Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Caprice – Old Beater

The ride had been going for a little while and we had already exhausted small pleasantries. It was now time to catch up on what each were actually doing with our lives. On her case it was family matters:

  • Well, my grandfather passed away recently, and…

She hesitated, as if I were to disapprove of what was coming next. She continued in a measured way, as if testing the waters.

  • Turns out he left us this old early ’70s Chevy…

By this point I must have raised an eyebrow, in perfect Roger Moore manner; “An old Chevy you said, ma’am?”

It had been a while since I had last seen my YMCA swim instructor, and it came as a pleasant surprise to come across her that chilly morning at the SF Bart Station. I had always liked her easy going demeanor, as she embodied attributes I associated with a certain portion of the American psyche: she was unassuming, straightforward, accessible, friendly and professional. Always accommodating in our lessons, making an effort to be fair and understanding; yet methodical and aiming for results. Under her guidance my swimming had considerably improved from ‘will drown shortly’ to ‘fair and sufficient.’

Yet, in all the months of lessons, casual exchanges had been few. I was glad to finally chat with her at ease. And now, an old Chevy had popped into the conversation?

Why did I sense she was a bit reticent when the ol’ Chevy was brought up? Had too many acquaintances told her to get rid of the damn thing? To hand it away to the first high schooler with a couple hundred to spare?

Little did she know she had found a sympathetic soul.

  • An ol’ Chevy? And what are you going to do with it? – I queried.

She then cautiously rolled the words:

  • Well, I’m kinda working on it…

And then the dam broke. My eyes must have gone wide as I abruptly cut her off:

  • It’s fun! Isn’t it?
  • Yes! IT IS!!

Attagirl, that’s the spirit!

By the time the ’71 Chevrolet appeared, it certainly appealed to those qualities my instructor seemed to embody: straightforward, accessible, easy to deal with. It was professionally presentable, and unlike my instructor, a bit ostentatious. Though in the discrete stylish manner only a Chevy could do. A restrained Cadillac of sorts.

And by the early ’70s, if anyone knew how to deliver those qualities, it was GM. A LOT more of those qualities indeed, as their vehicles growing sprawl showed.

It’s obvious GM was in ‘cruising mode’ by the time the ’71 full sizers were conceived. Just like Genesis in the ’80s (more drum machines, more ballads!), or Kenny G in the early ’90s (let’s keep that mid-tempo going!), GM had found the secret sauce that the public craved. And GM was more than willing to keep providing the more of the more they had been selling thus far.

Like those mid ’80s Genesis records, the ’71-’76 GM full sizers elicit strong divided opinions. Much of that has already been covered at CC, and will certainly be fodder for time to come.

Back in my teenage days in Puerto Rico, these full sizers always appeared in beater condition around my high school’s streets, perpetual cockroaches. Their peculiar proportions seeming to come from a distant planet of mutants. And that’s what most of these models meant to a good number of Gen-Exers like me: cheap beaters that had stuck around for too long.

Yet, even if I’m no fan of US vehicles of this period (as I mentioned recently), deep down I haven’t met a car I wouldn’t rescue. Even if being a mutant.

Talking about those high school days, it didn’t help matters that the ‘luxury trimmings’ of GM full-sizers didn’t have the most lasting of qualities. “There’s a great future in plastics… Will you think about it?” said Mr. McGuire to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. And how right he was. There was a future indeed, but a tortuous one.

And in my youthful days of the ’80s, all those faded and cracked plastic trimmings made any surviving sample look… well, cheap. Instead of ritzy images of classy gatherings evoked by period advertising…

All I could think of was Uncle Buck’s ride (Yes, I know it was a Mercury).

It was a hot and muggy afternoon this past Holy Week in San Salvador when I came across this high-school-of-yore beater; coincidentally sitting in the corner of one of the city’s better known high schools. An almost eerie reminder of those old clunkers, down to the absent hubcaps and missing soft bits around the front bumper. It was now time to revisit those old high school days, in the metal.

The encounter occurred just in the midst of a heat wave, with the sun just fierce when taking these shots. The view on my screen was nil, and the street vendors soon started to glance at me with suspicion. Or was I hallucinating the whole thing due to heat exhaustion? Better to take the shots quickly, which I could barely see anyway.

With the neoclassical front being the car’s most predictable bit, I decided to focus on the back. I found it the most interesting part, as it seemed like a shape that shouldn’t work.

While not getting many kudos in the styling department, there’s a lot of careful sculpting on a 4 door ’73 full-size Chevy. The flat esplanade on the back veers awfully close to a formless blob, but Bill Mitchell’s team knew their trade well, and there’s a much attentive shaping applied. What appears at first glance as plain from a distance, under closer inspection evolves into a sophisticated work of subtle surfaces.

Granted, it’s not Toronado-interesting, but there’s more to it than appears at the outset.

Regardless of period criticisms, the ’71-’76 models sold heartedly in the States. Elsewhere, like in Central America, these models ended the run of American-built cars in the region. While comprising most of the local traffic in the ’40s and ’50s, US makes sold in ever dwindling numbers as their size kept steadily increasing; becoming ever more impractical for local conditions. This generation of full sizers killed whatever good will was left towards them. Survivors are rare birds indeed.

So, was the old man’s Chevy in good or poor condition? Unsurprisingly, it sounded like the latter, as my YMCA instructor lively elaborated, going on about the ‘fixes’ she was performing. Not that any of her talk was mechanically inclined. Instead, most revolved around the joys of preserving an old object. The hope to save a period of time; an object meshed with the memory of her grandfather, to be preserved in the metal.

I could almost sense she was looking forward to the future scrapes in her hands.


More on early ’70s Chevrolet full sizers:

Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe – The Minnato Connection

Vintage Review: 1972 Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe