Turquoise wagon images via oldparkedcars.com
At the age of 24, I found myself in a booming mountain tourist town. I was living the party life, and for a brief period did not have my own car to drive. Granted, I had an old car stored at my parent’s place in Winnipeg and was using my first motorcycle as a daily driver, but I knew I would soon need a beater to withstand the rigours of a BC winter. Every morning on the way to work I would drive by a car eerily similar to the one you see above. One day a For Sale sign appeared in the window and within a week it was mine.
While the above image is of a higher trim Impala Wagon, it has the same Tahoe Turquoise colour, the same peeling paint, and even has the same dinged up front fender, although mine was dinged on the passenger side. Mine was a little rougher around the edges and had a bit more rust, but you get the picture. Sadly no decent pics survive of my actual car.
The back story on my Bel Air was that a girl my age had bought it from a friend and had dreams of using it for camping and road trips in the summer. Reality soon quashed that idea as the transmission slipped badly and the manual steering was too much for her to handle. I looked it over, noticed the transmission fluid was low and that there was a small oil puddle under the transmission as well. A quick trip around the block confirmed a slippy Powerglide, but everything else worked as it should. Sure enough, all it needed was a bottom pan gasket and some ATF. I paid around $500 for it, and drove home in my first station wagon.
This car was a beast! I was used to spartan and primitive machines but this car was huge as well. It took a lot of effort to control this behemoth with manual steering and manual drum brakes. The stopping distance was huge, and I always had to give myself lots of space when following someone. It felt like it took about 10 turns to go lock to lock with the giant steering wheel and the incentive was to do so quickly if you wanted to minimize steering effort. I had an excuse to drive like an idiot! That being said, I was also governed by the carburetor that would hesitate if too much throttle was applied at once. I always had to strike a balance between too much throttle and stall, and too little and have to manhandle the steering.
Image via barnfinds.com
This wagon was the base V8 version, meaning the “Turbo-Fire” 195 hp 283 cid V8, and had the aforementioned Powerglide automatic transmission and the rear facing third row couch with power window. I was shocked to find the power window still worked, although it required a second person to jiggle it if you wanted it to come back up on cold days. As the wagon became another party-mobile, all three rows of couches did see use, although with nine people aboard the suspension and severely undersized tires were pushed to their design limits and beyond.
I post the above pic from JPCavanaugh’s excellent CC of the Caprice Estate to illustrate how ridiculously small 14″ tires look on a 4100+ lbs car. While these appear to be low profile tires as well, I cannot understand how GM thought 14″ tires were a good idea on a 9-seat wagon (nine 170lb adults = 3/4 ton, and that’s without the beer). I am not alone as Paul has covered the under-sized tire issue here. All I can add is that this car handled like an elephant on roller skates with its cute 205/75R14 tires. Fun to drive; in a scary way. My Bel Air also had aluminum rims that drew the eye to its rubber inadequacies. I had planned to upgrade to 15″ steel wheels with dog dishes but I sold it before that came to fruition.
However, I did upgrade the rear coil springs with new heavy duty station wagon springs that were oddly available from Summit Racing. The old worn out suspension made the car too much of a low rider as I learned late one night on a rough and windy mountain road. Idiotic driving may have been a factor, but the end result was an exhaust system broken and dragging on the pavement as sparks rooster-tailed gloriously out the back of the car. Fortunately, Summit Racing also sold a clamp together dual exhaust system and headers that were quickly installed.
image via barnfinds.com
The 283 2 barrel motor proved surprisingly peppy considering the amount of heft it was tasked with moving. I did notice however that there seemed to be some valve float when accelerating up the steepest hill in the area. I suspect that may have been due to me burning unleaded fuel in an original motor without hardened valve seats. It was also easier on fuel than I expected, but it may have just seemed that way as I never filled up the tank due to it leaking when filled more than 3/4.
As for the Enigmatic Powerglide, it performed admirably despite the leaking. I did replace the transmission pan gasket, which significantly slowed the flow, but I believe the tail shaft continued to leak. At the time, the concept of a 2 speed transmission was foreign to me, but dropping it into L certainly resulted in quicker acceleration. The engine was never screaming on the highway either so I couldn’t complain. It was definitely antiquated for its time, and I would take a 4 speed over it any day.
The wagon performed admirably in tasks better suited to a truck. It served a bit of duty as a work truck for the roofing company I was working for one summer and also hauled firewood. You could get quite a bit of firewood back there, but again the stupid 14″ tires made it a little scary. As winter approached, I got a job as a Rural Mail Carrier as the construction boom in the area went completely bust. This job required that I provide my own vehicle, and I did so with this ghastly 40 year old station wagon. I got lots of dirty looks from the upper class vacation home owners who visit here from the city, whilst I deposited their mail in the community mail boxes. While it certainly had enough cargo space for all the mail, its fuel consumption was beginning to be a problem. I would have to downsize.
After buying another beater to deliver the mail, I didn’t know what to do with the wagon. My Gremlin soon joined me in BC and suddenly I had two cars, a truck and a motorbike to cram into three parking spaces I shared with my two roommates; who also had their own cars. Something had to give and the wagon was put up for sale for $1000. A few weeks later an Aussie who worked at the ski hill bought it and moved out to Whistler, BC. I wish I had kept this one; it wouldn’t have been too hard to restore and I’m pretty sure it met a bad end with its new owner. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the last old wagon I owned.