By on February 13, 2011


Normally, I don’t consider parking-lot photos for variations of the “interesting car parked in public” schtick, but this Caprice is special: it parks in a train-station parking lot in the roughest neighborhood in East Oakland. Every day.

Well, it parked there every day as recently as last summer, when I was still attending plenty of Oakland Athletics games and parking in the Coliseum BART lot.

The Chevy B-body of this period was a pretty decent car, with a sophisticated-for-1970s-Detroit 4-link rear suspension and reliable (if somewhat oil-leak-challenged) engines; I’ve owned a few of these and they were great daily drivers. In 1973 the big Chevy was still selling in vast quantities. How many? According to the Standard Catalog, 941,104 full-sized Chevrolets rolled off the assembly line. Interestingly, big Ford production was nearly identical, with 941,054 Galaxies, LTDs, and Custom 500s sold for the model year.

Judging by the early-70s Chevrolets you see around these days, one might get the impression that the Camaro, Corvette, and Nova were the biggest sellers. If not for the donk and lowrider crowds, even fewer Early Malaise Era Impalas and Caprices would have escaped the jaws of the Crusher… and with scrap steel now going for $250/ton, plenty of the few surviving never-got-around-to-the-project GM B-bodies now sitting in back yards and driveways are going to get eaten in the near future.

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40 Comments on “Down On The Oakland Street: Daily-Driven 1973 Chevrolet Caprice...”


  • avatar
    Philosophil

    My very first car was a used 1972 Caprice. Wow, that brings back memories….

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    One of the 1970s rides that I occasionally consider daily driver fodder.  I love the “driver centric-ness” of the ventilation controls being on the left of the steering column. 

  • avatar
    Andy D

    my  major  criterion  for  using  an old  car   for a DD is that  it  has  power front disc brakes.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Drums are fine as long as you meet a few critera.  They need to be well maintained and you need the right type of commute.  For me driving about 8 miles from my home to my job, all on city surface streets, never exceeding 45mph, they’re fine.  Back when I lived in Detroit and had to go either down Telegraph Road or M-10 to commute, no effin way would I have tried to daily driver a ride with poor brakes. 

    • 0 avatar
      scottcom36

      My dad had a ’70 Ford/Shasta motorhome with all drum brakes and no power assist. It stopped just fine, but pedal effort was off the scale. Stopping on a downhill or holding it on a hill at a traffic light would make my leg shake from the effort required.

  • avatar
    M 1

    I’m kind of amazed the California government hasn’t jailed this person.
    Perhaps the body is just a shell hiding four EVs?

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Hate to call these cars “Malaise-Era”.   For their day, they were well made, reliable, and served their intended purpose well.  They owe no apology to anyone.  That this car is still in this condition speaks well for it.  Regarding the brake issue mentioned above by Andy and EofDan, if you drive it all the time, you are used to how it feels.  If I go from our new(ish) cars to our ’99, ’95 to our ’92, the brake performance gets worse and worse.  The ’95 and the ’92 has 4 wheel disc and ABS but it doesn’t matter.  If I drive the ’92 and in my mind I think I have the braking performance of the new car, I wind up with a lot of abrupt  stops…and a quite a few near-hits.  Never mind what happens when I take out the ’72.  Disc brakes or not, I can’t believe how fast I drove that car as a kid and never hit anything.  Today’s brakes are awesome in comparison…and that includes all the brake upgrades the older cars have received.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    My high school car. Mine was a 4-door pillarless (the windows never sealed right, but it made it easy to get it with a coat hanger when you locked the keys in) with the engine swapped out to an older 283 (which was fortunate). The car was enormous, fast, and handled very well. Other than the rear window leaking constantly and a few other goofy design flaws the car was rock solid. I adored it. Eventually it got tired out after many hard years of service and my dad scrapped it. BTW it had disc brakes in the front, must have been a high trim level.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “Other than the rear window leaking constantly”
      friedclams: Ah, yes, I forgot about that little issue on these cars – seen ‘way too many with caulking all around the back window for years! I go on and on ad nauseum about pillarless hardtops and the lack of them nowadays, but forgot all about the other evils about a lot of cars back then. Thanks a lot. I’ll go hide in the corner ’til tomorrow morning now!

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      I once had to go to a junkyard to get a part for the car. The lady behind the counter asked, apropos of nothing, “Does the back window leak?” I replied in the affirmative and she said mournfully, “They ALWAYS leaked… they ALWAYS leaked…” in a tone that implied personal experience and frustration.
      My dad closed me in the trunk once while he sprayed the window with a hose to find the leak… Many tubes of silicone were brought to bear on the problem, to no avail.

  • avatar
    BuzzDog

    Power brakes with front discs became standard on all full-size Chevrolets with the introduction of the 1971 model year.

  • avatar
    George B

    My parents had a 1974 Impala from 1985 to 2000.  Used to call it the USS Impala.  Borrowed it for a few weeks in college and my roommate from Singapore was amazed at its size.  What I remember is both the power steering and the power brakes required very little effort compared to my 1971 Chevelle and the 1970 Impala in the family fleet.  I also remember driving the 74 Impala on the interstate from Kansas to California and the huge expanse of the hood, but can’t remember driving it on any interesting road.  Boring car.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I strarted in GM in 1972 building “B” Chev, “B” Canadian Pontiac, and B American Pontiac.

    Around week number four a bunch of us were told “you guys won’t be needed for the 73’s”. Sure enough I was still there,when the first 73 Implala came down the line. Intead of getting layed off, chassis final assembly had to bring in new hires.

    I guess nobody calculated the amount of man power it took to assemble, and installl that big goofy front bumper,mounted on shock absorbers.

  • avatar
    Cerbera LM

    HS car #1 was a ’73 Delta 88 with a 455. By ’80 the speedometer said 160k miles but the repaired speedometer was reading 15 mph slow. When it died of engine failure, burning more oil then gas. It was replaced by a ’73 4-dr Impala. Took 4 birds hits to remove the grill. Loved dirt tracking around the corners of my gravel road school commute. Every Honda I’ve owned since is a daily reminder that the 88/Impala’s best feature was the a/c, one could freeze meat with the fan med-low.

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    Cool find. These cars were everywhere once upon a time. Here in British Columbia winter driving conditions are tough on cars, and these were a popular choice as “winter beaters” for many years once they were past thier prime. You could pick them up in decent shape for a couple of hundred bucks in the early to mid 80s. Way better than exposing your “good” car to abrasive sand and corrosive salt. I had several over the course of time including a ’74 4 door hardtop with a 454. Tough, reliable and comfortable for thier day. Add a set of snowtires, a few sandbags in the trunk and you could go just about anywhere my wife’s Subaru will today.
     When I worked as a mechanic for a rent-a-wreck franchise we were always on the lookout for creampuff mid 70s Impala 4 door sedans with 350s in them. Cheap to buy, cheap to keep running and popular with renters. They even got reasonable gas mileage on the highway if you kept your foot out of it. Every one I ever saw had front disc brakes and rear 11″ drums, and they were pretty decent brakes for the day.
     These cars are easy to laugh at today but they were decent cars at the time, better than the competition over at Ford and Mopar. At least after 7 or 8 years.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    My gramps had this same car 73 Impala 2dr, tan w/ brown top and interior 350ci and A/C. He had bought it in the late 70’s with only 28K on it. Then in the early 80’s when he decided on “upgrading” to a Dodge Aires K my family ended up with it as an extra vehicle around the house. Hey it’s gramps low milage car with about 50K on it why not? One time my sister had it up at college and managed to hit a pack of deer in the roadway late at night. The Impala remained somewhat unscathed except for the header panel, filler piece and grill. Some junkyard parts and a paint job, normal maintence kept it going for a few more years. At about 150K which is a lot for most vehicles of that era the front upper control arms started giving way giving the car a caseof pidegon toe and then the timing chain went. I had thought about fixing it and puting a set of wheels on it (Craiger SS ?) but it went to the junkyard for $100. I’m sure the small block from it ended up in some kids rod. 

    • 0 avatar
      tiredoldmechanic

      I hit a moose on the Alaska Highway in my ’74. A BIG moose. All it cost me was a grille, fascia panel and a hood from a wrecking yard which totaled about $100.00. I was able to continue driving thanks to these huge 5mph bumpers, Damn good thing too, as I was a long way from help on a very cold night. The moose wasn’t quite as lucky. A tough car.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Murilee, I’m a bit puzzled why you say photos of an “interesting car parked in public” is a schtick.  I may be wrong but I’ll bet most of us find the subject of an unusual daily driver to be a genuinely interesting read which was elevated to an art form by Paul N.  Perhaps schtick wasn’t the right word…

  • avatar
    obbop

    http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/regrev/evaluate/806359.html
     
    Interesting info regarding braking of passenger cars.
    Went looking for the exact date fed regs required front disc brakes must be standard from the factory….. the info/exact date out there somewhere but too lazy to spend much time finding it.
    Those BIG Chevys have ample used-part availability, especially the “basic” components.
     
    Brakes, spindles, hood and door hinges (ample wear rate due to weight of parts they held up).
    Door glass, window regulators and a bunch of other parts.
    Lesser amounts of trim parts and sheet metal but more common than some models.
    Due to sales volumes aftermarket sheet metal and trim pieces fairly common.
     
    Hemmings magazine a good source to find aftermarket goodies, along with the Web, of course.
    If seeking an older car/truck to fix up you can’t usually go too wrong with a Chevy.
    Mopars tend to be more problematic finding parts.
    Your mileage can vary but as a generality….. older vehicles of certain makes and models can be from extremely difficult to merely frustrating to easy to obtain depending.
    I was surprised how easy the relative had it on most of the parts needed for his early 50s Studebaker pick-up. Or was it a late ’40s?  I forget.
    What was impossible to find was one trim piece.
    He ended up fabricating his own with decent results.

    • 0 avatar
      BuzzDog

      Went looking for the exact date fed regs required front disc brakes must be standard from the factory…
       
      I could be wrong, but I don’t think that disc brakes are actually required by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the United States for new passenger cars and light trucks.

      At least that’s the way it is in theory. My understanding is that when Standard 105 went into effect (1976?), it was difficult for cars and light trucks equipped with front drums to meet the braking requirements. It was usually easier and less expensive to make front discs standard, although a few manufacturers may have stuck with standard front drums for another few years.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Yeah and I didn’t mean by my comment that I believed that drums were standard on this model year, just that drums can be adequate depending on where you live and how you use the vehicle.  The thing that always amazed me was how long it took GM to make front disc brakes standard on the Oldsmobile Toronado. 

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I though this site was already plugged in my last comment. It’s pretty much the ultimate M-Body beater site.
    http://www.stillruns.com/index.php

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    I thought someone should mention the demolition derbies ate through a lot of these cars.
     
    I had a ’79 Impala wagon, and one day someone with a ’74 Impala sedan drove through a stop sign in front of me.  Their car was angled toward me, and I had my brakes locked up when we hit.  His front bumper overrode mine, spearing through the front end almost to the engine block.  My car had to be towed away.  New bumper, hood, grille, rad, support etc.  All his had was a palm-sized dent on the fender just behind the headlight.  Since my car had to be towed, and his was unscathed, he believed I was to blame.  Fortunately it was obvious he was wrong.
     
    This was about 1986, and the $3000 cost to repair mine was close to a writeoff.

  • avatar
    zeus01

    My first car (purchased in August of 1980 for $1000 after saving up for it all summer) was a 1973 Chev Impala Custom 2-door with the same body and concave rear window as this one. It came completely stock with the L-48 350 and Rochester 4-barrel carb, dark metallic brown with off-white interior and about 76,000 miles on the odometer.

    This behemoth proved to be a most excellent party car, and the huge back seat was put exactly to the use for which it was designed. Handling was yacht-like though, and its horrific fuel consumption convinced me to switch to econoboxes and sports cars, where I’ve remained ever since.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    I had one very similar to this my senior year in high school (1988). Mine was a blue Impala Custom with the same rear window, but without the vinyl top. We called it “Jimbo’s Yacht”. It replaced my ’75 Buick Skyhawk we called “Jimbo’s Roach”. We even wrote boat registration numbers on the front fenders with shoe polish.

    Two weird things happened to the car during my brief ownership. When I first drove it, I noticed a loud whine from the rear end on decel only. Found out the pinion nut was loose when the driveshaft dropped out on the highway. Picked up the driveshaft, threw it in the trunk, the car was towed, a shop put it back together and the car was fine. They didn’t even bother replacing the crush sleeve.

    The second weird thing was the motor blew. Okay, that really wasn’t all that weird. The timing sucked as I had a ’75 Camaro I was having painted at the time. We ended up rushing the paint job so I would have something to drive. That is another story for another day.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    Although you comment almost exactly the same amount of Fords were produced as B body Chevys, what you to have remember is the amout of LeSabres, Delta 88s and Catalinas were built in addition to the Impala/Caprices….The critical mass of GM made them a true jugernaut.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    The last car I’m aware of that came standard with four-wheel drum brakes is the ’76 Plymouth Valiant/Duster/Scamp and Dodge Dart/Swinger with the Slant Six engine. I think even the Pinto, Gremlin, Vega and Chevette had it standard by then.
    My own experience with these big B-body GMs is with Buicks my parents owned (’69 and ’75) and while they were comfortable, neither was particularly reliable. Lots of problems with fuel pumps, axles, spider gears, and oil burning. Nonetheless, I know others thought they were great and you still see them around. If you get a chance to read Keith Richards’ autobiography “Life,” the first story about the ’75 Caprice or Impala stuffed with drugs in Arkansas is hilarious.

  • avatar
    big_gms

    This brings back memories. My first car was a 1973 Caprice 2 door hardtop, just like this one. It was that 70’s avocado green color (like a dark green-gold) with a black vinyl top. It was my great aunt’s car and I got it the same year she passed away (1990). At the time, the odometer read 87,921 miles. Judging by it’s August 1972 date of manufacture, it must have been among the earliest ’73s off the assembly line. It was kind of a beater-chalky faded paint, flaking vinyl top, bad exhaust system, rusting out, etc. I liked it, but it wasn’t very reliable. As I recall, I had to replace the starter, alternator, turn signal switch and (I think) the water pump, as well as a fuel line, the belts, the hoses, vacuum modulator and there were constant brake issues with it, too. About a year before I got it, the timing chain and sprocket had been replaced. The transmission fluid was dark, like it was burned. The carb was damned touchy, too, especially in the winter. In it’s defense, some of this was due to neglect; my great aunt only put about 14,000 miles on it in the ten years she owned it, and it sometimes sat outside entire (Wisconsin) winters without being run. It had a 400 small block, which was the standard engine that year in the Caprice. It wheezed out all of 150 horsepower!

    Other things I remember about it was that the neat concave rear window would sometimes leak if we got heavy rain, the carb would ice up if the weather was cool and damp (the heat riser pipe was gone), it backfired loudly, it got just 6 miles per gallon until I did a tune-up on it (never managed more than 12 MPG), and I had my first car accident with it. I was trying to turn right onto a side road from a banked curve. The road was covered with snow and I began to slide sideways, when I was hit in the passenger side rear quarter panel by a Subaru Brat. Nobody was seriously hurt. My dad punched the panel back out again. It looked terrible but was still driveable. That car was the unruliest beast ever to drive in the snow, even worse than my current 1995 two wheel drive full size Chevy truck!

    I drove it for a little over 2 years. By that time, it had 115,000 miles, rust was eating it alive and the transmission was pretty much shot.

  • avatar
    OliverTwist

    Ah, that car! My good friend in Dallas had a 1974 version with massive bumpers that were indestructible. We were driving through the city one day, and my friend had to brake hard to avoid running red. We felt a little ping in the rear and heard some odd noise. Dismissing it as perhaps the mechanical hiccup, we didn’t notice the accident until the steam enamating from the rear of Caprice.
     
    What did we discover? A poor sap smashed his 1985 Nissan 300ZX into my friend’s Caprice. Damage to his Caprice? Just a small nick on the massive bumper. Damage to that guy’s 300ZX? A total write-off.
     
    When my family moved to Dallas from Germany in 1974, our first car ever in the United States was a 1972 Caprice station wagon. What an enormous leap from Mini and Alfa-Romeo 1750A Berlina! It was like upgrading from the paddle boat to 100m yacht! Lot of room to take the safe refugee in the cargo hold after picking on my parents! My brother and I sat so far away from each other that the attempts to smash each other were futile! Yeah, we visited the petrol stations more often! My mum had her first ever accident when she misjudged the distance and space at the car park! That devilish seat belt interlocker buzzed and buzzed until my father “shot” it one day! Whee!
     
    In 1976, its time as a company fleet car was up so we were given the shitty 1976 Malibu station wagon. That was like downgrading from first class to cattle class. I wanna that car back!

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    Disc brakes became mandatory on all passenger cars in 76. They were standard equipment on the fullsize chevy starting around 71. These cars wer not mechanically stout at all, and only held up under pretty sedate driving conditions. The blocks had a pretty low nickel content, and they started burning oil between 80-100k. And you had the famous chevy cam wear problems due to the soft cams and narrow lobes and small lifters, which didn’t give as much of a wear surface. And small block chevies were famous for leaking valve covers due to the 4 bolt valve cover design and thin flanges, and the seal between the timing cover and oil pan was known to leak as well.
    Starting in 75 they made the decks on the heads thinner and they had cracking problems. The 400 ran hot, and the heads were prone to cracking between the extra steam holes drilled in the deck surface between the combustion chambers.
    The use of the turbo 350 behind the 350 and most 400 engines in a car this size was a joke, and a prime example of GM’s cost cutting.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    If I’m not mistaken disc brakes were standard on this car starting with this body style in 71.

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