I grew up a car nut, from a long line of car nuts and I consider myself the world’s leading authority on the GM B Body of 1977-1996. Why is this, you may ask? Well, my family had the unique experience of owning and operating a fleet of taxi cabs. You could say I was raised with cars as part of the blood stream. I have driven every iteration of B Body literally hundreds of thousands of kilometers. So where did you say I’m taking you? B-town; right.
The technical aspects of the B Body have been described many times and I will not go into great detail about them. The impetus for the B Body was the Great Oil Shock of 1973. By this time, the basic Chevrolet had grown into a 4500 lb monster with middling quality to say the least. GM’s own profitability and quality had also taken a pretty big hit, too, and something was needed to address both issues. The solution was typically GM: adapt an existing frame and bolt a new body onto it.
In this case, the 115.9 inch wheelbase of the A body was offered up. When introduced in 1964 it was one of the most sophisticated systems available, with four wheel coil springing and the steering box ahead of the front wheels. The geometry was some of the best in the business and the package drove well. The new body was higher and boxier than the A body so very little interior room was sacrificed, almost none in most dimensions that really mattered. The New Chevrolet of 1977 weighed in at something around 3700 lbs and was an immediate success. People knew that they were onto a good thing.
Finally, some sensibility had gotten into the mainstream North American sedan. The cars drove very well. Even the base suspensions held the road very well and there was no wallow at all. The F-41 Sport Suspension on the Chevrolet was truly a revelation; the cars drove at least as well as any European sedan available at the time. What was more, the cars used thirty percent less fuel than the previous year’s car, drove better and was easier to park to boot. There was a B Body to suit any budget, from a stripper Bel Air to loaded Buick LeSabre, although I can only recall ever seeing one Bel Air that was not sold as a police car.
The 1977-1979 cars were by far the best of the lot. They had the classic V-8/TurboHydramatic 350 pairing. Lock up torque converters? We don’t need such fancy-schmancy things! These cars were all about torque, creamy, velvety torque. The Chevrolet version had a 250 CID six cylinder as standard but I never saw one. About sixty percent of the ones I saw were 305s and the rest 350s. The 305 could move around a lightly optioned Impala just fine, thank you, and the 350 had loads of useful torque. The cars were simple and reliable and all the parts from the A Body bolted right on. This made the new car reliable and the mechanics at the dealerships knew how to fix them without going to school, something mechanics are not terribly fond of in my experience.
Of course there were different versions for each division and the best was the Oldsmobile 88 Royale Brougham. The ones from 1977-1979 could be had with Olds 350s and 403s and after 1980 the 307. Here is the major turning point of the B Body. After 1980, GM was doing everything it could to cheapen the cars out. This had a very negative effect on the Chevrolet versions. Everything that could be made smaller, was. This is particularly evident in the truly horrible THM200 that went in the 305 cars and the smaller rear ends. The cars were so bad that they could not be used for taxis. This is when we switched to Oldsmobiles only.
A loaded Royale was a very nice car to drive in FE3 heavy duty suspension form. The motor, while not especially powerful, made useful torque and cars handled very well. The overdrive four speed gave very good fuel economy on the highway. The interiors were comfortable and durable. The electrical accessories lasted pretty much forever and passengers loved the cars. It appeared that there was enough profit in each car that GM could still make them with some quality.
My first real exposure to a B Body was at the age of fifteen, when my dad factory ordered a 1979 Chevrolet Impala with 350, a/c and F-41 suspension. The car was delivered in March of that year and I had read the owner’s manual a hundred times by the time I got my license in October of 1980! I still remember the car cost $9200, or $28,000 in today’s money. That’s a lot when you consider the car didn’t have any power toys. I still remember going to the dealership and driving it away, a pretty exciting experience for a 15 year old. Soon after, we found the car was a quality disaster. There was a huge dent in the top of the dash and the paint job must have been done by a drunk. The drive train was, however, bulletproof and went over one million kilometers (the motor, anyway!) before the car, by then a taxi, was retired.
My most lasting memory of a B Body was one I bought used for taxi use at a later time. It was a totally Plain Jane 1977 Impala with a 305 and no a/c. One sunny summer day about 1984, my girl and I took a road trip up the east coast of Vancouver Island in it. The car was baby puke brown with tan interior.
What I remember of this car was it was just so honest. Cruising up the Island Highway with the 4/100 air conditioning (four windows down, 100 km/h) on a sunny day with a pretty girl in a Chevy was as close to bliss as I have ever been in my life. The car rode well, handled well and wasn’t bad on fuel. It was as big as a house inside and you could really stretch out on that bench seat and have your honey sittin’ right next to you while you listened to country music on the one speaker AM radio, which is exactly what we did, There were no rattles and squeaks. It was the high point for GM and I knew at the time at the high point of my young life to that moment.
How long could I go on about the B Body GM cars? Well, until all my readers fell asleep. I still think they were the last honest products GM made, a good car for the money and way ahead of their competition. The Ford didn’t drive nearly as well and had awful steering and electrics, not to mention the horrid AOD. The Chrysler was an also ran, not even worth considering.
Then in 1996, GM finally pulled the plug on the B Body. The real end was in 1985 when the last RWD Oldsmobile 88 was made. There hasn’t been a GM car since I have been remotely interested in owning but if I came across a Plain Jane ’77 Impala in good shape, I’d snap it up in a heart beat. I have the pretty girl, the road is still there and all I need is my Chevy.
(Len Peters is also known hereabouts as Canucknucklehead)