We post many examples of global cars that have come to American roads, but today it’s the opposite. These old GM wagons were once as familiar as sunrise and sunset in America, and usually seen hauling kids off to little league or home to furnished suburban basements. What’s most interesting about this one is that it’s not in Anytown U.S.A., but somewhere in England – probably Halifax, West Yorkshire.
American cars were actually quite popular in the United Kingdom before the depression, but full-size “yank tanks” were much rarer after WW2. That was down to their size, thirst, and cost, but there were still people who wanted them.
This 1979 Chevrolet Caprice Classic may be part of the very first (and most effective) wave of “downsizing,” but it was still a giant by U.K. standards, and even with a Chevy 305 it would gulp down a (U.S.) gallon of fuel every 15 miles with four passengers and cargo factored in.
American Cars In the U.K.
Chevrolet was not marketed in the U.K. in the 1970s but there were (and still are) specialist dealerships that imported such cars for that small slice of the public who really wanted them. There’s a thriving American car community in the U.K. to this day. If buying from a specialist sounds expensive to you, you’re correct.
Prices varied, but given the premiums buyers would have to pay over ordinary U.K.-market cars, big American machines other than Corvettes and Mustangs were very rare there. When buyers did opt for mainstream Americana, they usually got their cars loaded. Why bother with a lower spec model if you have to pay a steep price anyway?
The Caprice Classic, Monte Carlo, Corvette, and K5 Blazer were all regularly cataloged models, along with Cadillac Seville, Pontiac Firebird, and Buick Century and Regal were all regularly cataloged models for London-based importer Lendrum & Hartman.
L & M was for many years the primary dealer of American GM products in England. The company started early and imported large numbers of cars in boom times of the 1920s but fewer, and more upscale cars in the 1930s and afterward. It worked directly with General Motors of Canada and imported McLoughlin-Buick products among others, later becoming the official Buick agency for the U.K. But it catalogue more cars than Buicks, and in the 1970s had official brochures for its line of American GM cars.
We don’t know that this car came through L & H, and there were other agents that sold such cars, including names like Simpsons of Wembley, Lincoln Cars and Bauer Millet. That last one was in Manchester, but a high number of such concessionaires were based in and around London, and many also had conventional dealerships alongside these activities. (If any readers have memories of interacting with them or other American car sellers in the U.K., please feel free to share in the comments).
Downsized But Still Huge
British Caprice Classic buyers got their money’s worth with these downsized wagons, and there were no U.K.-market cars, short of a van or a coachbuilt machine, that had the kind of power and space that a Caprice wagon could offer.
The slimmed-down big Chevy no longer offered big block power, but most wagons were built with the 305 or 350-cubic inch small block V8s, and all used a three-speed turbo hydramatic. These cars weren’t nearly as powerful as their predecessors in the late 1960s thanks to emissions regs and lower compression ratios (the 350 maxed out at 170 horses), but they were still rock tough and had plenty of torque. The 250-cid inline six returned to the big B-body in this generation, but wasn’t a frequent choice of wagon or Caprice buyers.
The big GM B-bodies were dramatic and new in 1977 and cutting edge for what they were. GM President Pete Estes, formerly of Pontiac and Oldsmobile, would later say that the downsizing efforts began in 1972 in response to criticism that the circa-1971 full-sizers had been too big and unwieldy. “Project 77,” as GM named it, involved a major ($600+M) rethink of the big cars.
But the engineers were conventional in their approach. There wasn’t anything radical about the downsized ‘77s, they were just lighter, smaller, more efficient versions of a typical Detroit car. There was far less excess metal, to the tune of 800 lbs. in reduced weight. Even with smaller engines, they were faster and got better mileage than their predecessors with no sacrifice in room, style, or comfort.
To put things in perspective, the Caprice wagon had almost 90 cubic feet of storage space with the seats folded and room for six or even eight people with them up. Even a Caprice gets cramped eight-up, however. The B-bodies lost the super-cool clamshell tailgate in the redesign, but the improved handling and use of space more than made up for it.
GM certainly got its money’s worth out of this design, too. The basic B-body wagon was sold by every U.S. division except Cadillac, and it was still on offer ten years after this one was built with relatively few changes. In 1989 you could still buy one as a Buick Estate Wagon, Chevrolet Caprice wagon, Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, or Pontiac Safari – all of which were differentiated mainly by their front-end styling and interiors (retained from when each was part of a full line of rear-drive cars).
Minivans captured an ever-increasing share of the market after 1984 but the big wagons cost little to build (with lots of commonalities) and sold in fair numbers when all the divisions were lumped together, so GM kept building them so long as people were buying. Sales fell off appreciably after 1988, but three of the wagons (the Pontiac was dropped after 1989) survived into the 1991 B-body redesign.
We’re not sure when this photo, part of the OldMotors archival collection, was taken, but it’s probably the mid to late 1980s judging by the shape of that commercial truck cab. Sadly, the DVLA says this car was last taxed in 1992, which means it’s likely scrapped or at least off the road.