Story and photos by Brian Earnest
When it comes to reasons why people develop a lasting affinity for certain cars, never underestimate the “Big Brother Factor.”
It’s never been scientifically proven, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: If you had a big brother with a car — regardless of what kind of car it was — you probably thought that rig was cool.
That was certainly the case for Dave Schaller. His older sibling drove a 1966 Chevrolet Caprice that left quite an impression. And when his big brother threw Schaller the keys to the Chevy and told him he could use it while he was away serving in the military, well, that sealed the deal. Schaller became a Caprice fan for life.
“I was in high school, I graduated in ’71, and in the later ’60s, he had that Caprice,” Schaller recalled. “He went into the Navy and while he was over in Vietnam, he told me I could drive his car, take it to school and so forth. You know, a young kid, 16, 17 years old when I was driving it, for me that was luxury. Our family never had such a nice car, you know.
“I wasn’t obsessed with it or anything, but I really liked that car. After I got out of school and started going to car shows, I figured if I could ever find one like his, I would buy it. And that’s what I did.”
Schaller, a resident of Baraboo, Wis., had been casually looking for a nice Caprice for a few years before he finally spotted one at a car show back in the mid 1980s. The car was a yellow 1966 two-door coupe with a black vinyl top. The Caprice wasn’t perfect — not by a long shot. It had some rust issues around the glass, and the typical wear and tear you would expect from the 97,000-plus miles it had traveled in a northern climate. But Schaller figured the car was worth every bit of the $3,900 he had to fork over for it, and he’s never regretted the purchase.
“I’ve got a lot of receipts from the guy in Milwaukee that owned it,” Schaller said. “He was a guy that seemed to like to cobble things together. I’ve got a lot or receipts from the things he bought for it from Fleet Farm and places like that. He more or less just kept it going.
“The guy who had it before me was a cop, and he might have fixed up some of the trim and some things that had some dings. I’m not really sure what all he did to it.”
The car had also been repainted and had its color changed from white to yellow. For the most part, though, the Caprice was original. The attractive, black vinyl interior was in great shape and the 327-cid V-8 under the hood never had any problems. All in all, the car was exactly what Schaller had been looking for.
“I wouldn’t have wanted a trailer queen,” he said. “I’d rather be driving it.
“There was rust underneath the windshield. The windshield was cracked and I had to have that replaced. Well, when we took the chrome trim off, there were holes under there where you could put three fingers through. These cars are notorious for that – the front and rear windows rust out pretty bad. I had a guy professionally restore that with metal. That was about 1,200 bucks right there.
“I wanted the engine to burn regular unleaded gas, so I took it to an engine rebuilder and he was going to harden the valve seats, but he ended up pulling the front clip off the car and rebuilding the engine completely, then he rebuilt the front suspension, and the brakes and put in a new radiator to make it all mechanically solid.”
It was at that point that Schaller decided to make the Caprice a long-term keeper and do whatever it took to make the Chevy a reliable hobby car that he could road trip in anytime the spirit moved him.
“Yeah, that was the point,” he said. “That was in ’97 and before that, the car sat in my garage for probably 10 years. I hadn’t done anything with it and I hadn’t driven it much because I knew it needed work. At that point I committed to making it reliable, anyway.”
The Caprice Custom Sedan trim package was introduced on 1965 Chevrolet Impala four-door hardtops, and a year later, it became an official model. Ironically, the spin-off of the Impala eventually replaced it as the top-of-the-line model in the Chevy hierarchy. The big Caprices were immediate hits and for 1966 production totals shot up to about 181,000 units — impressive for a second-year car that had plenty of competition even from its own Chevy family.
The upscale 1965 Caprices were introduced with amenities such as full wheel covers, upgraded suspensions, vinyl tops, fancy woodgrain trim inside, and fancier carpeting and upholstery than most cars offered, plus a stiffer frame and Fleur-de-lis emblems. By 1966, a V-8 was standard under the hood and popular options such as power steering, brakes seats and windows, air conditioning and FM radios let the Caprice stand up favorable to anything being offered by the “Big Three” automakers at the time.
The 1966 Caprice lineup included the two-door coupe, four-door hardtop and six- and nine-passenger station wagons. The 1966 Caprice coupes had a unique formal roof and carried a base price of $3,000 and weighed in at 3,585 lbs. A three-speed manual with a column shift was standard on Caprices, except those ordered with the optional 396- or 427-cid V-8s. They required the heavy-duty three-speed on the floor. A four-speed manual was a $184 option. A two-speed Powerglide was also available on the smaller V-8s, while buyers opting for the 396 or 427 mills could also get a Turbo Hydra-Matic.
Schaller’s Caprice came nicely equipped from the factory, starting with its 275-hp/327 V-8 and vinyl roof. “That’s the original interior. The interior is untouched,” he said. “The gauge package is nice. The original radio still works. It’s got factory cruise control. The tilt-telescope wheel is pretty rare. A lot of hot-rodders are looking for those these days, I guess, because they can adjust them the way they want. It’s got factory cruise control, that’s pretty rare. Strato-bucket seats; power windows; power steering; power brakes; air-conditioning.
“It was repainted before I bought it. It was originally white. You can’t tell. He repainted the door jambs and inside the trunk and everything.”
The trunk, of course, is another thing the Caprice has going for it. There is a ton of room hidden under the rear deck lid of the full-size Chevy. “I’ve laid cross-ways in the trunk and my head or feet don’t touch anything. That’s how big that trunk is,” Schaller noted.
And, of course, there is that signature 1960s “big car” ride. The Caprice will never be called nimble or light on its feet, but if you like that cushy land yacht feel, the car doesn’t disappoint.
“It’s got a little bit of shimmy, but she rides like a boat. It just floats,” Schaller laughs. “And the steering is kind of tricky. It wanders and the steering isn’t tight like newer cars are. It just kind of glides off and you hope when you turn the wheel it’s going to come back, and it always does!”
Schaller admits that his Caprice is the kind of car that a lot of people don’t pay much attention to at car shows and other hobby gatherings. A big 1960s family car just doesn’t turn as many heads as a Corvette or Mustang. He doesn’t mind, though. Quite often, he has the only old Caprice around, which makes it a bit of a conversation piece for those who have fond memories of the cars.
“I had a guy last year come up to me and shake my hand,” Schaller said. “He said, ‘Thanks for saving a big old Chevy.’ He was happy to see a big old full-size car.”
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