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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

When the B-body went from downsized progressive to full-sized traditionalist

The year was 1977 and things weren't looking so rosy for Detroit's Big Three. Safety and emissions concerns were both valid and troublesome, not to mention the seemingly endless issues with gasoline prices and availability. General Motors, the strongest of the three automakers, had a project in mind to turn the tide in their favor.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-profiles/when-the-b-body-went-from-downsized-progressive-to-full-s...
15 REPLIES 15
JeffWeimer
Intermediate Driver

I recall the 90s Caprices (and their fellow b-bodies) were also known as "Whales" and the 94-96 Impala SS was the pinnacle of the form. I remember the ads - "Lord Vader, your car is ready."
hyperv6
Racer

The move to the down sized cars was the best move in history. They did not undersize but right sized the B, A and G bodies to where they were still a very good size but with out all the excess bulk that was not needed.

My boss had a 77 Bonneville coupe with a 400 Pontiac V8 in it and it was one sweet ride.

GM blew this all up in the 80's when they decreed that the entire line but the Corvette and trucks should be FWD. They shrunk the cars much to much and dropped the ball on styling. The cars just all shared much too much and it really hurt.

The move back to the large RWD in the 90's was good but they blew it with the over sized cars. They needed to move back to the formula of 77 where it was right sized and just lose the blocklyness.
relton
Advanced Driver

I wrked on the Caprice police and taxi program in the late 80s. We first benchmarked the Caprice agaist the Dodge Diplomat, but it was so inferior that we leaned nothing. Th Ford was better, but not much. So we benchmarked the Caprice agaunst the BMW M5 for peformance and handling. The Caprice beat the BMW on both counts. . The BMW was far superior in build quality, interior quality and downright niceness, though. But then, it cost twice as much.

I once swapped a Cadillac 500 CID engine into a 77 Caprice. It made a nice hot rod. I did a high 12s at the dragstrip, with the air conditioning on.

I worked on the successor Caprice, but I'd rather not talk about that one!
MATTMERICA
Technician

I want to believe you, but the late 80s are the sweet spot for bmw cars, there is no way a caprice outdid anything an m5 did, that is just nonsensical. To wit: If you were working on cop cars, AND YOU ADDED 100 HP and 100 Ft.-Lb to the V8 in a 1988 caprice - even the v8 engine that was available, it would get smoked by a 1988 m5 in every category. Every single category.
DrillNFill
Pit Crew

Great write up about great cars. My grandparents were in their mid-forties when the ‘77 came out, and they liked these cars so much they owned three Caprices in a row- a ‘77, an ‘84, and an ‘89. The last one was gifted to me when I got my license in 1996- showing 97,000 miles on its 5-tumbler odometer, my grandparents figured I’d get a year or two out of it before it was worthless junk…

Fast forward 25 years to 2021 and I still own the hand-me-down “Box” Caprice that got me thru high school, college, dental school, and my first job. Still looks good and drives great with an odometer twice- rolled over to 216,000. It’s long been retired from daily driver duty but is still great fun to throw around on the back roads and run like a bat out of hell. My kids will have to take the keys out of my cold dead hands someday. Thanks, Grandpa
RokemRonnie
Instructor

The '77 Impala and Caprice weren't just more efficient and in general better cars than what they replaced, they were some of the best handling American cars made at the time. Sure, they weren't Lotus Elans but they handled a lot crispier than the land whales that preceeded them.
ATLpaul
Detailer

I had my brother's 79 Caprice hand me down in 1981. I was still in college. That car was the answer to me walking to classes and being able not to ride the greyhound back to Indy from Bloomington. It was not fast but it had torque. All those cold days the big black Caprice with white vinyl tops and wheels covers and cold freezing vinyl interior worked. Later I took that car to see a hot girl in Atlanta. Drove straight from Indy to Atlanta and back for weekends. What we do when we are young. Eventually hauled a uhaul trailer with my stuff from Indiana to Atlanta back of that Caprice. After 10 years, ac not working, Midwest rust having formed, I traded it in for a Chevy Beretta. What a mistake. That trusty Caprice still drove fine with the 305 and shifted smooth. Thank-you Chevrolet Caprice for letting me live as a young man and enjoy so many moments.
MATTMERICA
Technician

Apparently the hot girl in ATL outlasted the car

🙂
elldorado2000
Advanced Driver

I was never a fan on the box years. I didn't hate them, but they never really did anything for me. I never really understood how the Panther platform was such a success for Ford and GM somehow couldn't make a success out of the Impala/Caprice. For me the pinnacle of Impala and Caprice design was the 65-70 years. Maybe even up to 73. If I remember correctly, weren't those 60's Impala's the best selling cars in America?
Andretti
Intermediate Driver

Ten inches lost in ‘77 but it did gain aluminum wiring in the rear harness. What a nightmare that turned out to be.
You strip a wire seeking voltage and all that’s in the shrink wrap is powder.

As they say “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If it weren’t for Chevys, our tools would rust”.
😉
Reinhold_Weege
Instructor

In an alternate world, where congress and unelected regulators didn't throw themselves into product development, the B-platform cars would have major restyles and refinements every 3 years. You can thank the Carter administration (and the fact that government never downsizes) for that. With CAFE standards going from 18 MPG (1978) to 27 MPG by 1984 (9 MPG in 6 years!) there was:

a) Precious little time to do anything but downsize using known technologies (weight reduction).
b) Precious little budget left to update cars that were supposed to disappear by 1985.
c) Enormous demands on engineering to concurrently develop cleaner and safer vehicles.
d) An incoming Republican leader less inclined to partner on R&D.
e) An entire world of competitor nations who had no problem lending (or giving) money at 0% to promote exports for industry, while keeping home markets free from import competition.

In other words, absent or with fewer of these concerns, you probably would have seen the same 1980 updates. But by 1983 you likely would have seen an entirely new body/interior on that platform and greater styling differences between the brands than 1977's crash program allowed. And you certainly wouldn't have seen the downsizing-disaster of 1985 because no one would have been shooting for such drastic MPG gains across the board.

One other cruelty of CAFE was its application by "corporation" and sales volume. In other words, a full-line company like any of the Detroit 3 needed that average economy number across millions of vehicles. So a Chevette is averaged in with a Cadillac because they come from the same company and because of GM's sales volume. Yet a company like Mercedes-Benz imported just a few hundred thousand vehicles annually (virtually all of them in the hi-profit luxury segment) and wasn't thus subject to all of the CAFE mandates. Oh, they made higher MPG versions for Germany, but they weren't sold in the US. Surely because their limited power and cheaper-feel would have harmed the brand's luxury reputation. But for you Cadillac? Your parent company sells a sh*t-ton of cars, so you need some 25 MPG Caddies in the product mix. Enter the V-4-6-8, the HT4100 and the Cimarron. What do you think that did to brand equity?

Keep in mind, Project 77, along with Ford's Fox/Panther platforms and even Chrysler's R-body re-shuffle were in the works when CAFE was just a place to get lunch in France, so it would appear that markets do, in fact, work. Unless artificially distorted. 

ALTurkeyBum
Intermediate Driver

A forgettable article on completely forgettable cars. Good riddance.
SJ
Technician

I had a year old '83 Caprice Classic 4 door. I chose it because of the 4 bbl. V8 among other things. It actually got better MPG Figures on the hwy than the V6. It was slow but adequate on the flat but any hill and it would likely run very hot. Especially in the summer. Also would get passed by bicycles(almost). It had an electronic Quadrajet!!! What a pain to rebuild! I did find the secret for long AT llfe(they were notorious for going out), keep it out of OD unless above 55 MPH. I did get 158000 miles with only minor problems; intake manifold coolant gasket leak(it was aluminum!!), alternator, u-joints, carb rebuild 3 times, water pump. Pretty good car overall, very comfortable too.
CJinSD
Instructor

How successful can any car have been when it failed to create an argument for funding a real successor? Project 77 was reskinned a couple of times on its way to becoming a niche artifact, but it didn't leave a hole big enough to merit a direct replacement. Can you imagine if the 1974 Impala had just been a restyled 1955 Bel Air?
mhealy1
Advanced Driver

We drove 9C1 (police pkg) boxes in 84 and then from 87-90. The 84’s had Chevette bucket seats (really) that collapsed within months of being put in service. Camshafts turned into dowel rods by 20K. Brakes faded badly. But they sure were nimble, and much quicker off the line than the Diplomats we also had. The 87-90 boxes were nearly perfect-all the weak points of the 84s were resolved, plus they were quicker. The 91s (Shamu when painted the traditional black and white) were so disappointing-slow and ponderous, with a troubling lightness in the rear end when driven at speed. 94 saw the introduction of the iron-head LT1, and the complaints disappeared. The handling may have still been ponderous and the rear light at speed, but that all was lost in the wake of all that glorious power! In the days before dashcams (and before my acquisition of common sense), I saw 137 mph in a slick top. I ran out of road before I ran out of acceleration so I’m not sure what the top end really was. That the fastest squad I’ve ever driven (though the hemi Chargers and turbo Fords of today will leave it for dead), and I wouldn’t mind driving one today still.