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.