these wagons and have been driving one ever since I turned seventeen. Our original one was a 76 Grand Safari completely loaded with Rally wheels would every available option including cornering lamps and interior door courtesy lights
Thank you for your reply. Will you send me a private message at email@example.com. I have my eye on a wagon that has the power liftgate and the motor appears not be working well. I would like to talk to someone who owns one of these wagons.
Here is a picture of our original, fully loaded with 455 4 Barrel, 76 Grand Safari. Taken in 1978 when I was 17, in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. I drove this car more than anyone in our family. Eventually it was transferred into my name. Had it 14 years.. it was always garaged, taking care of, waxed and mint. I should have kept it forever!!! PS Don’t look at me, just the car. Those shorts and shirt are ridiculous but that was the style in 1978. LOL
Our 76 Grand Safari at the New Jersey Shore in Belmar New Jersey in 1988. Big party!! Very few drinks for me, As the chauffeur. My friends called our car the Lynch Express and the Lynch Bus because of the 455 4-barrel and because the third seat was usually in the upright position.
Please pardon my curiosity, Mr. Lynch, but what transpired that caused you to part with the ’76 Grand Safari?
Selling that car was a big mistake that I made. It was getting older, I was young, and I thought I wanted a more roadworthy car. I didn’t think of keeping it as a classic car and I thought it was just time to get a new car. Soon after I realized my mistake but it was too late. So the truthful answer is being young and dumb and listening to other people.