1977 Chevrolet Caprice Classic
1977 Chevrolet Caprice Classic
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by Bill Vance

The 1977 full-size Chevrolet, and its B-bodied corporate siblings, were watershed North American cars. In an era that venerated “Bigger is Better,” General Motors was prescient enough to sense the emergence of a world with changing values. And it had the courage and foresight to prepare for it by reducing the size and weight of its bread-and-butter line of cars.

The fact that the decision was taken before the 1973-74 oil crunch, which resulted from the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, underlines the wisdom of GM’s judgment.

The auto giant wasn’t alone in noting this social trend. The motor enthusiast press had long advocated smaller, better handling, more economical cars. And motorists had been sending a message to Detroit for over 20 years by increasingly buying small cars, particularly the Volkswagen Beetle.

In a more energy conscious and environmentally concerned society, there was less tolerance of Detroit’s huge, gas guzzling offerings. A more immediate reason for reducing car sizes was the U.S. government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement, which came into effect in 1978.

The completely redesigned General Motors B-body cars, which in addition to the Chevrolet Impala/Caprice Classic, included the Pontiac Catalina/Bonneville/Laurentian, Oldsmobile 88 and Buick LeSabre, made their debut as 1977 models.

All were “downsized,” (smaller is not in Detroit’s dictionary) but our focus is on the Chevrolet because it represented GM’s traditional mass-market car. The changes it underwent were representative of the whole line of GM large cars.

Downsizing was long past due. By 1976 the Chevrolet sedan had climbed to a weight of some 1,950 kg (4,300 lb), and rode on a 3,086 millimetre (121.5 in.) wheelbase. Its overall length was a garage-bursting 5,664 mm (223 in.), or almost 19 feet, which was Cadillac territory. Station wagons were even larger. Contrast these dimensions with 20 years earlier when the 1956 Chev had a 2,921 mm (115 in.) wheelbase, was 5,029 mm (198 in.) long, and weighed just over 1,497 kg (3,300 lb).

Engines had grown apace. The 1976 Chevrolet had been powered by V-8 engines of up to 7.4 litres (454 cu in.). Chevy’s inline six had not even been offered in the full size car since 1973.

The mandate for the new car was demanding: keep virtually identical accommodation while at the same time meeting a target weight of 1,792 kg (3,950 lb). In other words, make it the same size inside but smaller on the outside, with the traditional front engine, rear-drive, body-on-frame layout.

With so much fat to trim, the engineers set to work with a vengeance. Length was reduced 279 mm (11 in.), width 102 mm (4 in.), and wheelbase 140 mm (5.5 in.). The height was increased 63 mm (2.5 in.).

Weight reductions were accomplished everywhere. The paring removed some 318 kg (700 lb) of “road hugging weight,” bringing the average ’77 Chevy down to 1,656 kg (3,650 lb), well below the initial target. Some GM executives who still thought people bought cars by the pound, wondered whether buyers would pay more for less car. But that question had been answered, at least in part, by the market’s ready acceptance of the 1976 Cadillac Seville, the smallest yet most expensive car in the Cadillac lineup.

The new Chevrolet’s interior accommodation was, except for a slight reduction in shoulder width, equal to the ’76’s. It even gained in headroom, thanks to the increased height, and trunk space was up five percent. With so much less weight to move, Chevy’s 4.1 litre (250 cu in.) inline six was brought back as the base engine. The big 6.6 and 7.4 litre (400 and 454 cu in.) V-8s were no longer available, or required.

While the engineers were shrinking and lightening, the stylists created a whole new appearance. The ’77 Chevy emphasized crisp, horizontal lines developed during many wind tunnel hours. When completed, the new full-size Chevrolet was actually lighter that the intermediate Chevelle, until it too went on a diet the following year and became the Malibu.

If GM went into their downsizing program with any trepidation, they needn’t have worried. The 1977 Chevrolet was an immediate success, so much so that it regained sales leadership from the Oldsmobile Cutlass.

The Chevy turned out to be such an evergreen design that it soldiered on basically unchanged for 14 years, practically eons in a world where Japanese companies can pop out new models every three or four years.

General Motors took a bold but necessary step when it led the industry into downsizing. There is a disturbing indication that size for its own sake is creeping back into our cars, but let’s hope they never reach the mastodon proportions of the pre-downsizing era.

If that happens we will surely need another ’77 Chevy to guide us back to reality.

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