Curbside Classic: 1986 Chevrolet Caprice – Changing Audiences

Turning on the television in the hotel room, the movie preview soon ground to a halt and was instantaneously replaced by the smiling face of a somewhat familiar actor.  With a synthetic joy coming from his now older appearing self, he began talking about the variety of great and reasonably priced entertainment options one can access in their hotel room.

If this once somewhat popular television actor was now hawking movie channels for hotels, it was painfully obvious this actor’s audience had changed considerably.  Such stands to reason; he’s now fifty and his popularity likely peaked twenty-odd years ago.

Seeing that spectacle reminded me of this Caprice I had photographed a day or two prior.

When introduced for 1977, the new downsized B-body was the fresh new actor who took the scene by storm, winning awards and garnering tremendous public favor.

All the various trade magazine gushed over this newcomer.  Consumer Guide announced the 1977 Caprice / Impala represented “a new era in passenger cars”.  Car & Driver enthused “big cars will never be the same”.  Road Test exclaimed “the car for Everyman has taken a turn for the better.”

Chevrolet sold over 660,000 of their new biggies in 1977.

Yet time has a bad habit of elapsing.  By July 1982, Car & Driver again reviewed a Caprice, sprinkling phrases such as “elderly”; “driving it…brings back memories…of Dad”; and, “Chevy basically decided to rest on its 1977 laurels” throughout the article.  While they generally liked the F-41 Caprice test car, the underlying message was the audience had moved on and GM was missing an opportunity.

Indeed the audience had moved on; around the time that article was published in 1982 the Caprice / Impala captured merely 15% of Chevrolet’s overall sales – behind the Citation and Chevette.  What had once been the undisputed top draw of the Chevrolet hierarchy was now the third wheel, relegated to a supporting role of sorts.

If one still believes in the continued dominance and influence of the full-size Chevrolet by 1986, look no further than this chart.  Any market dominance and influence was in that swirling motion before going down the drain.

By 1986, the Caprice, or full-sized Chevrolet for simplicity sake, was no longer the box office gold it had once been ten, twenty, and thirty years prior.

It was also for model year 1986 when Ford introduced the Taurus.  One could have cross-shopped one of these against our featured Caprice, both of which remain virtually unchanged…for five model years.

The praise Car & Driver heaped upon the 1986 Taurus could be viewed as an indirect dig at the Caprice.  Stating the Taurus’s bench seats were firm and supportive, not “sofa soft” while the steering was not of the “over-assisted, lifeless American norm”, it was obvious the magazine was a fan of this newly released golden child.

Life is full of fickleness and ogling of the latest and greatest doo-dad.  A good analogy for the Caprice could very well be our referenced actor.  The talent remains and there is now more life experience to make a more effective presentation of their character.  Yet as our Caprice had had a decade of experience in a role that had changed little, there had also been a decade of new actors to come along and steal the spotlight.

Not to mention the natural evolution of the audience itself.

Just among American cars in that intervening decade, there had been the introduction of the Chrysler K-cars (Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, and all spin-offs), the GM X-cars (Chevrolet Citation and the clan), the Ford Escort, and the front-drive General Motors A-bodies (Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, Pontiac 6000, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera).  Even Ford had downsized their full-sized cars in that time period.  All were new actors to detract one’s attention from the traditional talents of the Chevrolet Caprice and the other GM B-bodies.

There is also the other unpleasantry about life contained herein – there is a certain point for everyone in which the appearance of youthful freshness and vitality begins to erode.  Whether or not one’s demeanor and self-presentation has changed or remains constant is immaterial; while unfortunate, certain audiences tend to judge others by their appearance.  For these people a face with age-induced wrinkles and a receding jawline generally doesn’t present as well as a younger, fresher face does.

In addition to elapsing rapidly, time is also the great leveler to life’s playing field.  Over thirty-five years later, it isn’t overly difficult to discover a 1986 Chevrolet Caprice in the wild, even in unlikely territory, a car most identifiable by its one-year only front.  It is, however, nearly impossible to find any of these others.

While these other upstarts all appeared promising at the outset, most (with the notable exception of the GM A-body) were ultimately viewed as possessing a significant flaw of some variety.  Much like the actor who departs the scene due to legal issues or behavioral challenges (or both), how many of these cars introduced between 1977 and 1986 have departed the scene entirely?  Washed up, as in the Caprice, is often preferable to washed out.

Sure, the role of the Caprice declined over its life cycle given the change in its audience.  From being the new, full-size standard of the North American market in the late 1970s, the Caprice’s audience was distilled down to being one of geriatric buyers, law enforcement, and taxi use by the end of its career in 1990.  The Caprice had transitioned from being leading-man to character actor.  There is no shame in that as the need is perpetual.

The Caprice, like the popular actor whose star has faded, used its many talent to fill many roles during its run from 1977 to 1990.  Roles may diminish but talent does not.

It took a long time for another highly talented actor calling itself Impala to emerge from the Chevrolet womb and aim for box-office glory, but this full-sized Impala, found lurking fifty feet away from our featured performer, would ultimately be a day-player.

Rather, this Caprice had a starring role in a major feature.  While that movie is now old, and of a faded genre, that does not detract from what it offered to its industry at the time.  Plus, unlike some of the upstarts named earlier, the Caprice name itself was not a one-hit, or one generation, wonder.

Found May 30, 2023

Hollywood, California