The Birth of the Big Muscle “Battle Wagon” – Mods are Coming
by Zack Klapman
This, is a 1992 Chevy Caprice Wagon. It has maybe 190HP. An AT (shifted on the tree). It seats 7-8, and rides like a couch on a trampoline. It was picked up by Mike Musto, as a camera car/crew vehicle for BIG MUSCLE. For most of season 1, Mike rented minivans for shoot days, but that cost adds up. Assuming he (and all of us) will be doing this for the next 30 years, Mike figured it was a good idea to buy a car. We needed something reliable, spacious (Mike and Thad shop at the big and all. And then there’s the gear.), with a hatch or tailgate we could film out of, and it had to be cheap. The original theory was a minivan, but during the CraigsList hunting, Mike found this Caprice. It only had 59,000 miles on the clock, asking price was just over $2k.
It also had the best sentence any car ad can possibly possess, “Grandma owned.” Boom. Done deal.
The interior is near flawless. Clean, smells new, everything works. The A/C cranks, it has a CD player (Grandma was BALLIN’ back then) and a few badges advertising that incredible new invention. ABS. After a brief negotiation, Mike got the car for $2k even. A few hundred dollars to flush the fluids, replace a few old belts, new shocks, and he was on the phone with us. “You gotta see this thing! It’s amazing! I love this car!”
But it wasn’t just the condition of the car, it was what it could do (besides pulling more tail than a blind kid at a petting zoo). It has a dual-action tailgate, with a glass hatch. Room for tripod without the risk of flying out of a truck bed. And then the best part: backwards facing bench seat. Awwwww yeah.
Remember when wagons had a third row of seats that faced backwards? My parents’ Volvo had it. I loved riding back there, motion sickness be damned. I’m sure I creeped out, annoyed, and offended many people as they drove along behind my dad. They just wanted to get home from work but I locked them in a game of pointing, waving, and pointless child charades. Most of them changed lanes.
For filming, this one of the best inventions ever. When we film TST or TUNED, Tom sits in the bed of Matt’s truck; legs dangled over the edge, with safety gear made of dreams and self-confidence. In the Battle Wagon, Thad has a comfy seat, a seat belt, and cup holders. It’s out of the elements, safer, and a lot more legal. Space, utility, comfortable, a cruiser. I spent several days driving it, on highways and in canyons. One night I was driving, and looking over the low, 90s grey dash, over the hood- as low and wide as swimming pool bar- I realized what this car was:
It is the poor man’s Panamera.
The Panamera probably has the best visibility of any car I’ve driven. A huge part of this is how low the dash is, extending from left to right as far as the eye can see but no taller than a Japanese tea table. This Caprice is similar. The dash color was even the same airplane bathroom grey that our Panamera unfortunately had. I felt like I was sitting in some strange Furniture Warehouse version of a Porsche Panamera. Like a used dining set clearly from another era before the industrial chic revolution. But I could see the entire hood, it sat low, and the dash stayed out of the way. Many modern cars are so crammed with gadgets the dash is taller, either infringing on visibility (Camaro) or resulting in an overall taller car. The Porsche Panamera is an absolutely incredible vehicle. I don’t love its looks, and I think I’d have more fun in a CLS AMG (and save money) but as a driving machine I can’t think of a sedan in that class that can beat it. I love it for its abilities.
The Caprice sat low on the highway, cruising quietly at speed. It wasn’t a looker, but we loved it for what it could do. Porsche Panamera.
Up front it has a Chevrolet “L05” small-block. 5.7L. Aw yeah. Nothin like a big, honkin’ V8 to stomp some road-it has how little power? 190? And it weighs what? 1,000 tons?
Yes. It suffers from Pointless Engine-itis. Big displacement that does absolutely nothing. It’s actually capable of cruising at at least 100MPH (allegedly), on flat roads. On a highway, it’ll chill at whatever speed you want. Just thumping along. Throw a hill at it, different story. One day, while shooting, I tried to catch up to JF, driving a car ahead of me. He was going 60, I was going 50. WOT. Transmission shifts down to 3rd. Noise… And nothing more. Glaciers move faster than the speedometer. “I’ll drop it to second.” Hand on shifter, which is up on the shifter column where most cars now have their wiper controls or social media stick (different hand strokes send messages to your various pointless, social media accounts.). 2nd gear. More noise. Acceleration increases to the speed of a dog actively releasing its digested Alpo onto a sidewalk.
So it’s slow, but what do you expect from a truck engine in a massive 4,000+lb. car? And I didn’t care. The only thing I said to Mike was, “If we’re going to drive this across Arizona, or a desert, or in mountains, I want to make sure it works. Reliable is all I care about.” My dad’s 1979 International Scout II had left our family stranded in various parts of California a lot. A lot. A ski trip wasn’t real if it didn’t involve an alternator replacement in a some obscure slab of concrete civilization in middle California. Scarred for life I am.
“Dude, it’s got less than 60k miles on it! It’s a small block Chevy! This engine will last forever. I got all the fluids changed, tune up, all of it. We’re good.”
Two things made me confident in his answer. 1. Mike knows about cars. He’s built a few, and reads a lot. He’s old and wise. 2. He’s an adult. A real adult. He has a wife, and a clean house, and an income IRAs and stuff. Adults like that don’t want to drive a heap running on hope. He doesn’t want to waste his time and put up with shit. He’s not rich, but he wouldn’t buy a super-cheap car that kinda runs, because that’s his only option. That’s something that I would do, and I can be an idiot.
“Whoa, what was that?” “What?” “The car just shut itself off.”
We were traveling at 75MPH on Highway 680 and the car turned itself off…and I began laughing my ass off. I KNEW it. Flashbacks to watching Alladin in an empty movie theater in Roseville, CA while the Scout got it’s 3rd heart transplant of the season. The BW had failed. It wasn’t bulletproof; a domestic perpetual motion machine found in some granny’s garage. It was old, it had a problem, and the rest of the season (I’m predicting) will be interesting.
Thankfully, after coasting to a gas station, it immediately fired. And it “reliably” did that the next 3 times it shut off on the highway. Diagnosis is a gummed fuel filter, that gets clogged after prolonged flow, like leaves getting stuck in a grate during the course of a storm. Stopping allows whatever gunk is blocking it to fall back off.
We were able to finish the work week without a problem. The car ran perfectly while shooting with Mary Pozzi, but that whole day we began to talk about how to improve the “Battle Wagon.”
Step 1: Engine
It’s too slow. Sometimes the camera car needs to catch up to the subject car. Sometimes this needs to be done within the hour. It also has to be able to accelerate up a mild hill. We talked to David Pozzi, the master behind Mary’s stout, quick Camaro. He knows engines; There were 9 in his shop. He said heads and maybe exhaust work. We’re thinking engine swap. To quote an excited, wide-eyed Mike, “This car will have an LS motor by the end of the year!” Let’s hope so. You want to blow minds? Pull up to a light in this white whale, open some electronic dumps, and enjoy the confusion.
Step 2: Suspension
On the highway, the Caprice felt exactly like a Towncar. An old Towncar. The kind you could drive over one speed bump in NY and it would still be bouncing halfway to Florida. Bouncy, but oh so comfortable. Road trip capable: check.
But it could use some help in the super-massive-body-lean arena. This can be deduced as soon as you hear the words “1994 Caprice Wagon” but we had a little clinical trial.
Know how we get those moving shots of a car driving through corners? We stick a camera on the front and chase it. Most of the cars we film can easily maintain the exact speed limit, no matter how tight the corner or what a yellow sign recommends. I’ve been driving a camera car – often at very close proximity- for a few years now. I’ve also driven some very crappy cars -for fun- in canyons that had zero business being there. (Canyon runs in a muscle car with it’s original suspension? Scout? Vanagon?) I thought this car would have no business in the canyons. And to make it more interesting, I had 10-time SCCA Champ Mary Pozzi riding shotgun. If you’ve ever had a professional driver in the passenger seat, you probably felt their spidey sense tingling; judging your inputs and how you moved through traffic. Well now I had the Queen of grip and steering next to me, as I piloted a white whale through corners as fast as possible. I was nervous, because I wasn’t sure how the car would do. And although Mary reassured me she trusted me- a person she’d met 3 hours before and had never seen drive a car- to pilot this behemoth downhill near a cliff, I didn’t believe her.
The next hour was filled with laughter, fueled by nervousness, surprise and the illogical situation as a whole. See, this car actually stuck quite well. Much better than expected. That was the surprise. That also meant we were going faster than expected. Nothing breeds nervous “Wow, death MUST be imminent.” like driving a miniature school bus at speed.
But the Caprice held the line. No under-steer, no over-steer, no strange movement. I’d set it up early, get the door handles leaning on the asphalt, and it would just hold the turn. Not at 15MPH, or 30. We were at a perfectly-acceptable-for-camera 50ish MPH. Body lean in spades. Tire sidewall folding like corn in a tornado. It got the job done, but if we’re going to be doing this for a few years, we need it to be competent in the corners, not skating by on luck.
So a text was sent to Michael Heintz, our friend at Hotchkis Sport Suspension. There must be a moment of pause when your phone says, “Do you have suspension stuff for a 1994 Caprice Wagon?” Well, they do. All of it. Taken from their Impala catalog, we’re getting everything: shocks, springs, bracing bars, sway bars, control arms. The “Battle Wagon” is in boot camp.
Has anyone ever put this kind of love and work into adding performance to what is basically a squashed Amtrak car? No. But as any enthusiast knows, you can’t own a car for more than 10 seconds without pondering how to improve it. At the end of the day with Mary’s car, we stood around the open hood, trying to figure out how to give our Caprice some balls, and I realized this is what car people do. We will pop the hood of anything, no matter how ugly or mundane the car is, and inspect the engine. We’ll see how it was made, how it differs from other cars, and where we can make it better. Who modifies a 1994 Caprice Wagon so it can take corners at speed, cruise through Arizona at a good clip, or catch up with fast subject cars? We do. It’s just how we’re wired.
And this is the beginning of the Caprice Tales. We’ll be driving it thousands of miles, chasing crazy muscle cars. It wasn’t the initial idea, but it is better than any minivan, because it has character. Ridiculous, old, Griswoldian character. It’s a great camera car, holds everything we need, and with the giants in front, I basically have my own Business Class seat.
Keep an eye here for more updates on the “Battle Wagon”, as turn it from a family-hauling tortoise into the strangest pro-touring camera car ever.