Curbside Classic: 1994 Chevrolet Caprice – The Sun Sets On GM’s Big RWD Cars

It’s easy to forget just what a milestone–or grave stone–these cars represent: the end of the road of almost a hundred years of traditional big American RWD cars from General Motors. Who could have foreseen that in 1955, when GM alone sold four million of them and owned over half the market, with a 50.4% share?  Nobody.

In 1955, VW was just getting starting to become a serious manufacturer. In 1955, Toyota built all of 7,005 cars. Did either of them dream of becoming the two biggest automakers in the world?

But there’s somebody who’s stated dream is to overtake them both.

Elon Musk has stated that Tesla’s goal is to make 20 million cars per year by 2030, which is more than Toyota and VW combined built in 2021 (about 19 million).

This post did not start out to be about Elon Musk and Tesla, which is projected to build some 1.5 million EVs this year, up from just under one million in 2021. But it’s an inconvenient truth that Tesla is the biggest disrupter of the market since…VW and Toyota. Will Tesla meet its 20 million per year goal? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to watch them try, as it has been so far. BTW, Tesla is now the #1 selling premium brand in the US, having leap-frogged BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.

It’s somewhat debatable whether the 1905 Buick or Cadillac best represent the beginning of this long road of front engine RWD GM cars, but since the Buick had two cylinders to the Caddy’s one, let’s give it the nod. It deserves it, as Buick was really the heart, soul and cash cow of GM for a very long time; it was the core around which Durant added so many other brands, quite a few that were soon irrelevant and killed off.

After Durant was booted out of GM in 1910, he backed the creation of the first Chevrolet, a rather big and pricey six cylinder, with 4.9 liter displacement. In 1914, Durant leveraged profitable Chevrolet to regain control of GM.

In 1917, Chevrolet introduced the Model D, with a 288 cubic inch OHV V8. It made 36 hp @2700 rpm, a not inconsiderable amount for the time. But it was even more expensive, and was dropped after one year. After that Chevrolet started moving downmarket to eventually take on Ford.

Given that our featured Caprice has some version of the Chevy small block V8 that first arrived in 1955 (above), it’s not a stretch to say that there were really only three distinct Chevrolet V8 families under the hoods of their full-sized cars: the Model D, the SBC, and the big block W and Mark IV (same basic block). That’s a notable fact.

We covered the decline and death of the big American car in my post “Who Killed The Big American Car?“. This chart shows how that whole industry segment declined from 1950.

Here’s the Chevrolet version, starting in 1955. Chevrolet outperformed its segment from 1958 through 1964, thanks to weak showings at Ford and Chrysler. But starting in 1965, the decline appears to be even steeper than the whole segment, as buyers increasingly moved to mid-level brands like Pontiac, Olds and Buick. That was fine for GM overall, but not good for Chevy. By the end of the sixties, market share for the full size Chevrolet was below 8%, or less than one-third what it had been as late as just 1958. A precipitous plunge.

After 1980, market share was essentially stuck at around 2%, and undoubtedly fleet sales represented a very healthy percentage of that, as Chevy taxis and cop cars were almost ubiquitous for much of that era. The “new” 1991 models gave a bit of a boost, but that evaporated after just one year. From then on market share was well below 1% and dropping, which of course explains GM’s decision to ditch them after 1996 in favor of better selling SUVs at the last remaining plant in Arlington, TX.

I don’t know if this example was a former fleet car or not, as there’s no obvious visible tell-tales.

It’s seen better days, but it’s also still on the road. A survivor of a rapidly vanishing breed.

I was not a fan of this major restyle of the “Box Bs”, trying too hard to be both “Aero” as well as reviving the excessive width of the 1970s. It just didn’t click for me, and presumably for much of the market. But in reality, 98% of the market wasn’t even looking at big RWD sedans and wagons by this time; they’d moved on to so many other things on the market.

We had a neighbor who had one of these, in white too, but a 1995 or 1996, with the little affected “Hoffmeister kink”. Sweet old guy; a retired dairy man. It was the only one of its kind in our part of town. He drove it until he couldn’t anymore, and then it probably ended up in the hands of a young guy like the owner of this one. Old cars are cool, especially if they’re cheap.

It’s common to assert that trucks and SUVs have replaced the big American sedan, but the stats don’t really support that.  The market shifted in many ways starting back in the late ’50s with the imports and in the ’60s with compacts, pony cars and mid-sized cars.  Looking at that chart above, it’s clear that these are what replaced the full-sized RWD car, more so than trucks at the time. By the time truck and SUV sales really kicked into high gear, the full-sized car was already a minor player.

Nothing really replaced the full size American car; it just became increasingly irrelevant, and thus died a natural death.


Related reading:

Who Killed The Big American RWD Car?  PN