Blast (of size) from the past: Barges on four wheels

I originally wrote this in September 2008. 

At the Fox Cities Business Expo Tuesday, a Smart car was displayed at the United Way Fox Cities booth. I reported that I once owned a car into which trunk, I believe, the Smart could be placed, with the trunk lid shut.

This is said car — a 1975 Chevrolet Caprice coupe (ours was dark red), whose doors are, I believe, longer than the entire Smart. The Caprice, built down Interstate 90 from us Madisonians in Janesville (a neighbor of ours who worked at the plant probably helped put it together) was the flagship of Chevy’s full-size fleet (which included the stripper Bel Air and middle-of-the-road Impala), featuring popular-for-the-time vinyl roofs, better sound insulation, an upgraded cloth interior, rear fender skirts and fancy Caprice badges.

The Caprice was 18 feet 1 inch long and weighed 4,300 pounds. For comparison: The midsize Chevrolet of the ear was the Malibu, which was the same approximate size as the Caprice after its 1977 downsizing. The compact Chevrolet of the era was the Nova, which was 200 inches long — four inches longer than a current Cadillac STS.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Caprice has this amusing sentence: “As fuel economy became a bigger priority among Americans following the Arab Oil Embargo of late 1973 and early 1974, Chevy made the smaller 145 hp (108 kW) 350 cubic-inch small block V8 with two-barrel carburetor standard on all Caprice models except wagons.” That engine, 35 horsepower weaker than the previously standard 400-cubic-inch V-8, rewarded buyers with fuel economy of (I hope you’re sitting down to read this) 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 miles per gallon on the highway. Filling up the Caprice’s 26-gallon gas tank took a big dent out of a $20 bill in its early days; few people want to ponder filling up that gas tank today. If fuel economy was your bigger priority, you were not likely to buy a Caprice anyway.

In an odd bit of GM design (and GM has been known for odd design over the years, such as the strange tailgate on the Caprice station wagon), the coupe’s trunk was larger than the sedan’s trunk. One could fit people into the coupe’s trunk, and the only problem you’d have is that the back end would hit every high-angle driveway coming and going.

The thick B-pillar (that is the part of the car between the front and rear doors on a sedan, or behind the doors on a coupe) was designed in anticipation of stiffened federal rollover standards. That was the ostensible reason as well for the death of the convertible; 1975 was the last year one could buy a Caprice, Pontiac Grand Ville, Buick LeSabre or Olds Delta 881976 Cadillac Eldorado, which was the same size as, but considerably more expensive than, the Caprice. convertible, or a Chevrolet Corvette convertible.

I haven’t asked my father why we got the Caprice, but I’d guess it was a combination of two reasons — our previous car, a 1969 Chevy Nomad wagon, had hit the 40,000-mile park in the days when cars started to experience major problems at that milestone, and he had been named an assistant vice president at the bank where he worked, so the family could afford a larger and nicer car (particularly when he put his bargaining skills to work at the local Chevrolet dealership).

The Caprice was a milestone car for our family. Younger readers probably cannot imagine that there was a day when cars didn’t come standard-equipped with air conditioning, cruise control and AM/FM radio. The aforementioned were all options, and the Caprice was our first car so equipped. (My parents declined to pay for an AM/FM stereo radio, however, or tilt steering wheel or split bench seats, which their tall oldest son would have appreciated. They also declined to pay for the gauge package containing a trip odometer, an engine temperature gauge, and a fuel economy gauge. That’s right, a fuel economy gauge — “Power” on one end, “Economy” on the other — for a car that got between 13 and 18 mpg.) My mother, who didn’t work while her sons were in grade school, used the Caprice for various errands, and that was our vacation and road car, taking us and our stuff in excellent-for-the-’70s comfort on trips to upper Michigan and Canada, Detroit, Florida and Las Vegas, the grandparents and other spots.

One year later, my wife’s family purchased a 1976 Chevrolet Impala, which was the same size but was less fancy. Those were the cars in which Jannan and I learned to drive. (Yes, they can be parallel-parked, but it’s not easy.) When I got custody of the Caprice, I used to park it in stalls in Madison parking ramps designated for compact cars.

The Caprice was a better driving experience than one might think, although it was like driving from your couch, with the wide bench seat. The engine was indestructible, though it didn’t run very well when cold, because GM hadn’t figured out how to tune cars to work with their new-for-’75 catalytic converter yet. The Caprice was no Corvette, but with radial tires and suspension to match, the car didn’t sway or rock over bumps in turns as much as some cars of the era. (I once watched an Eldorado rock for an entire block after going over a railroad crossing.) Nevertheless, the Caprice was built for comfort, not speed.

Big cars used to run in my family. My grandparents on my father’s side used to have a fleet that included a 1973 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (six inches longer and about 500 pounds heavier than the Caprice), a 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car (the same size as the Coupe de Ville), and, for my grandfather’s farm implement sales, a Chrysler LeBaron wagon (dwarfed by the Cadillac and Lincoln since the LeBaron was based on the compact Plymouth Volaré and Dodge Aspen). My aunt and uncle on my mother’s side once owned a 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis sedan, whose size was between our Caprice and the aforementioned Town Car.

Big cars used to run in our neighborhood too. Looking up and down our street, there was a 1960s Cadillac and a 1970 Pontiac wagon next door, and a succession of Chevy Impalas for the traveling salesman one west of there (that was the house of the neighborhood Corvette owner too). The house across the street featured new Plymouths, because the house was owned by a Chrysler–Plymouth salesman. Up the street from him was a large Pontiac wagon, followed by a mid-size Plymouth wagon. The father of a friend of mine up the street sold International Harvester Travelalls. Our Boy Scout carpool included an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, and parents of a classmate of mine owned perhaps the largest station wagon of all time, the Chrysler Town & Country. There were no Cadillacs or Lincolns, but the cars were big because, for one thing, the families were pretty big.

Big cars used to be the only cars you could buy. “Compact” cars (which, again, were the size of today’s full-size cars) didn’t start appearing in Big Three showrooms until the late ’50s and early ’60s. (American Motors Corp. had had smaller cars before that, but that didn’t get them much traction in the marketplace.) Intermediate cars didn’t hit the scene until the early to mid-’60s. If you wanted a car into which you could fit your entire family, either to go to church or to go on a trip on the new Interstate Highway System, you bought a full-size car, whether it was a fancy Caprice or less-fancy Impala. And in an era without air bags or other safety features, size meant safety and security.

My Caprice was the next to last of an era. GM downsized all of its full-sized cars in 1977, followed two years later by Ford and Chrysler, which then got rid of its full-size cars in 1981. The traditional full-size GM cars went away in 1996, and today only the Ford Crown Victoria (which is sold only to fleets such as police departments), Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car are the last of the old barges. (The Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Town Car platform debuted in 1979.)

The newest domestic full-size rear-wheel-drive cars are the Chrysler 300 and its Dodge Charger and Magnum cousins, and the Cadillac STS, all introduced in 2005. (You may be seeing the Charger in a median strip near you or, if you’re unlucky, in your rear view mirror, since a police edition Charger is now on sale.) The Cadillac DTS is about a foot longer than the STS, but the DTS is a front-drive car.

I should have added “sold in this country” to the previous paragraph. You can still buy a Chevy Caprice, if you live in the Middle East. The current Caprice — a large rear-drive car, just like the last one built in this country — is built by GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, and exported to the Middle East, where they don’t worry about paying $4 per gallon for gasoline. The Australian Caprice gets 17 mpg city with the V-8, and 20 city mpg with the V-6, both of which are quite an improvement over 13 mpg. has a 360-horsepower V-8 (50 percent more horsepower than the gas-sucking 454 V-8, optional on the last huge Caprices), another reason to wonder why GM isn’t bringing this stateside.

And about that fuel economy: With the Big Three in difficulty, the Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins Jr. suggests a way to help the automakers without spending $50 billion on them, while simultaneously getting Congress out of your car:

Look at gallons consumed, miles driven, barrels imported or emissions emitted: [The Corporate Average Fuel Economy rule] has had no significant impact on energy consumption. Its sole practical effect has been to inflict on Detroit the need to produce, with high-cost U.S. labor, millions of small cars designed to lose money.
CAFE has to be the most perverse exercise in product regulation in industrial history. It confronted the Big Three with the choice only of whether to lose a lot of money, by matching Toyota and Honda on quality and features; or somewhat less money, by scrimping on quality and features and discounting, discounting, discounting. Rationally, they scrimped — and still live under a reputational cloud in the eyes of sedan buyers. Yet notice that their profitable product lines, in which they invest to be truly competitive — such as SUVs, pickups and minivans — hold their own against the Japanese and command real loyalty among U.S. consumers. …
Had CAFE not existed, there is no reason the Big Three today could not be competitive. As businesses do, they would have allocated capital to products capable of recovering their costs. Investments in fuel efficiency would still have taken place — to the extent consumers valued those investments. That is, if they were profitable.
If Washington found this unsatisfactory, it could have done as the Europeans do and raised fuel taxes to coax the public to make different choices. Politically inexpedient? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean CAFE is an effective substitute. It isn’t and never was.

Blast (of speed) from the past: America’s sports car

I originally wrote this in June 2008.

My birthday earlier this month dawned without a Chevrolet Corvette in front of my house. (The Corvette at the top of the page was featured at the 2007 Greater Milwaukee Auto Show. The copilot is my oldest son, Michael.)

Which isn’t surprising. I have three children eight and younger, and I have a house with a one-car garage. (Then again, this would be more practical, though a blatant pluck-your-eyes-out violation of the Corvette ethos. Of course, so was this.) I already had to purchase a car earlier this year (replacing a car with 228,000 miles and a cracked engine block, plus several other issues), and we try to limit our vehicle purchases to one per year. The reality is that I’m likely to be able to own a Corvette only if I get a visit from the Corvette Fairy, whose office is next door to the Easter Bunny.

(I hope this isn’t foreshadowing: When I interviewed Dave Richter of Valley Corvette for this month’s car enthusiast story, he said that the most popular Corvette in most fans’ minds was a Corvette built during their days in high school. This would be a problem for me in that I graduated from high school in 1983, when no Corvette was built.)

The Corvette is one of those cars whose existence may be difficult to understand within General Motors Corp. The Corvette is what is known as a “halo car,” a car that drives people into showrooms, even if the potential buyer is looking for something less expensive and more practical and useful than a Corvette. (Chrysler Corp.’s counterpart is the Dodge Viper, which reportedly may be on its way out in the next couple of years.) It is an oddity within Chevrolet, which has made most of its reputation on practical, though, dull cars, at least until the Corvette arrived in 1953 and the Chevrolet V-8 hit showrooms two years later. And yet, the 35 years the Corvette has been in existence, in good and bad economic times, has generated its own cult, with millions of fans backed by businesses geared toward preserving and restoring them.

The Corvette, in its first, second, third, fourth, fifth and now sixth iterations, started as GM’s response to the British and Italian sports cars, usually two-seat convertibles, that soldiers coming home from World War II were bringing with them. Over the years, Corvettes became stuffed with more power than their steering, brakes and handling could handle, adopted the most out-there styling perhaps in American automotive history, were nearly strangled by emissions regulations (the standard engine on the 1975 Corvette had just 165 horsepower), had killed and then brought back the convertible, and, by now, have the best combination of power and refinement for the price in the world — truly a world-class car, but not at world-class prices.

The first Corvette I remember seeing belonged to a neighbor down the street — a dark green 1970 coupe with the base engine, automatic transmission and AM/FM radio. It was, frankly, a scary looking car, sitting incredibly low to the ground and, to a six-year-old, looking as though it was going to bite you. I got a couple of rides in it, with my brother sitting in the passenger seat with me and the younger son of the car’s owner sitting on top of the console. (Can’t do that anymore.)

The first Corvette I drove was a 1969 coupe, but with a (conservatively rated) 435-horsepower V-8 that ran on racing or aviation gas and a four-speed transmission known by car buffs as the “rock-crusher.” It was a beast, particularly due to its lack of power steering and brakes and its ability to transfer prodigious amounts of engine heat into the cockpit. My ride in this car reached (I believe I can say this since the statute of limitations has passed) speedometer-indicated speeds that are multiples of existing speed limits. (During this ride, it occurred to me, as the scenery was going by at a really rapid rate, that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. A moment later, it occurred to me that my lack of seat belt didn’t matter because if we hit anything at that speed, the authorities would be scraping up whatever was left of me from whatever we hit with a putty knife.)

The current and previous generations of Corvettes appear to be the best of the various worlds the Corvette has represented over the years. Styling is always an arguable point (I prefer the C5, built between 1997 and 2004, to the C6, which has been built since 2005; then again, if you really like a modern version of the C1 or C2, companies can now accommodate your wishes), but today’s Corvettes can go as fast as any that have been built before now. The difference is they handle and stop much better than any that have been built before now, and the obvious creature comforts — air conditioning, upper-end sound system, power leather seats, air bags — are either standard or, in the case of a navigation system, optional. With more than 5,000 Chevrolet dealers in the U.S., if something breaks, parts are much easier to find than for such brands as Porsche or Ferrari. (That’s not to say I don’t like Porsches or Ferraris — different strokes for different folks.)

For those who haven’t driven a Corvette, when you’re my height (6-foot-4), the overall effect is something like what driving a luge must be like. The first two generations were more conventional in design, but every Corvette since the C3 (based on the Mako Shark show car) has kind of wrapped around the occupants, which was initially criticized because that prevented the traditional American driver position of resting your left arm on top of the door (with window rolled down, of course), unless you’re tall enough. In every C5 or C6 convertible I’ve sat in at car shows, I look straight at the driver’s-side sun visor, so evidently I have to move the power seat to its lowest possible position to be able to drive the car. The result of that is that getting out requires what I had to do with my mother’s 1985 Chevy Camaro (which she owned when I was half my present age) — put my hand on the ground to brace myself to exit — or do a 90-degree left turn, stick my legs out and then get out legs first, with a limbo motion to clear the roof and stand up. (The current Corvette is about two-thirds of my height, and the seats are a long way down.) Clearly the Corvette is not a car in which to run errands.

If you like driving, this is it. It’s unquestionably a stiff-riding car, but much better than the older versions, and, as noted before, while it flies down the road like few other cars, it also will stop like few other cars. This is hyperbole to say this, but I wonder if anyone really can have a bad day if it begins and ends with a Corvette drive from your home to your office.

The Corvette hangs around GM in large part because it makes money and positive attention for GM. (Not until 1958, five years after it was introduced, did the Corvette make money for GM; in fact, Chevrolet made just 700 Corvettes in 1955.) The Corvette V-8s are found in several other GM cars, including the Pontiac G8 GT, plus several Australian Holdens (also available from Vauxhall in Britain and in the Middle East) and the upcoming Cadillac CTS-V (based on the CTS, a sedan that may be coming out in two-door and station wagon versions) and Chevrolet Camaro, assuming they actually build the Camaro. The Cadillac XLS is a Corvette under the body, although with the Cadillac Northstar engine instead of the Corvette’s.

Part of the reason for the Corvette’s popularity is the V-8 engine found in all but the first two model years. (V-8s sound much like V-twins, which is, I think, one reason for the popularity of the Harley–Davidson motorcycle over its Japanese and European competition.) Even though the first two years of Corvettes had a six-cylinder engine instead of a V-8, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Corvette without a V-8. The Corvette V-8 isn’t even the state of the art in V-8 technology (without getting too technical for non-gearheads), and yet the standard Corvette engine is rated at The 2009 Corvette ZR1, with 638 horsepower, is EPA-rated at 26 highway miles per gallon, 2 miles per gallon better than the 2008 Corvette ZO6, whose owners must make do with a mere 505 horsepower. (You can also save yourself $25,000 and purchase the base model Corvette, which, at 430 horsepower, costs $109.19 per horsepower, a better bargain than the ZO6’s $142.82 per horsepower.)

The ZR1 is supercharged, which is how you can get 638 horsepower and yet 26 mpg if you keep your foot out of it some of the time. (Remember: The most gas is used in acceleration, not at speed.) Future Corvette V-8s are likely to have more advanced engine technology and lower horsepower, but if the next-generation Vettes are lighter, they’ll have the same power-to-weight ratio, and possibly even better gas mileage. (As it is, the base Corvette gets better fuel economy than the four-cylinder Honda S2000 and the six-cylinder Nissan 350Z.) That makes it hard to imagine that any Corvette in the foreseeable future won’t have a V-8.

The Corvette generates interest that far exceeds its annual sales. In its biggest production year, 1979, Chevrolet sold 53,807 Corvettes, and in 2007 Chevy sold 40,561 Corvettes. Motor Trend magazine has a history of Corvette “scoops” (for instance, the breathless late 1973 announcement that there would be two Corvettes, both with rotary engines) that turn out to be way off base, but sell tons of issues on the newsstands anyway. Motor Trend predicted late in 2007 that the next-generation Corvette will arrive in the 2013 model year, one month after it predicted that the next-generation Corvette will arrive in the 2012 model year.

A substantial component of Corvette fans want Vettes to be more exotic, with, for instance, a mid-engine layout. (Most cars are, of course, front-engine, while a few, including the old Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 911, are rear-engine; a mid-engine car has the engine mounted generally between the axles, usually in front of the rear axle.) A mid-engine layout seems unlikely because, for one thing, that would take the Corvette’s price well beyond $100,000, which doesn’t really fit into GM’s product portfolio. What’s more likely is that, as now, Chevy will make two versions — a “mainstream” version and a more exotic version with, for instance, lightweight materials and all-wheel drive, for perhaps twice the price of the base model.

Not everyone understands the appeal of Corvettes. (John McCain does; his first new car was a new 1958 Corvette. Former presidential candidate Joe Biden got a 1967 Corvette as a graduation present, and he still has it.) Think of Corvettes as a demonstration of what American free enterprise can do, even with federal government regulations, pressures from rising oil prices, and those nags who can’t grasp why someone might need more horsepower than the nag thinks you need. The Corvette’s overseas competition costs significantly more money, and that was even before the recent sinking dollar. American business has put together the best performing car for the money on the planet, and that’s something worth celebrating — say, on National Corvette Day June 30, celebrating the day the first Corvette drove off the assembly line in St. Louis. That would be three days after June 27, Drive Your Corvette to Work Day.

(And for those of you who think after Thursday’s weather that arks might be a better idea than Corvettes: You can buy a Corvette boat — specifically, a Malibu Corvette Sport-V Limited Edition, a boat with a Corvette engine and many Corvette trim parts. The reverse was the case in the early 1990s, when Mercury Marine’s Mercruiser division produced the LT-5 V-8 for the Corvette ZR1.)