This story originally appeared in Chevrolet 100, an Automotive News special issue published on October 31, 2011.
There are two reasons why the Chevrolet Caprice was born.
First, Chevrolet was blindsided by the 1965 Ford LTD full-sized sedan. Ford spent a ton of money advertising that the LTD was quieter than a Rolls-Royce -- and Americans believed it.
The second reason was that in 1964 General Motors made a rule that executives could drive only cars from their division. That was fine for Buick and Olds executives, but Chevy didn't really have a luxury sedan. Chevy executives balked at having to drive blue-collar wheels.
So the Caprice was born in 1965 -- as a loaded option to the Impala four-door hardtop. It included a much more luxurious interior, additional sound deadening and Impala SS styling cues on the exterior.
In 1966 the Caprice became its own nameplate with a hardtop coupe, hardtop sedan and six- and nine-passenger wagons. The ad slogan -- "The most luxurious Chevrolet yet built" -- did not lie, although given Chevy's low-price roots, the tag line may have confused shoppers.
There is disagreement over the provenance of the Caprice name. Some say Bob Lund, Chevrolet's general sales manager, named it after a famed Manhattan restaurant. Others say it was named after Caprice Chapman, daughter of auto executive and influential Indy racing official James Chapman.
Unlike other Chevy sedans, the Caprice did not come with a base V-6. Rather, it had an array of V-8 engines. The base four-door hardtop started at $3,271, a premium of $408 over the comparable Impala. Standard features included full wheel covers, a center armrest, a clock and courtesy and ashtray lamps, according to The Standard Catalog of Chevrolet.
"Most families were completely satisfied with the reliable, comfortable and roomy sedans of the day," according to the Standard Catalog. "And for those for whom basic wasn't good enough, Chevrolet offered Caprice."
How did the first Caprice perform? While Road Test magazine enjoyed the car's power, the suspension reacted to California freeway expansion joints with oscillations that made the car buck down the road with "rattles, creaks and groans." On any twisty road, the car "wallows and complains." In what might be seen as the beginning of a dangerous PR and engineering precedent, Chevrolet representatives said the fault was with the roads, not the car.
A performance package with a 427-cubic-inch V-8 propelled the Caprice to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, according to Car and Driver, though both the Caprice and its competitor Ford LTD suffered from "mediocre handling ... too much roll and too much understeer, coupled with too much power."
For the 1971 redesign, the Caprice platform was lengthened to 121.5 inches of wheelbase and nearly 19 feet of overall length. The car weighed in at substantially more than two tons -- the largest Chevrolet that had ever been built.
While avoiding direct comparisons to Cadillac, Chevrolet's ad merchants proclaimed the new Caprice to be the "most inexpensive expensive car ever built."
The cars reflected GM design chief Bill Mitchell's predilection for classic long-hood/short-deck proportions. For all the Caprice's girth, Road Test magazine still lamented the car's relative lack of rear-seat room and a trunk with less storage than that of a Volvo.
Then came the OPEC oil crises. Caprice sales plummeted from 764,963 in 1971 to 535,490 in 1974. Chevrolet's land barge was in free fall.
Svelte by comparison
GM executives knew the fuel crunch would be a Caprice killer, but they knew Americans still wanted full-sized sedans. For the 1977 redesign, Chevrolet shaved 5.5 inches off the wheelbase and 10.6 inches of length and trimmed 800 pounds. With its base 305-cubic-inch V-8, the result was a car that achieved 17 mpg, stunning for a car of that era and size.
It was the zenith of Chevrolet's "Project 77," a $600 million r&d investment to make its cars weigh less and go farther on a gallon of gasoline.
Chief engineer Tom Zimmer said consumer clinics loved the 1977 Caprice because of its "feeling big without looking big" packaging, according to the Standard Catalog. Compared to the bloated-looking previous generation, the 1977 Caprice was positively svelte, with crisp, clean lines. Doing away with the hardtop look, the new Caprice Classic featured pillared doors.
In Chevrolet, A History from 1911, GM Chairman Thomas Murphy recounted: "This is no ordinary program.
This is going to be GM's answer to the times, and we intend that it will be the loudest and clearest answer the auto world has ever heard. We are talking about the most comprehensive, ambitious, far-reaching and costliest program of its kind in the history of our industry."
Because the car was so much lighter, performance also improved, with an 11.4-second 0-to-60 mph run in 305-cubic-inch V-8 trim, beating the old 350 by more than a second while getting 3 mpg better fuel economy.
"One goal was that the Caprice was going to be quieter than the Cadillac, and we achieved that," said Walter Banacki, a Chevy acoustical engineer at the time. "We didn't tell Buick or Oldsmobile or Cadillac about all the extra things we were doing."
Not that there weren't snarls. Fisher Body didn't want to accept many of the Caprice's additional engineering modifications to the B-body platform because it was on a quest to make common parts. In Banacki's case, Chevy engineers bypassed Fisher Body and had the extra acoustical parts installed on the final assembly line.
A 13-year run
Meanwhile, Ford hedged its bets with both large and small versions of the LTD. One was larger than the Caprice but priced the same. The smaller LTD -- basically a rebadged Torino -- was the same size as the new Caprice but priced lower.
Ford's gambit failed. The new Caprice Classic outsold every other car on the road and earned the "Car of the Year" award from Motor Trend, which called it the "strongest runner in the best-car-for-the-money sweepstakes in America."
Trumpeted Car and Driver: "Welcome to the era of lightweights you can love."
The body style and packaging were so successful that GM bean counters allowed the Caprice to run for 13 years with only minor changes.
In 1990, Chevy finally restyled the Caprice. Critics were not kind, saying it was reminiscent of a beached whale or an upside-down bathtub. Despite the new styling, Chevy kept the floorpan and powertrain identical to those of the old model. While not well received by many critics, the Caprice once again won the Motor Trend "Car of the Year" award.
By 1996, consumer preferences had shifted well away from full-sized sedans and wagons, toward SUVs. With GM bleeding red ink, production of the Caprice was discontinued.