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Thursday, March 28, 2013

'69 Chevy Caprice



 I got my Learners Permit in 1980 and my first drivers license in 1981. It was a new era: Disco was dead, Reagan was selling off all the National Parks to afford our new Space-based missile defense shield, ONtv brought soft-core porn right to your TV, and Adam Ant was going to have hits forever and ever.

I walked out of the DMV with my temporary license clutched in my 16 year old hand.  My father was sitting in the car, smoking (as always). When he saw my smile he scooted over and gave me the wheel with a grand gesture.

I drove home, carefully, and once in the driveway I popped the keys and handed them to Dad. He waved 'em off and said "It’s yours now. Be careful with it." And so I got my first car.

A 1969 Chevy Caprice Custom. BOAT OF CAR. But it satisfied my Father's 3 criteria for vehicular purchase:
  1. It was American-made.
  2. He couldn't afford it.
  3. Most importantly: When you were behind the wheel, you couldn't just reach over and lock the passenger side door; you had to lean over in order to press the little plunger down.

The Caprices of the late 60's/early 70's were the largest Chevrolets ever produced (and that's saying something). And yet, it tells you a lot about the American mentality of the time to know that, because it only had two doors, it was called a "Coupe". A coupe that was 18 flippin' feet long and weighed 3,946 pounds empty. A coupe with two doors the size of Cessna wings.
Can't you just HEAR this thing?

It was powered by the standard 350 cu.in. V-8 and cranked out 300 horsepower. And again, this behemoth of a motor was small for the time (5th wussiest out of the 6 available motor configurations). When I grew up a 350 V-8 was called a "SMALL block chevy". 

And no emissions standards AT ALL. Whoo-hoo! Yee-Ha-ck! Cough, choke....

But that's about as much as I knew about motors. When I opened the hood on the Caprice (picture a blue whale about to feed), I could generally figure out what parts carried water, gas or electricity. I knew where to check and add everything, and that was it.

I understood my sisters '65 Triumph Spitfire motor much clearer because she was a better teacher. The hood on her car opened backwards, away from the driver compartment, taking the fenders and sidewalls completely away from the engine. (To me I think it is a much safer option to have the hood opening facing AWAY from the oncoming air currents - witness my near decapitation HERE.)

Joni's Spitfire, providing a great scratching spot for our
dog, Lady. The side hood latch is just above the dog.
And as dinky as my Sisters sports car was, the engine was even dinkier, so the way you worked on the Spitfire was to open the hood and then climb inside and sit on the front wheel. So sensible those Brits.

Now-a-days I have zero clue #1 what is going on inside of a car. The 10 year old Hybrid that I drive now is a tangled mass of wires and batteries under the hood. And it's been recalled 3 times (so far) in its lifetime - each time for Software upgrades.

By contrast I once had to replace the carburetor on my '69 Chevy. I went down to the junkyard and took one off a '73 Impala (the guy said it would work). Back home I took off the air cleaner on the Chibbie, unscrewed the old carburetor (busted buttefly valve), and plopped on the junker. I screwed it down, replaced the air cleaner, fired it up, and after some spec-tacular backfires it settled down and ran just fine. Total time: 1 hour. Total cost: $10.00.

But as I said, I had very little interest in the motor. What I liked about the Caprice was the black vinyl roof, the six huge taillights, the wire Corvette rims that I put on it (garage sale: $10.00 for all four), the trunk that you could hide 4 of your friends in at the Drive-in, and the unique, concave rear window.

Man I loved that window that went 'in'. It was just so BOSS.

Now I have an idea what your thinking, and you are half right. From the pictures you have probably identified the Caprice as the ultimate low-rider model. And you are correct. And I'd like to think that the old Chibbie is still out on the road somewhere. Close to the road. VERY close to the road.
A good view of a Caprice's concave rear window.

The thing you are wrong about, is hey, teenager, owner of a 69 (heh-heh), with a bench backseat that you could host ballroom dance lessons in. Did any personal red stars get earned back there? KnowwhatImean? Nudgenudgewinkwink? Alas, no. I was WAY too much of a dork from ages 16-18 to take advantage of that half-acre of backseat. And after that both of my parents left and I had the house pretty much to myself. Much more comfortable to end dates with Sheila, my girlfriend, by just driving home.

Other things about the car’s interior are pretty much museum pieces nowadays:
  • Roll down windows. I still miss those.
  • Two seatbelts across the front (and back), not three, and only two-point (no shoulder restraint). And considering the '69 models came out in 68, these may have been the very first seatbelts installed after the federal legislation took effect.
  • No airbags. That was decades away.....
  • The horn was the entire center of the steering wheel. Damn, I miss that feature with modern cars.
  • The door was locked when you hit the little plunger in the top of the door. And you had to lean way over to be able to reach it.
  • Curb feelers! Why the hell did those go away?
  • 8-track player! But I was a cassette tape baby, so I only owned two eight tracks: Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Second Helping" and The Cars' "Panorama".

And highbeam switch on the floor,
so you keep both hands on the wheel.
The 'sound system' was a single, 4 inch speaker in the center of the dash, which was fine for listening to Vin Scully say "It's a great day for Dodger baseball!", but otherwise had such little fidelity that "Touch and Go" sounded pretty much like "Sweet Home Alabama".

In Cucamonga the only radio station that came in reliably was KFI ("50,000 Watts of Mayonnaise!"), and by 1982 KFI was pretty much stuck on an endless loop of "I Melt With You" and "Hungry Like the Wolf" - so I didn't listen to the radio all that much.

Instead I listened to the car itself. Because that "Small" block engine had an idle like Tom Waits' CPAP machine, and when you punched the gas it sounded just like an Eddie Van Halen power chord. I thought that glorious sound came from all the reverb room in the spacious engine compartment until one time I had to have the car put up on a lift, and I noticed that each of the twin mufflers was sporting a twin gaping hole that you could put a pair of twins inside of. The repair guy got wide-eyed, but I immediately silenced his dollar-signed pupils . "Don't you dare touch those mufflers, Bub."

Other folks noticed my car too, but not the ones I wanted to notice it. (You know, the ones with breasts.) Instead, one morning I woke up to the fact that all six of my taillights were missing. On a hunch I wandered around the neighborhood and sure enough three streets over was a gleaming black Caprice low-rider with six muddy taillights. Obviously mine. I set my alarm that night to 3am and got up and snuck over and carefully re-stole back my taillights.
The new owner of my taillights drove something like this.

I woke up later that morning to find that my taillights were gone again AND my beautiful, concave back window was lying in a million pieces in my backseat. Fucker. So I went back to the junkyard and picked up a new window and also some replacement taillights. End of 'war'.

For 5 years me and the Chibbie were together almost every evening, because during the day I was a college student and at night I delivered pizza.

Let's do the math on that. I made minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, plus tips (about a dollar a pie). The Caprice got a smilingarab 8 MPG, which meant on slow tipping nights I might LOSE money at my job. Luckily gas was 54¢ a gallon and my classes at Chaffey College cost a dollar a unit.

Pizza delivery is not without its adventures - but lordy that's a WHOLE 'nother blog post cuz this here thing is approaching 2,200 words and I know you are a busy person with places to do and people to go.

So I'll just tell you about the night that pretty much ended the usable life of the old car. Due to its single-digit gas mileage I had already decided to sell the beast. The pictures you see here are the ones I took (with my new Kodak Disk Camera!) for an ad in the PennySaver.

Note the "For Sale" signs in the rear seat windows.
But shortly after that I was on an afternoon delivery: two XLG pepperonis, busy part of downtown Cucamonga, pedestrians on both sides of the street. I was passing through an intersection with a two-way stop when I met a small truck that thought it was a two-way stop the other way

He T-boned me just behind the passenger side door going 45mph. And maybe my Dad had some good thinking with his insistence on Sherman Tank levels of American Steeliness. Because the Caprice took the lateral hit in stride and never even left its lane. Didn't even pop the retreads on that side.

The other vehicle though (a Datsun truck), was reduced to its base components. But the biggest casualty of the collision was my poor pizzas, which both left their boxes and exploded all over my windshield.

SSPPLLIITTCCHH!!!!

I skidded to a stop and just took a moment to do some inventory on myself. And the first thing I heard after my ears stopped ringing was the sound of people screaming. The other driver? No. I turned and he was already getting out of what was left of his truck. Nope, the cries were coming from the pedestrians.

Yes, this was on the same roll - disk! - of film. Thanks for asking.
From their point of view there was a huge crunch and when they looked up all they saw was this gigantic car sliding to a stop - with red, meaty, GORE splattered all over the windshield.

So the first thing I saw when I popped out of the car was people gaping in disbelief that my brains were still housed inside my skull. Ta-Da!

(Long time readers of Angus-land will know that it would take way more than that to hurt MY skull.)

The resulting insurance settlement was considerably more than I would have made by selling the Caprice ("Repairs exceed value of car"), and once I bought a new car (Another Chevy - ya happy, Dad?), all I had to do was dump the Chibbie, which, despite the toughness of its frame, had somehow acquired a terminal leak to its soul. And the passenger side door was never, ever going to open again.*

I found a junkyard down in Ontario that would give $150.00 cash for any car that entered the yard under its own power. So I siphoned all but 1 gallon of gas out of the tank and drove the 8 miles to the place.

I demonstrated the viability of the powertrain (barely, god only knows what horrors the bottom of the gas tank held after 16 years and 240,000 miles), and the guy in the toll booth shrugged and had me sign over the title and surrender the pink slip.

Well it used to be white. Sorry - "Dover White".
Then he pointed to the interior of the yard and showed me a map. "Take it in here, make a right here and here and park it over there. Leave the key in the ignition." I shrugged and got in the Caprice one last time.

And as I entered the lonely maze of the junkyard, with high walls of stacked, junked cars on all sides, it occurred to me that I DID NOT OWN this car anymore. So when I didn't quite make that first right hand corner in time, I just banged the car back and forth a few times until it was pointed in the correct direction.

I did the same thing at the next corner. I was laughing by this time, and as I sidled down the row, scraping off the rest of the trim, most of the paint and the passenger side mirror in the process, I was cackling like a madman.

One last left corner to make it into the parking slot. Forward - BANG. Oops. Reverse - BANG. Oops. Forward - BANG. Almost made the corner (Hey, it WAS 18 flippin' feet long). Reverse - BANG - tinkletinkletinkle. There goes the taillights - again! Forward - ah, made it this time. Now. How far into the parking space should I go? Forward - One last Van Halen guitar chord. CRUNCH!! Yeah. That's far enough.

I walked out of the yard, waved to the guy in the toll booth, and got in my new Chevy, which was now driven by Sheila, my girlfriend.

"What are you so happy about?" She asked with a smile.
I took out my wad of cash. "Tell ya later" I said. "Let's go get a pizza."

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

*Making it, yes, the perfect date mobile. But by that time I was dating Sheila and was living alone in a 4 bedroom house. 




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