In the summer of 1984 I had made it through my first year of college unscathed. I had saved $1000 and was scanning the Bargain News ads every week for something less boat-like than the Kingswood Estate. Those restyled 1975 and newer Novas looked nice. Used, downsized GM A-bodies were out of m price range, but maybe a GM Colonnade coupe like my older brother’s Grand Prix would fit the bill. However, age 18 the reality was that a coupe was a non-starter for insurance, even with my parents’ insurance agent magically making me a part-time driver on my full-time car.
My father was not enamored with his youngest son being surrounded by less than two tons of sheet metal on the road. An acquaintance of his was selling a red 1977 Caprice Classic for $1800. If the car checked out he was willing to chip in the extra $800 for me to be in something he considered to be safe. One of my older sisters has bought a 1978 Caprice Classic as her first brand-new car, and he was fairly impressed with it. It was definitely smaller than the Kingswood and nothing else was coming up in my price range, so I agreed to take a look.
Now, despite my father’s best efforts I was not mechanically inclined. I could rotate the tires and change the oil, but really, I knew nothing about engines. Car styling and model-year changeovers were my wheelhouse, however. I knew grille texture and taillight changes, particularly for GM products, backwards and forwards. I’d eagerly pore over the Fall issues of Motor Trend and Car & Driver and commit to memory that, for example, the 1981 Riviera grille now had an egg crate texture instead of vertical bars. Cutlasses were a special challenge. Calais? Supreme? Salon? I rather prided myself on my entirely useless ability to tell them all apart.
We went to my father’s friend’s house to check out the Caprice. It had obviously been sitting for a while, but it started right up. It had the 350 engine, not the weak-kneed 305 or (heaven forbid) the 250 six. The red, vinyl front seat was a bit torn up and the vinyl top had seen better days, but it otherwise seemed cosmetically seemed fine. Except…
I pulled my father aside. “Dad, he says it’s never been in an accident, but ahead of the fenders it’s got the grille and front end cap of a 1979 Caprice. The taillights are 1977, but that grille is wrong!”
My father trusted his friend, however. We never got into exactly why he didn’t believe me. My only guess is that he didn’t think that his book-smart kid would know this kind of thing. His certainty made me doubt myself, enough so that I agreed to buy the car.
I was still stewing about that front end, though. A few days later I went to the town library and came back with photocopied pictures of the 1979 and 1977 Caprice front ends to prove my point. My father shrugged it off. The photocopies weren’t as clear as I wished they were, and even so, what were we going to do about it?
The wondrous pages of the JC Whitney catalog provided a new front seat cover and a new vinyl top. The top was a darker than the original (more of a maroon than a red) but it was better than sunbaked pink. Missing wheel covers were replaced with chrome wire hubcaps from Caldor or Bradlees. They suited the car better than the cheaper plastic ones they sold. I’d have to get a new set every year or so, as they would either rust or I’d lose a few going too fast over bumps when late for class. I should have bought a set of factory hubcaps from the “hubcap guy” the next town over.
The Caprice was a bit light in the rear and I took to keeping a 100-pound bag of sand in the trunk during the winter for better traction. On one occasion I hit an icy patch and the car did a spontaneous 180 degree turn. I found myself going backwards on the wrong side of the road as I screamed my head off. Thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic.
Other than that my experience with the Caprice for the next four years was unremarkable. It just worked and never gave me any trouble, true to the legend of the B-body. It got me to school, my part-time IT internship at General Electric, graduation, and my first year of work coding COBOL.
After a year in the professional world I had the money (well, the credit) to buy my first brand-new car. It was going to be a GM product, to be sure, but I was going to learn the hard way that GM was not what it used to be.