The Splendour of the Empire He Took With Him Away

Five short years. Not long for such a long car.

1991-1996 Chevrolet Caprice. All images: the author

It was launched 1991. By 1996, GM had given up on their RWD, body-on-frame sedans, a mere five summers later. The last North American market(1) Caprice served really as a stop-gap. Underneath the deceitfully aero-looking body lurked technology dating back to the Carter era. The engine and underbody could be largely swapped between the 1977 Caprice and the 1991 model.

That is not necessarily a criticism. It reflected the fact that the demands placed on big, comfy sedans simply had not changed that much. It also reflected the fact that more and more American drivers wanted to drive something else, such as the SUVs and front-drive imports that the car magazines preferred. Hence, those who wanted a Caprice in 1991 were pretty much the same people who wanted one in 1985 and 1977, so the basic mechanics could remain unmolested.

The advantages of this included reducing investment costs and thus the price to the customer, and eliminating the kinds of teething problems that bedeVille(2) General Motors’ more innovative offerings.

The low price meant Chevrolet did not have to try too hard to sell them. It also meant Caprices cost less than smaller cars in the range. The price-to-size relationship dislocated after the launch of 1990 Lumina, so the Caprice had bigger dimensions but cost not so many dollars more (a few dollars more, perhaps). I think of Caprices as oversized mid-spec Escorts: a lot of metal, but not a lot of features.

This mismatch also provides a clue to the fact the Caprice had driven itself into a legacy market where the customers did not care for year-on-year changes. They wanted a straightforward large car. I think GM could have carried on selling Caprices indefinitely (police, taxis, older drivers, enthusiasts), with a bodyshell change every decade. Alas, they abandoned vessel and left Ford as the last person standing in the big-cheap-BOF market.

I presume opportunity costs killed the Caprice and its Buick, Olds and Cadillac sisters: while GM could have turned a profit on selling a steady 25,000 Caprices every year they would have forfeited more profit selling 85,000 something-elses using the same inputs. Bad move: imagine if the Caprice had been a legacy line worked on by experienced late-career production staff, where a bit less pressure and bit more love for the product would have made for cars with character. There would have been a good bit of corporate social responsibility halo in that story along with it not costing very much. GM doesn’t do CSR, however…

I will finish by observing that in the modern Danish urban setting this car looks wide and stately. And very low. The only thing this long and low around here has a Jaguar badge. Even if the Caprice is styled big, it is also styled low and that means it tricks your perceptions: a Ford Focus is taller and not that much shorter, yet nothing like as imposing as the Caprice. That makes me also realise that today’s crop of bigger cars are not as imposing as you would expect, despite being big and tall. A W-140 is still imposing (it’s a better-built Swabian Caprice) and the rather dainty X300 Jaguars are imposing too. From this, I conclude that width matters.

(1) The Caprice name was reintroduced in 1999 for a rebadged version of the WH Series Holden Statesman which was sold in Middle-East, Latin and South American markets.

(2) Very droll, Richard! (DO)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

38 thoughts on “The Splendour of the Empire He Took With Him Away”

  1. Good morning, Richard. As much as I like lightweight cars, I love the large American body on frame saloons (and estates). Happy to see one here again. There’s something very attractive to a large car that’s slow, comfortable and has a V8 burble.

    I loved the bedeVille remark. A very nice find 🙂

  2. Like Freerk, I readily confess to having a soft spot for these beasts. At The Hague Central Station there were always a few of these (as well as the occasional older square one) in the taxi line among the run-of-the-mill Mercedes’ and I didn’t mind waiting until a Caprice was at the front of the line whenever I required a taxi ride to my home. Nothing against a bulletproof W123 or W124 but for comfort and room there is/was simply no comparison.

    1. The last time I saw one of these was in Holland. Like a DS or a Jaguar XJ it had a distinct gait. It looked very, very cool in the best sense of the term.

  3. A pleasant read.
    Excellent notion on “legacy market where the customers did not care for year-on-year changes”. That could also underlined the quarter century run of Volvo 240 and the likes. Imagine if this notion is taught to MBA students – we’ll continue to see Jaguars (XJ, XJS), Citroens (CX or even XM) and Saab 900s dotting the streets and hiways and autobahns.

    1. An interesting thought and as far away as you can get from planned obsolescence I imagine.

    2. I’m reminded of the issue that Volvo discovered when they kept the 140/240 in production for so long – a customer turning up at the local dealer could find cars that looked very like old, tired and rusty cars that they could see on the roads outside. It didn’t encourage customers much.

  4. Good morning Richard. Thanks for bringing us a car for which I feel a lot of affection, being for me emblematic of the traditional American sedan, soft and comfortable. For a car that remained on the market for just five years, it was subjected to two significant and expensive sheet-metal changes, both involving the rear quarter-panel. The first was to the rear wheel arch, substituting a round arch for the flat-topped original. The second was to the rear quarter-window, where a ‘Hofmeister kink’ replaced the triangular original. Here are the three iterations in order:

    The final version is still good looking, but the original is more distinctive.

    1. Also the B- and C-pillars are in body color. Not as expensive to change as the D-pillar, but still it affects the look of the car significantly, I think.

    2. Also, the middle one was a one year only alternative, for MY ’93 I think. I was actually stunned when I first realized it, because I always thought they went directly from one to the other. But having a half way house for its own model year and one year only is just bizarre….

    3. I also think it’s funny because the re-design was implemented because of the supposed heavy appearance of the original design, where as I actually think the revised version looks heavier still. With the round wheel arch there’s less real estate above the arch and below the DLO, it makes the design look more fragile, like the now heavier rear would break the car apart with that part as a breaking point. With the DLO change and a sail panel going seamlessly from flank to D-pillar, the rear looks even heavier, as there is more visual mass attached to it. The original design may look heavy, but the visual mass is spread out along the entire length of the car with the curved roof and DLO acting as a bridge span.

    4. Hi Ingvar, it was two years, and there is yet another interim version. For 1994 they introduced the Impala SS. Note the triangular filler trim at the base of the C pillar, made redundant with the 1995 revision.

    5. The two-stage change was especially odd, since the changes affected the same panel. The original best exemplifies the distinctive ‘land-yacht’ style.

  5. The rental car lottery at PHX airport once provided me with such a car. I used it for a trip along the Apache Trail, all red dust and Saguaro cacti and passing Tortilla Flats. All I remember of the car is that the ride was very spongy and I feared the car would disintegrate as soon as I went faster than 70 mph.

  6. I’ve always had a soft spot for these, as well as the previous generation. I think the aero styling works really well on the Caprice. Reminds me of the 1988 Cadillac Voyage concept.

  7. The Americans usually count their productions in Model Years, MY, that usually spans from August to July for next years model run, with changes in the factory usually done during summer. The next years model is therefore usually presented in the fall of the previous year, with production already running at launch.

    Deviations can be made both downwards and upwards, for a shortened or extended MY. Famous examples are the ’83 Corvettes of which they are none, going directly from the extended ’82 to the extended ’84 MY in January of ’83. Same with the first model year of the Ford Mustang, which therefore is usually called the ’64 and a half.

    For the Chevrolet Caprice, I therefore call six years of model years going from 1991 to 1996, with an extended production run going on for actually six and a half years, from April 1990 to December 1996.

  8. My first visit to US was around New Years’ 91/92 when these cars were brand new. And they were everywhere in the cities as cabs or police vehicles. The big swooping style, to me, looked absolutely un-american – being used to the square, chrome-laden style of earlier US cars (such as the earlier Caprice). Especially in the colourful taxi guise, the ’91 Caprice was something very different to a young Scandinavian brought up among boxy Volvos.

    1. 1987-1996 Chevrolet Beretta (Note the compound curve backlight,

  9. Here’s a rather charming promotional film from 1991. It reminds me of one for the Crown Vic, in tone.

    The styling was pretty futuristic given the potential audience and this article from the Washington Post suggests it got a bit of a cool reception, hence the restyles. I wonder if they would have been better off doing something more traditional. I personally quite like it, though, especially the first version.

    I wonder why SUVs were allowed to get away with poorer MPG figures compared with saloon cars in the US. It certainly did sales of larger sedans no favours.

    1. That’s a shame, but if you type ‘Chevrolet Caprice 1991 Promo’ in to YouTube, it’ll come up. It’s the one with Bob Sterling.

    2. Or, indeed, click on ‘Watch on YouTube’, above. Come on, wake up, Charles.

  10. Hi Richard, I normally don’t go for – excuse the irreverence – “big and dumb”, but if anyone’s going to pull it off, it’s Chevy. Plus the styling is anything but dumb, it’s really attractive. It’s also an honest car, I reckon, not trying to be anything but what it is. Maybe that’s why, as you mention, it could have a quiet career with regular small (cosmetic) updates but little else. Much like you suggested for the Alfa Giulia. I like that thinking as it runs counter to the “bigger, faster, newer, whatever-adjective-you-can-think-of-with-“er”-at-the-end” thinking that’s making life such an exhausting rat race. Give it ten years and you’ll probably be able to fit an affordable electric drive train in there. Which, for once, might suit such a car (provided range is large enough or charging has become quick enough to stop being a hassle).

    I have to respectfully disagree on the Focus though: if I look up both cars in Wikipedia it lists 5.438 meters (214.1 in) for the ’91-’96 Caprice Sedan and 4.647 m (183.0 in) for the latest Focus saloon, that’s the better part of a meter difference. On the whole, though, it’s quite stunning to see modern “compact” cars next to older cars once thought to be large. And the sleekness of the Caprice is dearly missed. Maybe the Saab 9-5 comes close, but that’s also a closed book by now.

    1. You have banged me to rights on the Focus´ dimensions. Still, the Focus looks pretty big despite being nominally medium sized.
      Like GM´s body designations the model year concept is irritating. I won´t ever get to gripswith it.
      The facelifts didn´t help – the larger rear wheel cut-out makes the rear look fragile. I see the Caprice as the Omega/Senator´s bigger sister. The Omega is far handier though and probably nearly as roomy inside.

    2. Absolutely right on how big the Focus (and others of its ilk) look next to a car like the Caprice. Relatively compact cars from, say, the Peugeot 307 onwards look to me like they’ve had extra air pumped into them, making them look bulkier than perhaps they are. Agreed also that the first version looks the best, although I do like the Impala SS.

    3. I´m driving a Mk3 Focus saloon at the moment. Goodness but it´s bulky and remarkably unroomy inside. To be fair, all its peers feel much the same. Its ride is smooth and the performance is adequate. It lacks any sense of fun though.

    4. My, where’s your 406?

      The saloon isn’t the happiest design Ford ever made, but they’re supposed to be good to drive.

    5. I am in Dublin at the moment and so using a car owned by family here. I don´t mind the Focus´ appearance. I do mind the heft of the car and the way the starter button is obscured by the steering wheel. You can drive the car without putting a key in the ignition. It can remain in the cubby hole in the centre console. And when you walk away from the car you can forget the keys and for two hours leave a driveable, open car for some lucky ne’er-do-well to canter off with. Keyless ignition is not Ford´s idea – it is, however, pointless and adds a safety check from the process of securing your car: have I put the keys in my pocket, are they still in my pocket?

    6. To say nothing of the fact that in order for this to work, you are then left with a key that is continually pinging for a matching car to unlock. Just ripe to be read by a miscreant and cloned. It’s basically insecure by design, replacing a design which lacked this obvious weakness. All so you don’t have to press a button as you approach or leave the car.
      Think about it: do you really want an industry which thinks this is acceptable connecting its products to the Internet?

    7. Very true, Richard. I’m particularly bad at leaving the house in one go, for instance. I always forget something (and that ‘something’ might be my wallet…). In order for me not to forget my keys at least, I make a point of locking the door every time I leave, even if it’s just taking out the trash. That way, I’m at least certain I haven’t locked myself out (having done that once).

      Having an older car myself, I find clicking the remote to lock it quite satisfying. These little “rituals” help you to avoid situations like the one you describe and should be incorporated into good interaction design. Not to mention Michael’s point of digital security.

    8. I have to say that, unlike Richard, I find keyless entry/ignition a boon during times of covid – you simply zip the “key” into one of your pockets before leaving the house and never need touch it until you return from the supermarket and have washed your hands.

    9. My current Audi has a strange mixture of key-dependent and keyless operation.
      To open the car you press a button on the remote control and to start the engine you press a start-stop button with the key in your pocket or anywhere within reach of the electronics. There even is a special rubberised hole in the centre console that’s supposed to take the key but is otherwise functionless.
      This only can look like progress for people too lazy to push the key into a hole in the dashboard and press on it to start the engine like in the predecessor. The funniest thing is that I can walk away from the car with the key in my trouser pocket and the engine running. When I’m too far away the car starts to ring a bell and show an alarm in the instrument panel. If anything, this is plain stupid.

  11. With regard to the Washington Post article which Charles has linked above, here is another from the New York Times.

    I am reminded of the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow. Also beloved of designers, adding the de rigueur caveat that it was too far ahead of its time.

    I can’t think of another design that car that is so loved by design oriented car people and so reviled by the much general public, including many journalists…

    Well actually the Ford Probe Mk 2 (a re-bodied Mazda MX-6), as seen through British eyes comes to mind. For some reason, this car was regularly sent up by Car magazine (and seemingly other British critics and consumers), including but not limited to the ever amusing Rowan Atkinson. In light of the latent good will the Capri had accrued (or did it?) that’s puzzling to me, more so considering that Car seemed generally enamored of the Calibra (keine Mantafahrer-Probleme?). Yet the Probe was well received in it’s home territory (despite the car’s questionable name). I still don’t know what exactly about it offended British sensibilities.

  12. Mostly it´ s the name. In the search for a good joke, a lot of bad ones are attempted. Clarksonism: try to find some angle on the name, however tenuous.
    The dirt stuck to the Probe, unfairly, I think. It´s a good-looking car.

    1. Did you know that the original plan would have had the car we now know as the Probe to have been the new Mustang? It so very nearly occurred.

    2. ‘Gareth Cheeseman’, Steve Coogan’s odious salesman character before he invented ‘Alan Partridge’, was a Ford Probe driver:

      Not the endorsement Ford would have appreciated, I suspect!

  13. I’ve always had very fond memories of these bathtub Caprices seeing as my grandmother had a ’94(?) when I was growing up. It seems my maternal grandparents took quite a liking to B-bodies upon arriving in the States since my mom learned to drive on the generation of Impala prior to this one. By the time I was born the Impala had long been decommissioned but the bathtub Caprice still sat on my grandma’s side yard, her driveway taken up by her shiny new 2002 A33B Maxima GLE (top of the line!) That Caprice was retained primarily because it was the only really viable highway cruiser in the family before my parents got the RL3 Odyssey, thus it was brought out on occasions where all five of us (mom, dad, me, brother, and grandma) would make the trek to Los Angeles to visit great-grandma who would then sit on the front middle bench when we all went to Hsi Lai Temple. When the Odyssey arrived the Caprice got sold, mainly because my grandma wanted it gone and my parents had no space, already nursing two ageing 740s. Regardless, I always thought my affinity for these was because of my childhood experiences in one, but it seems like this body style has found more than a few admirers amongst the community! I always find it a fascinating exercise to compare the three GM ‘aero’ saloons that were being offered globally in the early ’90s since despite being so very similar (large displacement, RWD saloons), they couldn’t be more different.

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