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.

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