There was a time when full-size cars were the hottest selling cars in the U.S. market and not the small market niche they are now. During this time the full-size Chevrolet and full-size Ford offerings were fighting for this “best selling” title year after year. Chevrolet by the 1970s had two very hot full-size sellers – the Impala and the more upscale Caprice. By 1976 both the Impala and Caprice/Caprice Classic (Chevrolet introduced the Caprice Classic as a top-of-the line Caprice in 1973) had become behemoths.
The 1976 Caprice had a length of 222.9 inches, a width of 79.5 inches, and a wheelbase of 121.5 inches. Now if you are having problems computing how big the 1976 Caprice sedan was, try reflecting on its 4,300 lbs weight (this is back when a Chevrolet Nova weighed 3,500 lbs). The 1976 Caprice and most U.S. full-size cars that year, had become like Elvis was in 1976 – mega oversized. Just as Elvis was still popular even with his extra girth, so the 1976 Caprice was still popular among the buying public. And just as Elvis in 1976 still had the charisma, the 1976 Caprice also with its very sporty and stylish lines had its share of charisma.
By the mid-1970s there was a mass exodus to smaller cars, and GM to its credit read the writing on the wall and acted swiftly. GM underwent an extensive program of shrinking its entire full-size platforms (both B and C bodies) to a much more manageable size for the 1977 model year. This was a bold move on GM’s part since its full-size cars were its livelihood, and if its new shrunken 1977 full-size car lineup failed it would have meant serious problems for GM.
GM’s dilemma was how to provide a smaller full-size platform to a customer base used to the qualities of big car such as: a big car ride, plenty of interior room, plenty of trunk/cargo space, and plenty of power under the hood to propel the car smoothly to speed.
The Caprice which had started off in 1965 as the top-of-the-line full-size Chevrolet, grew in popularity by the 1970s to where it rivaled the sales of its lesser-trimmed full-size Impala brother. Chevrolet’s “Caprice” formula – offering some luxury options and niceties for a reasonable price was paying off with increased sales year after year. The Caprice by the 1970s had become the regular guy’s Cadillac.
The Caprice a GM B-body sales leader was a car that GM hoped would do very well in 1977. Worthy to note in 1977 Chevrolet called all Caprices – Caprice Classics, there would be no base Caprice for 1977. Chevrolet engineers spent a lot of time engineering and designing the 1977 Caprice and what would emerge was not to be an evolution but a revolution.
The 1971–76 Caprice though a big car was very elegant with its rounded lines. The 1977 was the polar opposite; its lines were squared off and had a boxy look when compared to its predecessor. With this drastic change you would think the new Caprice Classic would not be appealing however this was not the case. It looked state-of-the-art and very modern. The Caprice Classic made most 1977 model year cars look very dated in comparison. Testament to this fact was the Caprice Classic’s body style that with a few minor updates lasted 14 model years before its styling was radically changed for 1991. However the 1977 Caprice Classic rear-wheel drive platform was used by the 1991–96 Caprice and 1994–96 Impala SS, giving the 1977 Chevrolet B-body platform a 20 year run.
Though the new 1977 Caprice Classic was so much different than then the 1976, it shared a similar grille and quad rectangular headlight theme (the 1977 had a much flatter front-end). The 1977’s taillights were entirely new and much larger than the 1976, however they did have the common theme seen on the Caprice since the 1960s with each side of the rear-end having three separate columns of lights.
Overall the 1977 Caprice Classic was much smaller than the 1976. In fact the 1977 Caprice Classic had the same 116 inch wheelbase of the heavier mid-size two-door 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and two-door 1977 Chevrolet Malibu (both the Monte Carlo and Malibu would have their turn being cut down to a more efficient size the next model year). The 4-door 1977 Caprice Classic sedan weighed in at a very light 3,600 lbs, which was 700 lbs lighter than the 1976 Caprice Classic sedan. The 1977 sedan had a total length of 212.2 inches which was almost a foot shorter than the 1976. However don’t let the smaller size fool you. The 1977 Caprice Classic’s trunk was a very large 20 cubic feet of cargo space, which was larger than the 1976 Caprice’s trunk. Headroom and rear passenger leg room had improved over the previous year making overall interior space larger than the previous year. Not to mention the interior was plush for a Chevrolet, and there was decent list of luxury options too. The interior was very well done; all the gauges and the general dashboard layout were very modern. The basic interior layout with slight changes lasted until 1991.
The 1977 Caprice Classic came in three flavors: sedan, coupe, and station wagon. All had the same 116 inch wheelbase. The 1977 Caprice Classic coupe had the sedan’s boxy styling however it had a semi-fastback glass window, which gave it a very sporty look. The sedan as mentioned before was boxy but very stylish and modern. The 1977 Caprice Classic wagon measured 215.7 inches in length and had the sedan and coupe’s basic boxy looks which was good news. Unfortunately the popular clamshell style rear door from the previous year Caprice Classic wagon was history for 1977, a more conservative side-opening door replaced it. The good news was the familiar rear facing third row seat was still available.
One area where there was a drastic change over 1976 was the loss of a large displacement V8 option. Chevrolet had ditched the big-block V8 for 1977, so there was no longer a 454 CID V8 available. The 402 CID and even the small-block 400 CID V8 were long gone, both were popular previous Caprice and Caprice Classic engine options. There were three engines available on the 1977 Caprice: the 250 CID straight 6 (110 horsepower, 195 lbs/ft of torque), 305 CID 2bbl V8 (145 horsepower, 245 lbs/ft of torque), and 350 CID 4bbl V8 (170 horsepower, 270 lbs/ft of torque). The 250 straight 6 provided very good gas mileage however took its sweet time accelerating. The 2bbl 305 was a decent performer and still provided fairly reasonable fuel efficiency. The 4bbl 350 was the LM1 350 which could also be found under the hood of the late 1970s Camaro Z28, so it was no slotch. The LM1 350 equipped Caprice Classic made you forget that the 1976 Caprice Classic’s 225 horsepower 454 CID V8 option had been dropped for 1977, it performed well for a full-size car. Of course the 1977 Caprice’s lighter weight meant it did not need as much horsepower or torque as with previous years to get the job done.
Where the 1977 Caprice Classic really differed from its predecessors was in the area of handling. For a big car the 1977 handled well and felt nimble in the turns compared to previous years. This was not to say the pillowy ride was gone (for it was still present), the 1977 Caprice Classic was a much easier car to control in turns. And you were less apt to break out in a cold sweat when the road sudden threw hairpin turns in the mix with the new 1977 Caprice Classic. Surprisingly handling was not too far off the 1977 Camaro Z28 when equipped with the optional F41 suspension package. The F41 option gave the Caprice the best handling characteristics and feel of any large car during this era. The F41 equipped Caprice Classic made you forget real quick you were driving a big family car.
The 1977 Caprice Classic was a bold move on Chevrolet and GM’s part, but it paid off. As mentioned before this new smaller full-size Caprice Classic had longevity and popularity that no one at GM back in 1977 could have ever predicted. Motor Trend magazine gave the 1977 Caprice Classic its coveted Car of the Year Award for 1977. In retrospect GM today could use another mega hit like the 1977 Caprice Classic, it was exactly what customers back in 1977 needed and wanted.
Written contents in this article – © 2009 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved