(first posted 6/19/2015) In the long, strange and sometime tortured evolution of the classic large American sedan since WWII, there are exactly two moments when that species really hit the mark: The 1955 and 1977 Chevrolets. Everything else was fun to look at, fantasize about, ridicule, look back on with rose-colored glasses, or endlessly debate about. Yes, the fins of the late fifties were amusing, as was the build quality. And the endless bloat of the late sixties through the mid seventies may have generated some memorable childhood impressions, but unchecked cancer isn’t exactly a sustainable model upon which to base the family sedan. Just as the whole segment was about to metastasize into utter irrelevance, GM gulped the chemo, and built the finest and final expression of the genre.
The problem with peaks is that they inevitably require valleys. We’ve given the ’55 Chevy our accolades here, but lets just say that it was the final expression of the immediate post-war ideal; a delayed fulfillment of GM’s 1939 Futurama. A modern, powerful and stylish car, yes; but still practical, comfortable, and efficient. Unfortunately, that ideal soon got replaced with this:
The industry’s mid -fifties fascination with ever-more flamboyant and less practical modes of transportation soon overtook any serious consideration of what a mere sedan entails. And it was that preoccupation/ADD that largely contributed to the domestic industry’s downfall and near-demise. While the Europeans (and later the Japanese) took the matter of developing family sedans seriously, the Americans simply got lost, or caught in Sputnik fever. The results speak for themselves.
The 1955 Chevy sat six in comfort on its tall sofas, and had lively performance from its all-new small-block V8, despite it having only 162 (gross) hp. Tipping the scales at just over 3100 lbs, fuel economy was very decent, given the technology of the times. Its size and weight lent the ’55s a high degree of handling and maneuverability, and its build quality was excellent. By 1959, that was all a distant memory. And by the early seventies, the big Chevies weighed over 4500 lbs, with fuel economy in the low teens. The price for a bit more hip and shoulder room was…huge.
In 1973-1974, the Obese Three got caught in a nasty trap of their own making. The energy crisis made the big barges more irrelevant than they were already on their way to becoming. Even the “intermediates” had swollen to well over 4000 lbs. and relied on big blocks to motivate them, and the compacts no longer were that. The cancer had metastasized, and was now deadly. The problem was in affording the cure.
Only GM had the resources to initiate a drastic downsizing across the board, involving essentially every vehicle in their vast lineup. It was to be the most ambitious undertaking and restructuring in the automobile industry since Henry Ford idled all his factories for months to retool them for the Model A. More specifically, GM’s downsizing of the 1977-1980 eras was the single largest industrial investment since WW2. GM was about to reinvent itself, starting with its big cars.
The result was nothing less than shocking, if you were around in the fall of 1976. The new Chevrolet, and all the other GM B-Bodies, were the biggest single model year change since the crazy ’58-’59 one-two punch. Its wheelbase lost half a foot, and overall length was down almost a full foot. The tightly chiseled new body also lost 4″ in width, and actually gained 3″ in height; heresy! The literal decline of the American sedan over.
But not at the expense of interior room: unlike any American big sedan for decades, the new B-Bodies were designed from the inside out; what a revelation! Interior dimensions equaled or exceeded those of its bloated predecessors, and the seating position was now distinctly more upright.
Starting with a seating buck doesn’t mean that the exterior has to be homely. GM rediscovered that it was possible to make a shorter and taller sedan beautiful, inspired by no small part by the big Opel sedans that arrived in Europe eight years earlier, back in 1969. And of course, there was the Seville, which preceded the Caprice by two years. GM was adopting wholesale a new styling language that started with the Opel in ’69, and made last into the early nineties.
The new 116″ wheelbase was almost exactly the same as the ’55, and weight was also down by almost a thousand pounds from the ’76s, to as little as 3500 lbs. Sitting on a well-proven and revised perimeter frame and suspension evolved from (not the same as) the Colonnade cars, the new Chevy felt remarkably handy as well as competent, especially if optioned properly.
I’ve mentioned him before, but one of our engineers at the tv station at the time was an ultra-GM nerd, and he used the fleet arrangement we’d set up to buy lots of carefully-optioned GM cars for the station, employees and friends. One of the most memorable was the ’77 Caprice.
He was desperate to put one of them together from the brochure, and talked one of his well-heeled buddies into letting him order one up. We pored over the option book, and the result was pretty impressive: a white sedan (no vinyl roof) with the 170 hp four-barrel 350, and every HD option number that could be checked off, including of course the F41 suspension package.
When it arrived, we test drove it extensively before delivering it to its happy new owner. For the times, that F-41 Caprice was simply amazing; a mega-jump forward from the flaccid lumbering barges Chevy was selling the year before, and everyone else was still peddling. For the first time in ages, GM gave me a ray of hope about its capabilities and its future.
And it wasn’t just us: the buff-books raved about the F-41 equipped big Chevies, and not just because GM had slipped them a ringer or a dose of GM Kool-Aid. During the B-Bodies’ long reign until 1990, an F-41 suspended big Chevy was simply the best handling big domestic sedan there was in the land.
When Ford finally cranked out its new downsized LTD in 1979, it was all-too obviously a poor imitation of the handsome Caprice. The Ford had an even shorter 114″ wb, which hurt its proportions, and it rode on tiny little wheels and tires, all-too often adorned with the cheapest and tinniest fake wire wheel covers this side of the Pep Boys. To un-discerning eyes, the Ford may have been just the helping of mashed potatoes and gravy its Midwest buyers were looking for, but for someone cross-shopping (at least mentally) European sedans in LA in 1979, the Ford just came off as half-baked. (We did a detailed analysis of the two here.)
As were its dynamic qualities: the Panther’s suspension hadn’t been given the police car treatment yet; the 302 of the times was totally anemic, and Ford’s AOD transmission was a jerky-herky affair. Truth is, I wasn’t the only one; the buyers recognized it too. Ford’ new downsized LTD got off to a slow start in the sales stats.
The new B-Bodies propelled GM to a final huge upsurge in market share and sales, culminating in that grand blowout year of 1978: 9.66 million cars sold, and a 46% US market share. Heady times. And it was coming right out of Ford and Chrysler’s hide, pushing both of them into the verge of bankruptcy. GM’s bold and expensive gamble paid off, for the time being. Too bad it couldn’t maintain its momentum.
The downsized intermediate RWD A/G Bodies that arrived just one year after the full-size sedans was never quite as all-round competent, and plagued with GM’s ever-tightening purse: non-opening rear windows, self-destructing downsized transmissions, etc. The early B-Body was the high water mark, sadly it was all pretty much was downhill from there. It seems that GM was simply stretched too far in its massive program, and the subsequent cars all showed it; the X-Bodies most of all.
Did the B-Body have its flaws? Undoubtedly, and like all GM cars, generally the result of some cheap components or inconsistent assembly quality. Well, the interior wasn’t exactly much to look at either, if one had become spoiled by European standards. Whatever; those were the times when GM could still wow the Europeans with a good exterior styling job, but just don’t even open the door. It least it was comfortable and roomy.
For you young-uns who can only see (or imagine) a sea of yellow CVs as NY taxi cabs, it was once a very different story. The B’s utterly dominated the taxi and police market in their day, for plenty of good reasons. The Panthers only were embraced wholesale after GM pulled the plug on the B’s; well, or morphed into the that Moby Dickmobile, the 1991 Caprice. GM totally lost (shocked) me with that. But the fleets were not happy: GM could still be building the ’77-’90 version today, as it frankly should be, like the Tokyo cabs Toyota still builds in Japan.
Why not? GM could’a/should’a have kept the 77-90 Caprice in production, and owned the fleet business all of these past thirty years, like Toyota’s Crown Comforts in Japan. Just imagine ordering up one of them now with the latest in GM V8 power under the hood.
It wasn’t to be, and perhaps just as well. 1977 was a long time ago, but for those of us who were there, it was a pivotal year in the evolution of the classic American sedan.
(originally published in 2010 at TTAC)