My Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Caprice Classic – It’s The NEW Chevrolet

caprice front

High fuel prices, uncertainty in the Middle East and at home, economic troubles, tightening CAFE  regulations. No, it’s not 2012, but 1980, a year that marked the start of the long goodbye for the classic full-size American car. The fact that it took so long would have been highly unpredictable during those grim years of 1980 – 1981. But gas prices receded, the economy recovered, and The NEW 1980 Chevrolet became an evergreen. Or Classic, more precisely. Here’s its story as told through my own 1980 Caprice Classic.

This was a time when these cars were referred to by its maker as “The Chevrolet”, not Impalas or Caprices.  For decades, the full size Chevrolet had been the standard bearer of the Chevy lineup, the meat and potatoes American family car. But the writing was on the wall, when in 1980 the hot new Citation sold over 800,000 units, (a staggering 811,540 to be exact, over an admittedly long model year but still quite a feat).  As they say…things would never be the same again. For the Chevrolet, for GM, and for the way that people looked at full size cars.

The timing of the launch of the Citation couldn’t have been better. Introduced as an early 1980 model right after the 1979 oil embargo, the Citation and its X-Car brethren represented the wave of the future: front wheel drive, space and fuel efficient with transverse mounted 4 and 6 cylinder engines. With the Citation and its most modern layout and packaging, cars like the Caprice and its competitors were done for. What was new and revolutionary just three years before in 1977 was now the dinosaur staring at the comet of the 1980’s raining down on it.

All the big GM B and C body cars were given an aero tweak to lower drag and increase fuel efficiency, but it was mainly a stopgap; the B and C body cars would barely receive any more changes through the remainder of their days. For example, so little changed on the Caprice between ’80 and ’85 that most people compliment me on how nice my ’84 or ’85 is. They seem to be confused when I tell them it’s a 1980.

It’s not like it looks ultra modern either way, but 1980 through 1985 Caprices were virtually unchanged until they received some slight styling changes for 1986. By that time the Caprice’s B-body coupe and sedan corporate cousins (save the Pontiac Parisienne 4-door, in its swan-song year) had gone on to the big used car lot in sky. By 1987 the Caprice was the last of the Mohicans, save the B-O-P wagons. Chevrolet managed to sell only 385,657 full sized cars in 1980, ’81 was bleaker still with only 219,425 going off the lots.

Often the best finds are the ones you weren’t even looking for; I was thinking about finding a big B-body RWD GM car, and after checking out a few disappointing ones on Craigslist, I had sort of given up finding one that was in decent shape. Then one morning while on my return trip back from my pseudo-exercise bike ride, I came across my Caprice. It was parked in a small strip mall near in one of the parking spaces closest to the road. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed her, a clean two- tone Caprice…wait, what was that? Those lines in the roof…did that Caprice have a sunroof?

Sure enough; I doubled back and found out that she did not only have a sunroof, but looking through the window, I spotted Comfortron, which was the brochure speak for automatic climate control, unusual on a Caprice. I looked at the VIN and took a stab at it being an ’80 model from the letter in the ID number. I quickly looked over the car thinking that this could be too good to be true, there must be a DIESEL badge somewhere around here. This can’t be for real.

For the last several months I had been looking for a good 2nd car. I wanted something full size and older and most probably GM (surprise?), I had looked at sad beige 77 Caprice Classic sedan a month before, but it was a tired old smoker with missing wheel covers on white walls. That gave it a great undercover car vibe, but in reality it was a dog; and now here in front of me was not only a clean Caprice, but a loaded-to-the-gills one. There was a phone number about three inches tall written on the right front corner of the windshield; no big safety-orange FOR SALE signs or anything else. I committed the number to memory, and after a few phone calls and a meet with the owner, the Caprice was mine.

The seller told me that the Caprice belonged to his neighbors; the original owner was a 95 year old man that had passed about a year or so before I bought it. The car sat in the carport for about a year until the neighbor asked about it. He bought it as a 2nd car too, but then he had second thoughts about leaving it where he worked and his wife never liked driving it, so he decided to sell it. That’s where I picked it up.

I gave it a quick once over after I bought it. Here was a fairly clean, though slightly neglected 1980 Caprice Classic with just under 58,000 miles, with a 305 CID 4 barrel V8, 3 speed automatic, loaded…..seriously loaded! I looked underneath, it was even better. At the rear there was a big fat sway bar, indicating that there was a heavy duty suspension underneath, and then I noticed a tag on the differential. Posi-traction? No way, who ordered this car?

Ah. A sweet little old man car, right down to the St. Christopher medallion on the sun visor and that AAA Plus bumper shield. There was some slight neglect, nothing serious, some of the tan interior parts had faded to the GM trademarked “applesauce pink” color and some of the plasti-chrome had started to flake. There were a few other things like three different brands of tires, burned out bulbs and a missing dome lamp lens. All easily remedied.

This car was assembled late in the model year, in July 1980, and in Canada to boot, though it is of course a US spec model with MPH speedometer. It’s an interesting artifact, being so loaded and made late in the year. I had first thought it was some sort of auto show car, but it would have been made earlier in the year. I’d like to think that it was perhaps ordered by the owner of a Chevrolet dealership or some sort of zone rep.

I was once told by a zone rep for an automaker that usually they ordered cars with everything on them, since they aren’t paying for them; they just drive them around for a few months and then they get sold at GM at employees’ sales or they are sold to dealerships as “program cars”.

The 155hp 305 V8 had decent twist for the era, and since it’s a 1980 model year car, it’s the last year before the dreaded “check engine” eternal flame-lamp started appearing on the dashboard. It has a nice, simple Quadrajet and the three speed automatic as well as economy gears in the rear, which does allow it to get around 20 MPG on the highway. Pretty decent for the time.

I gave her the full service: oil, filters, plugs, wires, lube. I wasn’t sure of the condition some of the works, so it was better to take no chances. Now that she was serviced, I had a chance to get familiar with the Caprice. The F41 suspension is wonderful on these cars; more should have been ordered with them. One can take off-ramps with speed, there’s nice, fairly flat cornering for a two-ton domestic sedan.

Inside you are constantly reminded of the era: the 85mph speedo with the orange 55 highlighted. This car has the “gauge package” which consisted of a temperature gauge and a fuel economy gauge.

The seats are covered in broughamy “special custom cloth” camel colored interior with a 6 way power drivers seat and a reclining passenger seat with individual armrests! What a country!

Full-on Quadrasonic sounds d’elegance are available from the AM-FM Delco 8 track stereo which reproduces music with reasonable adequacy; like a Disco, if a disco sat six and had an old cardboard speaker that kinda came and went. Some say that these nicer big Chevrolets were almost too nice and that they almost encroached on Cadillac territory with their trim. Having owned both makes, I have to say no. The car is very nice, but it’s…Delta 88 nice, LeSabre nice, but not Cadillac nice – the window switches laying flat against the door panel remind you of that.

Out back there is a spotless 20.5 cubic foot trunk with a full size spare, which was another one of the items I had to replace as the one that was in the trunk had the elasticity of a four-week old glazed doughnut.

Although it’s pretty square, the Caprice does wear Bill Mitchell’s “sheer look” pretty well. The way the rear deck tapers down, and that nice airy greenhouse give excellent visibility in sharp contrast to the thick-pillared small-window cars of today. While waiting outside my favorite Chinese take out place, I had chance to look at the Caprice from a distance. A Chrysler 300 parked next to it seemed so thick and blocky in comparison. Its funny that these now seem so big to so many people after being “just right” when they were introduced. It’s not the Caprice that is too big; it’s the world that has shrunk around it.