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Chevrolets of the 1970s

The downsizing of the 1977 Chevrolet Caprice made it more agile and more fuel-efficient.

After a mostly stand-pat 1970, the full-size Chevys ballooned to as big as they'd ever get, thanks to 1971's new "fuselage-style" GM B-body and a longer 121.5-inch wheelbase. As ever, promotion focused on Impala and Caprice. The Biscayne and Bel Air sedans were now relegated to the fleet market, and would be discontinued after 1972 and '75, respectively.

Mid-price Impala Customs, new for '68, continued finding favor among those who liked, but couldn't quite afford, a Caprice. The Caprice itself was similarly upgraded as more Classic models were added year by year.


Big-Chevy engine choices through 1976 revolved around 350, 400, and 454 V-8s, though a 145-bhp 305 was rushed out as standard for '76 (except on wagons), a post-oil-embargo economy move. Emissions tuning rendered all decreasingly potent, as did the added weight of "crash" bumpers after 1972, plus other federally required measures.

Styling became progressively more ornate and "formal," and threatened rollover standards prompted hardtop coupes to be replaced by "pillared" 1974 models with huge rear side windows.

For the same reason, the Caprice convertible (an Impala through '72) disappeared after 1975. Despite their limitations, these big Chevys always sold in large numbers -- as ever, the epitome of middle-class American motoring.

Then, a revolution: the first wave of GM's corporatewide downsizing program, which saw the 1977 Caprice/Impala trimmed by 51/2 inches in wheelbase and 600-800 pounds in gas-wasting bulk. It seemed like a huge gamble then, and Ford tried to take advantage by extolling the "road-hugging weight" of its still-enormous full-sizers.

But Chevrolet, as usual, knew exactly what it was doing, and Caprice/Impala sales actually improved (despite the departure of hardtop sedans). And why not? The new models were not only lighter but more-agile, easier on gas and, to some, better-looking.

In the intermediate ranks, Chevelle and Monte Carlo were switched to GM's new "Colonnade" A-body for 1973, which meant fresh styling and no more convertibles or closed pillar-less models.

The Monte divided into S and plusher Landau offerings, both with rather baroque, "French curve" styling. The blockier Chevelles included base, Malibu and ritzy Malibu Classic coupes and sedans, plus a plethora of wagons in base, Classic, and Classic Estate trim.

An interesting 1974-76 concoction was the Laguna S-3 coupe. A cross between a luxury tourer and the now-departed Malibu SS, it sported body-color grille surround and bumpers, plus a posh vinyl interior available for a time with optional swiveling front seats -- a revival of a '50s Chrysler idea.

When the big Chevys shrank to intermediate stature, it was obvious that the midsizers would get smaller, too. They did, for 1978. Chevelles became Malibus, and shared a new 108.1-inch-wheelbase platform with Monte Carlo. The latter retained generally florid looks, but the Malibus were crisp and clean. Again, sales didn't suffer -- to Chevy's undoubted relief.

A consistently high seller since its '68 overhaul, the compact Nova saw little change through 1973, when a minor facelift occurred and hatchback two-door sedans arrived in the usual base and Custom trim.

An extensive 1975 reskin ushered in new rooflines and more glass, fancy LN ("Luxury Nova") models (renamed Concours for '76), and steering and front suspension borrowed from Camaro. Nova captured 15 percent of Chevy's total 1975 sales to become the year's most-popular American compact.

Engine offerings simplified for '76. The "performance" option was now a 305 V-8, a debored 350 replacing both that engine and the little 262. Standard power through 1979 remained the workhorse 250-cid inline six, after which both engine and car were scrubbed in favor of fours and V-6s in a new compact called Citation, "the first Chevy of the '80s."

Unveiled in April 1979, Citation was a runaway success its first year, helped by another fuel crisis. Body styles comprised two- and four-door hatchback sedans and a pillared "slantback" two-door unique among the four versions of this corporate design. On a 104.9-inch wheelbase, Citation's new X-body platform afforded excellent space at moderate weight, which averaged around 2500 pounds.

Pontiac's well-proven "Iron Duke" four was standard; the only power option was a new Chevy-built 60-degree V-6 displacing 2.8 liters (173 cid). Both engines were mounted transversely to take advantage of the space-­saving front-drive mechanicals. A four-speed manual transaxle was standard, three-speed automatic optional.

For a sporty Citation, you ordered a two-door with an X-11 package comprising uprated suspension and other chassis modifications, plus brash exterior graphics. The lightweight X-11 was a ­capable performer with the V-6.

Like most new designs, however, Citation had a hefty helping of engineering and quality-control problems, and would be recalled many times. But overall balance and livability made it a hot number for awhile, and Chevrolet was hard pressed to meet demand.

Camaro almost expired after 1974 as sales sagged in the wake of the first energy crisis. But a determined effort by enthusiastic GMers saved the striking second generation from a premature end.

For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:

  • Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices