Vintage Review: 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Estate – In A Giant Clam!

For those of you familiar with the alternative/new wave rock band The B-52’s and their iconic first hit, “Rock Lobster” from the late 1970s, one of the memorable peaks in that idiosyncratic song is lead singer Fred Schneider belting out the lyrics: “He was in a jam.  In a giant clam!”  And somehow that refrain seems fitting for this car, Chevrolet’s version of GM’s mammoth 1970s “clamshell” tailgate full-size wagons.  Courtesy of Road Test Magazine, we can take a glimpse at what life would have been like, circa 1973, in a giant clam.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia, The B-52’s formed in the late 1970s and delivered very unexpected takes on traditional music formulas, fusing together retro, pop, Southern, rock, punk and dance styles, along with some very quirky lyrics.  Though The B-52’s 1989 hit “Love Shack” touted a Mopar: “Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale.  And it’s about to set sail,” the band would no doubt have also been familiar with GM’s biggest station wagons, as they were a staple in towns all across America at the time.

Like The B-52’s, the big wagons introduced by General Motors in 1971 were surprisingly unconventional. Rather than continuing with GM’s copy of the “Magic Doorgate” (Ford’s innovative wagon tailgate that “opened like a door” or “folded like a tailgate”), the massive new wagons received the retractable “clamshell” tailgate, with the rear window sliding up into the roof and the tailgate dropping down below the floor.  To say the least, it was a complex arrangement, but the goal was to “out-wagon” Ford with novel features.

For 1973, to better battle with the “Wagonmaster” (aka Ford), Chevrolet reintroduced the Caprice Estate name, once again tying the top full-sized wagon to the top-line range of big Chevy sedans/coupes/convertible models (from 1969 though 1972, top Chevrolet wagons were called Kingswood Estates).  So this “new” model (really just returning to a more well-known Chevrolet wagon name) was the car that Road Test sampled.

This particular Caprice Estate was very fully loaded, including the 454 4V V8 engine and virtually all available comfort, convenience and handling features.  That largess with options took its toll however, as the Caprice Estate as-tested listed for $6,600 ($39,179 adjusted), which was a pretty penny for a Chevy.  Granted, Chevrolet also served up a mainstream Impala Wagon, sans fake wood grain exterior trim, and the budget-priced Bel Air Wagon for buyers seeking less expensive full-sized haulers, but there was no avoiding the fact that big bucks were often required for big Chevy wagons, especially in Caprice Estate trim, which still would have cost $5,664 ($33,623 adjusted) even with a more moderate option load.

But that money bought quite a lot of car.  The Caprice Estate was huge, smooth riding and comfortable for a wagon.  Roadability was enhanced on the test unit due to the addition of the F40 Heavy Duty Suspension package.  The 454 V8 was arguably necessary to effectively haul the beast around (especially when it was fully loaded), but other standard items, such as power front disc/rear drum brakes and the Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission provided respectable performance by the standards of the day for full-sized cars.  It was a good wagon, assuming you could get used to the unusual tailgate and were willing to drive a leviathan.

But did Chevrolet beat Ford in full-sized wagons for 1973?  In a word, no.  For starters, the big Fords all wore comprehensively revamped styling, giving the cars a fresh, new look.  The Caprice Estate, despite the new (old) name, had only minor styling tweaks at the front, primarily to accommodate the massive new 5-mph bumpers.  For showing off the suburbs, newer was (and is) better, so the Ford got the nod for that.  Plus the Country Squire nameplate carried a good amount of snob appeal—it had been known as a “fancy” wagon for years.

Inside Ford also looked to upgrade the luxury feel by offering an optional interior for the 1973 Country Squire that mirrored the upscale trim found in the top-of-the-line LTD Brougham package. So in terms of adding “luxury” to a wagon, Ford was leagues ahead.  Plus, Ford continued to offer the center facing rear seats with a table in the middle for games and picnics.  That was the kind of gimmickry many wagon buyers wanted, not “vanishing” tailgates.

Over at Chevy, the “luxury” Caprice Estate made do with an interior that was basically the same as the Impala Wagon, save for emblems and a smidge more fake wood grain trim on the dash. The Impala/Caprice interior was nicer than the taxi-grade Bel Air, but that wasn’t exactly a compliment….

Sales figures reflected the dominance of the Country Squire: the top-line model outsold all other full-sized Ford Wagons combined.  Over at Chevrolet, the mid-priced Impala was the top seller, with fake wood grain lovers presumably ponying-up for the Caprice Estate and the slow-selling Bel Air doing yeoman’s duty for cheapskates.

However, when it comes to market dominance, you have to recall General Motor’s mastery of the markets in the 1970s.  So while Chevrolet may have been outsold by the Ford Division in full-sized wagons, the stakes changed when the more upscale GM brands were included in the totals.  While Mercury added a bit more to the FoMoCo tally, it couldn’t match the sales for the Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick lines of pricier wagons.  And poor Mopar, with its fast-aging fuselage wagons, wasn’t even in the hunt.  So when it came to total sales of big American wagons in 1973, GM ultimately took the cake with 46% of the market, versus 39% for Ford and 15% for Chrysler.  That was a lot of clams!

Additional reading:

Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Estate Wagon – Still Doing Its Big Job by Paul Niedermeyer