Friday, April 15, 2011

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

I originally wrote this in September 2008. This explains the photo on the top right of this blog's home page.

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. What was thought to be GM’s last convertible was the

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. This CapriceCapricethis writer, who I recommended earlier this week but will de-recommend if he writes another piece like this — go to “Hold Your Horsepower.”) 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.

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