By on June 16, 2010

Donk, Box, Bubble. Say it with me now. Donk, Box, Bubble. And thus the full-size General Motors “B-body” exists in the argot of the urban street. The Donk is the long, flowing, Baroque fifth-generation Impala and its platform twins, sold from 1971 to 1976. The Box is the tidy 1977 model, downsized to perfect, squared-off proportions. To this day, I am not certain that there is a cleaner visual expression of the American full-sized car than the 1977 Impala. Last but not least, we have the Bubble, as seen above. The Bubble was sold as the Caprice Classic (and Impala SS) from 1991 to 1996.

This is my Bubble. Or, I should say, was my Bubble, a casualty on one of the many nameless hills and dimly remembered battles which characterized my marriage. Purchased for $1200 with fifty thousand miles on the clock, it was quiet, reliable, and characterful to a fault. I loved that car. But the boss said I could not own three full-sized cars (I also had two Phaetons at the time) so the Bubble had to be popped.

No, my wagon did not have the LT1. Later Caprice wagons had the iconic powerplant, heart of the revitalized fourth-generation Corvette, (under)rated for 260 horsepower and ignited by the unreliable, reviled Opti-Spark. (Simply placing the word “Opti-Spark” into a search engine will be your ticket to an afternoon’s pleasurable perusal of all the many and varied ways by which rural Americans can textually disrespect an ignition system.) My Caprice was the L05 350. This was an absolutely typical Small Block Chevrolet. It didn’t like to rev, but it was very smooth and it could spin the rear tires on command. I put new Goodyears on and spent a happy winter with the nose pointing sideways towards the inside apexes of suburban corners and freeway-offramps.

Red velour. This was my second car to have such an interior; the first was my red 1980 Mercury Marquis Brougham Coupe. I’m a sucker for red velour. These are great seats, comfortable for the long haul in a manner completely different from an Audi or Porsche chair. Oddly enough, the rear seats weren’t terribly spacious. I’d been in the back seat of a police Caprice and attributed the cramping to the divider, but my woody wagon wasn’t much better. Tall people were best placed up front.

Alternately, they could sit all the way in the back. I never ceased to be amused and pleased by the demands I received from thirtysomethings to sit in the “wayback”. There’s something nostalgic about being back there, looking at where you’ve been rather than where you’re going. Make no mistake, however; if you were over five feet tall you’d be hugging your knees. Also, had I ever tossed the big Caprice off the road during my snowy excursions, I’m certain the rear passengers would not have survived. I never let the really fine broads sit back there; attractive women are our last national resource now that all the oil is floating in the sea.

The Caprice Classic Estate and its spiritual rival, the Ford LTD County Squire, were the last American cars to enjoy impeccable upper-class credentials. As a child living on the East Coast, and later growing up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, I noted early that these big wagons were commonly paired with Volvos, Mercedes W123s, or even Porsche 911s in the driveways of the well-to-do. This wagon could still do the business; although it was not luxurious in the manner of a contemporaneous LS400 or 500SEL, it was honest and comfortable. The wood decals on the side are, I feel, mandatory.

My own use of the Estate was far from upper-class. I’d managed to once again find myself in desperate need of employment and had agreed to work the 6:30-to-2:30 shift at a local captive Japanese auto manufacturing facility. I would have been happy to assemble the bland sedans and awkwardly-wedgy entry-level luxury cars built there, but instead I was tasked with disassembling, documenting, and improving the timeclock systems in use. It became apparent to me that the physical protection of the timeclocks located near the shift stations was paramount. The employees knew that destroying a timeclock at their shift station would permit them to walk five minutes to the exit for clock-in and out. Ten minutes of one’s own, stolen from and paid for by the hated mother company! When I arranged to protect them with a Lexan shield, battery acid was poured into them using can-and-tube improvisations.

I spent my half-hour lunch as so: I walked to the exit timeclock (oh yes, my local one was “under review”), ate my lunch in the front seat of the Caprice, and then slept for eighteen minutes in the flattened-out cargo area. Sheer bliss, even though it mussed the Zanella trousers I insisted on wearing underneath my company coveralls. Every morning, I would park the Caprice and walk in, crossing paths with the mussed, sweaty, but improbably lovely nineteen-year-old girls working third shift on their first year with the company. Sometimes they had a smile for me, sometimes not. I imagined that I had grown up there, taken the default job of the community, met a forthright farm-town beauty, and settled down into a life of assembly and televised sports.

One day the ultimatum came. The Caprice must go. It was leaking a small amount of oil. I contacted a man who owned over ninety of the big bubbles and was saving them for the future. He paid me three thousand dollars. It was the only car deal in my life to ever make me a buck. I went into the garage the next morning, fired up my 911, and drove to the factory. I couldn’t sleep at lunch. I was angry. I came home and did not return to that job. Goodbye, bubble.

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84 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1991 Caprice Classic Estate...”

  • avatar

    $1200 for only 50K miles? I thought I got the bargain of the year when I got my ’91 Caprice Wagon (not a woody) w/107K miles for a thousand bucks. KBB said it was worth $2600.

    These GM cars were a contradiction on wheels. Typical crappy early-90’s GM fit and finish, but running the best powertrain in the business at that time: an SBC/TH700R4. Mine is the 305, which too will spin the tires and yet knock back 22MPG at a steady 75MPH on a trip.

    I too am aware of the Donk/Box/Bubble phenomenon and hope it’s still going strong when I sell my Bubble. The last time I did a nationwide search of “’91-’96 Caprice Wagon” on Auto, about 2/3rd of the offerings were already blinged out.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    Just. Awesome.

    Loved reading this. Would love even more to find one of these bad boys that’s still mostly stock & has been cared for. Some day….

  • avatar

    Two Phaetons ? Is it one of those cars where you need two so you can drive one while the other one is in the shop ?

  • avatar

    Great writing. I couldn’t help loving these things. They were the last connection to the days throughout the ’60s and ’70s when my folks got a new top-of-the-line Chevy wagon every couple of years. A retired doctor down the street from me drives a Buick Roadmonster version that still looks like the day he bought it new. It turns heads more than most other cars in town. In retrospect, you probably should have kept the Caprice and dumped at least one of the Phaetons.

  • avatar

    Is this the same Jack Baruth who raves on about VW Phaetons and Porsche Caymans et al?

    I have a certain fondness fo these cars. They were my first real management job at GM, creating the police and taxi versions. I was impressed by the engineering of the cars, but horrified at the styling.

    There are a lot of stories about the controversial looks. Someday I’ll write them.

    We built a special wagon as a sales tool for the cop market that had a 502 big block and a bunch of other tweaks. One of the fastest rides I ever had on a public road was when the head of the Michigan State Police drove me back to Pontiac from Lansing in that car.

    I owned several sedans, including an Impala SS, but never had a wagon of my own.


    Anyone thinking about buying one of these should stay away from one with yellow paint. It was undoubtedly a cab at one time in its life.

    The cars built in Willow Run, 91-93 1/2, seem to have much better build quality and rust protection. Check the VIN for a W.


    • 0 avatar

      Question relton. Didn’t Willmington Del. run them also,or was it Arlington?

    • 0 avatar

      Arlington. The B’s were then killed so Arlington could be converted to produce full-size SUVs.

      The sedan’s looks improved considerably when they added a kink to the rearmost side window. Rarely has one small tweak achieved so much.

      Too bad the G8 wagon never made it, though the upper crust crowd would have never gone for a Pontiac. The truck variant never actually made it here either, did it?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The G8 “we held a naming contest and decided that no one won” Sport Truck? Australia only for that one.

  • avatar

    “I’d been in the back seat of a police Caprice and attributed the cramping to the divider, but my woody wagon wasn’t much better.”

    Sounds like the subject of an interesting future article!


  • avatar

    Oshawa was one of the lead plants to run the original “box” I loved them. Scheduled OT for six years. I bought my first house with the cash generated.

    I never really cared for the “bubble” in the sedan version,but I gott’a agree the S/W was awesome.

    Oh! BTW, destroying a time clock? Tsk…tsk how amateurish! Now adjusting one to fit your own purpose,then having your buddy adjust it back. Far better plan.

  • avatar

    Just this morning, driving in to work, the freeway message sign had “missing elderly man, last seen driving white Buick Roadmaster”. My first thought was to wonder if they’d be putting the Buick up for sale. Is that wrong?

  • avatar

    “To this day, I am not certain that there is a cleaner visual expression of the American full-sized car than the 1977 Impala.” Amen.

    “I’m a sucker for red velour.” This doesn’t square with owning TWO Phaetons, but I’ll play along.

    “I’d been in the back seat of a police Caprice and attributed the cramping to the divider, but my woody wagon wasn’t much better.” Where were your hands, and were you sitting up?

    “attractive women are our last national resource now that all the oil is floating in the sea” No argument there.

    Great article.

  • avatar

    Great story. As a young kid one of my first “dream cars” was a Caprice Estate. I have no idea why, but I liked them!

    Now-a-days I can be found behind the wheel of a much smaller Chevy wagon, the HHR, or as I like to call it, the Heritage. FWIW, as a nod to the past I had a hood ornament just like the one featured here installed on my car, totally changed the car to me.

    Maybe I should pry off the HHR on the back and replace it with Caprice Estate….

  • avatar

    I have seen these wagons pressed into service as hearses. Nothing like panels and landau irons back of the C Pillars to complement that timeless styling.

  • avatar

    I love the bubble wagon. To me it’s the last of the great (big) American station wagons, and one of the relatively rare commodity cars of the last four decades with beauty and character (and grace). In fact, just today I found one just like the one pictured above, and photographed it. The “pray for the troops” American flag sticker on the back and the WWII license plate holder on the front added to its iconic nature.

    I took two trips across the country in a ’57 wagon in my childhood.

  • avatar


    You may well be right about the ’77 as the cleanest American full-sized sedan. I never thought about that before. But I think the ’64 Chevy could easily vie for that title. Take a look. I’d be very curious whether you (and anyone else) agree, and if not, why not. DAvid

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth


      I’ve heard it said that the 1963 Chevrolet fundamentally created the proportions, look, and stylistic direction of nearly every sedan built from then to the Bangle era. Certainly there’s a lot of 1963 Chevy in the BMW 2002 and Mercedes W123.

  • avatar

    And now, “donk, box, bubble” is stuck in my head. Perverse poetry. Anyone have any idea on the etymology of “donk”? (the others are pretty obvious.

  • avatar

    Great review.

    I test drove a few ’96 Impala SS’s with full intent to buy new, but the dealership experiences were so horrid ($5000 premium to special order a car! Wow!) that I bought an Eagle Vision Tsi. I’ve never given GM a serious look since.

    Although a red interior would catch my eye…

    One of these wagons now would make a great road car for camping/towing… or hauling plywood…

  • avatar

    damn, you can write…

  • avatar

    My family owned a cab company so I have driven every B body ever made. The comment about the 1977 Impala was so astute. I loved that car more than any other B body or any other car GM ever made for that matter.

    I used to find these cars for the cab company, which was in Victoria BC. Around 1986 there were scads of boxes available used for a song in Victoria, driven by old people on salt free roads. Low mileage, rust free examples could be had for peanuts. I didn’t have a place to park extra cars but my folks lived up island in Campbell River and had lots of parking.

    I came upon a totally stripped Impala in tan with a tan velour interior for like $1000 and snapped it up for future use. It was a 305 without even a/c. With my girlfriend, we drove it up the Island Highway the 350 km, before they widened the road. I cannot imagine a more honest car. It rode well, had more than adequate power and it was, well, just an honest, good car. On a sunny, warm day with the windows rolled down, coll sea air and a pretty, young brunette who was gaga over me sitting next to me, I was in heaven.

    I cannot ever remember driving a GM car that was a good as that 1977 Impala. Maybe the pretty girl had something to do with it.

  • avatar

    I am a sucker for a big V8 american wagon. That said, I never really warmed up to the styling on these. I always preferred the Roadmasters and the Custom Cruisers to the Chevys. I also preferred the boxy Country Squire to these, but I have to admit that these drove much better than the Ford with the 302/AOD combo.
    I always thought that Ford blew it when they did not do a wagon version of the 92 Panther cars. All through the 50s-70s, Ford was to wagons what Chrysler was to minivans during the following decades. I guess that they saw the market going to minivans and quit early.

    I don’t see too many of the Chevys in my area any more. I see mostly Roadmasters, and many of them are looking pretty ratty now. Too bad.

    By the way, your last picture makes me wonder if this was one of the last cars to proudly wear the name “Chevrolet” across the front.

  • avatar

    Car and Driver did a hilarious review of the first year’s bubble, which they called a “whale.” It was either a police version, or looked just like one, and I bet it was Philips who wrote it, riffing on it’s ugliness (I thought so too at the time) and how the highways parted for him. It ends with the thing having been parked outside in Chicago all night, and someone has left an imprint of their derriere on the window. “Have a nice day, officer!”

    • 0 avatar

      My late father’s (the ex-Chevy dealer) last car was a ’91 Caprice four-door in burgundy. I inherited it, along with his girlfriend’s ex-88 Buick Century (he traded his newer Century to her for it). Still remember that car – a big, burgundy whale. I called it “Moby Grape.”

  • avatar

    Some cars that I thought were fugly when I was younger appeal to me now. I cant say that about this one.

  • avatar

    The box was indeed an enjoyable car to drive. Some were pretty fast too. Many years ago I worked as a mechanic at a Rent-a-Wreck franchise. The boss decided it was time to upgrade the fleet from the early 70s big cars and Valiants/Dusters/Darts that had been our mainstay. This led us to an auction of ex-RCMP vehicles on the theory that late model well maintained cars would attract more business and lower repair costs. We ended up with several 9C1 Bel Airs (yes, you could still get a bel air in Canada at the time). They had 350 4 barrels, 3.42:1 rearends (I seem to recall) and sway bars as big around as a coffee cup. Essentialy 4 door Z-28s.
    At that time Rent-a-Wreck was decidedely low end in it’s customer demographic. You could put down a $100.00 bill and a driver’s license and drive off. Word soon got around that if you wanted a fast car cheap, we were the place to go. The kid behind the rental counter was 19 years old and didn’t always excercise great judgement in who he would rent to. It wasn’t long before the first smashed up box, and shortly after that it became apparent that our best customer for these units was in fact an armed robbery ring.
    The local RCMP were less than amused when one of our ex-RCMP units outran a new Crown Vic cruiser. They were even less happy when it turned out that the armed robbery guys were impersonating police officers using our vehicles. We didn’t buy any more used police cruisers and sold the remaining units to the local cab company. That was in 1982 and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still have them. I learned a lot about people on that job…..
    You don’t see many boxes on the road these days, but I still smile when I do see one.

    • 0 avatar

      The winter of 82 was grim times in the car buisness. GM kept the plant runing with fleet taxis/police cars, and a fleet Parisienne or a Chevyiac, as we called it,that was shipped to Saudi Arabia.

      In a word, sweet. Basicly a rebadged Caprice loaded with a full Police packsge. 350 4BBL, real dual exhaust,a delete on the cat. converter,and A.I.R. pump. A guage package with a tach.

      We probably produced a thousand of them. GM wisely assigned a superviser to watch them as they came off the line. Only the old boys were allowed to move/drive one.

      I would give my left..ah…ah.. thumb, to get my hands on one of those babies today.

    • 0 avatar

      T.O.M., your post sounds like an outline for a movie that would be better than 99 percent of the stuff coming out of Hollywood these days. Can you work in some Elvis impersonators?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      This is a great post :)

    • 0 avatar

      My own taxi for several years was an ex-RCMP unmarked cruiser, 350 cid, 4bbl, factory dual exhaust and catcon delete. It rode like a hay wagon but man, did it go like stink! The exhaust had no mufflers, only one resonator a side so it made wonderful rumble sounds.

      Problem was I could not let anyone else drive it lest they run the bag off of it!

  • avatar

    I had a 1995 Caprice Wagon…Bought it off the MA Waddles lot in Detroit with a spun rod bearing for $350. I put bearings and rings in it, and it was good to go. Mine had the LT1…that optispark was weird…mine wouldnt work when it was foggy sometimes, they should have just kept the regular distributor…the optispark was mounted on the front of the engine, and it was exposed to road spray.
    I never needed snow tires or sand bags for the Detroit winters..the wagon was so heavy, it did fine.
    I consistently got 23mpg at 83mph average speed.

  • avatar

    I like the shelf paper

  • avatar

    I thought I did well with my current ride, a ’94 Crown Vic Aero. Paid $2500.00 with 62K on the clock. So the cost of mine worked out to a little over four cents a mile. Yours however was a deal-winning two-point-four cents a mile. Nice.

    I hope whoever sold your wagon to you was happy to see you get it and knew how much you liked it.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      They were dead. I bought it from someone’s grandson who wanted it GONE. But I owe the previous owners a debt for a very happy six months, wherever they are.

  • avatar

    I had the Pontiac Saffari 1987 which is the same, I bought it with 80k miles, I put on it 100k more on NYC streets.
    I can’t imagine any other car of this era that could do that, no major repairs, the engine was smooth and quiet until I gave the car to charity.

  • avatar

    Awesome read!

    Funny, I’m searching for either a non-woodie wagon or Fleetwood Brougham (it looks a great deal better than the Impala SS IMHO)to “play” with..

    ETA.. Just googled OptiSpark… Ouch! Still want one..

  • avatar
    Acc azda atch


    Maybe I am totally off my rocker.. or fresh from smoking the ganja on Jalopnik..

    But did I read that right?!

    You dumped a Caprice wagon.. (that your now EXwife said had to go) that was cheap to pick up.. with decent miles FOR TWO PHAETONS = Stretched Passat?!?!

    Something isnt kosher there?!

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I already owned the two Phaetons, and a 911, and a Boxster. The Bubble was supposed to be my knockaround car.

    • 0 avatar
      Acc azda atch

      Umm wow.

      I know ya have to keep one of the Phaetons *cough stretched Passat cough* for spare parts..

      And ya got a Boxster AND a 911?

      ANd ya dump the unique car.. against the german stuff?!

      Isnt there some kind of martial law where ya cant have a 911 AND a Boxster. Not sure of the point of that, I’d always favor the 911, now 911 and a 928, or a 911 and a 944.. but a 911 and a Boxster?!

      I’m just.. physically stunned that ya dumped a nice wagon, that could have been a powerhouse for the Phaetons. What could the Phaetons do that the Caprice Wagon couldn’t?

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Great minds think alike!

    I’ve always loved these models… always will.

  • avatar

    Not getting the love-fest for these tanks. My University had a fleet of these things (well, the “box” version, it was 89-93). As both a well-involved in activities and faculty geek, I was quite often driving them on various school related road trips. AWFUL! Floaty wafty things with “grace-of-God” steering. Holding a frisby up in the air approximates the amount of steering feel. Also slower than creeping death. And the “quality” of assembly was embarrassing. Oh, and they had no brakes. Maybe the whales were better, certainly the LT1-powered versions at least must GO. But I can’t imagine they turn or stop any better! I guess if you live in the Midwest where the roads are straight flat and smooth they are OK, but in far Downeast Maine they were an abomination. My school was nearly 100 twisty miles from the nearest Interstate Highway.

    • 0 avatar

      Look, I’m guessing you must be about my age given the time of your university experience so let me try to explain. (Hey I know my avatar is old but I graduated from my undergrad in 1999.)

      These were the last RWD sedans/wagons from GM in the USA until they started to import the G8/Holden (which only came as a sedan.) They were good honest cars that never pretended to be something they weren’t. Example: CUVs are just station wagons in “hooker heels” so they’ll look taller. That is a vehicle pretending to be something it’s not, desperately trying to convince soccer moms that they don’t need a minivan or the big honking land yachts that the B-bodies were. The old SUV craze was about insecure people refusing to buy the vehicles they really needed (wagons and minivans) and instead buying Suburbans and Tahoes and Excursions and Expeditions (or perhaps it was Excavation?) GM killed these cars to expand full size SUV production capacity.

      Maybe the ride was a little floaty but damn it to a certain demographic (and don’t give me the crap about that demographic dying off cause I think 50+ year old people had bought cars like the Caprice/Impala since it was introduced) a car like the B-bodies meant that they were doing OK in life. They could afford a Chevy that rode like a Cadillac, and if you could afford the Fleetwood, then you had really freaking made it. That’s the love that you’re finding for these cars.

      Besides if the B-body cars had remained in production and been updated and improved how many fewer Panther platform cars and Chrysler 300s would have been sold? Wouldn’t GM be in better shape?

      BTW I really want a clean Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser version (the rarest of them all.)

    • 0 avatar

      @educatordan: Custom Cruiser FTW.

      But I really want my 1977 Delta back.

      C’mon, it was a 403!

      With a four barrel!

    • 0 avatar

      Well, I’m 41. Sure those were “honest cars”. Note that I am a HUGE wagon fan, and have had at least one in my stable for nearly 20 years. Volvo (6), Peugeot (4), Saab (2, 4 if counting hatches), and VW (1). I have no use at all for SUVs, CUVs, or any other sort of useless fashion statement. I can see driving a Suburban if you have the need. What I still don’t get is a love-fest for a poorly built, poor handling boat of a car. That goes double for the Panthers, BTW, having had the extreme displeasure of having several Grand Marquis for rentals the past few years. At least GM had the decency to kill thier dinosoars years ago.

      As I alluded to earlier, I suppose part of it is that if you live. In the vast majority of this country where the roads go in straight lines, the dynamic incompetence of these things doesn’t really matter much. In New England, they are utterly useless off the Interstate, and car-sickness inducing on one. The way the frost heaves affect the highways here results in a really nauseating roller-coaster ride at speed in anything so softly sprung and underdamped. I suppose a cop-spec LT1 wagon would be OK, but that doesn’t help the build quality or accomodations.

      If you want a simple front engine rear-wheel-drive sedan or wagon, I would suggest a Volvo 7/940. They actually have handling and brakes, and weren’t designed to the cheapest possible standard and haphazardly screwed together by drunken monkeys. The turbos have an adequate amount of go too. And the space utilization is infinitely better. Always amazes me how such enormous cars can have such tiny and unaccomodating interiors, especially in the back seat. But in a Grand Marquis, the front seat does not go back far enough for me to get comfortable – I only have a 30″ inseam. At least that wasn’t a problem in the Chevies – but no one wanted to sit behind me either. Sure Volvos cost more then and now, but you know what, you get what you pay for.

    • 0 avatar

      Hat tip from another Downeaster with similar appreciations for quirky european cars. Agree about the roads, the Black Woods road is made for turbo Saabs, must have been a little scary in those barges.

    • 0 avatar

      Look, I’m guessing you must be about my age given the time of your university experience so let me try to explain.

      So good of you to explain the world to us youngsters, Edu. By the way. I’m older than you. :)

      This car might have been “honest,” but I’d take issue with “good.” Hey, maybe I’d grab one of these for fun for $800, but why would anyone in the late 80s have ASPIRED to a car that rode like a Cadillac?

      Of course, I grew up in New Hampshire, which like Maine has frost heaves everywhere. Not a good combination, cars like this one and roads like those.

      You guys are right: give me a Saab Turbo, Volvo, Audi, or VW please.

    • 0 avatar

      You know you two gentlemen from the Northeast bring up an interesting point. I wonder if even back when GM had close to 50% of the market there were still places where their top of the line cars didn’t sell well cause of their softly sprung floaty nature?

      @dingram; I didn’t mean to be (shall we say) pissy. It just seems that most of the people I meet that have no understanding how cars like the Caprice and Roadmaster ever appealed to anyone happen to be younger than 30. At least my girlfriend (who’s a little younger than me) thinks that Cadillacs ought to be BIG soft riding cars, not BMW wana-bes. But everyone’s taste varies of course, and in all things. I was raised on a steady diet of classic car shows and I may not be able to afford one of the classic sleds of the 50s or 60s but a 90s Caprice/Roadmaster is definitely within my reach, therefore I have nostalgia for them.

    • 0 avatar

      What? You guys must love paying car repair bills. I live in Ontario and know all about rough roads. Throw in some road salt and temperature extremes.There is nothing the Germans have ever made that will stand up,like a GM B body.

      I’ve been driving for 40 plus years and I havn’t seen a European car that would give you long term reliability in our conditions yet.

    • 0 avatar

      ” Always amazes me how such enormous cars can have such tiny and unaccomodating interiors, especially in the back seat. But in a Grand Marquis, the front seat does not go back far enough for me to get comfortable – I only have a 30″ inseam. At least that wasn’t a problem in the Chevies – but no one wanted to sit behind me either. Sure Volvos cost more then and now, but you know what, you get what you pay for.”

      I have a Grand Marquis and a 36″ inseam and I find that its front seat is one of the very few I can push back far enough to truly be comfortable.

      Despite some lapses in build quality, I’ll damn near guarantee you the Panthers are more reliable then your Volvos to boot.

    • 0 avatar


      I’m curious – did Ontario have safety inspections 20-25 years ago? When I was a kid, Maine safety inspections were TWICE a year. They only went to once a year in the early 80s. American cars would, without fail, flunk the inspection for rust within 5-7 years. Japanese cars rarely made it 5 years. Volvos and Saabs would go 10-15. Likewise Mercedes, but they were rare due to the cost – Maine is a poor state. This fact, along with thier superiority in snow is why Volvos and especially Saabs are everywhere here to this day. And don’t forget, basic Saabs and Volvos were relatively a lot cheaper back then – a 240 cost about what a mid-size Ford did.

      This is also why the Japanese never got the success in New England that they enjoyed elsewhere until relatively recently – you never got to find out how reliable the car was if it rotted away in 4 years. Unlike many other states, once that rot set in the car was done – you couldn’t keep driving it with holes in the floor and fenders flapping. Having owned numerous Volvos over the years, I can’t imagine what would be expensive to repair on a 240 or 740. Just about the cheapest cars on Earth to run. Simple, and made from far higher quality stuff than the General ever managed back then.

      I’ve been to Ontario – I’m sorry, but your road conditions are just like the rest of the midwest, straight, flat, perfectly suited to floaty barges. You don’t know frost heaves until you have been down a windy back road in Maine in the Springtime, where the granite bones of this state are but a few feet below the pavement. Not so much frost heaves, more like black diamond moguls.

  • avatar

    Box love: When we were first married, my wife and I had a 77 Olds Delta 88 Holiday Coupe with FE3 suspension. 403 Olds, THM 350, posi rear end and a quadrophonic 8 track. 23 MPG at 75 MPH, which was good for the times.

    Box love 2: In my first real job, we had company cars available to the employees. Most often they were Celebritys, but there were a few Impalas. The fleet cars were the Impalas back in the ’80’s, it was the cheapest ‘box’ you could get. All of the company cars were dark blue and came with the dog dish hub caps. At the time, the Pennsylvania State Police unmarked units were also dark blue Impalas. The coolest thing was to enter the freeway at a high rate of speed, and watch the traffic part like the Red Sea in the presence of Moses.

    Bubble respect: A current coworker had a 95 Roadmaster with LT1. That car stood up to the decrepit Michigan roads and always rode incredibly smoothly. Up until the advent of $4.25/gallon gasoline it was the ride of choice for any company event we needed to travel to. After 2008, he traded it for a Mercury Sable wagon. Needless to say, we all drive separately now.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember finding a Holiday 88 at one of those “Buy here”lots in 88 oddly.. Instead my first RWD GM car wound up being an 80 GP(265 powered.. The GP was nice.. But..
      I’d kill to find another “Holiday” car!

    • 0 avatar

      @birddog: I forgot to mention our Holiday was the same body style as the 1977 Indy 500 pacer. Ours was a nice pastel yellow with a padded black vinyl landau roof and a hotter than hell black velour interior.

      Oh so disco era…

  • avatar

    Sorry, no Elvis impersonators. We did have a deal with a “talent agency” to provide vehicles at a discount to “exotic dancers”, and that did provide some entertainment. When you rent cars for $6.95 a day and .06 a mile, insurance optional, you meet an interesting mix of people. I also got a very good feel for what types of cars stood up and what didn’t. Considering our clientele, cars that broke down or failed to start at inoportune times could have repercussions that ranged from humorous to downright dangerous.
    A very interesting place to work.

  • avatar

    Last year I had the chance to buy a 1993 Caprice wagon with 102K miles for just $800.

    I turned it down because I am stupid.

  • avatar

    You live in Upper Arlington with that car and your neighbors didn’t report you to the zoning department? I would think it would be considered an eyesore.

  • avatar

    I used to own a bar and one of the rituals with one of the entertainers after the night ended was to put on some classic Van Morrison,drink a few Guinness and talk about how great life was…

    The entertainer owned one of these bubble wagons and it had the LT1. He’d tweaked the motor a ton plus it had a cop handling package.

    He liked it for the space and the fact that he could carry all his equipment AND top out at AND handle at 130 mph-he was never late for a gig.

    He liked to exaggerate so I didn’t buy into his story that this car was the ultimate sleeper.

    It was dawn by then-I was way past driving legally so he offered this ride home in his Caprice.Even through a blurry haze of too many dark Irish beers I couldn’t believe how insanely fast this monster was.

    He punched it,the front end nearly came off the ground and this giant rocket hit nearly 90 mph in a block.Plus he could whip this behemoth around corners like a mega-Ferrari.

    Amazing performance-I gained a new respect for these cars,the surprise sobered me up and this guy told the truth for the first time in his life.

    As Bob Hope said so well…thanks for the memories.

  • avatar

    Dang, I enjoy your writing, Jack!

    I thought the original ’77 Impala was the best American-style car ever, and have mentioned that several times on this forum. It was even very good in snow, and had decent handling and ride, better than the other GM variants at the time. The carburetor always gave trouble though, back in the early emission days. Only $59 for a stage one car-bure-aytor overhawull kit, if you didn’t need all the gaskets.

    The whale, though, I had to endure as a passenger for many thousands of miles. My coworker had one. Galumph, galumph. Strange side to side rocking motion from the rear axle over large bumps and large vertical motion, no doubt due to the weird rear axle geometry. Porpoising might be a better description. I could never believe that this was the same basic vehicle as the ’77, because it was a ruined cardboard copy and fit and finish was, as the British say, approximate. 1/8th? Good enough for government work. (I thought the seats were lousy myself, but better than the ’77 which had a hard wire that ran along the seat bottom at the base of the vertical cushion that gave numb bum after 50 miles.)

    The whale’s steering was absolutely pathetic, a mere tiller. I drove it a few times and was glad my coworker preferred to drive anyway, so I didn’t have to on long trips. He was freaked out driving my ’94 Audi, so let’s not get too misty eyed about how good the whale was, ’cause it wasn’t. The Audi had a smoother ride and was ten times better in slush at keeping a straight line across ridges of traffic generated icy muck. The Chev’s trajectory was a lottery in those conditions.

    Its really basic failing was that it was too long to properly negotiate the newer Tim Horton’s drive-throughs and you had to shout the twenty feet to the mike to get your double double. Once you had your coffee clutched in your hand, it only took the first frost heave to spill some all over your lap. Galumpho.

  • avatar

    Like lots of things in life, the handling of the Caprice is greatly influenced by the choices you make. The base models were pretty flabby handling cars. The F41 suspension option made things quite good, so good you didn’t think it was the same car. Making sure tht the shock absorbers worked (a great number of them didn’t) went a long way towards good handling. The 9C1 package added another level of finesse. The towing package used taller springs, and detradcted from the handling. Get the right combination and the car was an American S-class.

    The first bubbles were made in Willow Run, Ypsilanti. After a few years, production started in Arlington, TX. After 93 1/2, production was consolidated in Arlington. Turned out to be a bad move. Total Arlington production was far less than anticipated, and could easily have been accommodated in Ypsilanti.

    I drove a 91 with the 9C1 package, purchased new by a civilian, until it had 450,000 miles. I gave it to a friend, and pretty soon I expect it will see 500,000 miles. Maybe I’ll post a picture when it gets there.


    • 0 avatar

      I have the precursor to the 77-96 B-body which is the 1973-1977 A-body and GM basically took a crossmember out of the frame to lighten it but otherwise used it as-is. the suspension points are all the same and lots of parts interchange.

      My ’77 Chevelle with the base suspension (140,000 miles on the factory parts) wallowed and waddled over bumps like an obese woman after cake. I put some new shocks on it to replace the wasted 20 year old replacements, it still waddled and wallowed but not as nauseatingly.

      What made the biggest difference on it’s ride and handling despite the sagging soft springs, was the addition of a massive rear sway bar off of a 9C1 ’95 Caprice and poly sway bar endlinks on the original dinky front bar.

      Just those alone took a massive amount of body roll and wallow out of it. Now it corners hard enough to make me worry about shedding hubcaps, and allow the tires to give up, long before the chassis gives up. One of my friends compares it favorably to his stock ’05 V6 Mustang in the handling department. Another from Australia thinks it’s great riding and good handling, though if you press it to 10/10ths it starts having dramatic body roll and tires that fold under pressure, but long sweepers are great fun in it. and the overboosted light steering becomes a blessing on winding roads.

      It was built in the Arlington plant in December 1976, and has only now left Tarrant County, for a Dallas address.

      I did want to get a Bubble Caprice for a while and was looking hard at Roadmasters, till I stumbled across the Chevelle for my traditional American car fix for far far less money than a 94-96 car was going for.

  • avatar

    Another superb piece of writing, Jack. I have a friend who has the Buick version of this wagon and the first thing he did was to put some alloys and slightly wider tires on it. Amazing how much better this car looks when alloys with the proper offset are added to eliminate the pregnant skateboard effect!

    Dan Neil should be watching over his shoulder over there at the WSJ…

  • avatar

    Don’t know much about the Caprice Wagon. But I will always love that car anyway.

    Around 1990, while in my 20’s, I went to Chicago with my three friends for the weekend (I am from the East Coast – and had never been there before).

    We ended up going to a bunch of bars ( I think on “Rush” Street). Around 2AM I met an older woman from Milwaukee who came to Chicago for the weekend with some of her friends.

    Bottom line – we left together and went to her car – it was a Caprice Wagon like the one in this review – but I think with a blue interior (probably the velour). We were in that car over two hours. It was unbelievable, as I was never exactly a “player”. Then she actually drove me to my hotel.

    At one point I asked her why she had a station wagon – it was then she said she was married and had three kids. Great.

    That was the first (and only) time anything like that ever happened to me. So I will always really like Caprice Wagons – and Milwaukee.

  • avatar

    The coolest Bubble I’ve ever seen had the rear doors shaved off, and the whole thing was done up as a modern-day Nomad. A guy up the street from me had it, and he would use it to tow his racecar to the dragstrip every weekend. For all 15 years I lived in NY, the same “Nomad” bubble was driven around, towing, and hauling his kids to school. I later heard that when his drag car blew the engine, it was cheaper to drop a big 427 crate engine into the Bubble, and he started racing that. Apparently it runs 10’s.

  • avatar

    Opti-Spark!!! I thought I had pushed those bad memories out of my mind! I cut my teeth in the ignition test labs for GM/Delco-Remy in the early 90’s at the plant that made the Opti-Spark distributors….what a nightmare. We had a B car in the test garage that we used to swap out warranty returns for testing every other day. Nothing short of brilliance to sandwich 40,000 volts between 2 ground planes and place it in a high water splash area.

    The B’s were still OK cars though. I still wet my pants over a black Impala SS.

  • avatar

    In the spring of 1991, I was in middle school and we had a career day where you could pick a business and trail around the workers to learn about their jobs. Being a young car nut, I picked the local Chevy dealership. I got to do a mock “sale” of a new Lumina minivan (the Dustbuster) and then later the manager took us kids out to lunch in a new Caprice wagon. I got to sit in the “way back” and that was my first and only experience with that. At the time I thought the Lumina minivan was a much more modern and practical vehicle than the whale-like Caprice. I can see how the combination of minivans and SUV’s killed the full size wagon. Never the less, it was more fun riding in that big wagon.

    I get the appeal and the nostalgia for these cars, but personally I’m with krhodes1 in that these cars frankly weren’t all that great. I’ll gladly take a Euro wagon from that era any day. I’ll take a 300TE, black on black, thank you (and it has way-back seats too!).

  • avatar

    I believe the Ford was the “Country” Squire, not “County.” The target market I assume was salt-of-the-earth types who needed a vehicle to haul chicken feed but could still deliver the family to the movies in town on Friday night. We had the 1969 “Ranch Wagon” which was less farkled (no roof rack) and featured a 100% sheet metal interior in the back. It was a source of never-ending pride for my forester Dad to be able to load many sheets of plywood in the back and close the hatch. Don’t need no steeenking pickup.

    In its twilight years my folks to their puzzlement were routinely accosted by men approaching them wanting to buy the Ranch Wagon from them so they could rip out its 390 plant and reinstall it in something, um, non Ranch Wagon-ish…

  • avatar

    @krhodes1 – I grew up in Ontario and lived there until 2000 when I moved to Maine. In Ontario, no inspections were required unless you were selling a car. Then you or the buyer needed to get it “safetied” before it could be registered, which was similar to a Maine state inspection. But if you never sold your car, no inspection was required. Our ’81 Honda Civic lasted 10 years in Southern Ontario salt. Our ’87 Chevy Celebrity lasted a little longer but rust hit it hard too. I always wondered why people in Maine love their Subarus and Volvos so much, so thanks for enlightening me. In Southern Ontario, seeing a Subaru was pretty uncommon. And yes, the roads are much different. Roads are in pretty good shape overall in Ontario – especially compared to Maine. I had no idea what a frost heave was until I moved here.

    I also thought Redemption Centers were some sort of crazy church at first. My wife still thinks that’s funny…

  • avatar


    hese were the last RWD sedans/wagons from GM in the USA until they started to import the G8/Holden (which only came as a sedan.) They were good honest cars that never pretended to be something they weren’t. Example: CUVs are just station wagons in “hooker heels” so they’ll look taller. That is a vehicle pretending to be something it’s not, desperately trying to convince soccer moms that they don’t need a minivan or the big honking land yachts that the B-bodies were. The old SUV craze was about insecure people refusing to buy the vehicles they really needed (wagons and minivans) and instead buying Suburbans and Tahoes and Excursions and Expeditions (or perhaps it was Excavation?)

    Brilliant! Especially that line about station wagons in hooker heels.

  • avatar

    I agree with Krhodes1 about Volvo 940s being marvelous examples of a big rwd wagon. The last car my late parents ever bought was one of these–a ’95 which they got in ’99, which one of my nephews still has (in LA now). The styling is the cleanest of the box volvos, imo, and the engine, while lacking power, was ***really smooth***, no nvh. I just wish it had had a stick.

  • avatar

    I see from your previous post you are a fellow BC boy. I wonder if we weren’t bidding against each other at the same auctions. Those old 9C1s were tough as dirt and made great cabs. I’ve had more than one exciting ride in one that started with the words “If you can get me to the airport in 20 minutes, theres 20 bucks in it for you….

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    Still have our 1996 Buick Roadmonster wagon. Still looks great, handles fine, and swallows entire 4×8 sheets of plywood. Son gladly took it off to college and now is the official babe-hauler at his campus. His record – 8 simultaneous.

    GM is idiotic not to build these again.

  • avatar

    Rent a Car red interior. It Hertz your eyes.

  • avatar

    Someone posted that they preferred the equivalent Ford wagons. One disadvantage of the Fords was their use of the same rear axle as their sedans, while GM went to the trouble of using a longer axle on the back end of the wagons.

    The styling problems of the first bubble sedans was solved not with just the bmw-style C-pillar window. It was also improved by replacing the semi-skirted rear wheel opening with a fully rounded styling. People just won’t accept skirted rear wheels despite the mileage advantage.

    It should be noted that the supply of “box” wagons has been depleted by their use in demolition derbies.

    I had a ’79 Impala wagon for 11 years, and I’ve posted about it a few times on ttac. 350, 4bbl, posi-traction, 3-spd auto. Though mechanically sound and well constructed, it suffered from rust and paint that just didn’t stick to the metal. When the paint was touched up though, the two-tone silver/gray with red pinstripe looked far classier to me than the woodgrain versions. It had a bad habit of shedding costly hubcaps that looked like webbed alloy wheels. The transmission was always in the right gear. Very tight turn radius, and very predictable handling. Went exactly where it was pointed. Air shocks solved the dragging tail problem. At 220,000km, it still didn’t need oil added between 6-month changes. A competent pickup truck and limousine at the same time. Conversational groupings of 6 people who could all talk to each other, unlike in minivans.

    Hard to believe they never put a split-folding back seat in these cars. The front two headrests were useless and there were no headrests in the back seat at all. But the 3-way tailgate was a work of genius. The wagons could have been shortened and narrowed without changing the interior significantly, and therefore become equivalent to the Ford Taurus X wagon.

    And here’s a nicely done Panther platform wagon:

  • avatar

    My grandparents had these for the longest time. We got their 1987 Olds, which was wood with dark red, with a red velour interior. And no third row seat. But it was a total lemon and when the radiator finally plugged up when it was 10 years old we never looked back! But after that one they had probably a 1991 blue Olds with blue velour interior. I remember thinking the Vista Window was the coolest thing ever.

    And then that was replaced by probably a 1996 Buick Roadmaster they saw used somewhere if I remember correctly. Now this one was even better as it had wood siding AND leather seats. It was so incredibly comfortable. Sadly my grandpa got rid of that in 2001 along with his 2000 Ram, which was some ugly color combination. And he traded them in on a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, only to be replaced by two different Pacificas, and now a Chevy Traverse (which makes the Roadmaster seem like it can handle). The best by far was the Roadmaster. Now I look at those cars with longing. Thank you for a wonderful article and great memories.

  • avatar

    The B-bodies were some of the best Detroit iron at the time and were some of my favorite cars of the 70’s through 90’s. It’s a shame so many of them are being chopped up and ruined.

    Quote: Rent a Car red interior. It Hertz your eyes.

    How is a red interior a rental cars thing? You haven’t been able to buy a car with a full red interior in the past 12 years or so so i’m not understanding this comment. If you want to talk rental car interiors look no further than todays craptastic dull boring easily soiled stupid gray. Now there is the ultimate rental car interior for ya!

  • avatar

    ahhh, June 1971 and my first trip to the dealer with my parents to pick out the Donk’s Pontiac twin. I was 5 and the grill was bigger than me but a remember the “455” tag and shiny red pontiac symbol on the tip of that fat blue SoB. 1977 came and so did our new Caprice Classic Estate. I loved driving that 305 in high school, especially compared to the Chevette Scooter I was stuck with most days. Alas tere was never a need for the Bubble generation in my family…

  • avatar

    It would be interesting to how the Olds Vista roof window design came to be.

  • avatar

    Great read, glad to see these wagons get some love for a change.

    After 9 GM B-body sedans myself, I stumbled upon a 1991 Caprice wagon with the porno red interior and 95k miles garaged kept at somebody’s grandma’s house for $1800. After driving it for the last year now, it’s making me want to replace my other Caprice I also have, a sedan, with yet another wagon.

    Had a 1991 Roadmaster hearse on our local Craigslist last fall with 80k miles for $1500 bucks, I didn’t buy it because I was stupid.

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