Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the full size Chevrolet had ranked at the top of the charts in the U.S. sales race, typically earning the top spot most years. So they had a tremendous amount on the line when the Caprice/Impala underwent a comprehensive redesign and downsizing for the ’77 model year. It was a big gamble, and central to the new cars’ success would be the reception by the press. Let’s see what they had to say back in the day.
(first posted 10/12/2015) The buff books were itching to get their hands on the new Chevrolet. It was an open secret in Detroit that GM was rethinking their approach to full size cars. FoMoCo was doubling down on their dinosaur strategy, touting the LTD as a “real” full-size car while hedging their bets (unsuccessfully as it turned out) with the LTD II for the buyers looking for a smaller “big” car.
The product sketches looked exciting. The cars promised to be fresh and trim, very in tune with the evolving times. This rendering of the coupe roofline did a reasonably good job of teasing out what would be one of the Caprice/Impala Coupe’s most unique and attractive features. This was going to be big!
Often automotive advertising is brimming with hyperbole. Even today grandiose claims accompany car launches: here’s looking at you, Bold New Camry. But in this case the claims were fully justified. The enthusiast press backed up every word of Chevy’s pitch for its new cars.
Right out of the gate, Motor Trend endorsed the marketing claims for Chevrolet’s new full size cars. The new size and efficiency were praised, and the car was given full credit for being all-new.
Though the Impala had been the top selling full size Chevy since the 1960s, for 1977 the marketing emphasis shifted to the Caprice. These pictures of the Impala Coupe were just about the only ones featured with any prominence. It was a smart strategy for Chevrolet, as the Caprice emphasis subtly moved buyers upmarket. The more profitable, higher-trim level Caprice outsold the Impala for the first time in 1977 (341,382 to 320,279). In fact, the Impala would never again be the top selling Chevy.
Car and Driver could always be counted on to give a blunt assessment of any car it tested. So when C/D’s editors gave the Caprice kudos for being a huge step in the right direction, enthusiast readers knew that the praise was genuine.
All the enthusiast magazines pointed out the available “F41 Sport Suspension” as a key element in giving the new Caprice/Impala such exemplary handling characteristics for a large car. F41 was an outstanding value as well: ticking that option box only added only $36 to the price of the car.
The new Caprice scored well when compared with a Ford LTD Landau, Buick Century Regal and Volvo 240 DL, beating them all in both acceleration and interior quietness, while trailing only the Volvo in fuel economy. The braking distances weren’t that great, though, with the Chevy trailing both Ford and Buick. The Volvo’s stopping distances were surprisingly long, especially for a brand building its reputation as a top safety pick.
Road Test Magazine did not have anywhere near the following of the other buff books like Car and Driver, Motor Trend, or Road & Track. However, the Southern California-based magazine did offer very credible reviews. Initially the publication did not run any ads. In latter years advertising did appear, but not in huge volumes and therefore the publication seemed to be pretty unbiased in the face of big spending car companies. Like the other automotive publications, Road Test was also a big fan of the all-new big Chevrolet.
Interestingly, most cars tested were fitted with the 350 4V Chevrolet V8. The Caprice Road Test reviewed carried the 305 2V. Compared with Car and Driver’s results, the Road Test Caprice was 2 seconds slower 0-60 (11.8 versus 9.8 seconds) but delivered one additional mile per gallon in normal driving (18 versus 17 mpg).
In January 1977, my Pop’s two year cycle on his company car came due, and it was time to replace his 1975 LeSabre Custom. I was ecstatic, as I knew he wanted to get one of the new downsized GM cars. Since he was doing business at the time with a customer who was a large Chevrolet dealer, the Caprice was his pick.
The car looked almost exactly like the ’77 Caprice that Motor Trend tested. It had the same streamlined look of a dark-colored car (Dark Blue-Green Metallic in our case) without the vinyl top over a light tan (Buckskin) interior. Pop’s featured the same sport mirrors and sport wheel covers, while his added bumper guards and body side molding. It was a very handsome car.
Inside, Pop’s Caprice had an option that was new to our family, and extremely useful: the divided front seat. My father was 5’10” while my mother is 5’3” with heels, so the two of them sharing a bench seat, especially when she was driving, made for an uncomfortable ride. With the split seat the problem was solved! My parents never got another car with the traditional bench seat after the epiphany in the Chevy.
His interior was vinyl rather than the cloth shown above, but the color was the same. The car was abundantly equipped with options as well, including power windows, locks, and driver’s seat, AM/FM stereo, A/C, cruise, tilt wheel and remote trunk release. I don’t know if it had the F41 suspension, but no matter, my parents loved the way it drove. It was also significantly easier to park, and the Caprice’s rear-end didn’t jut out of our carport the way the LeSabre’s had.
As for me, I adored the car and spent hours washing it, sitting in it, poring over every detail. When we got it, all my buddies rushed over to see it. Pop would let me take the keys and fire it up in the driveway. My friends and I spent a lot of time listening to the purr of that Chevy small block while we discussed all the merits of the car and played with all the buttons.
Any family sedan that can get a group of 5th grade boys that excited has to be a home run. It’s hard to imagine similar enthusiasm today if a boy’s father were to bring home a Bold New Camry, which in my mind is the spiritual successor to the Caprice/Impala as the quintessential American sedan. Without a doubt, Chevrolet did in fact start a whole new ballgame. By all accounts, they hit it out of the park with the 1977 Caprice.