It was the last full decade where the all-American station wagon truly reigned. During the ‘70s, family cars were still cars—big ones. Pickups were mostly used by tradesmen, while 4x4s like the Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Bronco were primarily the bailiwick of folks who loved the outdoors or driving off-road. And so it was that the last of the truly gigantic Chevrolet wagons arrived in showrooms. The core full-sized lineup was still capable of moving a million units in that era, so as with today’s pickup trucks, there was a tremendous diversity of equipment and trim to be had. Caprice Estate was the top of the line. It was a most Broughamtastic family conveyance, with its Di-Noc wood-grained siding, chrome-encrusted grille, new quad rectangular headlights, and whitewall tires.
Yes, in 1970s suburbia, the belle of the ball was the wood-grained, full-sized station wagon. LTD Country Squires, Fury Suburbans, Royal Monaco Broughams, Pontiac Grand Safaris, Mercury Colony Parks, and more. Even the new compact and subcompact station wagons paid homage to the look, with Mini-Me Pinto Squires, Vega Kammback Estates, and Mercury Bobcats striving for that country club aesthetic in a smaller package.
Whitewalls were a given on these station wagons. So were deluxe wheel covers (or wire wheel discs), ample chrome trim, a/c, and a third row seat. They reigned supreme in Naperville, New Rochelle, and Santa Monica, until the mid-‘80s, when Chrysler’s “Magic Van” duo, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, changed everything.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Chevrolet woody wagon went way back, almost to the beginning of Chevrolet itself. A quick history: Station wagons were so named because they were used for transporting passengers from railroad stations to their hotels. Early on, wood-framed bodies were added to existing vehicles or purpose-built by local shops, to accommodate anywhere from six to 12 passengers.
Later on, these “depot hacks” caught the attention of automobile manufacturers, who began offering their own versions for sale. And by the early postwar era, the formerly expensive, wood-bodied vehicles had become steel-bodied, but still wood-grained family haulers. And of course, the Big Three were in the thick of it, volume-wise, sales-wise, and otherwise.
Starting in the mid-‘60s, Chevrolet wagons once again became available with the wood-look sides, and by the end of the decade, woody Kingswood Estates were the finest Chevrolet longroofs you could buy.
Then, in autumn of 1970, the all-new 1971 Chevrolets appeared, even larger and more imposing than the previous 1969–70 full-size Chevrolets. The wagons, in particular, were impressive, with a 75/25 split second-row seat and the disappearance of the previously ubiquitous rear-facing third row.
Why, you ask? The 25-percent part of the seat flipped forward, giving access to an optional third, also forward-facing, rear seat for two. With the new Chevy wagons, there was no need to enter through the tailgate to get to the “way back,” a nice feature for those kids (98 percent of the time, it was the kids relegated to the back seat, by choice; the further away from the parents up front, the better) who may have gotten a little dizzy riding backwards.
The other special, and perhaps defining feature of the 1971–76 Chevrolet full-sized wagons and their Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick brethren, was its disappearing tailgate, which you can see in the pictures above.
You opened the tailgate by releasing it, at which point it rolled on tracks into a slot behind the rear bumper. Similarly, the rear glass retracted upward into the roof panel, leaving a completely open space. The tailgate was power-operated if you checked the right box on the options list. In that case, you keyed the lock above the rear taillight, and it automatically retracted. Pretty slick! And that’s why these mid-‘70s GM wagons are commonly referred to as the “clamshell wagons.”
GM was the only company to do this, and it appeared only on the 1971–76 full-sized wagons. In 1977, when the newly downsized Chevy wagons appeared, they once more had a conventional dual-function tailgate, that opened both down, for hauling long items, and from the side, like a door.
The Caprice Estate was the top-of-the-line longroof, and its price reflected that, at $5429 for the two-row model and $5546 for the three-row version. The three-row Estate was the most expensive big Chevy of them all. Second priciest? The Caprice Classic Landau coupe, at $5284. (For comparison, a Cadillac Calais was $8615.)
The three-row version was definitely the most popular: 21,804 were built that year, with 10,029 two-seat Caprice Estates bringing the total to just under 32,000 units. The standard engine in Chevrolet station wagons was the 175-horsepower 400-cubic-inch V-8, but you could still get the 454 for maximum motivation. It was the last year the 454 would be available in Chevrolet wagons, and the ’76 version had 175 horsepower. But as with all the mid-‘70s big block domestic cars, the horsepower belied the actual power you got, with ample low-end torque. And you could get a 225-horse 454 optionally as well, perfect for pulling those horse trailers, speedboats, or silver-sided Airstreams!
Today’s featured Caprice Estate was the result of a happy coincidence. I happened to be on my way up to the lake one gorgeous, warm afternoon in mid-August. While most of the trip involved “scenic” Interstate 88, I turned off two-thirds of the way there to take the secondary routes, through the small town of Morrison, Illinois and its historic downtown. As I crossed the tracks, I noticed the main drag was closed off, and there appeared to be a car show going on. For a split second, I considered driving on, as I wanted to sit out on the deck with a book and a drink before the sun got too far along. But my car-loving nature overruled, so I parked my Town Car in a residential area adjacent to downtown and checked it out. It was a nice show! Among my favorites were an early ‘50s Hudson Hornet, a ’74 Fleetwood Eldorado convertible, a ’62 Studebaker Lark convertible, and a Pennant Blue ’55 Corvette. But this showroom condition ’76 Estate was my favorite. I literally stopped in my tracks when I spotted it, and simply gawped at it, like a country boy first stepping off the bus in New York City! It was gorgeous! I’d been meaning to write it up ever since, but other cars and car shows kept distracting me the remainder of the summer. But I finally got it done! And isn’t she lovely?