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1977 Chevrolet Caprice: Engineering The Quietest Car In The World

1977 Chevrolet Caprice: Engineering The Quietest Car In The World

New vehicle development is not an easy or quick process.  Even with today’s technology, it takes time to properly sort out the design of a new vehicle.  Imagine what it took fifty years ago when computer aided design was in its infancy.  Proper vehicle dynamics were achieved through trial and error, as well as serious seat time in a car.

I find the process interesting and fun.  This is why it was such a treat to meet retired Chevrolet Engineer Walt Banacki in January.  I was introduced to Walt through Dave Rhinehart, which I detailed in the article, Chevrolet Engineer Still A Car Guy at 94.

My conversations with Walt were initially focused on the launch of the 1977 Z28 Camaro.  It took several visits before we exhausted that topic.  During a visit last month, Walt met me holding a thick notebook.  That notebook was filled with memos and notes from 1974, when Walt had the assignment to make the 1977 Chevrolet Caprice the quietest car in the world.

94 year old man with notebook

As I leafed through the notebook, I was fascinated by the Chevrolet Inter-Organization Letters saved by Walt.  I noticed familiar names from when I started at Chevrolet in 1984.  While not as sexy as a Z28 Camaro, the 1977 Caprice represented a serious turning point in automotive history. 

Even though this was 50 years ago, the story shared by Walt provides a unique view into vehicle development.  It deserves to be told.

Significant Changes in the 1970s

The 1970s was a tough decade for car enthusiasts.  In 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed which authorized the government to enact stricter pollution control requirements.  This forced automakers to add pollution control devices (like the catalytic converter and engine air pumps) and detuned engines to existing vehicles.  

Add in the 1973 energy crisis (caused by oil embargos from OPEC nations), which forced new fuel economy standards.  The days of big, high performance cars looked bleak.

Domestic automakers were still producing big cars at the time. Honda, Toyota and Datsun were just starting to gain traction with their imported small cars, but consumers still wanted (and needed) cars that could haul passengers and cargo.  

SUVs were starting to gain acceptance as passenger vehicles, but most were still based on work trucks. That’s crazy to think about today, but pickups and SUVs were not “civilized” enough to be considered for daily commutes and family vacations.

A new approach to passenger vehicles was needed, and needed to happen quickly.

1976 Caprice sedan with white vinyl top

Fuel Economy and Exhaust Emissions Challenges

Among the Big 3 auto manufacturers in Detroit, General Motors was in the best position to take action to address the challenges noted above.  Their full-size “B-body” coupes, sedans and station wagons (Chevrolet Impala/Caprice, Pontiac Bonneville, Oldsmobile Delta 88, Buick LeSabre) were still their top selling vehicles.  

Remaking them into more efficient cars made sense, but posed great risk.

The key features of the large sedans included: ample passenger space, quiet interior, comfortable ride and large trunk capacity.  Consumers believed you needed a large footprint in order to achieve those characteristics.  The challenge for the engineering teams was to create a car that offered all of the above, but also met better fuel economy standards and lower tailpipe emissions.  

Lower fuel consumption could be reached with smaller displacement engines.  Reduced emissions was doable with the installation of a catalytic converter installed in the exhaust system.  GM developed the catalytic converter in 1975 for this purpose. 

The precious metals found in the converters chemically reacted with engine exhausts to produce less harmful gasses.  Unfortunately, they also restricted exhaust flow further reducing engine power.

The challenge facing GM was to develop an all-new car that provided the interior spaciousness and driving characteristics of the existing full-size, but in a lighter package.

Smaller Yet Bigger 

By 1974, GM leadership determined that the 1977 B-body cars would have a downsized exterior with the same (or similar) interior dimensions.  The lighter weight would allow the use of smaller engines while also providing the space consumers wanted.

Each GM division went about developing their new B-body cars around the corporate guidelines. Prior to the early 1980s, each GM division was responsible for the development and production of their vehicles.  

Think about that–GM divisions were essentially in competition with themselves. It helped create distinctive vehicles, but at a cost.  It wasn’t until years later that GM learned their lesson the hard way: through market share losses and bankruptcy.

Chevrolet Management Test Trip (March 1974)

In early 1974, Chevrolet was still working on improvements to the current “ A-body” cars (Malibu/Monte Carlo) as well as the B-body coupes, sedans and wagons.  Added to the mix was the all-new (and downsized) 1977 B-body Impala/Caprice.

In order to get management approval for the program changes, gathering them in one place for a product deep-dive was ideal.

The Chevrolet A and B-Car Development Team, led by Jack Turner, had a number of vehicles to show to a cross section of company leaders.  Leaders from Chevrolet Engineering, Manufacturing, Marketing, Merchandising, Planning, Delco Products and Fisher Body were invited to a three day evaluation trip in south Florida.  

Why was this trip located in south Florida? The warmer climate was better suited for the driving evaluations. It was also close to the winter home of one of the executives, so his attendance was guaranteed!

yellow card used for vehicle evaluation trip

Trip Objectives

While the Florida location was desirable for key leadership buy-in, there was a real purpose for the trip:

  • Check out the 1975 final tuning package on a variety of roads in warm weather.
  • Direct comparison of 1975 “A” and “B” sedan acoustic and chassis rides qualities around the revised body and chassis structure.
  • Compare the “state of the art” 1977 “B” chassis to both vehicle lines.
  • Compare “A” and “B” station wagons with the resulting management direction for 1977.
  • Evaluate bias belted tires’ effect on sedan and 4 door hardtop body styles.
  • Test economy axles proposed for 1975.
  • Determine if the different roads in Florida can be used for future ride and handling development.

Test Trip Planning

Walt Banacki was responsible for planning this three day trip. He ensured the fourteen vehicles needed for evaluation were prepped and sent to Florida.  The evaluation route was planned to include a variety of road surfaces (new and old concrete, gravel, etc.) and memorable dining locations.

Believe it or not, food is a big factor in any leadership meeting.  During my years planning dealer meetings, I learned that the attendees remembered the food served over the content of the meeting.  You could deliver the worst news at an event, but if the food was memorable then you won.  Walt knew this fact as well, so his standing as a master event planner was assured.

two page memo inviting Chevrolet executives to a three day event

(copy of memo inviting key GM leaders to the three day trip. A full-size version of the memo can be found HERE.)

Vehicles Evaluated

As you can see in the memo shown above, Walt assembled a good group of vehicles.  Under the Model heading in the memo, vehicle models starting with “1A” were Malibus or Monte Carlos.  Those with the “1B” prefix were Caprices.  All vehicles were equipped with some version of the 400 cubic inch V-8 engine.  That was an interesting choice considering fuel economy was a target.

Walt also included a 1974 Ford Torino Elite for comparison.  The Torino was a competitor to the Monte Carlo and Malibu coupe.

One of the 1974 Malibu sedans in the fleet was heavily modified to mechanically emulate a 1977 Caprice, with the following attributes:

  • 1977 design intent ride and handling
  • Modified ride travel and suspension geometry capable of altering rear suspension to incorporate outboard and inboard mounted upper control arms.
  • New corporate steel belted radial tire
  • Front bench seat contour close to 1977 design
  • Interior acoustics similar to the benchmarked 1975 Caprice

Walt wanted me to be sure to acknowledge the help he received from fellow engineer Bob Herominski.  Bob was instrumental in converting the 1974 Malibu into a 1977 component car.  He later went on to convert a 1976 Caprice into a 1977 test mule by cutting it in half (both ways) and shrinking it to copy the 1977 car’s dimensions.

Unleaded Fuel Availability

Passenger cars built from 1975 forward would all be equipped with catalytic converters.  This required the use of low-lead or unleaded fuel, which was very scarce in 1974.

As part of his trip planning, Walt was in contact with several Chevrolet dealers in Florida.  One of those dealers, Bill Branch (Bill Branch Chevrolet in Ft Myers, FL) took on the challenge to coordinate fuel delivery for Walt.  Branch worked with eight other Chevrolet dealers across south Florida to make sure Walt had this fuel for the vehicles.

All of those dealers came through for Walt, pledging 980 gallons of low-lead fuel for the 1,200 mile test trip.  Walt also experienced the dedication and influence of the Chevrolet dealers.  Each of them placed a priority in serving his needs, including driver support and the use of their service departments for vehicle repairs.

certificate of appreciation

Walt properly acknowledged their efforts with the above certificates signed by Paul King, Chevrolet Passenger Car Chief Engineer.

1977 “B-car” Ride, Handling and Quietness Qualities

The Florida test trip successfully got management buy-in on the improvements needed for all of the vehicles–especially the 1977 B-car.  

They felt the existing Caprice already set the standards for the class.  Concerns surfaced that a lighter, smaller platform would cause Chevrolet to lose the marketing edge. For Walt Banacki, the B-car Chief Engineer Tom Zimmer charged him with making the Caprice the World’s Quietest Car.

The Quiet Car Challenge

Walt took his assignment seriously, and worked with a Body Noise Control Group composed of engineers from each division and Fisher Body, which was responsible for building all of the bodies for General Motors until 1984.

The Body Noise Control Group met strong resistance from Fisher Body management.  Walt identified a long list of both organizational as well as process and production issues at Fisher Body.  He eventually worked through those challenges, but it was clear the vehicle divisions were encroaching on Fisher Body’s territory.  

Those internal competition and territorial disputes in the 1970s would continue to plague GM all the way to the 2009 bankruptcy.  

Acoustical Design Goals in Jeopardy

By October 1974, Walt had identified concerns with the 1977 Caprice models that would be difficult and costly to achieve.  The emphasis on weight reduction from Fisher Body and related departments created acoustical losses with the following:

  • Door openings
  • Front of dash
  • Rear quarter windows 
  • Ventilation system
  • Glass thickness (weight reduction from thinner glass increased road noise)

As expected, Walt was able to get approval to make the changes needed.  He was on his way to meeting that “Quietest Car in the World” status.

GM Divisional Management Product Preview

As development of the 1977 B-cars reached an important milestone, the divisions brought their cars together to show GM management (including the Board of Directors).  This took place at the GM Milford Proving Ground, which allowed the different leaders to inspect and sample all of the cars on the Proving Ground test track.

Walt recounted a conversation he had with the general manager of Cadillac.  That gentleman drove the new Caprice, and was obviously impressed. He asked Walt to secure the car so that he could send over his chief engineer.  

The Cadillac chief engineer approached Walt to learn more about the Caprice.  Walt answered his questions and offered to go for a short ride with him.  The chief engineer declined that offer, but instead took the Caprice for an extended drive (likely to the Cadillac building!). 

Two days later, an acoustical engineer from Cadillac called Walt seeking information on the design and materials used to achieve the vehicle quietness.  Walt felt Chevrolet’s approach was proprietary, so declined to give specifics.  Did I mention each GM division was in competition with each other?

The next day, Tom Zimmer called Walt to approve the release of the information requested by Cadillac.  Product development was far enough along to temporarily give Chevrolet the edge over Cadillac. 

Looking back, I guess Walt helped Cadillac set the “Standard of the World.”

Memo dated March 7, 1974 from Chevrolet marketing to Chevrolet engineering

(Memo from marketing to engineering. The full memo can be found HERE)

Chevrolet Marketing Defines Final Program Parameters

Development continued on the downsized B-car. By March 1975, Chevrolet marketing provided their vehicle ride, handling and noise level parameters to engineering.

The above memo from March 1975 defines those vehicle parameters.  After all, sales and marketing needed to be able to communicate the strong vehicle attributes to the buying public. Luckily for the marketing team, the engineering team was already on the job!

new 1977 chevrolet caprice

1977 Motor Trend Car of the Year

When it came time for the automotive press to evaluate these new cars, anticipation was quite high.  GM took their bread and butter vehicle–the full-size sedan, and did the unthinkable:  they made the new B-car 10 inches shorter, 4 inches narrower and 800 pounds lighter. 

In spite of this downsizing, interior space and trunk was the same (but perceived to be larger). Statistically, GM pulled it off.  Would the media and customers feel the same way?

In the February 1977 edition of Motor Trend, the 1977 Chevrolet Caprice was named the Car of the Year.  The editorial staff compared eight different vehicles (including GM’s other B-body variants) and crowned the Caprice the winner.

Motor Trend used phrases like “understated elegance” and “people mistook it for a Cadillac Seville” to provide their first impression.  Once they lived with it a while, they felt it did everything right–the combination of vehicle driving dynamics, packaging and overall quietness made it a special car.

It wasn’t just the car that they applauded. Motor Trend honored the men who took the chance four years earlier to launch an entirely new concept in passenger car design.  Those GM executives were profiled in the magazine for this accomplishment.

Final Thoughts & Questions

The success that came from downsizing the B-body cars gave GM the momentum to repeat that with the A-body (mid-size coupes and sedans) in 1978.  They also looked at every future car with a new eye–smart packaging and smaller displacement engines would be well received by consumers.

It also left an impression on the man who made it the quietest car in the world.  Fifty years later, Walt Banacki is still talking about the 1977 B-car project.  That says a lot, which is why I felt it was important to share his story. Well done, Walt! 

Please let me know if you have any added thoughts or questions.  I’m happy to share those with Walt during our regular visits.  You can reach me via email (wct.billtaylor@gmail.com) or in the comments below.

Want to learn more about me?  Go to this article:   Who’s Your Nanny?

About The Author

2 Comments

  1. TheTireWhisperer

    I would like to once and for all settle one of the biggest debates I’ve had regarding the downsized-for-1977 GM B-body full-sized lineup:

    Were the 1977 B-bodies:

    A. A modernized body (inside and out) simply slapped on to an existing 1973-77 intermediate A-body frame?

    B. A modernized exterior and interior mounted on a frame *closely resembling* the 1973-77 A-body frame?

    or

    C. An entire new car from the ground up, with dimensions that coincidentally resembled those of the 1973-77 A-body?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Bill Taylor

      Thanks for the question! I’m glad you found this article.

      Based on my conversations with Walt, reviewing his notebook and other research, the answer is C. The early mule used in 1974 was a modified Malibu (A-body) incorporating suspension designs proposed for the 1977 Caprice. A later prototype (1976 timeframe) used a 1976 Caprice that was cut apart and rebuilt to dimensions close to the final 1977 model. The frame on that one was hand built (and supervised by Bob Herominski at Chevrolet Engineering) to the parameters of the 1977 production model. The resulting 1977 model was all-new, with a new box-type frame. Dimensionally, the comparison between the 73-77 A-body and 1977 B-body look like this:

      Wheelbase: A= 109″/B= 112″

      Width: A= 77.3″/ B= 75.4″

      Length” A= 209.7″/B= 212″

      If you haven’t had a chance yet, open the scan of the memos I attached in the article. The invitation to the Florida trip helps describe the 1974 mule.

      Reply

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