CC For Sale: 1981 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Station Wagon – Take Me Home

There is a lot of love given to the 1977-90 GM B-Body on Curbside, but most of the attention goes to the 2-doors and 4-doors.  As someone who has owned a fairly high number of GM B-bodies and has had experience with most variants, I contest that the wagons are the unsung heroes.  During the golden era of station wagons, Chevrolet typically outsold Ford in overall sales.  However, when it came to station wagons, Ford beat Chevrolet by significant margins time and time again.  The Chevrolet sedans of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were often more stylish and trendy than the more conservative Fords, which undoubtedly helped increase Chevrolet sales.  Ford’s station wagons were also typically more conservatively styled than Chevrolet’s, but in the station wagon market this was a good thing.  Station wagon buyers were more concerned about practicality than stylish looks, and a boxy Ford with a magic tailgate just worked better than a Chevy with a stylish clamshell tailgate.  There were even some station wagon customers that wanted some cachet to go with their wagon. Ford had that covered too with its luxurious Country Squire wagons, which often sold to customers well outside of the typical Ford price class.  Ford really was the wagon master.

All that changed in 1977 with the new downsized Chevrolet.  Chevrolet finally relented and copied Ford; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  No more trick tailgates and fast rear windows.  The Chevrolet wagon was a boxy practical station wagon which even used Ford’s 3-way magic tailgate for the first time.  Ford was still selling its enormous full-size wagons in 1977, but by 1979 it would follow Chevrolet with a smaller downsized package that was far more space efficient.  The downsized Fords and Chevrolets were surprisingly similar in all practical metrics, from exterior and interior dimensions, to drivetrains and chassis design.  However, Chevrolet still had a leg up on the Ford wagons when it came to styling.   I know this is a subjective topic and I am sure there will be some diehard blue oval lovers who will cry foul, but I think the general consensus is that the Chevrolet is simply a better looking car.

Note the subtle rise in the roof panel just before the front of the roof rack.


There are a number of styling differences that improve the looks on the Chevrolet. As has been discussed with the sedans, the two inch longer wheelbase on the Chevrolet combined with less front overhang significantly improves the styling.  It just has better proportions.  Ford station wagons used a flat roof, but Chevrolet improved the styling with a subtle raise in the roof sheet metal just before the front of the roof rack.  Perhaps it was a tribute to the late great Vista Cruisers or maybe even the Scenic Cruisers.  Regardless, this little feature was significant.

GM Wagons had a wider rear axle that put the tires at the outer edge of the wheel opening.


At the time of their design, any full-size wagon worth its salt had to be capable of carrying a 4×8 sheet of plywood.  This meant the wagons had to be about 79-80 inches wide.  Since the sedans of both Chevrolet and Ford had been slimmed down, the wagons needed to have a wider rear-end to accommodate this metric.  This is where Chevrolet went the extra mile.   The rear doors on the wagon subtly flare outwards to the wider cargo area.  This was combined with a wider rear chassis and wider rear axle to make the extra width almost imperceptible.  Ford, on the other hand, had a somewhat more crude execution.  It just plunked the wider wagon body atop the same sedan axle, resulting in a much less organic package.

Perhaps you are still not convinced?  While let the sales do the talking then.  For the first time, Chevrolet outsold Ford station wagons in 1977.  And once its new stylish wagons took the lead, it never gave it up.  Chevrolet full-size wagons outsold Ford wagons every year from 1977-91, when Ford finally pulled the pin on the full-size wagon market.

Most enthusiasts swooned over the Chevrolet Caprice with the lauded F-41 suspension package.  Simply put, it was an outstanding performer in 1977, especially in comparison to the other American full-size cars of the times.  Ordering a station wagon meant that there was no F-41 option, but that didn’t mean that these cars were entirely devoid of chassis development.  GM did its homework and instead of offering a handling suspension that almost no one would order, wagons got the F-40 heavy duty suspension.  This was designed to carry heavy loads, rather than carve corners.  The wagons also got a beefed up chassis which was fully boxed, unlike the C-channel chassis used on the sedans.  Furthermore, all the extra sheet metal from the huge cargo area meant that wagons weighed quite a bit more than the sedans.  Again, the engineers stepped up to plate by making sure all wagons were equipped with 12” front disc brakes and large 11” rear drum brakes.  They were essentially the biggest brakes that could fit inside the 15” wheels the cars were equipped with and were the same brakes used on the 9C1 police package.

1980 was a rough year for the large car market and sales took a big nose dive.  With the sky high fuel prices, even the much more space and fuel efficient downsize cars seemed far too large and thirsty for the 1980 model year.  So it was good timing for the Chevrolet B-body, along with its BOP cousins, to undergo a restyle and a diet.  General Motors performed some minor tweaks to the styling which resulted in almost all new sheet metal and significant improvement in aerodynamics.  There were also a number of changes made to save weight, such lighter doors, use of lighter driveline components, lock-up torque converters and smaller engines.  All the little changes did result in significant weight savings and improved fuel economy, but sometimes at the expense of durability.  For example, most Chevrolet B-body sedans used the smaller 7.5” 10 bolt rear axle instead of the larger and much stronger 8.5” 10 bolt axle.

The station wagons didn’t undergo such extensive changes.  They did receive the lighter and more aerodynamic sheet metal, which was limited to a new front clip and doors; the reminder of the body was mostly unchanged.  Further, the lighter weight and weaker mechanical parts that sedans got were not changed on the station wagons.  They continued to use the same basic setup as the 1977 models.  So that meant the beefiest brakes, frames, axles and suspension components.

The lack of air conditioning makes this engine compartment very uncluttered. This is a Canadian car so it also uses a mechanical carburetor rather than the electronic unit used in the US market.

Chevrolet did offer a smaller base engine briefly in the B-body wagon, offering the anemic 120 hp 267 2-bbl V8 as the base engine for 1980-82.  However, most wagons seem to have been equipped with the much better, but still hardly neck snapping 155 hp LG4 305 4-bbl.  For improve fuel efficiency, the station wagons got added an overdrive transmission option in 1982 which became standard equipment for station wagons in 1983.  Although not as peppy as the 170 hp 350-4bbl LM1 that was available in the 1977-79 Chevrolet wagons, the LG4 305 and the overdrive transmission made for a significantly more fuel efficient car, capable of fuel economy in the mid-20 mpgs on the highway.  I know that many on Curbside berate the 1980s B-bodies as being inferior to the 1977-79 models, but the 80s cars with the right drivetrain setup was a big step up in fuel efficiency and still offered decent real world performance for the era.

We owned quite a few 1977-90 B-bodies between my immediate family and me.   Most were sedans, but few of them were station wagons, which were my favourites and the ones we owned the longest.  These station wagons were one of the most versatile cars that I have every owned – they really were a do-it-all vehicle.  They had comfortable interiors with seating for 8 people, a huge cargo area, they were maneuverable despite their large size, had excellent visibility, made good tow vehicles, were generally well made with few design flaws and were mechanically bulletproof.  They were the Swiss Army Knife of cars – there were few jobs that a B-body wagon couldn’t tackle.

It was on this past Mother’s Day weekend that I was browsing the internet classifieds and I came across this 1981 Caprice wagon.  It was quite appropriate that it was Mother’s Day I found this wagon.  Of all the cars that my mom owned over the years, the B-body wagon, in particular our 1984 Pontiac Parisienne wagon, was the car that defined her.  She owned this car for about a decade and a half, which was the longest of any of her cars.  Like the versatile wagon, my mom could tackle anything and do it well.  There were so many great memories wrapped up in that big boxy wagon.  There were numerous epic family vacations, some of which may even have been Griswold worthy.   It also was one of the first cars I took sole control of the maintenance and repairs, and one of the cars I learned to drive on.

This Caprice wagon may not have been exactly like our Parisienne, but it was close enough to tug at the heart strings.  It has the same interior with the same dash and fake woodgrain (although Pontiacs had round gauges), the same clock, the same one piece bench seat with the fold down armrest, and this one was also not equipped with air conditioning.  Watching the video, the sound of that smooth running LG4 is oh so familiar.  The difference with this Caprice is that it has the woodgrain exterior, it is only a 6-passenger (ours was an 8-passenger) and it doesn’t have the overdrive transmission (likely a TH350C).   On the plus side, someone did swap on dual exhaust in place which means maybe the highly restrictive bead style catalytic converter has been replaced too.

The car is hardly in perfect condition, but it does have a level of patina that I could live with – maybe even I can evolved to like patina.  I’d probably just leave it as is and drive it.  Then again, while the LG4 was adequate for the 80s, being accustomed to a daily driver with over 380 hp would probably make me long for an upgrade.  Maybe a mild 350 and a TH700-R4 with some 3.23 gears would be just about right for this old girl.

I thought the price on this wagon was a bit high; nevertheless, it sold shortly after I found it.  So I guess someone else though it was worth it.  Anyone who has followed my story knows that my old cars are essentially rolling artifacts of my family’s history.  While our 1984 Parisienne wagon has long ago been sent to the scrap yard in the sky, just maybe the right B-body wagon like this Chevy could invoke those memories. Then again maybe it’s true what they say; you can’t go home again.