COAL • 1984 Chev Caprice—Second Verse, Same(?) as the First

“I want one of those cars that fixes itself!” So declared my mother—I guess after misunderstanding a news item about computerised engine control or something of the like. I was in the fifth grade, it was 1987, and my folks had decided their trusty but ageing ’78 Caprice and growing-raggedy ’77 Cutlass were due for replacement.

The story of the Cutlass’ replacement is too juicy to tell just yet. Alright, then; what came after the Caprice? It was going to be another 4-door sedan with automatic transmission, because that’s what my parents drove. But what make and model?

As I say, it was 1987—right around the peak of the executive-strength conspicuous consumption trend. Mother, once she understood there’s nothing such as a self-repairing car, wanted to see about these Mercedeses that were popular amongst the popular. The W126s, W124s, and “baby Benz” (oy vey -DS) W201s, whether new or used, were well above the target price range, so there was no trip to a Mercedes dealer. We went to Walter’s Star Service, an independent repair shop probably named that way to avoid a cease-and-desist letter from Mercedes. They had several 4-doors for sale on the forecourt. I recall thinking it strange to be sniffing around ’73-’74 models to replace a ’78, so that probably means they were W114s and W115s, though there might’ve been a late-production W108 as well.

To Americans like my folks, accustomed to Torqueflites and Turbo-Hydramatics, the German ideal of an automatic transmission’s shift quality was like a German joke: far too hard to understand. Back at the forecourt, mother asked about another car and, on learning it was a diesel, said “I don’t know how to drive a car that takes diesel gas”. The remnants of her enthusiasm was dampened by Walter’s answer: “It’s pretty much the same, except if there’s going to be cold weather just make sure to add a gallon of regular gas when you fill up the tank, because diesel fuel can gel up when it gets cold, and then the car won’t start”. So that car was out before we even got in.

No Merc for us, then. Just as well, I guess; I can’t imagine whom other than herself my mother reckoned on impressing. And an unturbocharged diesel in a hefty vault on wheels at Denver’s altitude meant 0 to 60 probably sometime late next week. This I learnt for myself some four years later; my friend Ben’s W115 diesel (vanity plate BNSBENZ or maybe BENSBNZ) was the first car I ever drove—illegally, at that, with no licence—on a public road for about ¾ of a mile. I was reluctant, but Ben assured me the car was so slow I couldn’t possibly get in trouble. He was wrong about that; there are plenty of ways I could’ve caused a major crash with a slow car, none of them actually happened that day.

The Daimler dream dashed, my folks decided to stick closer to what they already knew. We went to a Buick dealer—probably Deane Buick again, now I think on it—and looked at Electras. Sister and I enthusiastically thought the Park Avenue looked excellent; mother scoffed and made tart remarks about paying for a name. You’re a doodle, mama! It was after dark, and if there was any car actually test driven I don’t recall it.

Consumer Reports had given good grades to the Caprice in a full road test in ’83, though they did find flaws (“You must rotate a medallion to insert the trunk key, a nuisance”). So one fine Saturday morning dad and I got in the red ’78 and headed for Spedding Chevrolet, a large dealership located near the junction of I-25 and US 36. This dealership, like Flannery Chevrolet closer to home, was in some kind of nasty but predictable legal trouble dad probably didn’t know about—false and misleading advertising, lying to customers; the usual and customary. They ought to have been hauled up on charges for this irretrievably stupid commercial:

Everyone behind the front glass of the showroom had a clear view of every car on the long downhill access road to Spedding, so a salesman with a great big smile was standing outside waiting for us by the time dad had stepped on the parking brake. He’d spotted a newspaper ad for a 1984 Caprice Classic, and soon we were standing before it: a white one with a pointless white vinyl top, a velour interior, and a 305 engine. We got in for a test drive—dad in the driving seat, salesman riding shotgun, and me in the back.

Most everything was familiar, but the prindle confused dad at first. Instead of Park   R N D (…), this one said
P   R N 🄳 D (…), and had an AUTOMATIC OVERDRIVE callout. He’d put the car in D, in accord with his habit of many years. Once we got on the open road, the salesman noticed and told him to shift to 🄳. Dad stepped on the brake and put his hand on the shift stick; the salesman, in a Slavic accent of some kind, said “Dunn’t brrek, jost shyift!” and explained (sorta) what overdrive meant.

I’ve written before about the Toastcat Effect; that time about a car—a Caprice, even—but this time about my dad: a very good attorney and easily the most scrupulously honest person I’ve ever met, and I fully expect that record to stand forever. Back at the dealership, dad said he liked the car okeh, but his wife had said no white cars. Great lawyer; lousy liar, so it never occurred to me that he would utter a word of anything short of truth. I helpfully piped up and reminded him: “No, dad, mom said she wants a white car!”, interrupting his question about whether the car could be painted and spoiling his attempted negotiation tactic.

Oops. Dad was cool about it; he didn’t get angry or anything. He explained—a little sheepishly—what he’d been trying to do. I don’t remember how long later, or by what process of negotiation, he wound up buying that white ’84 Caprice. I don’t recall any others being tested or examined. This is kind of weird, as I think back on it. He wasn’t in an urgent rush, and Caprices weren’t exactly scarce; what was so special about this particular one? I’ll never know.

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