COAL: 1991 Chevrolet Caprice 9C1 – The Crapiece

With the ’85 Volvo declared unroadworthy, I went seeking a replacement. I looked at a metallic sky blue $200 Reliant or Aries that had been hit hard in the left rear, a ’90 or ’91 Crown Victoria just to check if it seemed any better (it didn’t) than the Stinkoln Clown Car, and a 383-powered ’68 Chrysler priced too high—probably a good thing, or I might’ve bought it, and it was very much not the kind of car I needed.

I don’t know what possessed me to fixate on a Caprice. Maybe it was memories of the ’78 and the ’84 my folks had, but I got a bug to pick up a Caprice. I went looking at an ’86 semi-locally; it was in good shape with low miles, but I thought the price too high at $4,300 or so, and I was skittish about buying from a used car dealer, anyhow.

Surely the local used-car scene can’t have been all that barren, can it? Probably not, if I’d been more thoughtful about it and considered costs other than the purchase price. Once again, though, that uncommonly good experience with the remote purchase of dad’s ’62 Dodge drowned out all contrary experience and memory.

So I acted rationally: I went on eBay and bought a 1991 Caprice that had been retired an owner or two ago from the Scituate, Massachussetts cop shop. I think my winning bid was closely around $2,500, which was just right; I had a weird psychological thing where a good car was supposed to cost between about $2,500 and $3,000. The ’62 Lancer and ’65 D’Valiant had been right in that range, and I guess that’s what set the expectation—I still struggle with this expectation that a good car should cost less than they tend to.

I got a mileage ticket from Untied, and flew to Massachussetts with a duly registered Michigan plate in my briefcase (emission tests? Safety inspections? Pshaw, not in Michigan; what are you, some kinda communist?!).


The car was certainly used, but it seemed basically sound, intact, and as presented. The transmission was rebuilt by a non-SCAAMCO shop, the radiator was a new Modine, the intake manifold gaskets and valve stem seals were new. It had a new DieHard Gold battery, a factory-upgraded TBI 350 engine with heavy-duty everything and coolers for all fluids, factory silicone heater and radiator hoses, power locks and (uselessly tiny) sideview mirrors, extra-fast power windows, and heavy-duty seats in police-only dark blue. It had a cop motor, cop shocks, cop brakes, and it was a model made before the LT1, so it’d run good on regular gas.

It had GM’s “Package, vehicle anticorrosion, hot melt type”, and was substantially unrusted. It was my first car with ABS—a primitive, lame Bosch system. Digital speedometer (certified, but with no mph/kph switch) and full gauge package. Electric trunk release. More-or-less working factory air, a driver airbag, and that disagreeable split-rocker headlight switch GM were so madly in love with.


It was ugly from every angle, but it was an ex-police car. I ran fun mind-movies of putting half a dozen antennas on the roof, an A-pillar teardrop spotlight, a set of front push bumpers, a black hairdryer combined with one of those cigarette pack-sized radar detector setter-offer things, and I’d be all set for scare-to-order traffic gaps. Vehicle adornment could take the form of small letters “I am” and big reflective ones speling out “POLITE” down the side. Also, “Emergency dial 911” on the trunk—always good advice!—and a fleet vehicle number (oh, say…2327) in vinyl stencil numerals.

But first I had to get the car…er-ruh…not home exactly, at least not at first. I put the plate on the car and drove it, in as-bought condition, from Massachussetts to Toronto. That was an interesting 600-mile trip of nine-plus hours. For one thing, the car had flaws and faults and shortcomings. There was water in the left taillamp, so there was no point replacing the dead outer brake light bulb; it would only explode the next time I hit the brakes and the water splashed onto the hot bulb. The radio, what little there was of it, didn’t much work. The wipers weren’t much good. There was a disconcerting whiff of exhaust from time to time inside the car. And it ran as though its shoelaces were tied together; there wasn’t much moxie behind the V8 engine sounds. I could keep up with traffic, just about, but it took a lot of doing and frequent kickdowns and there wasn’t much pedal left.

And me, I was in faulty condition myself. I was headed to Toronto to declare myself in love. It was the first time I’d ever had occasion to say such a thing to anyone, I had no idea what he’d say, and I was a nervous mess—especially my gut; I had to stop at what seemed like every damn rest stop and service plaza on the whole route.

Eventually I made it to Toronto. Bill detected something was up (or off) and suggested we go for a ride in the new car. That was weird in itself, because he hated cars, and still does. Most of them are not built for the likes of him—a long-legged 6’4″ (193 cm)—and he saw a lot of seriously gruesome car crashes as a kid, and always lived where there was decent public transit. I drove us around, alternating between ear-splitting silence and contrived small talk, and we wound up down at the lake shore. There we spent an hour or so back and forth between freezing outside and warming up in the car. He was remarkably patient, especially after I said I had something to tell him but couldn’t bring myself to actually do it. What possibilities might’ve run through his head, eh! I have to tell you…that I’m an axe murderer.

By and by (and by…and…by…) I got sufficiently hungry and tired and fed up with freeze-thaw cycling to jump out the plane, wordwise. As I mentioned last week, it worked out well in the long run; we’re happily in year 21. It worked out well in the short run, too; we got back in the car, went back to his house, ate some food, and got some sleep.

Back in Michigan, one of my friends on the solar car team, a GM enthusiast, offered the use of his grudge to look into the car’s poor performance. We threw the usual list of tune-up parts at it: air filter, spark plugs and we might’ve done plug wires, cap and rotor, PCV valve, throttle body cleaner. The twin fuel injectors were spraying just fine; clearly the engine wasn’t starving for fuel. The ding moment came when we checked the timing and found it severely late, something like 10 degrees after TDC. With that fixed, the car seemed to have double or triple the scoot. Zero problem keeping up with traffic now!


In between classes and Toronto round-trips, I set about fixing and improving the car. I used up most of a tube of Mopar RTV repairing the taillight leaks and the tears in the door seals, trunk seal, and heavy-duty rubber floor mats the car had instead of carpet. Many are the uses for rubber squeezed out from a tube, but I am not one of those who can apply and smooth perfect caulk beads; I’m an awfully messy pastewaster about it, at best. And speaking of best, it’s best I never try to use tub-and-tile or kitchen-bath caulk; any brands or variety of that material, dispensed from any kind of tube or tool in my hands, is guaranteed to get all over the walls, floors, ceilings, fixtures, and windows of the four nearest rooms, plus the actual workroom itself and every part of me. No, the only way for me is to use a very good grade of automotive RTV silicone. There are numerous brands and varieties of that, too, and most of them are right out of the question; there are only and exactly two kinds I’ve ever had any luck with. One is Chrysler’s. I have no idea who makes it for them with what recipes (it comes in three colours), but it is as easy for me to work with as the others are impossible. Good job I’m not jaded and cynical, or I might have to wonder if Chrysler supply a good RTV sealant because they also supply leaky vehicles. Maybe or not, but I have just about never succeeded in making anything but a horrendous mess with most other brands and grades, and the only other product I can use without causing caulkpocolypse is Valco Cincinnati’s aluminum stuff (and this stuff will carry on sealing the bath tub to the floor even when the washroom gets down to -80° or up to 600° F!).


Anyhow. Car repairs. Some stuff on the Caprice got fixed or improved. I replaced the long, black-painted, unbent-Z-shaped column gear lever with a short, curved, chrome one out of a ’70s Oldsmobile—ooh, sporty! I went back on eBay and bought a factory CD radio out of, I think, a late ’90s Camaro. Right size and shape, but the mount brackets didn’t quite line up, so I just relied on the faceplate to hold it in place, which it more or less did.

A quick bit of automotive history: one of the great many flaws in the new 1971 GM B-bodies was that the HVAC was poorly designed; it let outside air leak in past the heater core and A/C evaporator, rendering the system useless in hot or cold weather. This, according to DeLorean’s book (“On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors”) was discovered in plenty of time, but those who discovered and squawked about it were ordered to mind their place and sign off on the system: Shut up! We’re General Motors! They’ll take what we produce and they’ll like it! I mention this because the HVAC system in the new ’91 GM B-bodies had exactly the same problem: poor design allowing outside air to bypass the heater core and A/C evaporator. Maybe they eventually sorta fixed it, the way they eventually sorta fixed the ’71 system, but on my car I used up another tube of Mopar RTV gooping up unauthorised air passages so my toes and I wouldn’t freeze quite so much.

I take a dim view of throttle body “fuel injection” compared to real (port) injection, but rather than a carburetor I’ll certainly take TBI—especially a reasonably well-sorted system like GM’s. About the only running trouble I had with it after setting the timing was that it suddenly grew very cold-blooded, gasping and hesitating and behaving like a mid-’70s car until fully warmed up. Easy fix: the flexible stovepipe from the heat stove on the exhaust manifold to the air cleaner snorkel had fallen apart and disappeared. A three or four dollar replacement solved the problem completely.

There was an awful stench inside the car…sometimes. Seemed like it was coming from the HVAC ducts…sometimes. Smelt like a putrefying mouse or something…sometimes. So I got a bright idea to disinfect the ducts without taking everything all apart: I started the engine, put the blower on high, and stood at the cowl with a trigger spray bottle of bleach, which I sprayed into the air intake. Eight or nine sprays in, the engine began to roughen and hunt. At about spray № 12, the engine surged twice and died. It would crank, but showed no sign of life. Umwhut?

I don’t recall how the diagnostics played out, but eventually I found the car’s ECM was located, either by design or by deterioration, in the HVAC intake air path, and my clever work had caused terminal corrosion (in both senses). I removed the bleachy module, took it inside, and wrecked a bunch of pencil erasers by pushing them onto each terminal pin, one by one, to clean them up. I had no good way to clean the socket receptacles, so I just sprayed them with tuner cleaner and gooped them with Ox-Gard left over from the Volvo. When I put everything back together, the car started and ran, hoorah. But even before the bleachy smell dissipated, that putrid stink kept coming back…sometimes!

The temperature slider cable broke. I couldn’t get a replacement from GM—discontinued—but a wrecking yard a fair distance away had a ’92 and didn’t charge much for that part. I’d determined the cable in my car was broken by sticking my head under the dash, but I couldn’t get enough access that way to replace it. As I took the dashboard apart, I suddenly got a snootful of that awful stink. It was the backglass defogger switch socket, which was most of the way melted. Gobs and strings of plastic drooped down from it like gooey mozzarella on a fresh slice of pizza.

I was Schroedinger’s Caprice owner: simultaneously shocked and not-shocked that GM had chosen to run all the current for the backglass defogger through the switch, without a remote relay. I removed the melty, reeky remains of the plastic socket and pushed the individual terminals onto the switch pins, then wrapped them as well as I could with high-temperature electrical tape. The defogger carried on working, and the stink stopped.

If only my car had been a year older, it’d’ve had these…

Other stuff on the Caprice didn’t get fixed or improved. The headlamps, for example, which is a big ol’ laff because Daniel Stern. The bath tub Caprice’s headlamps were a giant downgrade from the ones on the last four years of the previous (box) Caprice. Those had large reflectors, separate ones for low and high beam, and 1,700-lumen high and 1,000-lumen low beam bulbs with efficient axial filaments and a low beam bulb shield to cut upward stray light—all behind a sturdy glass lens with optics engineered by one of North America’s best headlamp engineers, a real rock star in that field. These on the bath tub Caprice were the opposite of all that: a single small reflector with a single bulb containing sloppy, inefficient transverse filaments producing 700 lumens on low beam and 1,200 on high beam, no bulb shield, and a plastic lens with optics designed by a brand-new intern with no expertise. Completely legal, but completely awful. And that was just the lousiness built in by design; the ones on my car were old. The lenses weren’t much hazed, but the reflectors had begun to fail. The aim adjuster screws were stripped and broken, too, so one lamp pointed up in the sky—far above other drivers’ eyes, so I wasn’t such a glare monster—and the other lit up the bumper bar. In their rotten condition, these were just ideal for driving to, from, in, and around Ontario and Michigan in the winter; they did a great job illuminating all the snowflakes for me: yep, it’s snowing! On one awful drive back to Ann Arbor the snowflakes were all I could see; there was next to no light on even the snowbright road surface. I drifted back and forth across invisible lane lines; only when I would approach one or the other shoulder could I see a cue to correct back in the other direction. I’m surprised I didn’t get stopped as a suspected drunk. I never got around to replacing those headlamps, let alone upgrading them.

…but instead it had these. The “other reflector” in there is for the turn signal.

Nevertheless, it was a passably reliable barge in safer condition than the rusty Volvo to commute back and forth from Ann Arbor, where I was finishing school with a lot of absence, to Toronto where I was building the foundation of what would eventually become my marriage. In December-January 2000-’01 I had a few concerns regarding the alternator. Its bearings had begun making a slight bit of noise. Not much, just an occasional little “chip!” I could hear if I had the hood open and was paying attention. I gave the front bearing a little squirt of Tri-Flow, and that seemed to hush it. I was busy—oh yeah, coursework—so…out of earshot, out of mind.

Noisy bearings don’t fix themselves, though. The morning after a prolonged birthday weekend in Toronto, I hit the 401 to drag myself (kicking and screaming) back to Michigan. About 56 klicks southwest of Toronto, the smells of deep-grease-frying metal and insulation permeated the car, and a hair-raising grinding noise began—like a buzz saw chawing on tool steel…or a Ford power steering pump. So at first I thought the steering pump had locked up and lunched the new serpentine belt. The pump had been working okeh, but had been noisy on cold mornings. Or at least I thought it was the P/S pump making noise. But then it occurred to me that I still had steering assist and the engine temperature wasn’t climbing, so the steering and water pumps had to still be working. My next guess, still at highway speed, was that the alternator had locked up. Then it occurred to me that everything else was still turning and I wasn’t smelling burning rubber, but hot metal, so I guessed the alternator bearing had failed. As if to confirm my driver’s seat diagnosis, the “AMP” light came on, the voltmeter dropped, and the grinding noise grew more horrendous.

I took the next exit, found it devoid of any services, and so got back on the 401, still discharging. Went to the next exit a couple kilometres along, grinding and stinking, found an Esso station, parked, and raised the hood. The front half of the alternator was that nice cooked-metal colour. Absolutely spotless, too, in the manner and by the means of a self-cleaning oven, except for some flakes of ash that had been engine compartment grease. Also, a great deal of smoke was billowing up from the alternator. I went in the C-store, bought a litre of water, sprinted back out and poured it over the searing-hot alternator. The water behaved as though poured on a hot stove, flashing instantly into loud steam. It had the intended effect, though, cooling the internals down enough to make a fire less likely, though I think the C-store clerk wasn’t so confident on that. He pointed me to a Canadian Tire a block away, so I started the car and made a gonzo run for it. I’d guessed once I allowed the alternator to stop turning, it would weld itself solid. Yup, that happened. Goodbye, new serpentine belt; rubber smoke wafted in through the dash vents.

I told the Canadian Tire service writer I had a Caprice with a dead alternator and went across the parking lot to Swiss Chalet for supper. An hour or two later the car had an indifferently “remanufactured” unit at retail parts and labour prices, but the funny part was they gave me the core charge. I’m here to tell you, there was absolutely nothing salvageable on or in the alternator they removed. It might’ve made an acceptable doorstop or heavy-duty paperweight, but that’s all.

There was still the matter of occasional exhaust smells in the cabin. Some investigation under the car revealed a crack almost the whole length of the catalytic converter. “Test pipes” were a thing of the past, but this was Michigan, as I say, where there will likely never be any vehicle inspections (regarded as a sort of war-on-cars affront to the local industry), so I paged through the Walker exhaust parts cattledog, jotted down the critical dimensions of the direct-fit replacement converter, went to a local exhaust shop and told them I needed a short piece of pipe for a generator shed installation: so-and-so long, ball expansion and 2-bolt flange at one end, etc. The twenty-something dollar result found its way under the car, then once I disabled the air injection the exhaust stopped smelling like a furnace and reverted to a 1965 odour. The cracked catalytic converter turned out to be empty.

First gear in that 700R4 transmission didn’t sing, which bugged me, but one morning on my way from my apartment near North Campus down to the parkade I used near Central Campus, I thought I heard a sort of chattering or ratcheting sound in first. I pulled into the parkade and started up the spiral ramp. The chattering noise quickly grew louder, then something snapped and the car stopped moving. Six gear positions, no motion! (or: how I got a nonzero percentage of Ann Arbor’s car-commuting population very upset with me in one easy lesson).

Even once down the ramp again, it took a lot of manœuvring to get the car onto the tow truck in the confined spaces of the parkade’s entrance chutes. The “rebuilt” transmission’s front pump gerotors, normally a 2-piece set, had become something like a 37½-piece set. I called the shop in MA: too bad, so sad, we’ll be happy to take a look at it; when would you like to bring it in? Thanks heaps.

I called around to the wrecking yards, but nobody had a suitable used transmission; my guess is they were all hoarded by the taxi companies. So I got to buy a transmission rebuild for something like $1,400. Whee!

But there were fun times, too; Caprices were still recent enough at the time that people went out of their way to defer to my white-outside/blue-inside one in traffic, even though I hadn’t actually carried out any of those antennas-and-pushbars-and-lettering shenanigans. Nobody so much as blinked when I used the “AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY” turnaround to exempt myself from an awful traffic jam on the interstate one day. Eventually I sold it to a young man whose Asian-American family had only ever had practical small Japanese cars. Things got off to a bit of a rocky start for him (starter motor at the 1-week mark) but once that was replaced and his parents’ nerves calmed, he enjoyed the hell out of it; I saw him hooning around town from time to time.

I replaced the white whale with the very much better 1992 Chrysler LeBaron I bought from my mother, which meant she needed a new car. That provided some chuckles of its own, which I guess are substantial enough to warrant their own post.

All in all the Crapiece was what it was: a hard-worn running moneypit. It served its purpose, kinda, more or less, and it was relatively comfortable for Bill, but I’d rather it had been the very fully loaded, low-miles ’79 Caprice Classic I saw in Hemmings for $3,500 and missed by a day a few years later. Less forecastically, I’d’ve just about certainly done better for less with that local ’86 I’d turned up my nose at. Oh well, you know’t they say: live and…uh…what was the second thing? Oh well, maybe it would occur to me in time to pick the next car. Or not; tune in next week!

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