Curbside Classic: 1976 Chevrolet Laguna S-3 – A Beach Too Far


(first posted 1/29/2013)    In their respective heydays, Chevrolet and California were made for each other.  California was the land of milk and honey, with a fabulous climate, gorgeous coastal areas, and was the place where the beautiful people went to live and play.  Chevrolet was unique among lower-priced cars in that it was almost invariably the most beautiful girl at the party.  The folks at Chevy could certainly cut corners to keep prices down, but these cuts never came at the expense of styling or trim.  Pretty much from the end of the Second World War on up into the 1970s, Chevrolet seemed to be the gateway to the Good Life.


Chevrolet’s California connection even showed up in the cars themselves, beginning with their first hardtop coupe in 1950, which Chevrolet chose to name for one of the premier residential addresses of the era, one that suggested to all of America that the car was somehow special: Bel-Air.  As the 1960s got underway, Chevy was right there again, pitching youth and sun and surf with the Malibu, named after a Pacific Ocean beach known to youth all over America.


The 1970s brought a new era: that of the Brougham.  As the ’70s got underway, luxury and elegance were the traits of the hottest selling cars, and the sporty motif that had topped so many model lines during the 1960s was foundering.  This transition caused some trouble at more than one automaker, as some had a bit of trouble with the transition; the Plymouth Satellite comes to mind.


The Chevrolet of the early ’70s was still the king of the hill, with an advantage available to few others.  After the smashing success of the Monte Carlo, Chevrolet was able to chase both the luxury/brougham buyer and the sports coupe buyer with two similar yet very different cars.  Through 1972, Chevy chased the performance buyer with the tried and true Chevelle SS.  Being an American car company of that era, however, they decided it was time for a new name.  Just as the Impala and Caprice had piled on and pushed the old Bel-Air downmarket, 1973 brought us a new car and a new name: the Laguna.


Named for another famous Southern California beach, the Laguna was a marriage of sport and luxury reminiscent of the Ford XLs and Chrysler 300s of the mid- to late-1960s.  The Laguna topped the new line of mid-size Colonnade coupes, sedans and wagons, but somehow, something went wrong.  While the Laguna Coupe did modestly well, with nearly 43,000 units produced, the other body styles tallied up production figures more Studebaker than Chevrolet–and mind you, this was in a year of record automotive sales in the U.S.  Somehow the Laguna did not strike the same chord with buyers as the Malibu had done (and continued to do).  For 1974, the Laguna was sacked as Chevy’s A-body flagship and replaced by the Malibu Classic.  That turned out to be the right decision, as the Malibu Classic was good for nearly 234,000 total sales (up from the ’73 Laguna’s 70,000-unit total), even in a year, socked by recession and high gas prices, which saw an overall drop in Chevy’s A body sales.


The Laguna name, however, continued to live on in the only model where it had shown any life–the sporty coupe.  The Laguna’s sole model in the 1974 Chevelle lineup was the S-3.  Could this have been a bone thrown to the dwindling number of Chevy A-body performance buyers who no longer had a Malibu SS?  Perhaps.  Although the newer car lacked the all-out performance of the departed Malibu SS, it would still get up and move with an optional 454 V8 and several other performance goodies. By the end of the year, however, Chevrolet had proof that the performance market was melting like an ice cube in a cup of hot coffee: Fewer than 22,000 Laguna S-3s found buyers in 1974.


The car was given another opportunity in 1975, largely due to Chevrolet’s need to supply NASCAR drivers with a winning Chevy.  The S-3, now with a new and more aerodynamic front fascia, would serve as the Chevy of choice on the stock car circuit.  Introduced in January 1975–well into the 1975 model year–the S-3 was hardly a retail success: even considering its short 1975 run, 7,788 sales of a sporting Chevrolet A-body was dismal.  The car did little better in 1976, selling 9,100 examples for the year.  The final year of the Colonnade A-body would not have a Laguna S-3 in the lineup.  These low sales figures were not overlooked at NASCAR which, after the 1977 racing season, disqualified the S-3 as a limited-edition model.  Certainly the car was not intended to be a limited edition model, but the car-buying public made it one.


I saw this bright green Laguna S-3 in the summer of 2011.  When I saw it, I realized that I had forgotten all about the Chevy Laguna.  I passed it on the street late on a sunny July afternoon and turned around to look for it.  I succeeded, finding it in a supermarket parking lot.  Now, before any comments on the pictures, I know that my CC posts are not being picked up by any photography blogs.  We all have our own gifts, and I freely admit that photography is not one of mine.  But these bright sunny conditions gave the old JPC BlackberryCam all it could handle and then some.  I was not too happy with the pictures I got, but I held out hope of seeing this car again. Well, not only have I never seen this one again, but I have never seen another–nor has any other CC contributor done a piece on one of these cars.  So, sorry– bad pictures or not, I could not sit on this one any longer.


When this car was new, I was anything but a Chevy fan, and thus paid virtually no attention to these.  All these years later, I find in this car an undeniable appeal.  Although I like big V8 sleds, I have always preferred sporty to broughamy.  By the time this car was built, in 1975-76, there was really nothing else like it on the American market.  Sure, Plymouth was still offering a Road Runner package, but on the new “Small Fury” body it came off like a 50-year-old accountant wearing a Speedo.  This particular S-3 clearly bears the scars of a long-time Midwestern daily driver.  But even after its hard life, this S-3 still has enough swagger to make it my new favorite Chevrolet Colonnade.


The Laguna was one of the rare flops that came from Chevrolet in that era.  It didn’t work as a luxury/sports coupe, nor as a sporty, performance-oriented coupe.  I guess this is why John DeLorean is known as the Father of the GTO, and not as the Father of the Laguna–which he very much was, as the head of the Chevrolet Division during its gestation and introduction.  It was the car that proved that the performance era was over, and that the Brougham era was not to be stopped.  It also proved that although one California beach can be a very popular place in a new car showroom, another may not be able to draw a crowd.  As they say in real estate, location, location, location.