Home » A Euro Market 1977 Caprice That Could Challenge (And Beat) The “Ronin” Mercedes 450SEL 6.9?

A Euro Market 1977 Caprice That Could Challenge (And Beat) The “Ronin” Mercedes 450SEL 6.9?

Topshot Caprice 2 24 Pv2
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When lost, the best thing that you can do is get back to a familiar place. Let’s say you’re in Paris or The Magic Kingdom, your phone is dead, and you have no clue where you are. Do you see the Eiffel Tower? Is the top of the Disney castle off in the distance? Just head in that direction, you’ll eventually get back to a point of reference where you can start over. That same solution can work with most projects when they get way off track.

This fact was brought home a little while back when reading the excellent review by Adrian of the often overlooked “downsized” GM B-Body 1977 Chevy Impala and Caprice, a shape inspired by clean Italian coachwork that immediately strayed into the malaise daze of “landau” vinyl roofs, “formal” backlights, and chrome door-edge trims. A shame, considering the basic form was genuinely every bit as good as concurrent European sedans, if not better.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Amongst the comments for the piece, I stumbled across these from Cerberus, Ranwhenparked, and Mike Smith:

Comments1 2 24Oh, no, that’s me.

Indeed, it would be nice had GM made a more European-styled full-sized Chevy, but I’m not sure that the mid-eighties Caprice and the “Eurosport” route is one I’d want to go. Usually associated with the boxy Celebrity mid-sized sedan, the “Eurosport” trim package added body-colored wheels, ground effects, black trim, and red stripes to this boring sedan. Calling this on-the-cheap version Euro-anything was a bit like telling someone you’re cool: if you have to say you are, it usually means you aren’t. The Eurosport was a 1980s American marketing person’s ill-informed idea of what a German sport sedan looked like, but most definitely did not – that’s it below. A perfect sporting sedan for Frankfurt, but only if we’re talking about Frankfort, Kentucky.

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Chevrolet Celebrity Europsport Vr 2 23
General Motors

Honestly, I blame AMG for this type of shit. The late, legendary rocker and devil-horn innovator Ronnie James Dio once said that the worst part of the metal genre was the success of musicians who thought they could just grow their hair, hack away loudly on instruments, and call it metal, thus ruining the genre for devotees of the form with actual talent. By the same token, once that Mercedes tuner masked off the glass and lights of a car and blasted it with white or black paint, lesser car makers latched onto the concept as an inexpensive way to simulate the look of a sweet Black Forest cruiser. I’ve always thought that murdering out some dull-ass sedan just makes the car look like an unpainted model kit. It’s customization with a total lack of imagination.

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AMG

Actually, as commenter Maymar and LTD Scott mentioned, Chevy did if fact make a single high-performance Caprice wagon in the mid-eighties, constructed as a chase vehicle for road testing Corvettes when a stock Caprice was not up to the task

Comments3 2 24

Engineers installed seats and engine from the C4 ‘Vette, and upgraded the suspension. Outside, the chrome trim was blacked out or painted body color in a sort of “Eurosport” look. It’s undeniably cool, in a backyard-customization way.

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Barrett Jackson (car for sale)

Interesting, but not the direction that I want to go with my “Project Euro B Body,” and I don’t want to use the less attractive modified-for-the-eighties Caprice design. Hopefully I’m not going too far from what Cerberus had in mind, but my goal was to capture the pure, unadulterated essence of the Caprice’s initial design intent. More than that, I wanted to make a version of this Caprice that truly could have been sold at a dealership in Stuttgart or Munich back in the day. Even if it hadn’t been able to beat Mercedes at their own game, at the very least it wouldn’t be the equivalent of a dude in a Stetson and cowboy boots walking around Heidelburg, or a “Eurosport” cartoon of what a European car should look like. Let’s get to it.

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Taking The Icing Off Of The Cake

As I mentioned earlier, when you’re lost you often need to start over, so let’s go back to the beginning of this generation of B-Body. When introduced in its most pure cleanest 1977 form, the Caprice (and all of the B-bodies under the different brands) was closest to the Italian ideal that design head Bill Mitchell reportedly had in mind.

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Streetside Classics (car for sale)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Mitchell was quite smitten by the works of Pininfarina, and he held the 1972 Fiat 130 Coupe up as a particularly desirable example. It comes as no surprise that the Chevy bears a rather strong similarity to this Fiat.

Fiat 130 Coupe
Grays (car for sale)

You’ll notice the most striking thing about the trim on the Fiat is the utter lack of it. Sparing use of chrome trim around the windows, bumpers, and lights disproves the knee-jerk idea of having to black out anything shiny to make a car “look like an import”.

The bodyside crease on the Fiat above is a subtle detail that- surprise of surprises- the Caprice has as well. Of course, on the Chevy that crease is typically covered by some “leather-grained” rub strip, and all of the busy detailing takes your eye far from it anyway. That Fiat has a chrome lower rocker trim as well, but it’s a minimalistic strip instead of the wide band on the GM car like below, which was so large you could admire the reflection of your shoes in it.

Stock Caprice 2 19
Mecum Auctions (car for sale)

Our first step then is to grab some razor blades, heat guns, and pry bars and strip off that trim, as well as the chrome wheel arch accents. I still want a lower rocket molding, but much smaller than the original Caprice. Just like on the European cars, it breaks up the visual mass on the side of the car. The big chrome bumpers do look a bit like the roadside Armco barriers that keep out-of-control cars from going too far off into the weeds. You would think that body-colored bumpers would be a nice addition, but in fact they make the car look heavy. The compromise is to add protective rubber stripping across the bumper but leave strips of visible chrome in sections to lighten the look. In 1977, you couldn’t sell a car with composite headlights in America, but a German market car would need to have them, complete with quartz iodide bulbs. Headlamp wiper/washers were mandatory in countries like Sweden back then so best to add some to the equipment list. Built-in bumper-mounted driving lights next to the amber signals tell you this isn’t a Chevy found outside of a Kroger.

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Euro Caprice 1977 2 24

Needless to say, bigger tires and wheels are part of the program, not to mention dropping the whole car a few inches. GM proposed amber rear signals in some Caprice sketches but didn’t include them on American cars; Germany would require these plus built-in rear fog lights, requiring us to relocate the reversing lights to the bumper. From what I understand, German law prohibited rear side marker lights, requiring us to strip out the bulbs and paint the lenses body color to sell the car there. Really? We won World War II to be treated like that?

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The changes to make the Caprice a German market car are surprisingly subtle, yet the end result is dramatically different. Honestly, when seen next to what the Caprice’s arch nemesis would be in the Black Forest, the Chevy more than holds its own in terms of styling. Below you can see a black 1977 w116 450SEL Benz for comparison. I love golden-era Benzes of any shape or form, but while Sacco’s 1979-91 W126 Mercedes Benz S Class is a big favorite of mine I’ve never been a huge fan of the somewhat blocky 1973-80 W116 predecessor; the juxtaposition with the taut, tapering lines on Bill Mitchell’s rip-off of the Paulo Martin-designed Pininfarina Fiat shows me why. I know it’s difficult to disassociate yourself from preconceptions a wallpaper car that you equate with filling up church parking lots of your youth, but try to be open-minded and look at it as if you’ve never seen one before.

Euro Caprice 1977 2 24

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Gooding and Company (car for sale)

What about making the rest of the car competitive? That will take a bit more work, but we’ll make it happen.

Ein Autobahn Caprice

Would GM really sell a V8-powered large sedan in Germany? They certainly had done so already for years with the enigmatic Opel Diplomat; it’s almost inconceivable that such an American-looking car was built and marketed to the land of schnitzel and Octoberfest. It’s not that the Diplomat sold particularly well, but considering how dated and Detroitish it looked it’s rather surprising that the car found over 23,500 buyers from 1969 to 1977. Funny side note: there was consideration put into building the Diplomat in the US as a small Cadillac, but it is said GM claimed that they couldn’t hold the German tolerances in American factories.

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General Motors

The Diplomat was replaced in 1978 by the smaller and much more European-looking-and-feeling Senator, a car that served as the basis for the Bitter SC coupe. A straight six was the largest engine available in this Opel luxury sedan.

Opel Senator A Sedan 1
General Motors

The Caprice might be a niche car for sure in Europe, but sitting a notch above the Opel Senator it might still find some buyers interested in an Opel Diplomat-style big sedan that accelerated and cornered faster than the $40,000 (1977 dollars) Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 flagship, a hopelessly cool brown example of which being one of the stars of the movie Ronin.

Euro Caprice 1977 2 24

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Ronin 1998 Movie 5 Nw 2 23
screenshot (Ronin 1998)

Uh, just how is Grandma’s Chevy going to do that? One step at a time..

Under The Hood

We all know of the Bill Mitchell who was head of GM’s design department, but fewer know of a different and unrelated Bill Mitchell who ran a Chevy tuning business in New England during the malaise era. This Mitchell worked on the International Race Of Champions (IROC) Camaros for driver Mark Donahue, the spec machines professional drivers raced head-to-head back in the day. One street product of this former Oldsmobile engineer was a Camaro with a turbocharged 350V8 that generated an estimated 330 horsepower in an era where the standard car barely broke 180 horses.

1980 Bill Mitchell C155
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With none of the US-required emissions controls and higher octane German fuel, I have to believe we could reliably get horsepower over 300 horsepower from this mill, even in detuned production-car trim. That would be enough to propel the 4000-pound sedan to sixty in somewhere around 6.5 seconds, easily shaving a second off the best-recorded run of the costly Ronin 6.9 Mercedes (both cars with 3-speed automatic transmission, yes the Mercedes too, so save the comments). If we can believe the period reports of the 6.9 being “the world’s fastest production sedan,” then it looks like our heavily modified version of Aunt Katie’s car would steal that title outright.

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Under The Floor

Sure, you say, any muscle car can be tuned to beat European thoroughbreds in a straight line. You realize there’s more to it than that Bishop, right? Uh, after putting over 100,000 miles on a Panther Lincoln and 100,000 on a W126 Benz, I’m very aware of this. First, the boys in Warren, Michigan would steal a stray Corvette C3 rear independent suspension unit from somewhere at Tech Center and bolt it in where they ripped out the Caprice’s live rear axle. Self-leveling air shocks in back would provide the kind of height control that the Benz’s ultra-complex air suspension did, but at a fraction of the cost (and maintenance headache). Bilstein shocks and a sway bar the diameter of your arm would tighten up the front suspension; larger vented disc brakes all around would attempt to reduce high-speed fade, and the steering wheel would no longer spin like a top with a recalibrated box.

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General Motors

The Passenger Compartment

We’d need to do some work on the inside of the Chevy, that’s for sure. Yikes:

Caprice Interior 2 23
General Motors

The job isn’t insurmountable, though. Corvette bucket seats up front would be upholstered in Cadillac-quality leather, with the rear bench trimmed the same way (and an added fold-down armrest). A center console would be swiped from the Oldsmobile coupe models for the floor-mounted T-stick automatic shifter (the only transmission available, sorry) and the relocated window switches from the driver’s door (not sure if it’s just me, but I HATED those General Motors four-in-a-row power window controls on the door since they completely defied ergonomic logic).

Additional touches to complete the Euro conversion would include things like a sport steering wheel, rear seat headrests, a full set of instruments in the main cluster, and rear pillar reading lights from the Cadillac parts bin. Fake wood and the coffin-style door pull straps would stay stateside.

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Hard to imagine, but the ultra-austere Mercedes S-Class we’d sort of be competing with lacked much of the basic luxury equipment you don’t even think about that’s in the everyman Chevy; power front seats, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, and variable speed intermittent wipers are nowhere to be found on the 450SEL. Even the top-of-the-heap 6.9 version of the big Benz offered a McDonalds drive-thru-speaker sounding stereo and no way to adjust the passenger’s side mirror from the driver’s seat (on a car that sold for around $220,000 in today’s dollars). At least the 6.9 model had a GM air conditioning compressor (but NO BALL COOLER VENTS).

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I don’t know if a factory moonroof was an option on Caprice sedans in 1977, but if not we’d need to have American Sunroof Corporation add one to the Euro model Chevy. How else would Bobby DeNiro be able to stick his head out of the top with a rocket launcher, right?

Amuricuh! Amuricuh! Maybe?

Even if it had existed, I doubt that many Euro market Caprices would have been offered, so it’s not like we’d ever plan on this thing being a big seller in Bavaria (or any other part of Europe). The question is, would it sell at all overseas in 1977?

These B-Bodies were some of the best quality products that General Motors ever built, but like most cars compared to a late seventies Mercedes they were tubs of shit. Still, even if all of these modifications doubled the price of the base car, the Caprice would likely have come in at less than a third of the Benz 6.9’s sticker price. The Chevy would also be far less costly than the similarly boosted Bentley Mulsanne Turbo from a few years later in 1982.

Imperfect as it might be, the Euro Caprice makes just too much sense to ignore, and I’m glad the commenters asked for me to waste time on this intriguing what-if. Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool German car guy now, I’d buy this example of Bill Mitchell’s thinking (and the other Bill Mitchell’s tuning) in a heartbeat.

Thanks once again for the suggestions! Let’s wrap it up with the specs:

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1977 Chevrolet Caprice Euro Spec

Engine: 310HP 5.7 liter pushrod V8; four barrel carburetor, single Garrett AirResearch turbo, no emission controls
Transaxle: 3 speed automatic
Front Suspension: unequal length control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear Suspension: Trailing arms, transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar, self-leveling shocks
Brakes: Vented disc front and rear, vacuum assist
Steering: Recirculating ball (power assist)

Performance:
0-60: 6.56 seconds
Top speed: 135 mph
Roadholding: 0.79g
Fuel economy: avg. 13mpg

 

Relatedbar

Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines Corvette Sedan And Wagon In 1978 – The Autopian

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What If Ford Had Made The Mustang Mach-E A Torino Instead? – The Autopian

Parts-Bin Puzzle, What-If Edition: Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines AMC Export Cars For France – The Autopian

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 month ago

I always thought the Cadillac Seville of that era (76-79) was a slightly better interpretation of the Mitchell’s creased and folded aesthetic. It had that je ne sais quoi.

Bishop, I’d love to see you perform the same magic on that body style.

Maymar
Maymar
1 month ago

I don’t know how I missed this on Friday, but this is excellent. I mean, I still stand by the Eurosport idea either because I’m just young enough that it looked cool rather than corny, or fond memories of the Lumina Euro my grandma drove for a few years (that inexplicably had a front bench seat optioned). Either way, GM seemed to consistently prove they *could* build something competitive enough (and would frequently put the required suspensions in the options list), although I’m sure it was frequently let down by dealers who understood the aesthetics, but not the mechanical improvements, and ordered accordingly. Of course, the Eurosport would’ve also been anachronistic to the original ’77 design.

Also, in the Eurosport’s defense, the standard variant was at least a little less misguided than the VR;

https://live.staticflickr.com/2430/5753106862_016dc3ac26_b.jpg

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 month ago

For anyone who ever played with die-cast toy cars, “MK” on a German plate is full of meaning. This is where Siku is headquartered (Märkischer Kreis) and so all Siku toy cars have MK plates, except very old ones which carried LS for Lüdenscheid.
https://www.autowallpaper.de/modellautos/hersteller/siku.html

Patrick Cook
Patrick Cook
1 month ago

I have seat time in both a 9C1 Impala (not just in the back seat!), and F41 equipped Impalas and Caprices of this gen and the next (’81 up). When so equipped, they were *FAR* more fun and better handlers than you’d guess by just looking at them. The F41 suspension option wasn’t available on the B-body wagons, but you could get it with the heavy duty F40 option for nominal $. Had lots of good times in Dad’s F40 equipped Impala wagon, sideways and smiling.

Caraholic.
Caraholic.
1 month ago

I love it- all it would’ve needed was an interior update to match!
Would’ve sold well im sure!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago

I think the best use of this would have been for domestic advertising material in the US (look, our cars are so good, this one guy in Bonn just traded his Mercedes for a Caprice, so what are you doing cross shopping Toyota and Datsun?) Or, we brought our new Caprice Sport to this famous stretch of Autobahn to see how it performed against these German luxury sedans, etc etc.

If they sold 5 of them in West Germany over the whole production run, no matter, they’d have earned more than that in PR value stateside, and Roger Smith probably spent more per year on aftershave than the development costs anyway

The Bishop
The Bishop
1 month ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Ranwhenparked- you are a man that understands marketing.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
1 month ago

Bishop: Can you please do this parts bin building for us in real life and build us a bespoke boxy wagon. My wife and I want crank windows, a manual transmission, heated seats and steering wheel and knobs for controls. Also can it be a PHEV and fit 2 Mountain Dogs in the back? Thanks. Payment is ready for pending delivery. Even if you recommend a great vehicle that has most of those options we’d be grateful.

Patrick Cook
Patrick Cook
1 month ago
Reply to  MikeInTheWoods

That Corvette Chaser Wagon article referenced above lists out how it was done– lots of 9C1 Impala parts bolted on, Corvette motor and transmission, wheels and tires.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 month ago

That Could Challenge (And Beat) The “Ronin” Mercedes 450SEL 6.9

Unpossible. As much as I love the Caprice, as a 6.9 owner, I will aver that it cannot be beat.

FitzmorrisPR
FitzmorrisPR
1 month ago

I feel like the suspension changes are maybe a little extra, obviously it would be an improvement, but for what-if purposes, maybe a little harder to credit?

I’ve heard it said that the Caprice already could pull more Gs on the skidpad than the contemporary Porsche, so maybe this alt universe GM wouldn’t have bothered?

it may be that that rumor was regarding the F41 option. If so, maybe the move would have been to make it standard for the Euro spec.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
1 month ago

“…and no way to adjust the passenger’s side mirror from the driver’s seat “

Um – That’s what your passenger’s hands were for:
Adjusting your offside mirror and holding your Gewürztraminer.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago
Reply to  The Bishop

But we’re talking about a German-market car, so wouldn’t that be Modern Talking cassettes?

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