To put it mildly, my last COAL was a traumatic, indescribable, absolute disaster…emotionally and financially. I needed something that worked and I needed it now. Because of this bad experience, I was not going to experiment with unknown products anymore. For me, B-bodies represented security, certainty, and reliability. My automotive universe was fine until I strayed from them. I would not make that mistake again–from now on, I would seek out only B-body station wagons.
The first such candidate was a 1989 Pontiac Safari with about 70,000 miles, which I thought was kind of neat because a late-model Pontiac B-body wagon is rare and unique. I also found the third-row seat interesting because it was cloth-covered. My previous wagon third seats had always had vinyl upholstery. The exterior was in pretty good shape but the interior, not so much.
The seller had a big dog who was allowed free rein inside the car. The result was that every cloth surface, including the headliner, was ripped. The more pressing problem was that the alternator warning light was on; the owner said it only needed a belt. I may have been motivated to investigate further, but the interior was so unappealing that I quickly lost interest.
The second candidate was an 85,000 mile 1995 Buick Roadmaster being sold by an auto salvage yard. The car did not have a salvage title. The only defect was a cracked windshield. It was actually in very good shape, and had a perfect blue-leather interior. I wanted this car. The problem was that the seller was very rude. He called me mentally insane suggesting that I should be institutionalized when I tried to negotiate his $7,000 asking price. He refused to budge, so that door was closed.
At this time, I was a member of an online forum that specialized in these cars. There was a member in upstate NY who bought, sold, and provided technical support for these things. He was about four hours away and there was an impending snow storm coming, but having no local prospects, I gave him a call. He was extremely pleasant and said that he had a few vehicles that would meet my budget.
His place was four hours north of me, in upstate New York, so I rented a vehicle that would take me there in comfort; the fairly newly released (at that time) Dodge Charger with the 5.7 liter V8. To this day, I remember how much I enjoyed my time with the Charger. I still wonder what would have happened if I had just bought it outright from the rental company.
Anyway, the drive up there was wonderful…the Charger was great. The only thing I did not take into account was that I was driving into a snowstorm in a rear-wheel drive, V8-powered sedan. There were a few harrowing instances when I drove through small towns with unplowed roads. Although the car did get twitchy, it never lost traction and I got there on schedule. I think the fact that I was in upstate NY among drivers who knew how to drive in the snow worked to my advantage.
When I pulled into the dealer’s lot, I thought I was in B-body heaven. There were Roadmaster, Caprice, and Custom Cruisers as far as the eye could see. It was like being transported back to a 1994 dealer’s lot. The owner of the dealership was warm, accommodating, and a true expert on these cars. It is a shame that this business is no longer around today.
We walked through the lot. The selection was incredible and I soon found a Dark Cherry Metallic 1995 Buick Roadmaster that I was interested in. There was one issue: It was being offered for less than half of what I was prepared to pay. I couldn’t believe it! I called my wife to ask her what she thought and her response surprised me. She said “buy two of them that way we have a backup.” Well, she didn’t have to tell me twice…overjoyed I did exactly that. I quickly found a 1993 Caprice also in Dark Cherry metallic.
The next part of the process was choosing options. The dealer had a huge parts inventory and was willing to outfit your purchase with pretty much anything you requested, from new engines to interiors. I had factory keyless entry installed and elements of the plusher Roadmaster interior installed in the Caprice. The plan was to drive the Roadmaster home and have the Caprice shipped.
The Roadmaster was a class act. It had the same 260 hp LT1 V8 and 4L60e transmission that my 9C1 and 95 Caprice wagon had but was also equipped with automatic climate control and red leather interior as well as the towing package, which included a heavy duty suspension and limited slip differential. I would say that this is the most comfortable car I have ever had from a seating perspective. Long distance driver comfort was not an issue.
The Caprice did not have the LT1, but did have the more reliable and less complicated LO5 V8 and 700R transmission. The car also had the towing package and had comfortable cloth seating. I had the dealer install a Roadmaster center armrest/console for added comfort and convenience.
Both vehicles served as my daily drivers for my long commute to work. In addition, it was the ’93 Caprice that took our youngest son, Adam, home from the hospital after his birth. The cars did serve us well for a time providing comfortable, reliable transportation during that honeymoon period. Along with my wife’s white 95 Caprice wagon, we now had three B-body wagons in our fleet.
I alternated taking each to work to keep the mileage and the wear down. In addition, I would take the train a few days a week. This worked for almost two years. In retrospect, that’s not really a long time, but this length of service was almost five times longer than my last two COALs. In addition, the whole experience cost me less than $3,500, including the price of both cars…..way better than my last experience.
One thing that I should have realized is that while these cars were rugged and reliable, time was against them. They were aging quickly and required more looking after and were no longer fit for frontline heavy duty service because of their age and the fact that they had been out of production for over a decade, so parts and support were becoming scarcer and scarcer.
The dealer I had bought them from was ready, willing, and able to keep them running but he was four hours away. The time for their use as daily work horses was coming to a close. Slowly age conspired against them and things began to grow wrong, essentially nickel-and-diming us. My wife was wise when she told me to buy two of them because essentially, both were needed to support my grueling 120 mile daily commute.
Eventually, one of them was always out of service and in the shop. As soon it was repaired, the other one would break down. After a while, there was never an occasion when both vehicles were fit for service at the same time. Because I did not have the money to do a full overhaul on them, these cars should have been weekend projects or occasional use vehicles only and not subjected to the hard life I was asking of them. B-bodies are wonderful cars, but even they get old.
The 93 Caprice died first. First the climate control vents malfunctioned so that when the climate control was switched on, the air was blowing out of all the vents all the time with no way of controlling or regulating it. Then the radiator, alternator, and water pump had to be replaced. A few days later, the anti-lock brakes stopped working. Then about a week later, I was driving home on the highway when I experienced total brake failure. All lanes were crowded so I couldn’t pull over. Traffic in front began to slow and I was going about 75. I began to pray to God for the family of the driver of the Honda in front of me who would be pulverized by my out of control full sized wagon. Thankfully, traffic began to move and I was able to pull over safely.
It turns out that a brake line had ruptured. Two days later, I was driving home and noticed a fine mist being sprayed at my rear window from somewhere beneath the car. I thought it strange but the car was running so well. Twelve miles from home, the transmission began to slip. I was angry because this is the same car that stranded me when the brakes failed just two days before.
The wise thing to do would have been to pull over, but I was angry at being stranded again by the same car, so I forced it to take me home. It did get me home, but never ran again. Apparently, a transmission line had ruptured (a cheap fix) but my running it without fluid destroyed the transmission, thus ending the car’s service.
The Roadmaster did not last much longer. First, the power steering pump and lines needed to be replaced. Then the transmission oil cooler went. At first I thought that the transmission was going but it was only acting up because the fluid was leaking out of the cooler. Thankfully, the trans was not damaged. All of this happened in less than two months. The engine and trans on this car actually ran pretty strongly. The car ran better than my wife’s (and my former) Caprice wagon despite the high mileage.
What did it in was that the water pump began to leak. I knew this was the end because a leaky water pump meant the Optispark’s condition was questionable. The Optispark was essentially an advanced distributor that used infrared and optical sensors to operate properly. Because it was such a high tech piece of equipment, it was not cheap. In addition, it is difficult and tedious to gain access to it. At the time a genuine GM Optispark cost between $600-$800 before installation. In addition, like replacing a timing belt, replacing the Optispark also meant replacing the water pump because water pump failure almost always meant damage to that expensive Optispark.
I was looking at between $1,500-$2,000 in parts and labor. After being burned by my last COAL, I did not want to take it any further and repeat my last mistake. It turned out I made the right choice. I sold the car to someone who had plans to restore it. He e-mailed me about eight months later to let me know that he had since replaced the transmission since it failed a few months after he had taken it off my hands. He also removed the fake wood and repainted it silver. I wish I had saved that photo from seven years ago.
This left the white Caprice wagon as our last surviving B-body and also our last GM vehicle. It bravely soldiered on for two more years until it too succumbed to the ravages of time and hard use. Through this site, I have met folks who still have B-body wagons in service; I admire and congratulate them. These cars are disappearing quickly and I’m happy to hear that there are still a few of them out there, particularly the LT1 cars due to the idiosyncrasies of the Optispark and 4L60E transmission. My next COALs did not last as long as these cars, but served as a wake up call to rethink the way I bought cars. You will read about them next week.