A Tale Of Two Wagons, Part The Second: 1989 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Estate, or "The Granny Wagon"

Vojta Dobe
by Vojta Dobe

In the first part of this article, I introduced you to the world where the fabled “diesel, manual wagon” is not the enthusiasts’ wet dream, but a boring, sensible man’s choice. And now, I am going to show you that this also works the other way around. Because the second wagon I will drive is something your grandmother probably owned – and what you, as a young motoring enthusiast, probably considered the most boring thing in the world (at least until the birth of the minivan).

Like with the Mondeo from the first part, I used to own a car very similar to this one. Mine was just one year older, and it was a sedan. Which meant it was much less cool, even less practical, and it had a 305 Chevy engine instead of 307 Olds, so it featured an ability to actually accelerate. And, after throwing a bunch of shiny parts from Summit Racing under the hood, it was even able to do burnouts, donuts and generally raise hell. Did I mention I bought the thing as a 21 year old college student?

Which brings me to question a lot of you are probably asking right now – why would someone in Europe, where we have so many splendid and sophisticated automobiles and on top of that, roads with the strange thing called “curves”, and cities with streets too small to fit anything bigger than a Fiat Panda, buy such a thing?

Well, the first possible reason is obviously the fact that you are a 21 old college student dreaming about muscle cars, but lacking the necessary cash. In that case, anything with suitably enormous proportions, lots of chrome and a V8 will do. And lots of American cars in Europe are bought for such reasons. The looks, the size, the V8 roar and maybe the ability to light up the rear tires are all that matters for many owners of American cars in Europe. Or the soft couches and wallowing ride, if you’re into that. In fact, there are even lots of guys who are perfectly satisfied with their car having just the American badges and name – those can usually be seen in minivans with chrome wheels, chrome bars and American flags.

But I always liked to think that I haven’t chosen my Caprice just for its country of origin. I was quite certain that I, as a budding motoring journalist and avid reader of British car mags, was above such lowly reasons. I was sure that I chose the Caprice because it offered me what I wanted and needed from a car. And I even thought that the fullsize, body-on-frame sedan with a V8 in the front and driven axle in the back is still what I need, and what suits me better than legions of brand-new cars I have driven since.

So, naturally, I was a little afraid that driving a nearly identical car after all these years (I have sold my Caprice about three years ago, and it was out of service for two years before that) will reveal that I have idealized it in my memories, and compared to all new cars I am used to drive, it will just suck.

But when I was handed the keys and sat in front of familiar dashboard and ugly blue plastic steering wheel, I immediately felt at home. Memories started flowing in, and for first few dozen miles, I just enjoyed reliving the days when I was young(er), with windows down and big V8 burbling through the fat exhaust with decidedly non-stock muffler.

Only after the initial joy faded away a little bit, I was able to start thinking about reasons why I loved this car so much in the first place. And tried to remind myself that I should be a balanced and impartial motoring journalist. But I cannot promise you that I totally succeeded – so let me say up front: I don’t think that driving an old American fullsize wagon in Europe is an especially bright idea. In fact, it is in fact a pretty dumb one, although it means loads of fun.

So, what are the principal reasons for driving an old US barge in Europe? As I mentioned before, the first is the looks. And the size. Just seeing the thing parked among tiny European hatchbacks will give you giggles again and again. While I’m pretty sure that even in America, the B-body looks like a dinosaur, here it looks like a dinosaur in a kindergarten. And then there is the chrome. And the in-your-face showiness of the thing. Remember that ordinary European cars, even the beautiful ones, are always very sensible and restrained. No designer in Europe would ever think of putting a +100-pound hunk of metal on the car and calling it “bumper”. Nor would any non-luxurious brand use such a thing as a hood ornament. The whole package is just a giant middle finger to the rest of the world, saying “I can afford THIS”.

But at the same time, you can see sense in many of those brash features – like bumpers that actually serve their original purpose, being able to hit stuff without receiving damage. Once, after I overlooked a huge patch of ice, I hit a huge and empty metal box on a gas station. The damage on the box was about $1,500. The damage on my car, after the policeman refused to write “zero” in the form, was $25 for a little scratch on the rubber strip on my front bumper.

And even more important is the fact that American engines, as well as the rest of the car’s mechanicals, are built in a much more pragmatic way. It seems that Europeans are obsessed with power-to-displacement ratio, and regard big, lazy engines as something wasteful and stupid. It may be caused by the decades-long practice of taxing big displacement engines, which alienated big, lazy, torquey engines to us. Or by widespread belief that the fuel consumption is directly proportional to the displacement – countless times I was told by people that my car can’t possibly get better fuel mileage than 20 l/100km (something like 10mpg), because their 1.6 litre gets 7 l/100km, so it’s not question that my car gets at least three times as much. I was even called a liar for insisting that my Caprice actually got 13 l/100km if I wasn’t driving like a lunatic.

Also, the “don’t fix what isn’t broken” attitude and large production numbers mean that the average US car is not only very reliable (Don’t believe me? Volkswagen is considered supremely reliable brand here… and it’s not because our VWs are better, but because we also have French and Italian cars), but also have incredibly cheap parts. Costly shipping, customs and taxes? Yeah. But even with all these added costs, parts for average American car are still cheaper than for most European ones. Add the fact that most classic American stuff is designed to be fixed with a large hammer and to sustain heavy abuse, and you get surprisingly low overall running costs. Something quintessentially European, like Renault or an Alfa, will be cheaper to feed – unless it’s a V6, in which case it will singlehandedly out-drink American lazy V8 – but the repair costs will kill you.

This is especially true if you live in a country like mine – where the spotless tarmac you may know from Germany or France is replaced with a sea of potholes and ruts. On my W124 Mercedes with Sportline suspension, a front-end alignment lasted for three days, before I hit the first hole large enough to screw it up. With my old Caprice, I managed to go over five-inch curb sideways at 30 mph after failed attempt to drift the roundabout, and it escaped totally unscathed.

Which also means that driving old American iron on 15” steelies with high sidewalls is incredibly comfortable, compared to modern European cars with sporty suspensions, which are wonderful for canyon carving, but lousy if you want to relax and get to your destination with as little fuss as possible.

But there are big, comfortable European cars. And there are easy to fix European cars with cheap cars and great reliability record – although the combination of these virtues is quite rare. So finding rational reasons for driving humongous Detroit dinosaur on our tiny roads is pretty hard, leaving me with irrational ones.

And besides aforementioned looks and sound, the biggest allure of the Caprice, or US fullsize cars as a whole, is the way they drive. Remember that we live in a world where everything, from superminis to family wagons and even minivans, has to be “sporty” to sell. Most our cars have manual transmissions, (relatively) deep bucket seats, heavy and feelsome steering sharp brakes. Which means you either constantly feel that you’re going unbelievably slow, or use their capabilities and go like a madman. So, driving a car with a couch instead of front seats, suspension that makes it float above the road instead of following it closely and with a helm that lack any sense of connection with front wheels is strangely refreshing.

I can imagine that someone who’s used to driving European cars, and tries to drive a Caprice in similar fashion, must conclude that the thing is absolutely terrible and worthless. Even finding a proper position behind the wheel is nearly impossible and feels just wrong. But relax, sit comfortably, grab the wheel with one hand and sail away, and you start getting it. After some time with a car like this, you will start using the overassisted steering, unbelievable front wheel lock and torque available right from the idle to your advantage. It’s easy to recognize someone who is used to driving these cars – he ditches the precision and sophistication, instead driving the car like a motorboat. A huge stab of throttle, few single-handed turns of the wheel and another burst of acceleration. Soon, you find yourself driving like in old movies – with the car wallowing like a barge on a rough sea, tires squealing and the chromed ingot in the front missing the obstacles just by inches.

This also answers the last of the questions usually asked about American cars in Europe – how can they fit our roads? In fact, much easier than you would think, at least if we’re talking old, boxy ones like the Caprice. Compared to European vehicles from the late 80s onwards, the first difference is you can actually see out of them – and you also see where they end. So you can go centimeters around stuff without hitting anything. And then there’s the steering lock. With longitudinally mounted engine, there’s loads of room for front wheels to turn around. Which, combined with relatively short wheelbase, means that the Caprice offers unbelievably tight turning circle. Fun fact: when I bought mine, I was still living with my parents, and my father had a 1997 Skoda Felicia Combi. Which is about the size of a Golf, or maybe even smaller. And while I was able to do a U-turn in our street with Caprice, I had to do three-point turn with Felicia, which was four feet shorter. And after gaining some experience, I was even able to fit the thing in most parallel parking spaces.

Is that enough to outweigh the fact that you feed a large V8 to get power and torque of a 2,0 TDI, or the fact that the front “couch” in the Caprice is, in fact, quite uncomfortable, and the rear one has unbelievably lousy legroom? Or that the surprising ability to fit in the most parking spaces still means that no matter how you try, there are loads of parking spaces that are just smaller than your car? Or that while parts are cheap, you will usually wait a week for them? For a rational human being, no. But for someone who enjoys the V8 burble, the attention classic US metal gets here (my NYC Taxi Caprice got more attention than average new supercar), the fun you can have at low speed and general “suck it, world” attitude these boats ooze make driving fullsize American wagon (or sedan) fun enough to put up with all the troubles that come with it.

And my personal conclusion? Yes, as I anticipated, the Caprice is not as wonderful as I remembered it – mostly because it isn’t really all that comfortable. But it still is wonderful to me. And I have to get another one… or, maybe, some kind of Panther this time?

Photos by Radek “Caddy” Beneš

Vojta Dobe
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  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Aug 08, 2013

    I love seeing a speedometer that goes to 200 in a Caprice! Also the right side mirror control being a cable driven affair under the IP. How hard was it to make power mirrors! Thanks for the article. My grandfather had an 83 or 85 Caprice 2 door that he loved. My folks got custody of it in 1995 or so, when he couldn't do all the driving and my grandmother hated driving the Caprice. They bought a Buick Century. The Caprice had about 15k on it when we got it. It still smelled new inside. 305, maroon in color inside and out, wire wheel covers. Very pretty car. We had it fr awhile, it was my Moms DD for about a year. My brother had it during high school and then sold it to an equally car loving friend of his who had for a long time. A great car, even though it wasn't.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Aug 15, 2013

    Thank you so much for this article. The two cars that have left the greatest impressions on me have been my '65 Buick Wildcat and my '97 Volvo 850 T5. I've always been able to articulate why I loved driving my Volvo, but I've never been able to do that with my Buick. Then I read your description of driving the Caprice and realized that you nailed it.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.