Curbside Classic – 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic – GM Knocks One Out Of The Park

(first posted 5/6/2013)    This is it: The 1978 Caprice Classic. The remarkably right-for-the-times full-sizer that proved GM could still do a car right, when they weren’t preoccupied with badge engineering and half-baked technology (Vega engine anyone?). Despite taking hits–lots of them–in the ’70s, the downsized 1977 B-bodies took the U.S. market by storm. While all the various flavors were well-received (and my favorite remains the Bonneville), there is no doubt the Chevy version was the most popular.

As most of you B-body lovers know, the ’76 Caprice Classic was the last of the gunboats. Despite an attractive new nose with rectangular headlights, these Bs were not the solid, overbuilt models like the 1970 versions were. Like Ford with the Mustang II, GM had no idea that a gas crisis was coming–either the first one in late 1973 or the second one in 1979. They just realized their cars were a bit too zaftig and needed to go on a crash diet.

In the fall of 1976 “The New Chevrolet” debuted. To buyers used to gigantic Chevys, it was a revelation. They were also much better road cars, with improved handling over the 1971-76 version–even without the optional F41 suspension package.

The top of the line Caprice Classic was available in the usual coupe, sedan and station wagon body styles (Caprice wagons with available Di-Noc woodgrain on the sides, natch). I was very familiar with the ’77 Caprice Estate, as no less than two were owned by neighbors: A pristine cream one and a bit more weathered dark brown one–both with the woodgrained sides. There was also a yellow Citation, light green ’80 Continental, dark blue Ninety Eight Regency and beige Fairmont on our street. My folks were the odd ones out with their Volvo 240s and Dad’s old ’51 Porsche 356!

A bit more unusual was the bent-glass rear window featured on the Caprice and Impala coupes. It really lent a sporty air to what was otherwise a rather Broughamy conveyance. If you wanted even more Brougham, a Landau model with canopy vinyl roof, pinstripes and wire wheel covers was available (Car Show Classic writeup here).

But as snazzy as the Caprice coupes were, they were small potatoes compared to the sedan’s sales volume. Yes, the Caprice Classic sedan was king of the Bs, with over 212,840 sold in inaugural ’77. That was even better than the ’77 Impala sedan, which saw 196,824 units out the door.

That was quite an impressive jump from 1976 Caprice four-door sales. Even when accounting for the additional hardtop sedan in 1976–a model that disappeared in 1977, never to return–that was close to double 1976’s Caprice sedan sales of 102,719. 1977 was also the first time the Caprice sedan outsold the Impala sedan.

Yes, in the late 1970s, more and more folks wanted luxury if they were springing for a full-size car. At the same time, Bonnevilles were outselling Catalinas, and I suspect that if you looked at production stats for other big sedans from the 1975-79 period, you would see fancier models superseding the “plain” version of the same car. Broughamier minds were prevailing.

For 1978, Chevy did not mess with success, and the Caprice Classic received only the most minor of updates: new grille, new taillights, and a new steering wheel with A-shaped spokes replaced the previous 1977 version with spokes at 3 and 9 o’clock.

Caprice Classic sales repeated their strong 1977 output, with 203,837 sedans, 37,301 coupes, 22,771 Landau coupes, 24,792 two-seat Estates and 32,952 three seat Estates. Caprice wagons came standard with the 145-hp 305 V8, while sedans and coupes came with the 145-hp six. Optional on all models was the 170-hp 350 CID (5.7L) V8. When combined with the 350 and the F41 handling package, you had yourself a formidable Brougham indeed.

Despite being the top-trim model, Caprice Classics could be loaded up with lots of additional options–like most every other Detroit car of the time. Selected accessories included power windows, a power antenna, AM/FM-CB radio, the aforementioned F41 package, Comfortron ACC and, newly available in ’78, a power Sky Roof.

On a dreary day last May–the same day I discovered the 1976 2002, in fact–I ran across this sky blue ’78 Classic sedan. It was clearly a well-loved original, and the light blue paint, white vinyl roof and wire wheel covers (off of a two-door Landau, judging from the center caps) shouted out “elderly original owner.”

Remember those goofy bug visors on cars in the ’70s and ’80s? This one had one, no doubt installed when the car was new. They may be ugly, but they protected this car’s nose from rock chips for 25 years. Now, how about detaching it and putting it on a shelf in the garage? It would improve the looks so much!

You’ll have to excuse the less-than-stellar interior shots, as I had not yet discovered the proper CC interior shot format. Those blue seats, with the optional 50/50 split-bench option and reclining passenger seat, looked awfully comfy. As I recall, this example didn’t even have the all-too-common droopy headliner. Clearly this ’78 has been garaged from day one.

Chevy’s 1977 Caprice/Impala lasted through the 1979 model year, and aside from new, more aerodynamic sheetmetal in 1980 (CC here) and minor facelifts in 1986 and 1987, carried on until early 1990 (’90 Brougham LS CC here), when they were re-bodied with the ’90s Hudson Hornet design. But I happen to think these 1977-79s were the best of the bunch.