The then-new New Chevrolet

In the fall of 1976, General Motors did something revolutionary for the day. They replaced their enormous (I speak from experience) B- and C-body cars …

… with smaller, more efficiently packaged cars:

The redesign worked so well (at least from the perspective of GM’s accountants) that it took 13 years for Chevrolet to redesign the Caprice.

This is a reasonable facsimile of my in-laws’ 1991 Caprice, which was a restyling, though not really redesign, of the 1977–90 Caprice. I liked it so much I wish, two decades later, that we had purchased it from them. (Even though the cars we had at the time were perfectly fine, unlike the previous, and quite possibly last, Chevrolet I owned, a 1988 Beretta, un pezzo di merda.) Like my 1975 Caprice, it was roomy, had adequate acceleration, handled well for a large car, and got decent fuel economy. (Which cannot be said about the 1975 Caprice, EPA-rated at 13 city and 18 highway mpg.)

Autos of Interest interviewed Dick Ruzzin, who as chief designer of Chevrolet designed the last Caprice:

All in all, the Caprice was a very successful car and used for many personal and commercial applications. Once I told a group of police that I was responsible for the design and they could not stop the adulation. Basically, they really enjoyed working with a car that was really neat looking, the best looking police car ever, which was their opinion. It looked fast and aggressive in police trim.

I still see some Caprices and in spite of all the cultural changes in design, over twenty five years later, they are still intriguing and stand up very well. The flush side glass and futuristic headlights for the time helped push its character into the future.

The design effort was a fun time; we had a lot of great people working in the studio and did a lot of work. The Caprice followed the design of the Cavalier, Celebrity and Eurosport, and Lumina Sedan and APV, as well as a small car program to replace the Chevette that was cancelled after it was released. We also had design responsibility for all three Japanese small cars sold by Chevrolet from Isuzu, Suzuki and Toyota, as well as the Chevette. That meant a lot of responsibility and effort on everyone’s part. The quality of the people shows through in the quality and reach that our designs had as we see them now, so many years later. …

We decided to challenge the Chevrolet engineers. Since the car was done over an existing platform our Studio Engineer, Dick Olsze, suggested a goal for them: reduce the size of all the structural criteria by 10 percent—not the strength but the size—giving us an advantage over the old car. In some areas they were able to achieve that. The biggest challenge was the small block V8 distributor that sat right under the base of the windshield. It had to be redesigned with a two-piece distributor shaft.

When the model was blocked in and in color we took it outside for the first time to participate in a large show. It included a number of cars from other studios so that our management could get a good idea of what was being done and to also see strengths and weaknesses of each program. The Caprice looked like a moon rocket compared to the others.

It was the first time in many years that a car was being done that was not being downsized. Everyone loved it; it was the newest design in the show. The further we went the more the design was cemented into place because we added a lot of detail with sophisticated surfaces that made it look like we had worked on it a lot longer. When Chevrolet saw it they loved it.

The engineer in charge of the project was so enthusiastic that Chevrolet built a running car to demonstrate the concept to the GM Board of Directors. The car was all released for production, although we were still making small changes when he drove it over one Saturday morning. We all took it for a ride and it looked incredible; it was our favorite color, dark red metallic like our fiberglass model, with a light tan interior. It was a real hit.

About a year later, I was in Cadillac Studio and we then did the Cadillac version, called the Fleetwood. I just saw a maroon one today in excellent condition. We also did the Presidential Limousine. Two years later I was in Chicago on a beautiful sunny day walking out of Bloomingdales and there parked in front of the store was the regular limousine that we also designed. Those cars were all done on the side while we were really pushing hard on the Seville and Eldorado.

Last spring I was in Detroit and there parked at a gas station were two black Fleetwoods in absolutely pristine condition. They looked great. The design for those cars, the Caprice and the Fleetwoods were done a long time ago, about thirty years.

They did look terrific.

The thing about the Caprice was that, because it was over a very old platform, the design expectations were low. The studio that had responsibility for the Caprice was Chevrolet #1. It was a shock to me when we were given the assignment but we were really doing a lot of great work at the time and were very well respected by Chevrolet Engineering for how we did things, how we helped them do their job. We had sold the Celebrity Eurosport program to Chevrolet and that was something that they really admired, that is, how we accomplished it.

The Caprice profile was like no car ever done at design to that point because it broke fifty years of tradition. The car was taller than it had to be. We did that to have a smooth flowing line from the bottom of the windshield, over the passengers and to the bottom of the back-lite. Our VP, Irv Rybicki, asked me about that; our internal engineers had found out and told him. I explained why we did it and he accepted it without a problem. …

Autos of Interest: What was the target clientele for the new Caprice?

Ruzzin: Caprice customers. They had to see it as their car, it had to have some touches that identified it as the new Caprice. We could not make it smaller due to the carry-over platform but we did everything possible to make it “look” smaller. Interior space was huge.

Autos of Interest: Did other GM divisions (or law enforcement) have input relative to their needs?

Ruzzin: The car originally was going to be a Chevrolet only at 300,000 cars a year. When Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac saw it they lobbied to get it also which resulted in a lot more production, some of it hard to sell.

There was no law enforcement involvement but I do know that when the car went out of production, Chevrolet had 90,000 police car orders in hand for the future; they wanted to continue building them in Mexico and the UAW stopped it. They did make great looking police cars, aggressive and dynamic. …

Autos of Interest: Was the wagon a definite model from the start and why did it debut later?

Ruzzin: It was a model to be executed from the beginning but the geometry of the sedan design had to be developed, first, before you could do the wagon. The plan view of the doors had to be capable of extension to the rear to make a wagon. It also had to enclose the carryover rear tailgate hinges. Also, for Chevrolet, as the sedan moved along they could then shift manpower to the wagon.

Autos of Interest: Was a coupe considered, or toyed with? Even in concept?

Ruzzin: No coupe was ever considered. Coupes were on a sales down-slide at that time.

There were a few changes in the last five years of the Caprice, most notably the rear wheelwells …

… due in large part to the creation of the 1994–96 Impala SS:

To me, the 1991–93 Caprice looks better. The rear wheelwells emulate fender skirts, which Caprices had, either as options or standard, until the 1977 downsizing. That design, however, resulted in a narrow rear wheel track on sedans, though apparently not on wagons, which had a different rear suspension.

On the other hand, the 1994–96 Caprice had the Corvette’s LT1 350 V-8, which developed 260 horsepower. The Buick Roadmaster sedan …

… and wagon …

… and the Cadillac Fleetwood of those three years had the same V-8.

The observant will notice one major difference between the Roadmaster Estate and the Caprice Estate: the second-row skylight, which was meant to remind buyers of the former Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser:

The 1991–93 Olds Custom Cruiser had one too …

… which is a bit ironic since the original Custom Cruiser wagon, like all the big GM wagons, didn’t have a vista roof.

As I’ve written here before, big wagons died because of EPA fuel economy regulations and resulting buyer interest in sport utility vehicles and minivans instead of station wagons. Which is too bad, because I at least would like to have one of these.



One thought on “The then-new New Chevrolet

  1. Call me old-school, but I love the 1991-1996 Chevy Caprice Classic, both sedan and wagon. Although no one in my family has ever owned one, it’s always been a favourite of mine. 🙂

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