Vintage Reviews: Motor Trend’s 1977 New Car Issue – General Motors

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1977 was a momentous year for General Motors.  The corporation’s huge gamble–downsizing its biggest cars–arrived on the market.  All eyes were on how the good the cars would be and curiosity abounded as to how the market would accept the new offerings.  Motor Trend offered their run down on all the news for October 1976 issue, covering the downsized full-sized cars along with details on all the changes to the rest of GM’s ample fleet of models.

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Smaller on the outside but just as big inside.  That was the main goal of GM’s downsizing program for its biggest cars, from Cadillac to Chevrolet.  Efficiency was “in,” wasted space was “out.”  For GM’s flagship Cadillac Division, which had built its reputation and sales success on extravagant size and flamboyant styling, the reduction program was particularly daunting.

Undoubtedly, GM executives were heartened by the strong marketplace performance of the X-Car-based Seville, which demonstrated that American luxury buyers were indeed ready for a smaller, more rational Cadillac.  The Seville also kicked off a new styling direction–the “sheer look” with smooth, clean lines, careful detailing and a more upright greenhouse with a “formal” (i.e. vertical) rear window.

That design ethos translated quite well to the larger Cadillacs.  The DeVille series was still imposing, but not as bloated as its predecessor, while looking much more contemporary.  The “entry level” Calais was dropped, while the “premium” Fleetwood Brougham now shared its wheelbase with the DeVille, but offered fancier trim.  Buyers snapped up the smaller big Cadillacs: DeVille sales rose 24% compared to the combined Calais/DeVille sales in 1976, while Fleetwood Brougham sales rose 14%.  Limo drivers were fans of the downsized models as well, with sales of the Fleetwood Limousine models enjoying a 44% uptick.

The elephantine Eldorado held its own in the showroom against the downsized cars–sales dipped a slight 4%, which could be attributed in part to the lack of the convertible body style for ’77.  Other than the discontinued drop-tops, the biggest change to the personal luxury behemoth was the elimination of the mammoth 500 CID V8.  The 1977 Eldorado shared the 425 CID V8 with the rest of the big Cadillacs–a slight nod to efficiency.

Cadillac’s efficiency pioneer, the Seville, suffered the sharpest dip in sales (-23%) as some Cadillac buyers likely migrated to the downsized cars.  The Seville had minimal changes, and being X-Car based, couldn’t hold a candle to the roominess of the newly designed DeVille and Fleetwood, even though it weighed almost as much.

Here are Cadillac’s sales totals for 1977:

DeVille  234,171
Eldorado  47,344
Seville  46,212
Fleetwood Brougham  28,000
Fleetwood Limousine  2,614

 

Those volumes were incredible, really, for a premium-priced luxury brand.  The DeVille series alone outsold all Lincoln products combined.  Downsizing had paid off big time for Cadillac, and the profits generated must have yielded excellent bonuses for GM’s top brass.

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Naturally, Buick also jumped on the downsizing bandwagon for 1977.  In fact, Buick was the only division to also downsize its high-end personal luxury car as well.  Granted, Riviera sales had been quite slow relative to its sister E-Bodies, so there wasn’t much to lose.  The new Riviera shared the LeSabre Coupe’s B-Body, dressed up with fancier trim.  The result was handsome, if not terribly unique, and enough to drive a 30% increase in sales.  The rest of the smaller “big” Buicks were quite successful too: B-body LeSabre sales climbed 39% and the Estate Wagon was up 23%, while the slightly larger C-Body Electra posted a 30% increase.  No longer could Buick buyers select the massive 455 engines–the largest available for ’77 was the Olds-built 403 V8, while the Buick-built 350 V8 was the core engine offering.  Buick’s 231 V6 was standard in LeSabre, and better suited to the lighter ’77 cars.  The most surprising big Buick twist was the arrival of the LeSabre Sports Coupe, which offered remarkably agile handing for a full-sized 2-door.

One major fear at GM was the potential impact of the size overlap between the new B-Bodies and the carryover Colonnade A-Bodies–exterior dimensions were very similar, while the Bs were much roomier inside.  No need for Buick to worry, however, as the personal luxury A-Body Regal coupes saw a 40% sales increase.  The rest of the Century line (and Regal sedan) sales saw a 15% decline, which really wasn’t that bad given how tempting the new B-Bodies were.

As for Buick’s smaller offerings, there wasn’t much news.  Skylark sales stayed flat, the Opel by Isuzu (not covered by Motor Trend but on showroom floors nonetheless) gained 16%, and for some unknown reason, Skyhawk sales surged 52%.  Must have been the new egg-crate grille…

Here are the Buick sales results by model:

LeSabre  190,726
Regal Coupe  174,560
Electra  161,627
Century  153,636
Skylark  113,472
Opel  29,065
Riviera  26,138
Estate Wagon  25,075
Skyhawk  24,004

 

Clearly a lot of customers would really rather have had a Buick: total division sales reached 898,303, representing an 18% increase over 1976.

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Oldsmobile was riding high as 1977 got underway.  The wildly popular Cutlass line had been the best selling car nameplate in the U.S. for 1976, and the Olds division was second to Chevrolet in sales volume within GM.  Like all other GM executives, Oldsmobile’s leadership undoubtedly had their fingers crossed that the full-size downsizing program would pay off.  For Oldsmobile, they didn’t want anything to derail the Cutlass phenomenon, and of course, since the big cars were still a huge part of Oldsmobile’s business–they needed to do well too.  Turns out there was no need to worry.

First off, the Delta 88 was second in sales among the B-Bodies, trailing only the Caprice/Impala from Chevrolet.  Compared with 1976, Delta 88 sales increased 4o%, Custom Cruiser climbed 47%, and C-Body Ninety-Eight sales rose 33%.  While the Buick-built 231 V6 was standard for the Delta 88, most big Oldsmobiles came with either the 350 V8 or 403 V8 under hood, both engines ostensibly built by Olds, though Chevrolet 350 V8s were substituted on some cars, leading to class action lawsuits and the dawn of GM’s “corporate engine” era.

Despite sharing the showrooms with the well designed, practical and efficient full-size Oldsmobiles, the Cutlass craze continued.  Buyers just couldn’t get enough of the Cutlass style, whether in one of the Supreme Coupes (+40% year-over-year) or any of the other Cutlass sedans, coupes and wagons (+20% year-over-year).  Even the virtually unchanged Omega benefitted from all the Oldsmobile showroom traffic, as sales rose 10%.

The only losers in the Olds line were at the top and bottom of the range.  The top-line personal luxury Toronado, still based on the old FWD E-Body, suddenly seemed very fat and old fashioned next to the downsized cars.  Sales declined 29%.  The subcompact “sporty” Starfire took the worst hit: sales tanked 35%.  Maybe those shoppers were more enticed by the new egg-crate grille on the Skyhawk…

When Oldsmobile advertising asked “Can we build one for you?” buyers answered with a resounding yes!  Divisional sales rose 27% to 1,126,222 units.  Here are the sales by model:

Cutlass Supreme Coupe  424,343
Delta 88  213,851
Cutlass  208,399
Ninety-Eight  139,423
Omega  63,984
Toronado  24,304
Custom Cruiser  32,827
Starfire  19,091

 

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GM’s B-Body superstars came from Chevrolet.  Combined Caprice/Impala sales totaled 661,661 units, up 56% from 1976, making the full-size Chevy the best selling car in America for 1977.  With good reason too: the new downsized design were great looking, functional and drove well, redefining what the full-size car was all about.  Surprisingly, in spite of the excellent full-sized choices for ’77, the older, less practical A-Body Chevelle only dipped 2%.  I’ll bet Chevy dealers were discounting the Colonnades like crazy, while selling the new B-Bodies much closer to sticker.  As for the Corvette?  Though really dated, it remained the only American sports car choice for Seventies hipsters, and sales rose 6%.

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Chevrolet’s “Pony Car Lite”–the Monza, continued to battle it out with Ford’s Mustang II as well as sporty imports.  It wasn’t that easy however, as competition was tough and sales dipped 9%.  Monte Carlo, on the other hand, dominated the personal luxury market with its over-styled swagger–sales climbed 16% even though nothing changed besides the grille pattern.  Even with a new power train, Vega sales declined 51% for 1977, though the fact that anyone bought a Vega at all was mind-boggling.  The car’s reputation was that bad.

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Chevrolet’s original Pony Car fared very well for 1977, with sales climbing 20%, as buyers renewed their interest in good looking 2-door sporty cars with pretty decent performance options.  Not much was new with the Nova/Concours, but it didn’t matter: buyers liked the affordable compact Chevy and sales rose 9%.  The subcompact Chevette, on the other hand, failed to meet expectations and dropped 29%.

Still, there was far more up than down in Chevrolet’s sales numbers, and the division remained America’s number one brand, ending the 1977 model year up 10% with 2,270,251 units sold.  Here’s the breakdown by model nameplate:

Monte Carlo  411,038
Nova/Concours  365,264
Chevelle  328,216
Caprice Classic  284,813
Impala  254,916
Camaro  218,853
Chevette  133,469
Impala/Caprice Wagon  121,932
Vega  78,402
Monza  73,348
Corvette  49,213

 

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Pontiac also enjoyed a great year for 1977.  Like its sister GM divisions, Pontiac’s downsized big cars were a big hit.  Under hood, Pontiac trotted out a new, smaller 301 V8 as part of the efficiency push–a far cry from the performance years of the 1960s.  Still, buyers loved the new approach, and Bonneville/Catalina sales were up 67% to 207,920 units, while the model mix shifted markedly in favor of the Bonneville, which no doubt helped profit margins. The B-body success took a bite out of LeMans sales, however, as the A-body sales dropped 15%.

Though in the last year of its model cycle, the personal luxury Grand Prix enjoyed a 26% uptick, while the even older Firebird got a very attractive facelift and saw a 41% increase in sales (no doubt helped by the hugely popular Smokey and the Bandit movie starring a black Trans Am).

On the small car front, Pontiac’s compact line got an upmarket addition in mid-1977 with the arrival of the Phoenix (not covered in this fall 1976 Motor Trend report).  Basically a Ventura with fancier trim and a more prominent schnoz, the Phoenix helped lift Pontiac’s X-Body sales 22%.  Sales for the one-year-old Sunbird rose 6%, and the cars could be had with the new 151 CID 4-cylinder (aka the Iron Duke), which would go on to provide millions of GM cars with unremarkable power in the coming decade.  Some Astre models got the new 151 4-cylinder as well, but it didn’t help the Vega variant–sales dropped 35%.

Now for the Pontiac sales totals by model:

Grand Prix  288,430
Firebird  155,736
Bonneville  114,880
Ventura/Phoenix  90,764
LeMans  81,391
Catalina  61,678
Sunbird  55,398
Astre  32,788
Safari/Grand Safari  31,362

 

Pontiac’s total volume of 912,427 earned the 3rd place ranking among GM divisions: behind Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, while ahead of Buick and Cadillac.  Not bad for a company that had been struggling with the transition from performance to efficiency and broughams, as needed for success in the 1970s.

All told, 1977 was a fantastic year for The General.  The company’s bold gamble on smaller big cars looked incredibly smart and timely.  The products themselves were high quality and well designed, leading to many satisfied owners and great word-of-mouth.  GM’s dominance in personal luxury cars continued unabated, and other smaller lines fared pretty well too.  The corporation achieved car sales of 5,565,544 units, up 16% over 1976 and a whopping 2,953,340 cars ahead of second place Ford Motor Company.  In 1977, General Motors seemed absolutely invincible.  No one would have ever dreamed that just 15 years later, this poster child of American business success would be flirting with bankruptcy…