By on September 21, 2010

[Here's my other contribution to Panther Appreciation Week; my prior Panther CC is here]

In the long, strange and sometime tortured evolution of the classic large American sedan since WWII, there are exactly two moments when that species really hit the mark: The 1955 and 1977 Chevrolets. Everything else was fun to look at, fantasize about, ridicule, look back on with rose-colored glasses, or endlessly debate about. Yes, the fins of the late fifties were amusing, as was the build quality. And the endless bloat of the late sixties through the mid seventies may have generated some memorable childhood impressions, but cancer isn’t exactly a sustainable model upon which to base the family sedan. But just as the whole segment was about to metastasize into utter irrelevance, GM gulped the chemo, and built the finest and final expression of the genre.

The problem with peaks is that they inevitably require valleys. We’ll come back to the ’55 Chevy soon, but lets just say that it was the final expression of the immediate post-war ideal; a delayed fulfillment of GM’s 1939 Futurama. A modern, powerful and stylish car, yes; but still practical, comfortable, and efficient. Unfortunately, that ideal soon got replaced with this:

The industry’s mid -fifties fascination with ever-more flamboyant and less practical modes of transportation soon overtook any serious consideration of what a mere sedan entails. And it was that preoccupation/ADD that largely contributed to the domestic industry’s downfall and near-demise. While the Europeans (and later the Japanese) took the matter of developing family sedans seriously, the Americans simply got lost, or caught in Sputnik fever. The results speak for themselves.

The 1955 Chevy sat six in comfort on its tall sofas, and had lively performance from its all-new small-block V8, despite it having only 162 (gross) hp. Tipping the scales at just over 3100 lbs, fuel economy was very decent, given the technology of the times. And its size and weight lent the ’55s a degree of handling and maneuverability that was soon a distant memory. By the early seventies, the big Chevies weighed over 4500 lbs, with fuel economy in the low teens.

In 1973-1974, the Obese Three got caught in a nasty trap of their own making. The energy crisis made the big barges more irrelevant than they were already on their way to becoming. Even the “intermediates” had swollen to well over 4000 lbs. and relied on big blocks to motivate them, the the compacts no longer were that. The cancer had metastasized, and was now deadly. The problem was in affording the cure.

Only GM had the ready resources to initiate a drastic downsizing across the board, involving essentially every vehicle in their vast lineup. It was to be the most ambitious undertaking and restructuring in the automobile industry since Henry Ford idled all his factories for months to retool them for the Model A. GM was about to reinvent itself, starting with its big cars.

The result was nothing less than shocking, if you were around in the fall of 1976. The new Chevrolet, and all the other GM B-Bodies, were the biggest single model year change since the crazy ’58-’59 one-two punch. Its wheelbase lost half a foot, and overall length was down almost a full foot. The tightly chiseled new body also lost 4″ in width, and actually gained 3″ in height; heresy! The literal decline of the American sedan over. But not at the expense of interior room: unlike any American big sedan for decades, the new B-Bodies were designed from the inside out; what a revelation! Interior dimensions equaled or exceeded those of its bloated predecessors, and the seating position was now distinctly more upright.

Starting with a seating buck doesn’t mean that the exterior has to be homely. GM rediscovered that it was possible to make a shorter and taller sedan beautiful, inspired by no small part by the big Opel sedans that arrived in Europe eight years earlier, in 1969. And of course, there was the Seville, which preceded the Caprice by two years. GM was adopting wholesale a new styling language that started with the Opel in ’69, and made last into the early nineties.

The new 116″ wheelbase was almost exactly the same as the ’55, and weight was also down by almost a thousand pounds from the ’76s, to as little as 3500 lbs. Sitting on a completely new frame and suspension, the new Chevy felt remarkably handy as well as competent, especially if optioned properly.

I’ve mentioned him before, but one of our engineers at the tv station at the time was an ultra-GM nerd, and he used the fleet arrangement we’d set up to buy lots of carefully-specced GM cars for the station, employees and friends. One of the most memorable was the ’77 Caprice.

He was desperate to put one of them together from the brochure, and talked one of his well-heeled buddies into letting him order one up. We pored over the option book, and the result was pretty impressive: a white sedan (no vinyl roof) with the 170 hp four-barrel 350, and every HD option number that could be checked off, including of course the F41 suspension package. When it arrived, we test drove it extensively before delivering it to its happy new owner. For the times, the F-41 Caprice was simply fucking awesome; a mega-jump forward from the flaccid lumbering barges Chevy was selling the year before, and everyone else was still peddling. For the first time in ages, GM gave me a ray of hope about it’s capabilities and its future.

And it wasn’t just us: the buff-books raved about the F-41 equipped big Chevies, and not just because GM had slipped them a ringer or a dose of GM Kool-Aid. During the B-Bodies’ long reign until 1990, an F-41 suspended big Chevy was simply the best handling big domestic sedan there was in the land. And don’t even mention the word Panther.

I admit to never having been bitten by Panther fever, and that probably a lot has to do with its earliest incarnations. It was simply inferior to the GM B-Body, period, in pretty much every conceivable way. Starting with its looks:

When Ford finally cranked out its new downsized LTD in 1979, it was all-too obviously a poor imitation of the handsome Caprice. The Ford had an even shorter 114″ wb, which hurt its proportions, and it rode on really tiny little wheels and tires, all-too often adorned with the cheapest and tinniest fake wire wheel covers this side of the Pep Boys. To the undiscerning eyes, the Ford may have been just the helping of mashed potatoes and gravy its Midwest buyers were looking for, but for someone cross-shopping (at least mentally) European sedans in LA in 1979, the Ford just came off as half-baked.

As were its dynamic qualities: the Panther’s suspension hadn’t been given the police car treatment yet; the 302 of the times was totally anemic, and Ford’s AOD transmission was a jerky-herky affair. Truth is, I wasn’t the only one; the buyers recognized it too.

The new B-Bodies propelled GM to a final upsurge in market share and sales, culminating in that grand blowout year of 1978: 9.66 million cars sold, and a 46% US market share. Heady times. And it was coming right out of Ford and Chrysler’s hide, pushing both of them into the verge of bankruptcy. GM’s bold and expensive gamble paid off, for the time being. Too bad it couldn’t maintain its momentum.

The downsized intermediate RWD A/G Bodies that arrived two years after the full-size sedans was never quite as all-round competent, and plagued with GM’s ever-tightening purse: non-opening rear windows, self-destructing downsized transmissions, etc. The B-Body was the high water mark, sadly it was all pretty much was downhill from there.

Did the B-Body have its flaws? Undoubtedly, and like all GM cars, generally the result of cheap components or assembly quality. Well, the interior wasn’t exactly much to look at either, if one had become spoiled by European standards. Whatever; those were the times when GM could still wow the Europeans with a good exterior styling job, but just don’t even open the door. It least it was comfortable and roomy.

For you young-uns who can only see (or imagine) a sea of yellow CVs as NY taxi cabs, it was once a very different story. The B’s utterly dominated the taxi and police market in their day, for plenty of good reasons. The Panthers only were embraced wholesale after GM pulled the plug on the B’s; well, or morphed it into the that Moby Dickmobile, the 1991 Caprice. GM totally lost (shocked) me with that; but I understand the pull it still has, especially with the wagon version, and here at TTAC. But the fleets were not happy: GM could still be building the ’77-’90 version today, as it frankly should be, like the Tokyo cabs Toyota still builds in Japan.

Why not? GM could’a/should’a have kept the 77-90 Caprice in production, and owned the fleet business all of these past thirty years, like Toyota’s Crown Comforts  (or whatever they’re called) in Japan. Just imagine ordering up one of them now with the latest in GM V8 power under the hood. And this week could have been B-Body Appreciation Week at TTAC.

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91 Comments on “Curbside Classic: GM’s Greatest Hit #3 – 1979 Chevrolet Caprice Classic...”


  • avatar
    86er

    And this week could have been B-Body Appreciation Week at TTAC.

    There are other weeks in the year, just sayin’.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I didn’t get the memo about PAW. Anyway, there’s lots more B-Bodies to cover, well over a week’s worth.

    • 0 avatar

      Paul is right, but that doesn’t change the fact that GM pulled the rug under us Detroit big car fanatics.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I hope that one of those B-Bodies is an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Those sold like crazy at the time, too. If I recall correctly, the Delta 88 was the second best-selling B-Body, after the Impala/Caprice.

      I remember what a shock these cars were at the time. They seemed so much smaller and neater than the overblown 1971-76 barges. My parents had bought a year-old 1976 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale hardtop sedan, because they – especially my mom – were somewhat suspicious of these smaller GM cars. Within two years, however, she wanted a downsized Oldsmobile. In early 1983, my father’s co-worker traded in his jadestone 1982 Delta 88 Royale sedan with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer, and my parents snapped it up. That car was very sharp – jadestone (a light green) without a vinyl roof. It served them very well – I don’t remember that car having one problem in over 100,000 miles. 

      With these downsized big cars, GM really was on a roll. The intermediates that debuted the next year were ultimately compromised, but at the time they seemed to be far superior to the Ford, Chrysler and AMC “old-school” intermediates. The 1979 E-Bodies (Eldorado, Riviera, Toronado) were another smash hit. Suddenly, with a few exceptions – the Omni/Horizon, the Fox-body Fords – everything else from the domestics looked like stale bread. Make that bloated, stale bread.

      Then the X-cars debuted in April 1979, followed by lighter 1980 full-size cars and the bustle-back Cadillac Seville, and it started to go downhill for GM. We didn’t see it immediately because Ford and Chrysler were on the ropes.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Martin

      I bought my mother’s used ’79 Caprice. It didn’t have the F41 package, so I bought a set of Konis and front and rear humongo Quickor sway bars. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rear truck arms already had mounting holes built in. All I had to do was bolt in the rear Quickor. The front bar was a direct changeout.
      What a revelation! Without the stiffer springs I had replicated an Italian GT. Lots of shock, soft compliant springs, gave a nice ride without the need for Dramamine. The sway bars gave the steering very direct response. It wasn’t a go-kart, but, damn, it was fun to drive.
      I sold the car when it hit 100,000 miles to a middle-eastern gentleman who was a DC cabbie. These guys knew that the Caprice had at least 200,000 miles left in it.

  • avatar
    tim850csi

    I was brought home from the hospital in my Grandparents brand new 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, baby blue with matching crushed velour interior with Landua roof.  It was the last new car my grandparents ever bought as my grandfather sold his Chevrolet / Oldsmobile dealership in 1980 (Benoit Motors in St. Albans, Vermont) and they drove it until I was at least 16 years old.
    I hadn’t thought about that car in a long time, thanks for sparking the memories!

  • avatar
    relton

    I made a number of hot versions of these cars, both for GM and for myself.

    We had an 86 with a 502 crate motor that we used as a sales car for cops. It was fast and scary, and it had the words “PULL OVER” in reverse letters on the windshield. It was fun on the freeway.

    I also oversaw putting a BMW V-12 in an 87. The techs hooked up the oil cooler lines wrong, and the engine burned out in 15 minutes. So GM just bought another 7 series BMW and replaced the engine. I would have like the leftovers from that project: a BMW 7 series and a brand new 350 4 bbl and THM700R4.

    I built myself a 79 coupe with a Cad 500 engine. Eventually I stroked it to 540 cubes, the full nine liters. Did low 13s at the strip, with the AC on.

    I built a base model Impala, 77 model, with a hot 350, used the small axle, and kept all the options out of it. Cut the bumper bars, used a 200 4R trans, kept the weight to about 3200 lb.

    As we worked on the 91 Caprice, I was always amazed at how well the 77 model was designed, to optimize space, weight, ergonomics. I don’t think GM ever did as well.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      A BMW V-12 in a Chevy? That’s 100% backwards!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      That was part of a Chevy “skunkworks” program.  Too bad nothing ever came of it.  They also rigged up some B-body wagons with Corvette engines as a test bed.  I guess in some small way that came to fruition when GM dropped the LT1 into the last gen of B-bodies.

    • 0 avatar

      13 years ago I threw out the anemic Olds 307TH 200-4R in my ’89 Caprice Classic wagon and went with a 350 TPI/TH700R-4 from an ’87 Firebird Formula.
      Transformative…I picked up about 100 HP (after intake and exhaust mods) and 2+ MPG or more if I kept my foot out of it. The gasps from people looking under the hood alone was worth it.
      After 6 years…the car, unfortunately, was rusting away and the TPI came out and now sits in a corner of the garage. Currently own a ’91 Caprice wagon with a 305/700R-4. Will probably just continue to drive and enjoy for now as a ’57 Handyman and ’68 C-10 are my current projects. Besides, the fit and finish of that ’91 would require a lot of bodywork to make decent. At least GM had the mechanicals down…

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Growing up in the ’80s, I saw these cars as emblematic of America’s brush with communist-bloc crapmobilia. Quality and performance were dead in the American auto industry by the mid ’70s, then GM decided to just give up on styling and build soulless, hopeless bricks; and drag Ford and Chrysler down into the Randian dystopia with them. Hopefully one of these things is in a museum somewhere as a warning of just how dismal it got.

    • 0 avatar
      Lemmy-powered

      Funny, I always thought of these as the ultimate embodiment of “American car” when I was growing up. They were solid and strong, affordable, and available in that most American of incarnations, the station wagon. To me, it was the only thing GM made that was honest — aside from pickups and Suburbans.

      The Soviet embassy in Ottawa had a fleet of these in the late 80s. A mix of sedans and wagons, all in plain grey with fat tires that hinted at HD specifications. Did they look cool with their red diplomatic plates, parked behind that iron gate with a hammer-and-sickle emblem on it? You bet they did.

  • avatar
    scottcom36

    These cars are beautifully proportioned, and todays stylists could take note of the fact that an attractive car can have good rear visibility.
    Also noteworthy is how ridiculously inexpensive the suspension packages were ($36 in ’77 on the source I found), and how little effect they had on ride quality.
    And don’t forget the beveled rear window of the coupe: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:78capricecoupe.JPG

  • avatar
    Lokki

    My dad had a new 78 Caprice Classic as his last American car.  It was handsome and roomy, and a pretty good design, I thought.

    However handsome it was,  the car wasn’t satisfying. The interior  was all  Rubbermaid, all the time.

    What made it my father’s last American car though, the assembly quality.  The rear axle was on crooked and that made the car crab down the highway.The dealer’s response was “they all do that”.   My dad’s response was to buy an Accord.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    These cars always seemed to be owned by someone’s creepy dad/uncle/neighbour/coworker.  If the Panthers have a positive aspect, it’s that they’re never owned by people who make my skin crawl.

    • 0 avatar
      akitadog

      Because 20-yo street hustlers/gangsters don’t make anyone’s skin crawl.

    • 0 avatar
      big_gms

      <i>These cars always seemed to be owned by someone’s creepy dad/uncle/neighbour/coworker.  If the Panthers have a positive aspect, it’s that they’re never owned by people who make my skin crawl.</i>

      What the hell kind of comment is this? I may be wrong, but I think you made exactly the same comment about the Malibu in another CC. If these were always owned by someone’s creepy dad/neighbor/uncle/coworker, then there must have been an awful lot of creepy people around, because this was one of the best selling cars at the time.

  • avatar

    The thing that I remember the most about the downsized Caprice was the shiny black plastic panel directly in front of the front seat passenger.  Somehow that was interpreted by my 15 yr old self as “cool.”  Probably because my family would never buy that (forbidden fruit and all.)  Alas, we were Ford people so that wasn’t for us.  Instead, a Panther based Grand Marquis coupe (silver, landau-roofed, tufted velour) was.  “Jerky-Herky” was a kind description of the Ford AOD of that period.

    • 0 avatar
      chrisgreencar

      My parents did buy a new ’78 Caprice, after briefly considering a Ford LTD II (Torino-based monstrosity)…the LTD II was no comparison to the crisp downsized Caprice. I also thought that black plastic panel on the dash was cool-looking. It was like “black glass” on a space helmet or, uh, wall oven. I don’t remember any other GM product having it as an interior element. The car had plenty of reliability problems (including a radiator failure that stranded us on vacation in rural New Mexico when it was about 4 years old) but they went on to buy a new ’83 Delta 88 and ’91 (bubble-styled) Caprice. Definitely GM loyalists, we were.

    • 0 avatar
      Austin Greene

      That black plastic panel directly in front of the front seat passenger was where the passenger side air bag was to be installed.  GM had blocked out the space in the original design, anticipating a future regulatory requirement that never came into being during that dashboard’s MY1977-90 lifespan.

    • 0 avatar
      chrisgreencar

      Airbag blanking plate? Interesting idea, but if so, how come none of the other B-bodies had it? I’m thinking of Olds, which had a huge tall glove box door in that area.

  • avatar
    Jeffer

    I once owned a ’78 Impala 2dr hardtop and for the most part, I really enjoyed it. It had plenty of get up and go, and felt rather nimble for a big beast. It was quite handsome and somewhat racy with the 350 4bbl, especially after conversion to dual exhaust. The downside was the interior plastics faded like well-chewed gum after only a few years. When the camshaft went flat on a road trip, I had to trade it so I could get home.

  • avatar
    brettc

    I just saw a late 70s Caprice recently heading to PEI on the Confederation Bridge. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it coming in the distance and confirmed that it was a Caprice when I saw the rear tail lights. The biggest shock was that it was a PEI plated car. Would have thought rust would have killed it by now!

  • avatar

    F41: cop car suspension, cop car brakes…

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    My mother and father both had B-body GMs, 1977 models.  My mother’s car was a Caprice Classic F-41 with every option checked off.  That – car – flew – for the 1977 malaise era.  Both my sister and I were hoping for, “hello hand me down,” when it aged out of the grown up fleet.  Was totaled out in a massive accident in 1979, and replaced with another Caprice.  Despite my father’s protests, my mother got the anemic V6 version to replace it, with less of the options checked off.  That car lived in the shop for the dumbest reason, a trunk light that simply would never go off for no good reason that would drain off the battery.  It was the last American car she ever owned.
     
    I have very fond memories of the 1977 two-tone blue Caprice Classic, that car was bullet proof; but not rock wall proof.

  • avatar
    Garak

    In my childhood in northern Europe, these cars were seen as a true expression of wealth. MB was a taxicab and Volvo a bland car for bland people, but a huge, rumbling American beast with endless hunger for fuel? The choice of those who could really afford to drive with luxury.

    Now the glory days are gone, of course. We get only Chryslers and Dodges, and while the 300C is a pretty big and expensive looking vehicle, it doesn’t hold a candle to the land barges of old.

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    I consider myself the ultimate authority on the B body of the era. First of all, I took my licence on one in 1980, a 1979 Impala with 350 and F-41 suspension, factory ordered by my dad. Compared to the other stuff on the road at the time, it was a revelation. For its day, nothing drove better.
     
    Said dad also owned a taxi company. The ’77-’79 models were the best cars we ever had, period. In 1980 the cars were lightened and this affected durability to a highly negative degree. The ’79 Impala eventually became a cab and went over 1,000,000 km without so much as a valve job. I drove all through university and I must have logged at least 400,000 km in these cars over the years, so here are my observations:
     
    The cars steered and stopped exceptionally well.
     
    The THM 350 was good for 200,000 km in city traffic until it failed. No matter, a replacement was like $750 and could be in an out in a morning.
     
    The electrical systems were totally bulletproof.
     
    Parts were cheap and easy to get.
     
    The 305 was perfectly adequate, the 350 had great torque but burned 20% more fuel and the Canadian spec cop motor with smog-control delete and dual exhaust was animalistic.
     
    The interiors were crap and did not stand up.
     
    We also tried Fords. No comparison. The AOD was known far and wide as the POS. The electrics were wonky all the time. The suspension bounced like a pogo stick. The steering was limp and lifeless.
     
    My personal driver for four years was an unmarked ’86 Caprice with Canadian cop package and a full load, on LPG, which I paid like 24 cents a litre for. The dual exhaust was fantastic, making all the correct rumbling noises and plenty of them. The car was strong like bull, went like snot and rode like hay wagon. I loved it and it was a real chick magnet, believe it or not. I could roar around with V-8 power at Corolla prices. Great car, I should have never sold it, but being young and dumb, I didn’t realise what I had.
     
    Really, nothing as good as these cars, so totally revolutionary has come out of GM since.
     
    A note: The 116′ chassis was identical to the 1976 Chevelle, all the part numbers were identical. Only the body was new.

    • 0 avatar
      texan01

      Yup I’ve owned a 76 and now own a 77 Chevelle. Just the addition of a rear sway bar from a 95 Caprice cop car makes even the mush-box base suspension actually entertaining. Even with the anemic 145hp 305 much like the title car would sport it makes it a decent driver. 0-60 comes up in about 10 seconds in a 3800 pound intermediate, which is slightly heavier than the new-for-77 full sizers.
       
      GM used the basic chassis from 1973 to 1996 under the A-cars and then the B-cars. There’s a few differences, namely bushings slightly larger on the B-bodies, and they have more rear overhang and they are less torsionally rigid.

    • 0 avatar
      Canucknucklehead

      It’s all about the torque, man.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    My Great Grandmother’s last new car.  A 1979 Impala sedan.  Bone basic, just AC and a 350V8.  She didn’t drive it long before she realized her eyesight was too far gone.  It sat in her garage for many years occasionally being driven by her children to keep it working.  I might have had a shot at it for a first car when the old gal died (her death coming very close to my 16th birthday [she was 94]) but sadly a few years before I got my licence a friend of the family lost his B-body Delta 88 in an accident.  She felt sorry for him and sold him the Impala.  Sigh… what might have been.

  • avatar

    The first car I bought with my own money (in ’84) was a ’77 Caprice. Solid machine, got me through college and then some. The only problem was they it was a bit light in the rear end and I had to keep a hundred pounds of sand in the trunk to get better traction in winter.

  • avatar
    DougD

    1980, I was rubbing my hands together as Dad drove away from Nethercott Chev, having just traded our Vega in on an Impala with a V8.  A V8 !! Finally after years of Rambler 6’s we had a V8.
    Sadly, our car was equipped with the torqueless 267 cube smallblock and a ridiculously high geared rearend.  Both the Ramblers and the Vega were faster, what a letdown.
    The seats were a letdown too, literally.  After 10 years the car still ran and drove fine, but the seat foam had collapsed so much it was like you were sitting directly on the floor.
    And who can forget the orgasmic windshield washer, which would deposit a half a gallon of juice on the windshield every time you touched it?

    I agree in general this was a solid and functional good car, but typical GM if they could have got just a few more things right it would have been a great car.

    • 0 avatar
      Canucknucklehead

      The 1980 was not nearly as good a car as the ’77-’79. The 267 was an absolute dog that wore out due to poor materials and overwork in about 100,000 km. The THM200 was awful and the small rear end was toast about the same time as the motor. They ate rear brakes, too. Everything about the 1980 reeked, “Cheap” in a typical GM way.
       
      After ’79 the only B bodies to have were the Oldsmobiles or the Chevy 9C1. When the supply of ’77-’79 cars dried up, we switched the cabs to Delta 88s.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      After ’79 the only B bodies to have were the Oldsmobiles or the Chevy 9C1. When the supply of ’77-’79 cars dried up, we switched the cabs to Delta 88s.
       
      The 307V8 was a nice engine to have.  At least until you had to hit the interstate after the speed limit went back up.

    • 0 avatar
      Canucknucklehead

      Yup, the 307 wasn’t much good above 65 mph. But none of the B bodies really were.

  • avatar

    Thinking about it, I realize that my family – probably like most families in the 1980s – owned icons from all three American manufacturers.  There was a Panther (the ’85 Country Squire with the miserable 302/AOD I spoke of in another post), a K-car (’82 Plymouth Reliant wagon), and a B-body.
     
    Our B-body was a 1979 Pontiac Bonneville that my parents bought new right after they got married.  It remains the only new car they have ever purchased.  They ordered it to police spec – 350 motor, I think it had, with the heavy-duty transmission and suspension.  Once the transmission problems were sorted out (it ate two or three under warranty until GM finally fixed whatever the problem was), it was reliable, plenty big enough for a small family, and very fast.  It was sold before I was old enough to drive – replaced by the aforementioned Panther – but I still smile when I think about it.
     
    Two other things stand out about it in my memory.  One is that the fuel filler was behind the license plate, which folded down to allow access.  The other is the color scheme – all red.  Dark red paint, dark red plastic dash, dark red carpets, and shiny bright red vinyl seats that you’d stick to in a North Carolina summer.  I miss interiors like that.
     
    My grandfather also had a B-body at the same time, a 1979 or so Pontiac Catalina Safari wagon.  Baby blue.  His last car, it was a frequent visitor to our driveway.  Somewhere there’s probably a picture of the two together.

  • avatar
    Loser

    I remember when these first came out. At the time they looked like a generic brick on wheel to me. My uncle worked for GM and he got a new ’76 Old’s 98, as he said “Before they ruin ‘em.” The  bigger is better crowd were turned off by these.
    I didn’t appreciate these until the mid 80’s. I still find the Buick, Olds and Pontiac better looking than the Chevy. I still kick myself for passing on an Indy addition ’77 Olds 88 back in 1985. At the time I thought the price was too high.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      I remember my GM driving relatives having the same reaction to the new ’77’s — “They made ‘em small and cheap!”
      Paul, the 55-57’s and 77-79 Chevys were not the only good American, postwar, full size, RWD cars.  Are you forgetting the 49-51 Ford/Mercury?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Skor: The ’49-’50 Ford’s rep was badly marred by quality issues. They were by far the weakest of the big three then, in that regard, and may explain why there were never as many around in later years. Frankly, I’m quite fond of the ’49 Chevy, and I have gobs of respect for the tank-like quality of the Plymouth and Dodge of those years. That being said, the Ford and Mercury were the most advanced in their styling.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      The 1949 Ford was rushed to market…Henry Ford II decided that the company couldn’t wait any longer for a new car, so the final development steps were skipped by the company. The car was plagued by leaks (dust and water) and rattles. Interestingly, Chrysler would make the same mistake with its 1957 models, and suffered terribly as a result, while Ford’s quality woes in 1949 didn’t really hurt the company in the long run.

      I always thought that the 1949 Chevy looked like a baby Oldsmobile…which was probably the intent. My grandmother’s neighbor had a 1950 Plymouth sedan that he used as a daily driver in the 1970s. That was one tough car.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Have to agree with you in everything you said, Paul. Thanks for offering the write up as an alternative to Panther appreciation week, a vehicle I’ve never had the slightest admiration for myself, and I’ve been in lots of them.
     
    In the late seventies/early eighties, I used to make innumerable trips to Toronto, and soon discovered that the Caprice Classic version had the quietest, most level ride of the B bodies (and anything else) for the limousine service to the downtown hotels from the airport. The choice of bushes in the suspension avoided the hop up and down of the Pontiac and Oldsmobile versions of the car on short sharp pavement slab jolts. So the Caprice had a serene ride, wasn’t upset by concrete surfaces, and was just generally competent. Plus it went round curves very well, speaking from a back seat passenger’s viewpoint. The 305 version always seemed to shift at just the right speeds as well. A harmonious machine.
     
    Numerous friends and acquaintances owned these cars, none of them particularly sinister at all, and I drove many thousands of miles on trips to the US, sharing driving duties on a 350 4bbl version with the requisite F41 suspension. Very nice car indeed. Imperturbable is the word that pops to mind. Great A/C.
     
    The only fly in the ointment that I encountered with these cars was the very poor front seats. Right at the base of one’s spine was a strip of unyielding metal that was no fun at all on a long drive. I think that’s where the peculiar slightly sideways stance that drivers adopted came from. When you followed these cars, the driver always seemed to be looking out the windshield from between the steering wheel and rearview mirror, with right bum cheek advanced, so to speak.
     
    And next to old Volvos, these things were wonderful in snow for a RWD vehicle. Very handy and controllable, feeling like a smaller machine altogether when you got the tail out. Having spent some seat time in the rear of the current Cadillac CTS, I’d say there were considerably less clonks and bangs in these old live axle Chevs on bad roads. Of course, memory is fallible, but that’s my impression.
     
    Very good cars.
     

  • avatar
    Hank

    Not even taking my high-powered contact lenses out do I see anything redeeming in the design of that Caprice.  Blech. At least the LTD reminds me of my grandmother, and gives it bonus points from the get-go.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The 1977-1985 B-Body was probably the best car GM ever made. We put over 500,000 kilometers (300,000 miles) on a 1984 Buick LeSabre Limited with little more than oil changes, tires, brakes and about five water pumps. GM water pumps were really lousy. The engine, transmission and rear end were never touched. It was in the family for 15-years. Rust above the windshield header finally did it in. If they were still making the B-Bodies GM wouldn’t be in deep doo-doo now.

    I see the Holden Statesman/Chevy Caprice as a potential B-Body successor. If GM has the good commonsense to sell it to the rest of us I’ll be among the first in line at the dealership with cash in hand. I won’t otherwise look at GM wares.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Just took a look and I’d wonder why they don’t sell the Statesman here. Looks nicer than the current Impala to me.

    • 0 avatar
      vent-L-8

      About time someone brought up the LeSabre.  My first car was an 85 Limited, total grandma car as it had literally been my grandma’s car.  There is one like it that I pass occasionally near the University of Pennsylvania.  Dark grey metallic, full vinyl roof, velour interior and all the fake wood.  One day I will leave a note offering to buy it (although my wife will make me live in it).

  • avatar
    Civarlo

    (Applauding) Hit with a capital “H”! One of the few machines of that era that GM got right, and thus you see a lot of them still running on America’s roads. Their durability is amazing! No wonder GM kept that model going without significant change for 13 years. To me, the styling ages remarkably well.

    I learned how to drive on one of those rigs in the late 80’s: my parents’ 1984 Caprice Estate wagon. 11K miles when bought in the summer of ’85. White on brown cloth, with the wood panels, wire hubcaps, chrome roof rack and all. 305 4-barrel 5.0-liter V8 (only 150 hp, and still felt powerful). “Luxury” options that wowed us then…’cause we never had them before: cruise, tilt, power windows/locks, cassette deck, etc. To my folks, it might as well have been a Caddy. That car served our family faithfully for ten years, carrying us in comfort (whether around town or across the United States) and hauling a vast amount of cargo inside! Boy Scout newspaper drives or my dormitory gear every fall or spring…it could haul it all! Roomy as a gymnasium.  

    I remember this model as being remarkably easy to drive and without drama. I still miss that car, and this 1977-1990 classic model.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I made a few high speed runs in a B-body wagon that was my father’s work car.  It’s amazing how stable those suckers were with the speedo pegged at 85mph.

  • avatar

    Agree these were very nice looking cars, the first such GMs since the mid to late ’60s (depending on the brand and model). I still think the ’64 was Chevy’s zenith stylistically, although I also like the ’58, the ’63 and the ’65, and I so understand the significance of the ’55.

  • avatar
    ez3276

    The downsized intermediates actually came out a year later, not 2, in the fall of 1977. They were, in fact, much less satisfying. And ugly. The compacts were downsized in the spring of 1979 with the infamous X cars. It was all downhill fast from there.

  • avatar

    Familiar story and memories for me as well. I remember my Grandpa coming by our house with a brand new 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic.
    After a long line of monster Caddys the Caprice seemed tiny, but it looked sharp with its brown / gold paint job and tan velour interior.
    No vinyl roof, but he did have one installed after it was damaged in a hailstorm.
    That Caprice lasted until around 1993 and probably had 600000 kms in it before the big C took it down, which started under that “protective” vinyl cover no less,
    And that was on the original power train and several owners in the family.
    True, the interior was crap, the bench seats felt like an old couch, and getting up to speed was an issue near the end.
    But it was a good, solid car and as a child gave me the impression an American sedan with a V8 is practically bulletproof.
    And they must have been tough, you would see them in cab service years after they were built before the city passed a law stating all cabs must be ten years old or less.

    • 0 avatar
      Canucknucklehead

      Without the power seat, the car was indeed awful. The base seat was too low to the floor, making your legs splay out.
       
      The Delta Royale had by far the best interior. Actually very nice.

  • avatar
    a-viking

    I remember my father purchased a brand new Caprice in 1977 back in Norway. Silver, blue interior and of course the F41 package. After the requisite amber turn signal modification and rustoleum rust proofing the vehicle was delivered. New price back then NOK 120,000, which was about US$22,000, twice what a Volve 240 would cost. Needless to say the Chevrolet was a great car and much admired. A/C was a rarity back in those days, but the smoothness and quietness compared to a Mercedes Benz was simply astonishing. Sort of like a Lada compared to a Lexus. Cruising on the French auto-route at 110MPH (yes the needles was swept around to 0 point due to ridiculous 85MPH speedos then required) the car was smooth rider, with decent fuel economy.  I remember in those days how both US and European magazine complained about the size of the American cars. Little did they know that the Americans were just 30 years ahead of the Europeans. Its funny to think about 4,200lbs 5 series and column mounted shifters being de rigueur on 7 series.
    Compared to US price of $7,500 for same vehicle we did pay a lot, but then nothing has changed. Today a Golf is US$50,000 and a decent sedan between $100-150k, so to all those who complain about expensive new cars here in the US, they are not.
     
     

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Sorry Paul, but I just never worked up any enthusiasm over the looks of this car.  To me, there was always something just a little “off” in the lines.  A lot of generally nice looking style elements kind of got mashed together resulting in an awkward looking car.  I always thought that the 77-79 Olds 88 and 98 nailed the good looks of that generation, with the Buick second, Cadillac 3rd, Pontiac 4th and Chevy dead last.  I always preferred the look of the 79 LTD (though I agree with your view that the wheelbase was too short and the wheels too small) – it was at least a coherant design (as was the 79 Fury/St.Regis/Newport, althouth this one was a bit plain for my tastes.)
    But I have to agree that the 77-79 Chevy was a pretty decent car.  While the interior and exterior trim bits were really cheap, the car was MILES ahead of the juddering piece of crap 71-76 series that it replaced.  This was the (structurally) tightest GM car I had driven in years.  It was a rational size, and proved to be one of the most rust-resistant designs ever built.
    While it was no Oldsmobile 88, the Chevy was not a bad car (if you could get past the looks of the thing). 
    I must not have been alone here.  I knew a lot of people of my parents’ generation who had been longtime GM people.  A lot of these folks switched to Crown Vics and Grand Marquis’ in the mid 80s when the rear drive 88s, LeSabres, etc were gone (and while the Caprice was still a choice).  By the mid 80s the panthers had developed a superior reputation for reliability.  My mother was looking for a new car in 1985 -she considered an Olds 88, but was put off by the mediocre consumer reports ratings.  The Crown Vic won her over.  She never even considered the Caprice.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I wonder if part of the problem was that GM did absolutely nothing to promote the Caprice or Cadillac Brougham after the mid-1980s. One gets the impression that GM was almost embarrassed that it still made these cars. Part of that may have stemmed from the fact that the “old-tech” Caprice and Brougham worked better than the new-age front-wheel-drive products that were supposed to represent GM’s future.

      GM didn’t really get all of the bugs worked out of its downsized, front-wheel-drive Delta 88s, Ninety-Eights, LeSabres, Park Avenues and Bonnevilles until after 1991.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      Geeber, when I referred to mediocre CU ratings, I was referring to the 85 rear drive B body GM cars.  This surprised me at the time, because GM had usually excelled in the things that CU considered important.  But GM was losing the beat in the 80s.
      I also suspect that CAFE was a huge issue to GM.  The rear drive Cadillac, while kept, was priced incredibly high.  GM never had a decent small car, while Ford sold a lot of Escorts and Fox cars.  GM lived on the ragged edge of CAFE fines in the 80s, so I understand why they did not promote the rear drivers.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      If I recall correctly, Consumer Reports did say that the reliability ratings of the GM B-Bodies actually IMPROVED – relative to other cars – as the car got older!

      My parents traded their 1982 Delta 88 Royale for a 1988 model. The 3800 V-6 was suprisingly peppy in that smaller car, but, in every other way, the 1988 model was a step down from their older model.

    • 0 avatar
      Loser

      Another issue was GM pissed off many Buick, Olds and Pontiac buyers that paid B-O-P money for a car with a Chevy engine. For the younger folks this might not sound like a big deal today but it was back then. On top of that the Cadillac 4-6-8 and diesel fiasco didn’t help either.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Those around at the time may recall Ford’s response to these cars – it advertised the regular LTD as “the full-size car that kept its size.” It ran ads touting “road hugging weight” and comparing the LTD to the downsized Cadillac. Ford also facelifted the old Torino/Montego with a GMish front, rear and greenhouse and rechristened it the LTD II/Cougar. Many Ford ads featured the LTD and LTD II, noting that Ford offered buyers two sizes of cars.

    In retrospect, Ford was spitting into the wind, but it briefly worked – sales of full-size Fords, Mercurys and Lincolns were very good at that time. If I recall correctly, Lincoln set sales records in 1977-79, as did Mercury.

    The 1979 Panther cars were half-hearted efforts because Henry Ford II didn’t really believe in downsizing. He was suspicious of smaller cars, and didn’t want to spend the money necessary for Ford to really revamp its entire fleet. The cars reflected the ambivalent and penurious attitude on the part of Hank the Deuce. Ford had spent a fair amount of money to develop the Fox platform, and was working to bring the Escort to the U.S. market.

    One question – I thought that the AOD transmission debuted for the 1980 model year?

    I will say that, from what I’ve seen of surviving Panthers from 1979 and the early 1980s, they did have superior assembly quality compared to their GM counterparts. The GM cars – even the Cadillacs – have more of a “thrown together” look. Still, the GM cars bested their Blue Oval counterparts in every other way.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      I think you may be right about the AOD coming out in 1980, and it may have been an extra cost option early on, as it was in the Fox cars. 
      One reason there were so many of the Chevys relative to the Fords was that the Chevy came out in late 76, and did very well during the boom years of 77 and 78.  Ford (and Chrysler) brought out their new big platforms in 1979, the year that the economy was beginning to tank and that fuel prices went through the roof.  Everybody’s big cars suffered in 1979.
      Therefore, most of us do not have much firsthand exposure to Ford’s 79-83 Panthers.
      This jogs a memory – an aunt and uncle bought the downsized 78 Cadillac.  I was disappointed, because I did not think that the car felt as good as my dad’s 78 Town Car.  But 2 years later, dad got an 80 Town Car with the 302 and the AOD.  This car never felt nearly as substantial as the 78 Caddy. 

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, the AOD came out in 1980.  Aside from aftermarket upgrades, Ford never really got that tranny right.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    “I admit to never having been bitten by Panther fever, and that probably a lot has to do with its earliest incarnations. It was simply inferior to the GM B-Body, period, in pretty much every conceivable way.”

    The LTD/Crown Victoria of the same period isn’t so bad. There are straigher, sharper lines and angles which someone may (or may not) prefer. It looks exactly like what it is: the Ford version of the Caprice, with all that entails. Combined with the 351W engine (at least in cop-car/fleet versions), the Ford was an acceptable alternative to the Chevy.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Some of the problems posters may describe might have something to do with the variable-venturi carbs that Ford used until around 1986.  Those were truly putrid carbs; I know my dad replaced the one in his 85 Marquis. 

      I can’t imagine much power got through those awful things.

  • avatar
    david42

    My parents had a pair when I was a little kid:  a Custom Cruiser and a Delta 88.  The seats were bigger than my bed.  One was upholstered in burgundy vinyl, the other in a magnificent deep-blue velour.
    In my parents’ minds, they were utter crap.  Not just ’cause they were diesels:  there was always something wrong with one (or both) of them.  I guess they were better than their predecessors, or even the equivalent Panthers and M-bodies, but they were the last American cars owned by anyone in my family.  They still speak fondly of their Nova, though–a ’75, I think.

  • avatar
    catbert430

    My 91 year-old aunt is still using her 1980 Delta 88 Royale that she bought new as her daily driver. 
    I just saw it last week and it still looks terrific.

    I actually thought it was a 1977 but, found out it’s a 1980.  Trim parts are starting to become a challenge… She needed a new side-view mirror and had to pay $400 for it as the car seems to be morphing from a plain old car into a vintage car.

    My Mother-in-law has a 1986 Delta 88 Royale – the front-drive version.  It’s in excellent shape as well.  Both cars need only routine maintenance and have survived many Northeast winters although, admittedly, they spend most of the Winter in their respective garages.

  • avatar
    kjs

    My family grew up in a blue 1984 Caprice Classic wagon. I hated sitting in the rear-facing 3rd row seats — always got carsick that way. Eventually the thing was sold to a Mexican family in the late-’90s; by that time, stapling the headliner up wasn’t working any more. It was replaced with a ’74 Suburban Cheyenne, the green color of which inspired fear amongst certain other Mexican families.

  • avatar
    coatejo

    Paul, why spoil the Pather party with a story about the 79 Caprice. The 79 Ford was handsome in a boxy sort of way. It was quiet, comfortable, and had superior quality to the GM cars. My friend had a brand new 79 Caprice Classic. When it was not in the shop getting a transmission replaced or any of the myriad of other malidies fixed, I would get to ride in it on occasion. The instrument panel had a gap so wide you could see the one of the wire harneses inside. It was typically GM, which is why the Panthers survived so much longer. In the end they proved to be the better car.

  • avatar
    obbop

    I see a surprising number of that era full-size Chevys and similarmobiles still motorvating across the land.
    Not a huge herd but enough to indicate something.
    An even larger number viewed in areas outside the “rust belt”
    A Census Bureau co-worker back during the Census2000 fiasco (a bloated bureaucracy chock-full of concentrated bureaucratic idiocy rescued by the diligent efforts of temporary workers whose efforts made the permanent bureaucrats appear so inept that the most feeble excuses, some imagined, were used to rid the temp. workforce of many of those temps. This writer among them). used one of that era Chevys and its internal room allowed acces to the numerous piles of papers and maps and sundry stuff needed and used by those of us responsible for multi-county areas and the herd of underlings below us.
    I used a Toyota Previa van and though larger internally the co-worker’s Chevy served her well.
     

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    OK, we had a ’77 Impala that we bought used in ’82 with only 20K on the clock, with the 305 2bbl and THM200 (3-speed auto borrowed from the Chevette, BIG mistake behind a V8).  The transmission failed for the first time at 40K miles.  The camshaft which had non-hardened lobes, crapped out at around 100K miles.  I then tore down the entire motor to the long block and replaced every seal, core plug, cam, lifters, timing chain, and rebuilt everything bolted onto the motor.  At the same time I swapped out the THM200 for a T350 which required getting the driveline shortened by 6″ or so.  And it was a pain to work on because it was the first year of Metric fasteners in the body but everything on the engine was still standard, and I didn’t have a lot of metric tools yet back then.

    It ran OK, had ridiculously strong throttle return springs (stock) that required the most pedal force I have ever seen, which resulted in jerky operation.  Interior was so-so, including the crappy GM fuzzy fabric foam-backed headliner through which every blob of glue bled through.  Driver’s seating position felt like 6″ above the floor which was not comfortable.

    We kept this car in the family for 20 years and then gave it away, still running OK, but with typical issues of a 25-year-old car (water leaks due to GM’s crappy ever-hardening/shrinking/cracking body seam sealer).  Yes, it was smaller, lighter, and handled better than the car that it replaced, but I really can’t rave about it all too much.  I think that the 1971 Ford LTD that we had in the family for 30 years was a better-built car, although I had to policify the suspension and steering bits on it in order to handle well.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    Is this a parody?  If the ’73s were the beginning of the end, these represented the end of the beginning.  The quality of construction was non-existent.  I am impressed that many of the commentators got good service out of these things, but in comparison to what?  Fiats? (I’ve owned a number of Fiats, um, enough said about that.)  Between the diesel catastrophe of those years,  the fact that goodness knows what kind of gas motor you would get, and toss in your amazing domestic dealership experience, trifecta baby!  The number of American WWII vets who walked away from American cars (albeit not trucks) and turned to the Japs and the Krauts* is truly astonishing over the course of the ’80s.  And those late ’70s GMs were a large reason for that exodus.  If they had been screwed together properly, maybe the design would have saved them.  Although, I must say, better looking than the ’65 and ’66?   Really?
    *Sorry, my dad was a career Army Sargent through three wars, I grew up with that.  Nothing personal.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    I had a ’79 Impala wagon, with the 4bbl 350 and positraction.  Very classy with a two-tone silver/grey paint, red pinstripe and red interior.  It could do duty as a pickup truck or a limousine.  And other than clearance issues despite having aftermarket airshocks, it also did well on what we now call off-roading.

    I had it for 11 years, and it struck me as an extremely competent design other than the exfoliating paint and lack of resistance to rusting.  I’d also say the body was still too big, being a little longer and wider than it needed to be.  Plus the lame front headrests, no back headrests, and lack of a split folding back seat.  Handsome roof rack and that ingenious 3-way tailgate.  Bumpers that really were bumpers instead of the delicate nonsense on today’s cars.  Non-generic headlights that cost $10 to replace instead of $400.

    The Impala wagon weighed 4000lb and could get 24mpg on the highway, with 6 people and tons of baggage to spread out the fuel consumed per passenger mile.  The 3-spd automatic seemed better behaved than any automatic I’ve had in a car since.  We drove it a lot on gravel roads, and it was completely sealed against dust intrusion – something I’ve not enjoyed with cars since.

    Comparing it to the downsized Fords made me wonder if Ford had just reverse engineered the B-GM’s, since their design layout was too similar to be coincidence.  My girlfriend’s father had a Ford of similar age to my wagon, and I was amazed at how loose and rattly the Ford was compared to my straight and tight Impala.

    The Ford wagon overhung the same back axle as used on the sedan, while GM went to the trouble to use a longer axle on the back end of their wagons.

    I think the 1990 Caprice or Impala holds the world speed record for a car with four occupants.

    Unfortunately the ranks of all these cars are being depleted for demolition derbies.

  • avatar

    A neighbor of ours had a string of these — Caprices and Parisiennes — when I was growing up. The styling didn’t interest me then; I’ve since acquired a new appreciation for it. The “Bubble” generation of B-bodies (said neighbor had a Roadmaster Wagon for a while) did interest me, however. When GM killed off those cars in 1996, our neighbor got a Lumina…it was a whole universe less interesting than the big rear-drivers.

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    I already told my story about these cars a while back, but I will repeat that I smile every time I see one today. You don’t see many decent ones here in the great white north though. This truly was the last time GM really hit a home run. 34 years ago. And Canucklehead is right, they messed it up by 1980 unless you are talking 9C1.
     One odd thing about these, they may be the only GM car ever up to that time that looks better as a 4 door than a 2. My .02 anyway.

  • avatar
    r129

    Growing up in the 80s, my aunt had a 1980 Impala coupe, cinnabar with oyster vinyl interior.  For some reason, I just loved the way that car looked, even though it wasn’t the arguably more attractive 1977-79 version with the wraparound rear window.  To this day I find vehicles with white vinyl interiors to be extremely attractive.  I also think the Impala versions of these cars are much better (cleaner) looking than the Caprice versions.  Her car was equipped with the Chevy 229 V6, and always seemed to have some sort of mechanical troubles.  The engine finally gave out in 1990 at 70,000 miles, but the body was still in great shape.  She ended up selling it to some friends for $50, who then transplanted the V8 from their dented, rusty circa-1975 Cutlass into the Impala.
     
    She replaced the Impala with a 1979 Cutlass Supreme with 30,000 miles that she bought from an older couple.  I loved the color scheme on that car, too.  It was green (including green plastic trim on the wheelcovers), with a white vinyl top and green vinyl interior.  Interior color schemes are so boring these days!

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I’ve posted this before, but it’s so good, I’ve got to do it again. #1: 1977 Delta 88 Holiday Coupe with F-41 suspension, posi trac, 403 Olds and THM 350. Ran like stink, got 23 MPG, seriously, never had any real mechanical issues, not inflicted by the owner. After 8 years, it would not pass inspection and was traded for a POS Mercury Capri. #2: 1977 Caprice Coupe, which was owned by the man who would eventually give me my first REAL job, at the time I was a lanky teenager washing cars for extra bucks. This man’s company made millions, he was worth as much, and STILL he drove a Chevy. (Sam Walton was not the first millionaire to do this…) The man set an example for me to follow, I’ve done my best to do so. #3: Several years later, while working for this same man’s company, I was the frequent driver of dark blue dog-dish equipped stripper 1984 Caprice 4 door. Like someone else mentioned earlier in this blog, the best part of driving that car was rolling up on unsuspecting traffic, the sheeple thinking they were being approached by an undercover state police car, would absolutely dive out of the way. I almost always wore a sunglasses, shirt and tie while driving that Cappy, and many times got recognition from cops, thinking I was one of them. Good times. Much love for the B-body, not surpassed until I got an Epsilon…

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    There’s been four B bodies in my family.
     
    My uncle had a 1979 Impala with a LG3 305 2bbl that he bought new off the lot.  It was written off after a collision in the 1990s.
     
    I factory ordered a 1988 Caprice 9C1 with a LM1 350 4bbl / 700R4 complete with awesome bucket seats, auxiliary gauges, posi, and all the coolers and assorted HD stuff.  According to the door sticker it weighed 3,859 lbs, and I would regularly get 23 mpg on the highway.  This car was the best combination of performance, handling, durability and utility of any vehicle I’ve driven.  Only the 2010 Hyundai Genessis V6 sedan I drove has a similar driving dynamic.  And at last count I’ve driven 57 different cars.  I kept the car for 12 years and sold it under distress to one of my employees.  He also had a BMW 733i and preferred the 9C1 to his Bimmer.  My 9C1 is still on the road today, although looking a little worse for the rust.
     
    My father factory ordered a 1989 Caprice Classic Brougham LS.  A real beauty with electroluminescent coach lamps, leather interior, true landau roof, plus L03 305 TBI and F41, etc.  He gave it to my brother in 2000, who in turn also sold it to one of my employees.
     
    The last B body is a 1996 Impala SS that I factory ordered.  After I took delivery I discovered that it’s the 33,333rd in MY1996 production sequence and the fifth last one built for Canada.  It’s a garage queen that I only take out every two years to burn the old gas off.  It’s way faster and better dynamically than my ’88 9C1, but I also find it way more difficult and ponderous to drive.  At 4,220 pounds combined with its inflated body style, it’s just too heavy and bloated for me.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    My dad owned a ’77 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser (with the F41 suspension option and the 180 horsepower Oldsmobile 401 cubic inch V-8).  The car was exactly the same length as the ’69 Chevy Townsman that it replaced, but substantially narrower and less roomy.

    The rear seats were especially uncomfortable with short and low bottom cushions that have been a GM trademark for, oh, the last 34 years or so.  We always ordered 2-seat station wagons, no back-facing 3rd seats for us.  The storage space under the rear cargo area was substantially less than in the ’69.  You could no longer place a suit case under there.  Where our ’69 Chevy had the spare tire concealed by an easily removable door that had a latch, in the ’77 wagon the entire plastic panel covering the spare tire had to be removed by carefully pressing on the cheap plastic.

    The Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission was less smooth than in the ’69 Chevy’s.  And even the limited-slip differential didn’t work as well as the Positraction rear end of the ’69’s.  But with the F-41 suspension it really did handle nicely for a large car.

    The 401 V-8 was strangled by emission control devices and in no way comparable to the Chevy’s 350 4-barrel carbed V-8.  At about 30,000 miles or so, my dad had the spark plugs replaced as part of normal service by an independent garage who discovered that the car had been running on only 7-cylinders since we bought it.  It was something fairly minor and fairly easily repaired, but even afterwards, we only noticed a minor improvement in the car’s performance.

    The assembly quality of the car (it was built at the South Gate plant in California) was a slight improvement over that of the ’69 Chevy, which is to say, still pretty poor.

    It was replaced by an even slower ’85 Pontiac Parisienne with the Chevy 305 V-8 which still had an uncomfortable rear seat with lower cushions that were too short and too low.  It came with an optional handling suspension and by ’85 GM had noticeably improved the assembly quality of their vehicles.
     

  • avatar
    sfdennis1

    Grew up in a mostly Ford/Lincoln-Mercury family, with a few Pontiac Grand Prixs thrown in…so the B-body mostly missed me…but after Dad moved to Florida he had a (85-86?) Parisienne for a couple of years in the late 80’s…I think the 305, standard suspension…

    After a decade on the market, popular consensus was that these were absolute dinosaurs…GM stopped advertising them because compared to the ‘modern’ euro-inspired Taurus, and the onslaught of the Toyota/Honda juggernaught, these old-tech cars were a borderline embarrassment  to GM’s ‘technological prowess’ at the time. It was clear that the future involved seriously competing with the imports, while not alienating GMs’ traditional customer base…not an easy task…and a task GM repeatedly botched at just about every opportunity. 

    When I would visit my father, I remember digging the V8’s smoothness, but the Parisienne handled like an absolute pig compared to my ’86 Mazda 626 coupe, or my mother’s Audi…it was a relic, past it’s sell-by date, old-school in a bad way…or so it seemed at the time.

    Seen thru the lense of time passed, these were the right cars at the right time in ’77. Well done, by the standards of the day. They reintroduced ‘sanity’ in size and packaging to the full-size segment…and were probably a high-water mark for GM, not repeated again until recently.

    (And then came the 80’s,  a perfect storm of GM’s corporate hubris, a rapidly changing market with massively increased competition from the imports and a resurgent modern/aero Ford, and the spectacular incompetence of Roger Smith overseeing it all.)

  • avatar
    big_gms

    This CC really struck a nerve with me. I had a 1979 Caprice Landau coupe. Loved that sharply creased wraparound rear window. Mine was light green with matching interior and white vinyl top. I also had a 1973 Caprice 2 door hardtop prior to the ’79, and I have to say that while the ’73 did have some good points, the ’79 was a better car in most ways. It handled great in snow for a big rear wheel drive car, had a nice ride, got okay gas mileage and was mostly reliable, aside from a water pump, starter, carburetor and a few other minor things. Toward the end, the transmission was on it’s way out, the engine was getting tired and the frame, brake lines and fuel lines were all getting quite rusty. I finally sold it to a guy who wanted it for parts for his ’79 Impala coupe. Was it a perfect car? Hell no. The 305 2 barrel V8 (rated at a mere 130 HP for 1979, one of the weakest 305s ever) was a real dog and the interior materials and assembly wasn’t the best, but it was a damned fine car by late 1970s standards. And I always loved the styling. I was just a little kid when these were new, but I remember thinking how much more modern looking these cars were than almost anything else on the road at the time. I think the styling has aged extremely well.

    For direct comparison, I had some experience with an early Panther, a 1979 LTD 2 door that I borrowed when my first car (the ’73 Caprice) was down for a while. As I recall, the LTD did have slightly better interior quality than the ’79 Caprice. Gas mileage was about the same (LTD had a 302 V8, though not the original one), it was almost as slow as the Caprice, the ride was okay but the Caprice rode just slightly better. Style wise, the Ford looked okay but the Chevy was nicer. The 14″ wheels on the Ford were just too small, the Chevy looked better with it’s 15″ wheels. Overall, the Ford wasn’t bad, the Chevy was just better. Oddly enough, the Panthers got better with age, while the B-bodies declined a bit.

    There have been a bunch of B-bodies in my family: My ’79 Caprice, my aunt’s ’78 Caprice with the 305 V8, my late grandparent’s ’79 Olds Custom Cruiser with the 403 V8, dad’s ’82 Caprice with the godawful 229 V6 (which made my anemic ’79 feel like a muscle car), great uncle’s 1980 Impala with the equally weak 267 V8, dad’s ’84 Caprice Estate wagon with a 305 V8, and my ’86 Parisienne with the Olds 307 V8, plus two downsized C-bodies: a pair of ’78 Buick Electra 225s, both with Buick 350 V8s, owned by the same grandparents who had the Custom Cruiser.

  • avatar
    DougD

    Oh one more point, my friend’s Dad had a 1979 Pontiac Laurentian (Probably one of those Canada spec disguised Chevy’s) base trim with heavy duty everything and a 350.  I believe after it was delivered he had the dealership change the rear axle ratio to 3.42 for towing trailers.
    That car was an absolute rocket ship compared to ours.  He was sorely disappointed with the Panther body Ford that eventually replaced it (as were we).

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I remember test driving and lusting after two beautiful 2 door B-bodies in the late 80’s when I was still in high school. One was a 1980 Bonneville coupe with bucket seat floor shifter interior, honey comb alloys just like on a TA, beautiful burgandy exterior and interior, full operational guage package sans tach, F41 suspension, 350 Olds V8 tied to a THM 350 trans and optional trailer towing 3.08 rear gears. It only had 62K original miles and looked like new. It drove equally amazing and to this day I have never seen or driven a Bonneville quite like it. The seats were very comfortable with the driver’s side power adjustable, the car handled and felt very tight and solid, the Olds 350 would smoke the tires for a block. I never quite knew the history of this car but in looking at some older 1980 Car guides see that the Olds 350 was not available to 49 state shoppers so this must have been some special order California or Canadian varient. I have been looking on Ebay and other car sites and have never found one like it since.
    The other car was a dark blue 1977 Delta 88 Holiday coupe with white bucket seat interior and every option available including F41, Moonroof, power everything and the 403 Olds V8 tied to a THM 350. I have never seen another like that car either. It too was in mint shape with low mileage and would light the tires at will. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding these two rare beauties in my high school graduation year and even better being able to test drive them alone with no saleman coming along for the ride. Thanks for the memories!

    I would give my eye teeth to have these two exact cars today!

  • avatar
    phantomwolf

    Sometimes I just miss my dads old Olds Cutlass cruiser.  Yea, those cars were build like brick s**thouses.  Being Panther appreciation week, the truth is there is a market for super durable cars since in reality it will always be more practical that an SUV for most uses.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    The Opel looks good. I remember these Caprice/Impalas. My grandparents drove them. Never wanted one after I got a good dose of Volvos and BMWs that neighbors owned.

    • 0 avatar
      bufguy

      I remember the advertisments on TV and in magazines for the “New Chevrolet”, a gorgeous two tone silver and blue Caprice Classic. It truly was revolutionary and one of the best looking cars produced by GM.
      My dad bought a 78 Buick Estate Wagon with an Ols 403 4bbl. Only 185 hp, but 320 lb/ft of torgue at 1600 rpm…that’s a fast idle. Could spin the wheels.
      This car was so far superior to our 72 Buick wagon with its 455 engine. It was faster, smoother and got better mileage. Plus the car was so much tighter with vastly superior sound and vibration isolation.
      The B body was GM’s last truly dominant car. It caught all competitors off guard and the Ford panther was never better.
      Ask any cop what they prefer….Caprice or Crown Vic. The vast majority will say Caprice.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    In my family we had a lot of experience with those B-bodies. My parents had ’61 and ’69 Buick LeSabres, followed by my mother’s first company car, a ’75 LeSabre, base model dark blue with light blue vinyl top, poverty caps, blackwall radials, vinyl bench seat, monoaural AM/FM, A/C and the 165-hp V-8. It was slow, ugly, badly built, chintzy and struggled against its 4700 lbs. to get 15 mpg. It also broke a rear axle and several cooling system parts. Sounds sweet, huh?
    It did have a nice ride, though. That’s why my mom worried about the downsized ’77s, which lost all that “road-hugging weight.” She thought it would ride like my Dad’s Valiant.
    No worries, though. This time we ordered it right: the up-level Custom trim, 350 V-8, stereo, whitewalls, full wheel covers, Firethorn Red with red velour interior, power windows and seats. That car was fantastic. Much better built than the ’75, and reliable in its three years with us. My Dad once got nailed in Maine doing 80mph in it, which that car attained with ease. This was followed by an ’80 LeSabre Limited, with the 301 4bbl. V-8 and handling package, black with red interior, also a nice car.
    I was in college in 1982 and my parents weren’t paying attention when the leasing agent called. My mom ordered an Olds 88 Royale Brougham. It came with the pathetic 100-hp 4.3 V-8, which Olds had a lot of nerve offering in a car of that size.  Not only was that Olds 88 dog-ass slow, but it had the THM 200 which busted in less than a year. Mom switched to Olds because the dealer was closer to her office, which turned out to be a good decision. Lots of other fancy doo-dad stuff broke, and often. It certainly was no fun to drive, unless trying to climb Pennsylvania’s I-81 in Pennsylvania at 25mph in first gear, foot to the floor, is your idea of fun.
    That aside, B-body quality did go down, but I think that was across the board for GM during the Eighties. Mom was done with B-bodies after turning in the 88, though she did have a few mid-size GM sedans before retiring.

  • avatar
    agroal

    “In the long, strange and sometime tortured evolution of the classic large American sedan since WWII, there are exactly two moments when that species really hit the mark: The 1955 and 1977 Chevrolets.”
    So I guess the small matter of the 2005 Chrysler 300C doesn’t matter? Full sized 4 door with  340hp-390 ft/lbs from the same sized 5.7 liter. Sales hit. Critics loved it. Then Chrysler gave it 425 hp. Research Mr. Niedermeyer, research. “Is that a pledge pin on your uniform?”

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    The Caprice looked great, but it was so unbelievably cheap inside. The quality of the parts was severly compromised. Interiors didn’t just look cheap, they were cheap. Yup, the mechanicals of these B bodies could be great, but often weren’t. You average B body wasn’t impressive in handling and acceleration. Most of these cars were sold to buyers still pining for soft floaty comfort in a sensory deprivation tank like vehicle. So, getting into most B bodies wasn’t such a great moment. Driving most of them wasn’t great either. While it might be fine to spec-out an awesome ride, most of these cars weren’t spec-ed out in that manner.

    Popular? You bet they were. They were the latest thing on the streets. Profitable? You betcha! Everyone with eyes had an opinion about them when they showed up on the road. At a time when folks saw the writing on the wall regarding fuel prices, these cars looked like the answers to big car folk’s prayers.

    Ford and Chrysler were completely taken off balance. Ford caught tons of buyers afraid of the new GM cars. An entire generation of big car buyers ended up in Fords, and especially Mercurys. That was the generation that slowly died off, ending the Mercury run this year. The writing was on the wall however and Ford downsized to the Panther.

    The Panthers demonstrated what we still know about Ford products today – better interiors that satisfy average folks. Ford since the 1960s knew that people lived inside their cars, so they focused on silent rides, and quality interior parts. That didn’t make the Ford better cars, it made them better to await the tow trucks, than B body GM cars.

    The Panthers were not popular their first years. GM had the mojo and the Panther was a poor “me too” car. Externally, the Caprice looked better as the Ford adopted the sever squared lines of it’s popular Fairmont sedans. Ford focused on trying to outsquare Volvos and used Volvos as their styling focal point. But GM had better looking cars.

    It took Ford a decade to make a decent Panther. By that time GM made the craptastic Packard-ish Caprice and knocked themselves out of contention. Ford’s incremental and profitable Panther updates kept their full sized cars boring, but competent. As the early 1990s, the Panther was the best full sized car available to the masses and hung on way too long, satisfying the generation of full size car buyers dying off that jumped to them when GM’s B bodies were released. Panther drivers were conservative. Now they are mostly gone, hence Mercury’s departure to auto heaven at the end of this year.

    Since this is Panther appreciation week, it was rather snarky to throw this into the mix. However, you importantly remind Panther fans of the Market realities that prevailed when the Panther was born. Thanks.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    While many people prefer the looks of the caprice over the fords of this era, and the chevies handle better, the fords were actually better cars. The 302 and 351W didn’t have the cam/valve guide wear problems of the small block chevies. And many of the gm cars came with the Th200 trans, which was way to small and usually bit the dust by 40k, if you were lucky.
    The aod, which came out in 80 was balky and jerky, but it was pretty reliable. GM’s 700R4, which came out in the 80’s was also jerky, and was a disaster as far as reliability goes, until they started making changes to it in 86-87. After that it became a good transmission.
    The fords were also better built, especially when you consider the headliners, which didn’t fall down on your head like in the gm cars.
    Actually what gm did by downsizing the fullsize car was not new, chrysler first did it in 62, follwoing rumors that the chevy was going to be smaller that year. No matter what the reason was, they still did it long before gm. They were about a foot shorter than the ford and chevy, and a bit narrower, with similar interior room.
    The problem was that it was not yet the right time, because people still wanted large cars in the early 60’s, and the fact that the styling didn’t go over well. But underneath the awkward styling you had a great car.
    AMC accomplished the same with the ambassador in 67, shorter than the competition’s fullsize cars with virtually the same interior space. GM has often been credited with downsizing the fullsized car when actually 2 other carmakers did it years before them.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    The 77 Delta 88 Coupe w/403 was the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. James Garner drove it. I just felt like sharing that.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    After the 1977s came out one of the major business magazines printed a story that breathlessly wondered whether the market would accept downsized cars — to the point where Ford might have an opportunity for overtaking GM in sales.
     
    That story should be reprinted in a Stupid Moments in Automotive Journalism series.  Here was a classic example of what Brock Yates once called Grosse Point myopia — except as practiced by the automotive press rather than the industry executives.  The slow collapse of the Big Three was enabled by an awful lot of bad journalism over the years.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    What I remember most about B-body Impala/Caprice taxicabs was the opportunity they gave for cabbies to display their creativity, in all the imaginative ways they tried to jury-rig the headliner into staying up.  The ones who used a couple hundred thumbtacks gave me the willies, especially if the road was a bit bumpy.

    Besides the wagons, my first choice in a B-body is the 1977-79 LeSabre coupe.  Best coupe styling (better than the creased-window Caprice IMO), those sporty Buick road wheels, and still fitted with real Buick engines with lots of go potential.

  • avatar
    armadamaster

    Great article although I think you shortchanged the 1991-1996 B-bodies quite a bit.

    I am on B-body number #10, and the family has owned several more than that over the years.

    Now they are on to Panthers, as I most likely will be soon.


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