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Saving a whale (aka the '92 Caprice wagon)

Life with a 1992 Caprice wagon is actually not that bad. In fact, it is quite awesome!
The quintessential "Grocery Getter"

The quintessential "Grocery Getter"

You have $45,000 to spend — do you buy a new truck or a pristine riverfront lot in Maine, complete with an ancient but livable single-wide trailer? For Chris France of Laurel, Md., owning a Maine “camp” had been a lifelong dream so he passed on the truck. As ever, there’s a catch. He keeps an 18-ft. Starcraft motorboat in Maine, making a tow rig a necessity. Could he find the perfect camp hauler within his $3000 budget?

Chris had been longing for another 1986 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon like he’d driven in college, and he thought another one would perfectly meet his needs again.

Owner Chris France makes use of the tailgate when loading groceries.

Owner Chris France makes use of the tailgate when loading groceries.

“I was sorry to let it go — I probably loved it more than any car I’ve owned since,” Chris says wistfully. He began searching in earnest for a Custom Cruiser with the mechanical fortitude to make runs from Maryland to Maine and back without calling AAA. Every car that turned up was either too nice and priced accordingly, or deteriorated beyond redemption.

Even after widening his net to include General Motors divisions besides Oldsmobile, Chris wasn’t able to find a suitable square-rigged 1977-1990 GM B-body wagon. Out of sheer necessity he broadened his search parameters to include later aero-styled B-body wagons, again from any GM division.

Many hours were lost doom-scrolling the internet and its booby traps of fake ads and non-responsive sellers. Eventually he found a 1992 Caprice wagon located some three hours away in rural Pennsylvania.

A neat trick of the 1991-1996 General Motors B-Body wagon is the three-position rear tailgate.

A neat trick of the 1991-1996 General Motors B-Body wagon is the three-position rear tailgate.

I accompanied Chris to assess the car. As we penetrated Pennsylvania hill country, the roads became curvy and unnervingly narrow, and the terrain more wooded. A chilling mist clung to the ground like a malignant wraith. A couple of missed turns cost precious daylight. The gloaming was well underway when we finally made it to the end of a gravel road that corresponded with the address we’d been given.

“Thar she blows,” I said as we at last sighted the Great Blue Whale.

Once we started chatting with the seller, the ominous tone of the situation evaporated. He was as amiable a fellow as you could hope to meet. And he was forthright about the car’s history and flaws. There was some corrosion, as would be expected on a mid-Atlantic car. To put it in perspective, a Californian would recoil but a Michigander would call it a cream puff. The inner fenders were crispy, as were the bottoms of the B pillars and spare tire well. But none of the rust affected the car’s structural soundness. The chassis and suspension mounting points were as sound as the day the car rolled out of Willow Run Assembly. The original owner had driven the car well into her dotage and it bore a few scars wrought by her deteriorating faculties. Yet, the blue interior was in a remarkable state of preservation; the headliner didn’t even sag. After a little cagey negotiating, a price just under Chris’s budget was settled upon with a handshake and a transfer of funds.

Family friendly!

Family friendly!

“I really prefer the looks of the earlier cars, but the whales offer certain advantages, more power for one,” Chris pragmatically notes. The bulbous styling took many cues from the Cadillac Voyage concept car of 1988. It wasn’t universally praised and remains something of an acquired taste. The rear wheel arches partially cover the wheels, giving a feeling of substance to the Caprice body while echoing fender skirts of years past. They are in keeping with a silhouette that strove to appear aerodynamic and gave the B-Body Chevys of this era the “whale” nickname.

Chris’s Caprice has wire wheel covers, which were becoming something of an anachronism by the early ’90s. The traditional hood ornament was also at odds with a car that took pains to shed its baroque heritage. The chunky chrome grille is the focal point of the front end. A wind tunnel-smoothed version of an egg crate design, it rests between molded acrylic headlamp, turn signal and cornering lamp lenses. In all, the front end is quite well integrated.

GM B-Body station wagons wear the organic look more successfully than their sedan counterparts, because the large glasshouse effectively balances the visual mass of the body. The paint scheme of Chris’s car is a smart, two-tone light blue metallic over grey metallic paint.

Chevrolet advertised luxury in 1991

Chevrolet advertised luxury in 1991

The traditional front vent windows were dispensed with and all glass is flush with the body. This pays dividends in reduced wind noise and aerodynamic drag. Indeed, the coefficient of drag was quoted as low .35. Even the roof rack is an aesthetically integrated design, not a superfluous afterthought. Side view mirrors are tucked in tightly against the glass and are sleek like a cat with its ears folded back.

Interior space is vast with seating for up to eight people. Front passengers enjoy Barcalounger comfort on a contoured and power-adjustable split bench seat. The wagon’s real party trick is its three-way tailgate. The back glass can be opened itself, the tailgate can be dropped in truck fashion or the tailgate can be opened like a door, depending on which handle is manipulated. With rear seats folded down, it’s possible to haul 4x8-ft. sheets of building material while keeping them dry and secure.

Interior design might best be described as transitional. It incorporates familiar elements of the land yachts of yore, but rendered with organic modernity. Simple sliders control the excellent HVAC system. A horizontal speedometer and vertical engine temperature and fuel gauges are bolstered by a passel of warning lamps — any additional instrumentation had to come from J.C. Whitney. A sweeping dashtop integrates with the door panels to give a more cohesive feel to the interior. Imitation wood appliqués are used liberally, but the finish is flat, not glossy. Power window and door switches seem a little oversized, which makes them easier to operate by touch.

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The Caprice delivers the mechanical fortitude that Chris requires, and in spades, the chassis being well proven in police, taxi and fleet duty. For 1992, buyers had a choice of two fuel-injected Chevy small-block V-8s displacing 305 or 350 cubic inches (Chris’s Caprice has the latter). With 180 bhp and close to 300 lbs.-ft. of torque, the wagon has the ability to easily tow two-and-half tons and excel in the on-ramp Grand Prix. GM used a simple but effective fuel injection system. Two fuel injectors are mounted in a throttle body that sits atop the intake manifold. Externally it looks much like a carburetor. Driven with restraint, the wagon will deliver fuel consumption in the low 20-mpg range on the highway.

A four-speed 700-R4 transmission was standard. Shift points are noticeable, but never intrude on the serenity of the ride. Conventional twin control arms, coil springs and telescopic shocks comprise the front suspension. The live rear axle also uses coil springs and is located by trailing links. Front and rear anti-sway bars help keep the car level when cornering.

Once underway, you’re reminded that a boulevard ride can be a glorious thing. The brakes are discs in front and drums in back with anti-lock. Chris’s car suffers the mushy pedal feel that seems to afflict older GM products, but stopping power is commensurate with the performance.

GM clung to recirculating ball steering for the final B-bodies, and rightly so; smooth steering with ample power assistance is perfect for the big wagon.

Chris has been giving his Caprice a protracted shakedown by using it, or perhaps more appropriately, her, for daily errands when there’s no salt on the roads. He calls his car Mrs. B as a nod to both the original owner and the GM platform name.

“I love the authoritative sound when she starts” he says, not without a little pride. “I get waves and thumbs up all the time.”

Chris has a list of repairs and improvements to tackle before he takes the car for a long journey.

“I plan to install a transmission cooler and trailer hitch, then do some work on the front end before I drive her up to Maine in the spring.”

I, for one, have little doubt that Mrs. B will get Chris “upta camp” in comfort and style.

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