COAL: 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic – Movin’ Upward-Westward

The new car was The New Chevrolet: a metallic medium-deep red (“Carmine”) ’78 Caprice Classic with a blood-red vinyl interior, ordered at Bryner Chevrolet—still a going concern in Jenkintown. Motor Trend’s worshipful review of their car-of-the-year ’77 model pointed out that a Caprice could be specced up to nigh on Cadillac levels of equipment and price. The opposite was also true; my folks specced theirs down to nigh on Impala levels with a 305-2bbl instead of the base straight-6, manual air conditioning, an FM/AM mono radio with one speaker in the dashboard, a remote-control left sideview mirror, and…that’s it. Everything else was basic equipment. No power locks or windows or trunk latch, no interval wipers, no tilt steering, no cruise control, no backglass defogger, no 2-tone paint. Black seatbelts, no interior trim dressup or split bench front seat or velour upholstery, no fancy wheels, no de luxe gauge package.

For awhile, sister and I would hurry to unbuckle at the end of a trip so we could stand up and see the dashboard in time for dad to apply the parking brake and switch off the ignition: first the »[ BRAKE ]« light would come on, then go off as power was cut, and the »[ GEN ]« light right next to it would flash on, then fade out as the engine stopped turning—an artifact of the telltale’s hookup to what GM insisted was a “Delcotron generator” (i.e., the alternator). It was a neat little right-left light sequence and we kids thought it was amusing.

And the car certainly had no heavy-duty brakes, suspension, alternator, cooling system, or anything else. Nevertheless, GM, at apparent random, put in a Turbo Hydramatic 350 rather than the classactionally underspecified TH200; my folks were spared a wallet-bullet by GM’s spasticity. I know because I clearly remember its first-gear windup, which sounded like a proper transmission—the TH200, in first gear, sounds like the cheap imitation it is. Just as randomly, this car didn’t get one of the nerf (improperly hardened) camshafts GM installed in zillions of ’74ish to ’82ish Chev 305 and 350 engines. It wasn’t just Chrysler products you had to hope for good luck with in the ’70s, but good luck was sort of baked into this car from the start.

Soon enough after the Caprice’s arrival, I got over the Dart’s departure and found enough sight-sound-shape-texture details in the Caprice to keep me entertained. My early-childhood synaesthesia had begun fading, and so most of these were much less abstruse: the key-in/door-open buzzer sounded like it was permanently pronouncing the first syllable of “Angry”, the turn signals went “kerTee? kerTee? kerTee?”, the hazard flashers went “Dote…Dote…Dote…”, changing the radio station by pushing one of the preset buttons made a “SWUTCHinn” sound, that kind of thing.

The rear windows rolled only halfway down, but that was surely better than nothing; in 2019 I found a letter from my father’s father to my parents, scolding them for wasteful extravagance in choosing the Caprice rather than a Malibu. Fortunately his counsel on the matter arrived after they’d already bought the car, or my sister and I might’ve been stuck back there with a Malibu’s fixed windows.

And speaking of windows, the car was designed before finite-elephant analysis and airflow simulation and suchlike, which is probably why driving with the front and rear windows open on either side of the car (or both) at certain speeds would set the vertical run of a fastened front seatbelt flapping rhythmically and whapping against the B-pillar trim: “Beck! Beck! Beck! Beck!”.

I reckon my parents got the car when they did for a collection of sturdy reasons: the Dart was ageing, this great new model and its big ads had come along, and dad still had solid income for having not yet left the abusive Philadelphia law firm where he worked. By and by he got hired by a firm in Denver, and my folks found a house, so all that was left was to move there. In the Spring of 1980, my folks packed me (newly four) and my sister (seven) and themselves into the Caprice and we headed West.

We left the house in Wyncote for the final time last thing at night, proceeding only as far as a motel somewhere near the Interstate. Sister and I were hungry, and what was available at that hour was french fries in a styrofoam box shaped like a seashell—a mealy meal that foretold most of the rest of them on that trip. Breakfasts were at the motel—often a Howard Johnson’s, so not only little hold-in-the-hand boxes of cereal but also eggs and pancakes and (questionable) orange juice. But we ate many lunches and dinners at McDonalds; whaddya gonna do on a road trip with a coupla whingey little kids?

Back then people still believed in the fairytale of the –swimming pool non-peeing section– restaurant non-smoking section, and sister and I dipped the ends of our french fries—the real ones, at that time—in ketchup to provide a red end as we “smoked” them. Monkey see, monkey do.

But seriously, though: whaddya gonna do on most-of-a-week’s 1,800-mile road trip with a coupla whingey little kids? My parents’ solution was a small Panasonic cassette player which they’d use in the front seat in the morning for boring tapes of grownups talking, and if sister and I behaved ourselves we got to use it in the afternoon.

What did little kids listen to in 1980? The Smurfs, maybe; I’m sure it was tiresome. Still, my folks kept their word, and most afternoons we got to use the tape player. They also surprised us with a Simon, which was a hot new item at the time:

When we weren’t listening to tapes or playing Simon, we were serenaded by the car’s rolling noise; tires of the late ’70s were quite a lot noisier than today’s. We also went up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, since it was on the way; I remember the weird lift more than anything.

Mechanically, the trip was uneventful; the car did fine. The scenery scrolled past at a slow pace, especially during the long stretches when there wasn’t much of it; both parents were conservative drivers, and I’m sure they kept to the 55-mph speed limit (as evidenced by the Pinto wagon you’re about to see undertaking the Caprice). Eventually we reached the sign of the promised land, where some stranger took hold of the movie camera for a few moments, and most of a day later we pulled in at the new house. Neighbour kids quickly assembled to check out us new arrivals:

We settled in. The car got a new rear licence plate and its first front one—mother took me with her to the DMV, and just after the clerk handed over two green-and-white RN-2328 plates I learnt the difference between the words “lessons” and “licence”. There was also a trip to Mike Flannery Chevrolet for the car to be adjusted for Denver’s altitude. And another, and another after that; Flannery’s service department was not very competent, as it seems. In checking for this story whether they’re still around—they’re not—I find they were in legal trouble at the time, on probation for false and misleading advertising, deceptive marketing practices, and other I-am-shocked behaviour.

That winter we decided to try out skiing. Dad drove us the two hours up I-70 to Copper Mountain. I don’t know what kind of time he and mother had, and sister seemed to do okeh, but I had a pretty goddamn miserable day in ski school: bundled-up clothing layers, very uncomfortable ski boots, and futile attempts at putting the skis in a pie-wedge formation to slow down. I couldn’t even warm up with hot chocolate like the other kids; it had milk in it and I was intolerant. When it was finally time to go, we got back in the car and dad gave it a severe case of indigestion. I mean he flooded the hell out of it up there more than 9,700 feet above sea level. I guess he pumped the accelerator once or twice too much, then worsened things by continuing to pump as the engine failed to start.

Instead it turned over in that extra-quick manner flooded engines do. “It’s spluttering! It’s spluttering!”, sister and I helpfully songsang from the back seat, which surely improved the mood up front. By and by, dad decided a jump start would be necessary—he didn’t know much about engines. Someone was flagged down, and their correct advice was that a jump start wasn’t needed and wouldn’t help. Instead? “Put a stick in the choke”, he said.

“Put a stick in the choke! Put a stick in the choke! Put a stick in the choke!”, sister and I chanted, eager to do our part. Presumably the adviser was able to put his advice into practice by removing the air cleaner lid, pointing out the choke, and putting a stick of some kind in to hold it open, because before too much longer we were on our way. No stick was probably necessary; if dad had just held the accelerator to the floor while cranking, the carburetor’s own choke unloader would’ve done the job. Dad didn’t know much about engines.

One day in 1981, as mother steered the Caprice into the parking lot of the public library on Arapahoe Road, there was a CLENKaCLENG-CLANG from under the car. She pulled into a parking space, shut off the ignition, and then came more noise from under the car: GLOONK!(slosh)…GLOONK!(slosh)…GLOONK!(slosh). A tire iron in the gutter had flipped up as the car’s tire rolled over it, and its sharp end punched a hole in the gas tank, which was now gloonking its contents in an expanding pool on the pavement. Mother flung the driver’s door open, ran round and opened the right rear door, and screamed at me to get out of the car. I had no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t unusual for mother to scream, unprovoked and out of all proportion to whatever was happening, so I didn’t perceive any unusual urgency. I unbuckled and climbed out the car at my usual speed—five- and six-year-olds were considered to have outgrown child seats back then—whereupon mother grabbed me and ran (it began to dawn on me that something was the matter) into the library, which shared a building with a bank.

I didn’t get to see any of the excitement outside; I wound up being parked in the office of one of the bank employees. Her name was Ms. Mick and with mother’s permission she offered me a sugarless hard candy. While I was sitting on the floor behind Ms. Mick’s desk, lemon hard candy in my mouth, I saw a curious device mounted in the upper front corner of the underside of the desk: a little box with two red pushbuttons on it, one on each side facing away from each other, and a wire leading away to somewhere. The button pair was just begging to be squeezed, so I did, a few times. Er…whoops. Well, I guess emergency responders were needed, though not really the type I’d just alerted. In the end there was no fire. The car got towed and I don’t remember how we got home from the library.

Mother had signed up at D.U. for a(nother) go at law school, and one night in 1983 she didn’t come home on schedule. Dad and sister and I began a gradual worry ramp-up as the hour grew later and later. Finally the phone rang: she’d been halfway through a junction of two major thoroughfares when someone ran a red light and T-boned the Caprice fast and hard. I never saw the damaged car itself, but I did see pictures. The other car had hit her driver’s door and B-pillar, and caved in the whole middle of the left side of the car. It was adjudged fixable (remember body-on-frame cars?). I knew there was a thing such as auto bodywork—a Sesame Street segment had covered that subject; I remember the body shop man in it telling the customer “y’gunna nevvuh know da diffrince” in a thick Bronx accent. But I wasn’t clear on how the inside of the car could be fixed, and I asked my dad about it. He said they would use pieces of the original doors on the replacements. That didn’t quite make sense to me; I was thinking of the doors as unitary rather than composite, but eventually the car came back looking just about the same as before, though the locks on that side were a little wonky.

Dad credited the car’s side-impact guard beams for saving mother’s life and limbs. He was probably right. That and the seatbelt; mother and dad were devout belt-users, which was very unusual in the States at that time. Everyone in the car had to buckle in—family, friends, coworkers, no matter—no belt, no move; no exceptions.

One day in 1985 we drove up to have supper with our friends the Smiths, who lived above Nederland at around 9,000 feet—about 3,500 feet higher than home. As we went our way up the winding, narrow, slow roads in the last miles towards their house, we detected a steady hornlike tone, gradually growing louder. We figured it was some kind of an alarm, maybe at a construction or forestry site somewhere we couldn’t see. We parked in the Smith driveway, got out, and quickly figured out the noise was coming from the car. It sounded like a stuck horn, but not like the car’s actual horn. Dad cocked his ear and walked around the car, eventually homing in on the rear licence plate. He flipped it down, loosened the fuel cap, and with a “PHHFWHSHHhhhhhh” the horn tone ended. We must’ve had a tank of especially volatile gasoline, and the high altitude made it evaporate so much that it overwhelmed the vapour containment system; pressure in the tank built until it forced open the overpressure valve in the cap. The valve itself was oscillating between open and closed, doing exactly like the reed in a wind instrument. Hornpipes, fillpipes, what’s the big difference?

Generally the Caprice aged well without major failures. The (in)famous accoustic headliner didn’t sag, but it did fade where the sun hit it on the inside of the C-pillars. For some reason a vivid green(?!) steering wheel wrap was applied. The steering column’s upper bearing developed a noise that sounded like that “oooOOOOoooweeeEEEEeeeeoooo” of an old AM radio tuning across the dial. The speedometer’s bearings wore so the stirrup and cup went “ting-ting-ting-ting!” and the needle flicked from 1 to about 20 miles per hour. The door pulls pulled off when the screws broke through the plastic end brackets (repair parts were readily available from NAPA). The parking brake release broke (ditto). The battery died one afternoon between mother bringing us kids to Nellie Vertenstein’s house for our piano lessons and trying to drive us home thence. I think I remember a radiator hose failure, and the bumper’s plastic impact strip fell off outside the bagel bakery.

As I’ve previously described, the car developed a badly clogged catalytic converter that made alarming noises but didn’t get fixed; nonfeedback carburetors and catalytic converters were a bad marriage even at sea level, and we lived more than a mile up.

By 1987 my folks decided it was time to replace the red car and sold it to Laurie, but before I can tell about Laurie’s buying the red car I’ll have to tell about the blue car.
Tune in next week!

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