We give General Motors a lot of stick for their constant corporate buffoonery, so it’s important to recognize when they do things well. In the world of car design, the GM back catalogue is stuffed with outstanding work. Given their resources it bloody well should be, but it wasn’t always the case. [Ed note: British spellings with an extra u have been left intact for an authentic content experience. You may also read the piece in the voice of Daniel Craig if you wish.] The Pontiac Aztek was a failure of vision and management – the phone call was coming from inside the building. But how well a company handles external rather than internal turbulence is a good indicator of the strength of their design studio. The mid-seventies in America were very turbulent indeed, but luckily for GM they had one of the greatest car designers who ever picked up a marker leading their studios; Bill Mitchell. Despite being near the end of his career Mitchell still had one more minor masterpiece left in him: the downsized B-body 1977 Chevrolet Caprice. Bill regularly enjoyed a lunchtime martini or three, so shake some up; it’s time for Damn Good Design.
Only seven people have held the position of GM vice president of design. William L. Mitchell was the second, hand picked by his predecessor and the father of modern car design, Harley Earl. Mitchell took over from Earl in late 1958 and was a rambunctious Hemingway-esque figure with a passion for fishing and drinking. But unlike Earl he was an exceptional artist in his own right and in winding back the excesses of the Earl era Mitchell ushered in a sleeker, sharper look for GM cars that from the early sixties until the mid seventies represented a golden age for American car design.
The interstates were endless and gas was cheap. The default American automobile had evolved as a creature of this environment – constellation class cruisers with power everything at your fingertips. Lounges on wheels soundtracked by the backbeat of an unstressed V8. Air-conditioned point and purr as the industrial decline rolls by your tinted windows. The domestic auto manufacturers were masters of their domain, but like Galapagos wildlife, tame and without any natural predators.
Big Government, Smaller Cars
The first Oil crisis of 1973 forced a sudden spike in the price of crude oil and a corresponding rise in gas prices which sent American buyers flocking to import showrooms in search of smaller, more economical vehicles that Detroit was unable to provide. There was also incoming federal regulation. to consider. In 1971 the NHTSA issued FMVSS215 “Exterior Protection” which mandated the ability of a car to withstand a 5 mph front and 2½ mph rear impact, coming into effect for the 1973 model year, along with the October 1972 Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Saving (MVICS) Act. To meet the requirements of these two pieces of legislation, manufacturers would need to add length and weight to their cars, just after the 1970 creation of the Environment Protection Agency and Clean Air Act would force them to consider the unthinkable: downsizing them.
“Large cars like the 1971 Eldorado stood for an age that was about to end. By 1971, Cadillac had a 500-cubic-inch, 365-horsepower V-8 that delivered eight miles per gallon. Large Detroit cars with single-digit fuel mileage were common in the early 1970s. So when the first oil embargo hit in late 1973, it sent American car buyers scurrying into small, lightweight, fuel-efficient Japanese cars. That plus a flurry of new federal standards that regulated everything from bumper heights and strength to tailpipe emissions suddenly lifted the engineer into prominence, shoved money toward safety, downsizing, front-wheel drive and fuel economy and pushed the designer into a secondary role. The stylist’s glory days were suddenly and unceremoniously over.
Mitchell, along with everyone else who shaped sheet metal, had major problems with the often contradictory mandates of the new laws and requirements. Fuel-economy standards, for example, suggested smaller, lighter cars, while impact and rollover standards required heavier, bulkier pillars and bumpers. These tough times very much tested the stylists’ skills and, in the opinion of many, made men out of boys. George Moon commented this was the period when stylists became designers”.
Pete Estes was president of GM from 1974 to 1981. An engineer by training he decided GM would begin downsizing its full size cars in two stages. The first stage would be relatively low-risk: the downsized 1976 K-body Cadillac Seville. The 1976 Seville represented the exact opposite of Detroit’s ‘bigger is more prestigious’ thinking. It was the smallest Cadillac at the time, but the most expensive. A good reception and strong sales helped convince GM they could pull off this downsizing thing after all.
Mitchell’s ‘Sheer Look’
The Seville debuted what Mitchell called the ‘sheer look’: crisp edges and unbroken surfaces that looked like they had been created in one smooth movement over the clay. Boxiness provided more interior volume and making them squarer and more rigid looking introduced a formality and elegance that was perfect for Cadillac. Mitchell would next use his ‘sheer look’ on stage two of the big GM downsizing program – the volume seller Chevrolet Caprice. This was part of GM’s Project 77. According to lead project engineer William Collins in an interview with Hemmings:
The mandates for Project 77 were to reduce size and weight, while retaining style, comfort and roominess and improving fuel mileage and ride qualities. “The corporation proposed that development be done in a common location, and the chief engineers of the car divisions chose me to head up the program,” Bill recollects. “One of my responsibilities as project manager involved ‘politicking’ those same chief engineers to get them to agree on a package that design staff could work with.
It was one thing for luxury buyers to accept a more European influenced Cadillac. Whether the American heartland Chevrolet customer could be convinced to accept a more demure, smaller family car was another matter entirely. According to an article in the New Yorker from 1980, the downsizing decision was riven with controversy inside the company and outside in the wider domestic industry.
The new for 1977 Caprice/Impalas were to be 600-800 lbs (270-360 kg) lighter, over 10” (250 mm) shorter and 3.5” (90 mm) narrower than the cars they replaced. Mitchell directed Chevrolet advanced studio head Terry Henline to adopt the ‘sheer look’ to maximize the amount of interior volume for passengers and their luggage. Mitchell was a big fan of European cars, and at the time Jaguar was beginning to think about replacing the XJ, which had been introduced in 1968 (in typical BL fashion the XJ40 wouldn’t appear until 1986). Jaguar had solicited proposals from various external studios, and Mitchell got hold of a photo of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign proposal to show Henline. It had the boxy volumes, straight edges and almost totally flat surfaces Mitchell had introduced on the Seville and now wanted to develop further on the Caprice.
It’s Not Just Three Boxes. It’s Three Stylish Boxes.
Compared to the Seville, the Caprice is less formal in its proportions. At first glance the ’77 Caprice is just a simple three box sedan, but there’s a lot of very sophisticated design going on. The faster rake of the rear windshield tempers a lot of the formal, upright look that was appropriate for a Cadillac but would have looked out of place on a more mainstream model intended to have popular appeal. The amount of restraint shown in the lines of the Caprice are remarkable. It looks almost Italianate in its simplicity and elegance.
The chrome cladding on the rocker panels is proof Detroit couldn’t let go of its old habits entirely, but it’s pulling the old trick of hiding the depth of the bodyside, making the Caprice look longer and lower than it really is. The gentle taper of the trunk starts higher than the cowl at the base of the windscreen. Because the back is shorter than the front, this extra bulk balances out the proportions at the ends of the car.
Notice the gently curving feature line along the tops of the fenders. This again helps lengthen the car but also adds a feeling of strength and solidity. It’s subtle but provides a useful break in the body for two tone paint schemes, as well as adding visual interest and again helps the car look longer. This was important for customers not to feel they were getting less car for their money. You can’t just take a larger car, slap it on the photocopier and reduce the scale by 10 percent. It doesn’t work because the proportions end up being all wrong. Quite often in the studio if you’re making a quarter scale model, you have to cheat it to make it look right – it’s the difference between optically correct as opposed to dimensionally correct.
It Outlived Its Designer
The buying public responded. The ’77 Caprice (and its platform mates) were exactly the right cars at the right time – it was Motor Trend Car of the Year, and sold over 650,000 in its first year alone, up 45% on 1976, the last year of the full size cars. With minor facelifts it remained in production until 1990, outliving Mitchell who died in 1988, a remarkable achievement. The ‘sheer look’ would go on to influence Ford and Chrysler, and it would remain contemporary in American car design right up until the 1986 Taurus instantly rendered everything else outdated overnight. Even so, the third-gen Caprice was very different from the last gasp of the body-on-frame V8 traditional sedan. After Ford revolutionized the sedan form-factor, Chevrolet took those aero ideas and bolted them onto the bones of the ’77 to create the updated fourth generation ’91 Caprice, proving there was still life in the old dog yet.
The 1977 Caprice wasn’t the most glamourous car, but it was an important one. Good design is not a selling point we equate only with expensive products. It’s the process that enables you to arrive at an aesthetically desirable conclusion that fulfills the brief, whether it’s a Chevrolet or a Cadillac. The Caprice is skin to the GMT400 – you didn’t really notice them at the time because they would have been everywhere. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight, and comparing what came before and after that we can really appreciate just how good these were. The kids these days would probably only encounter them on YouTube watching car chases from old movies or TV shows, because like its crosstown rival the Crown Vic, the Caprice virtues of roominess, robustness and dependable V8 power made it the default car for John Q Law. But that association with law enforcement shouldn’t undermine what an outstanding piece of design work it is.
Once again this article would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Kathy at GM Design Heritage, who patiently dug into the archives to bring us these exclusive studio process images. Many thanks for your help.
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