We’ve all had one of these events–if not a crash, then some other experience where we did something stupid that resulted in the learning of a painful life lesson. I’ve had plenty such moments, but only one of which (knock on wood) resulted in a wreck and the write-off of a very good car. I wasn’t going to write about this car as it’s still a sore spot with me–and I mean that quite literally. But I’ve decided that the (very brief) story of my one-and-only GM B-body needs to be shared with the crew at Curbside Classic, if not as therapy, then maybe as my penance. I ask the forgiveness of you Curbside Classic faithful, (especially Carmine, since this was a twin of his beloved Caprice), for I am responsible for there being one fewer such car on the road. So now that the set-up is out of the way, here is the sad story of how I wrecked my 1980 Caprice Classic.
I first heard about this car, in the summer of 2000, from my dad. At the time, I’d been working for a company in New Jersey for about a year and still living at home in Pennsylvania. The 80-mile round-trip commute was really starting to rack up the mileage on my 1995 Thunderbird which, after having been a perfect car for the first 95,000 miles, was now starting to bellyache a bit about its constant use.
Having just completed the first of three transmission rebuilds my Thunderbird would ultimately need, I was thinking that getting a second “beater” car might be in order. Gas was still relatively cheap, so when I heard about a 1980 Caprice with very low miles and a V8, I was interested, and quickly called the owner to arrange to see it.
The car belonged to an elderly gentleman (as if there was any doubt), who could no longer drive and had decided to part with his Caprice, which he’d purchased new in 1980. It looked exactly as you see it in these pictures, which were taken less than a week after I got it. The interior featured a gold-velour split bench seat, still-working A/C, and not much else. The picture below comes from the web, but this interior is damn near exactly how I remember it. While mine wasn’t nearly as well equipped as Carmine’s car, it was a nice, clean, plain Chevy that just happened to sport two-tone paint.
I was a little let down when I opened the hood and saw the downsized, two-barrel 267 Chevy V8 with a single exhaust, but frankly, I wasn’t expecting any V8 from 1980 to be packing much power. The 267 did not disappoint in that regard, its 115 horsepower matching the output of the standard 3.8-liter Chevy V6. In other words, the 267 essentially delivered V6 performance with V8 fuel economy. However, the golden chariot you see before you had only 44,000 original miles, and man, it ran like a top.
It wasn’t without issues, mainly because how long it had sat unused. Among them were a fairly rotten exhaust system, some cracking brake hoses and a partially clogged catalytic converter. Still, the body was immaculate with no rust anywhere. I paid the man $700 cash for it, replaced what was needed to get it back on the road, and immediately began using my new ’80 Chevy as a daily commuter. I quickly became aware of the two or three times per week I’d have to fill its 25-gallon gas tank, but as I mentioned, gas was (relatively) cheap back then.
Honestly, it wasn’t that bad on the highway, although the majority of my driving was done in the city. On the bright side, I also got to like driving this car in traffic–while the car was not easy to get up to speed, people driving newer cars do tend to stay away from you when you drive one of these older beasts, and I think I started getting a bit of an attitude behind the wheel of this car as a result. When I wanted to merge into traffic, I just did it; chances are that guy in the new Camry would simply have to make room for my tank. Little did I know that this attitude would lead to my undoing.
One day, as my then girlfriend (now wife) and I were leaving her parents’ house, up in Bethlehem, PA, I was cut off by someone in a mid-90s Dodge Ram (the official vehicle of impatient rednecks on the go) with a four-wheeler in the bed.
I was young and stupid, so I began riding his rear bumper. Some gesturing back and forth ensued. And then it all happened, too fast. At the next intersection, the guy decided to teach me a lesson and locked up his brakes. I don’t think he meant to actually cause a wreck, but I had no hope of stopping the Chevy in time. I might have managed to slow down to about 35 mph before I slammed into him. The physics of the crash were such that the Chevy stopped dead from the impact, and the Ram was sent hopping through the intersection. Both my wife and I were OK, but for a few days we suffered sore collar bones and ribs where the seat belts had caught us.
The impact folded the Ram’s rear bumper up over the license plate and pushed the bed into the cab. The Ram was otherwise drive-able, and the guy actually took off, never to be seen again. I’m guessing he had a good reason not to wait around for the cops. The Chevy took the worst of the impact due to the bumper height misalignment. It’s hard to tell from these Polaroid pictures (which I snapped at the towing company’s lot the day of the wreck), but the radiator had been pushed onto the fan and the engine lifted off its mounts. (Check out the Pontiac T1000 in these pics.)
In hindsight, I’m thankful that the guy drove off; doing so instantly put him “at fault” from the legal perspective here in PA. I didn’t go through my insurance on this old car; instead, I essentially wrote it off as totaled and gave it to the towing company in exchange for the tow. I’m sure it was fixable, but that option wasn’t worth considering at the time. I did learn a lesson that day–one that didn’t sink in until much later–that although I may not have been directly at fault for the wreck, my actions certainly escalated the whole thing. I more or less could have avoided the whole mess, and that’s the reality I now accept. Even to this day, I’m not perfect; I drive a lot, and get frustrated a lot, but I try only to drive defensively and not to get involved with any of these nut jobs.
The other lesson I learned was one that I was too young to remember the first time around: The simple economics of driving something that uses 60 to 70 gallons of fuel a week just don’t make financial sense when gas isn’t cheap. Within a few months after the incident, I bought a 2000 Nissan Sentra five-speed manual, a car which would actually save me money by using only 25 gallons of fuel a week. After gas prices went up, in the mid-2000s, it worked out that the total cost of the Nissan, including the loan payment, insurance and gas, was less than what I would have been paying for gas alone for the Chevy had I kept it. Nevertheless, I still am angry about what happened to my Chevy, and I wonder what might have happened if I’d kept it. One thing I do know is that I sure wouldn’t be using it regularly considering today’s gas prices.
Ultimately the Chevy (and later, my Nissan) did fulfill the original mission of extending the life of my Thunderbird, a car to which I had an irrational devotion. So there you have it. I humbly ask the B-body faithful to forgive me for taking a low-mileage example out of the pool. So how about the rest of you? Did any of you ever have a really good car that you wrecked (or otherwise mistreated) and thus shortened its life? Let’s get it out in the open, so that all of our CC sins may be forgiven.