Anyone old enough to remember the year – 1975, will usually lament the passing of this era. Many who remember will even go so far as to mention it was a much better time than the present day. This is not saying that 1975 was perfect. After-all 1975 marked the end of the long and wretched Vietnam War and was one year after the culmination of Watergate which had ended the Imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon – both of which had nearly ripped the country in two. However 1975 marked an era when people seemed to be happier and not so nihilistic and depressed as they are now. Though the U.S. economy had its problems back in 1975, a middle class family could still live quite comfortably on one salary and jobs still were plentiful since most of what America consumed back then was still made in the U.S. (this was an era before free trade and globalism had rotted away real economic growth). The 1973 oil crises had made its mark and new Federal regulations were forcing the U.S. auto industry to change rapidly. Ironically Nixon turned out to be the gift that kept on giving even after leaving office in disgrace (his creation) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with its Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards, would be the final nail in the coffin for big American cars and the large displacement V8 engines that powered them.
By the summer of 1975, the protest music of the 1960s was long gone and popular music had taken on a more happy and upbeat tone similar to the music of the late-1950s and early-1960s. Disco by the summer of 1975 could be heard everywhere and was the new sensation. Neil Sedaka who was very popular during the late-1950s and early 1960s, after a decade of insignificance was back on the charts in 1975 with the following mega hits: “Laughter in the Rain”, “Bad Blood”, and a remake of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”. Sedaka in 1975 who was encountering the greatest apex of his career, would see the song “Love Will Keep Us Together” which he had co-wrote with Howard Greenfield and was performed by Captain & Tennille, hit number one on the Billboard charts during that summer. For 1975 Sedaka seemed unstoppable, by 1976 things would slow down and mark the end of Sedaka’s zenith. For the Chevrolet Caprice Classic the same was true, 1975 would be a great year however 1976 would signal the end – 1977 would be the first year of the shrunken Caprice (the Classic name was dropped for 1977), and it would never return to the large size of 222.9 inches in length, 79.5 inches wide, and a wheelbase of 121.5 inches (the dimensions of the 1975-1976 Chevrolet Caprice Classic). In case you can’t comprehend how big 222.9 inches in length is – it is the same length as the 222.4 inch gargantuan 2010 Chevrolet Surburban. Where 1975 was important was it was the last time a reasonably priced new full-size two-door convertible could be purchased. Just about the time when “Love Will Keep Us Together” was blaring across the airwaves, the Caprice Classic convertible was ending production forever. For 1975, GM was the last holdout producing full-size convertibles. Ford and Chrysler had thrown in the towel on their full-size convertibles a few years prior. Chevrolet in the 1970s was numero uno when it came to the number of car sales; American consumers knew Chevrolet offered the best value for the dollar. So with the Caprice Classic convertible biting the dust, it would be the last time the average Joe could buy a reasonably priced full-size convertible. Even for the well heeled the last full-size convertible had its last year of production the next year with the luxurious 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. The other GM divisions also lost their full-size convertibles when the 1975 model year came to a close; the Pontiac Gran Ville convertible, Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible, and Buick LeSabre convertible all ended production the same time as the Caprice Classic convertible. Chevrolet sold 8,349 Caprice Classic convertibles for 1975, which was double the production of a few years prior. This was especially surprising since Chevrolet did not advertise the convertible model. Even in the large 20 page full-size (Impala and Caprice Classic) 1975 Chevrolet sales brochure there were only three sentences devoted to mentioning the Caprice Classic convertible. The brochure began by meekly admitting a convertible model was still available: “for those who still favor a convertible, we still offer one, combining the exhilarating effects of a convertible with the elegance of a Caprice.” Then the brochure mentioned “for the first time, a sport cloth interior and 50/50 reclining front passenger seat are now available on the convertible.” The last sentence which happened to be in smaller print than the first two sentences did a better job of pitching the convertible by mentioning “Caprice Classic Convertible sets a sporty mood with a durable, power-operated vinyl top, a glass (not plastic) rear window, and an interior featuring supple vinyl on the seats, doors, instrument panel and head restraints.”
There’s probably none who mourned the death more of Chevy’s full-size convertible than eccentric writer Hunter S. Thompson who was a big fan of all that the big Chevy convertible offered. In the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (based on Thompson’s best selling book), Johnny Depp who plays Thompson in the movie can be seen enjoying the pleasures of driving and riding in a full-size red 1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible (the Caprice Classic convertible replaced the Impala Convertible in 1973). Thompson referred to this 1971 Impala Convertible as the “great red shark”. Thompson in his later years before his recent passing owned a red 1973 Caprice Classic convertible.
To most observers with today’s frame of mind the Caprice Classic convertible seems almost outlandish in proportions compared to today’s much smaller cars. The hood is so very long and even the shorter trunk (in comparison to the hood) looks big. The car has elegant curves and bumps unlink today’s aerodynamic sheet metal. One look at the 1975 Caprice convertible is like looking at a two-door 1957 Chevy, you know this type of styling will never be seen again on a new car. For 1975 the Caprice Classic received a new front-end and rear-end design. By 1975 standards it was a very modern look – more modern than its other GM division brothers. This would also be the last year the Caprice Classic would have four round headlamps, for 1976 they were replaced with four square headlamps. The 1975-1976 rear-end design had six stylish rectangular taillights which were located above the rear chrome bumper.
One can talk about the elegance of the exterior of this full-size Chevy but this car’s purpose was its large wide open space in the interior for both the front and rear seat passengers. First thing an observer will notice before entering the interior is the massive side doors on this car. These heavy doors feel stronger than a steel girder acting as a main support for a skyscraper. It’s a feeling of peace of mind for it makes you realize this car is built as strong and sturdy as a Sherman tank. However the owners of these big beasts know better than to open up this large door on an incline without supporting it with an arm on the sturdy door armrest – for gravity can cause that door to chop your leg faster than a bull shark. Once the side door is opened the interior space seems as big as a large hotel lobby. With seating for 6 large adults (3 up front and 3 in the back), and this is not shoulder touching shoulder type space as is the case with the modern (so called full-size) 6 passenger cars – like 3-in-a-row tight airline coach seating. There was plenty of free space between each of the 6 occupants – it was just like 3-in-a-row first class airline seating giving all occupants full elbow room. For anyone who came of age during the 1970s and 1980s when full-size cars the size of the 1975 Caprice were driven by teens, it was a common site to see 4 or even 5 teens seated in the rear seat row. Try this in a current full-size car and that car will be more crowded than the clown filled VW Beetle at the circus. And trunk space with even a full-size spare tire is nothing short of enormous. It’s a trunk when the convertible top is up, can fit a surfboard and loads of luggage and still be able to completely close the trunk lid. There are a few big trunks available today however none are as wide and long as the Caprice’s trunk space.
The Caprice Classic ragtop may have been the average man’s convertible but the options were still plentiful. Many buyers for 1975 loaded up their Caprices with a bounty of factory options. It was not rare to see a loaded 1975 Caprice Classic convertible with many power and convenience options. Parking one of these loaded 1975 Caprice Classic convertibles with optional wire wheels next to a loaded (almost double the price of the Caprice) 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible back in the day would have had most observers from 20 feet away guessing which was the more upscale car. Air-conditioning was also a common option which before that time was a rare option on many different convertible models.
By 1975 horsepower may have taken a serious tumble compared to a few years prior, however smooth low-end torque was still plentiful on all the V8s available in the Caprice. Torque for the big full-size cars is more important than horsepower. Torque is the measure of an engine’s pulling power, and loads of low-end torque (even if not accompanied by a lot of horsepower) meant a big barge like the Caprice could be pulled (by its V8) around town with ease. The main reason for the horsepower drop for 1975 was the introduction of the Government mandated catalytic converter. Standard on the Caprice Classic convertible was the 145 horsepower small-block 350 CID V8 (2-bbl). Optional was the 175 horsepower small-block 400 CID V8 (4-bbl) and 215 horsepower big-block 454 CID V8 (4-bbl). Many opted for the 350 V8 due to the start of the 1975 model year sales (which was in fall of 1974) had immediately followed the 1973 oil crises (which had began in October 1973 and lasted until March 1974). The crises caused gasoline to rise from 30 cents per gallon to $1.20 per gallon very quickly. Though gas prices had receded by the close of the crises they never went back down to the cheap 30 cents per gallon before the crises. So it’s no surprise that big cars took a sales hit for 1975 (1976 would see a rebound for big cars). The small-block 400 V8 was the wise choice for those wanting a little more horsepower and torque than the 350 but not wanting to go all the way up to the gas slurping 454 V8. However for those who had to have the extra power whether it was for towing or just an owner’s desire, the 4 bbl equipped 454 V8 was where it was at. 215 horsepower was about the best you could hope for in any new car in 1975 (this is when anything over 200 horsepower was considered a very powerful motor). And the 454’s torque rating of 350 lb-ft was also about the best you were going to get for a new car back in 1975, it was enough to tow a large trailer or a boat. The 454 equipped Caprice Classic Convertible came standard with dual exhaust while the 350 and 400 equipped Caprice was available with only a single exhaust system. The advantage of dual exhaust over single exhaust starting in 1975 was lessened greatly. Due to the introduction of the catalytic converter, no longer would dual exhaust systems have two separate pipes that were a straight shot back from the exhaust manifolds to the rear of the car. The new catalytic converter dual exhaust systems would have two separate exhaust pipes off the exhaust manifolds and would merge together before entering into the catalytic converter. From the catalytic converter one pipe would emerge and later split into two. Granted this type of system was a little more free-flow than a single exhaust system but it was not as free-flow as the true exhaust systems prior to 1975 since the catalytic converter was a choking point for exhaust flow. Catalytic converters were very expensive back in 1975 so a dual or multi catalytic converter setup to allow a true dual exhaust setup was not economically feasible. Chevrolet would later implement a true dual exhaust system on the 1984 Corvette and Ford would introduce their version for 1986 on the 5.0 liter H.O. V8 equipped Mustangs and Capris. Though the 454 V8 was a shadow of its former self, it was still one of the most power V8s available for 1975 and a few easy modifications would easily get this motor on par with the early 1970s higher horsepower 454s.
The Caprice Classic convertible may have been sporty looking, but it had big car traits when it came to ride feel and handling. The four wheel coil spring suspension gave all occupants a nice cushy ride, making this a nice boulevard cruiser. And if you happen to be on a pothole infested road, it’s no big deal the suspension handles this type of driving with ease – never giving the occupants the slightest bit of discomfort. However it’s on the highway where perfect symbiotic balance occurs with the Caprice, the smooth ride and comfy seats make you want to just keep traveling down the highway. Cross country road trips were made for the Caprice Convertible, it seems to float effortlessly through the air. In the handling area the Caprice’s suspension just is no match for hairpin turns and it’s overly assisted power steering makes the task that much harder. This is a car where you take your time and go slow in the heavy turns. For once you leave the turns and enter back into the straight road; the Caprice is back on happy ground.
The 1975 Caprice Classic convertible is no longer the forgotten classic; it’s not rare these days for a mint conditioned example to commend a price as high as $25,000. It’s safe to say the collectors have discovered this gem from a bygone era. The times have unfortunately changed, and so have the cars. When the Caprice Classic convertible departed, it also signaled an end to a less stressful time. Today we are in a big hurry to get nowhere. Back in 1975 most people weren’t in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Many just wanted to enjoy the ride along the way with one of Neil Sedaka’s big hits playing on the 8-Track tape player – this was what the Caprice Classic convertible was all about.
Written and photo contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved