Design Notes: 1991 Chevrolet Caprice
“When Chevrolet saw it, they loved it.”
Love for the full-size car in America waned during the 1980s. Once-iconic models, like Caprice, were seemingly denied a seat at the table of modernity and became fodder for the elderly and fleets. Yet, despite riding on a platform created before Jimmy Carter took office, the Caprice was retired with style and grace.
When I approached Dick Ruzzin, Chevrolet’s then Chief Designer, about doing an interview on the 1991 Caprice, it came with a disclosure. I’d confessed that at 18 years old I had pinned a large foldout Caprice poster over my bed.
After the awkward silence had run its course, we scheduled the interview.
There’s a lot of material here, so I’ll get straight to it and not ramble. This write-up was produced with tremendous input from Ruzzin, including: a written interview, descriptions of the photos, and a follow-up phone interview. That’s roughly the order I’ve presented it in.
The following introduction sets the stage.
RUZZIN: All in all, the Caprice was a very successful car and used for many personal and commercial applications. Once I told a group of police that I was responsible for the design and they could not stop the adulation. Basically, they really enjoyed working with a car that was really neat looking, the best looking police car ever, which was their opinion. It looked fast and aggressive in police trim.
I still see some Caprices and in spite of all the cultural changes in design, over twenty five years later, they are still intriguing and stand up very well. The flush side glass and futuristic headlights for the time helped push its character into the future.
The design effort was a fun time; we had a lot of great people working in the studio and did a lot of work. The Caprice followed the design of the Cavalier, Celebrity and Eurosport, and Lumina Sedan and APV, as well as a small car program to replace the Chevette that was cancelled after it was released. We also had design responsibility for all three Japanese small cars sold by Chevrolet from Isuzu, Suzuki and Toyota, as well as the Chevette. That meant a lot of responsibility and effort on everyone’s part. The quality of the people shows through in the quality and reach that our designs had as we see them now, so many years later.
We also created a vision for GM that was adopted by the corporation. It was called “Back To Basics” and eliminated millions of part numbers, at $5000 apiece. A film was made of our presentation and shown throughout the corporation.
All of that was going on as distractions to our main effort at the time, creating a new Caprice design.
A great and enjoyable group of professionals to work with, the people in Chevrolet #2 Studio during those times were responsible for many creative achievements both individually and as a team. It was a great place to work, attested to by the many designers, engineers and sculptors in our building who requested transfer into our group. Unfortunately we could not take them all.
Sharp eyes may have picked up on the nugget about a Chevette replacement program which was cancelled. There is some non-Caprice questioning and discussion in an “Off Topic” section, at the end. Unfortunately, in all the to-do’s, however, I forgot to follow up on this particular curiosity, so it’ll have to wait.
Before jumping into the Q&A, Ruzzin summarized for us some of the challenges and expectations facing designers and design management.
RUZZIN: The Caprice design program had many design challenges, the same as any other project. The resultant design solution is dependent on the quality of the people in the studio and how much they are trusted by management.
Management, like the studio, has the responsibility to deliver the right design choice in a timely way. This is critically important as design is at the top of an enormous work pyramid, a very small effort in total that affects the larger work effort in an enormous way. The development of an automobile and its variations is a monumental task with a cost into the billions.
If we were one day late in delivering our design then the people at the bottom of the pyramid might be six months late. Six months of lost sales and the interruption of the product family plan is intolerable, resulting in chaos.
The designers, engineers and sculptors in Chevrolet #2 Studio were a small group, in total about fifteen people. They did have Design support for body and release engineering as well as everything that they needed to do the job.
The challenges for doing a production car are always the same:
- Develop a design that has reach and matches the customer profile and the product vision.
- Meet all cost and manufacturing requirements of engineering.
- Satisfy the design expectations of Design, Divisional and Corporate management.
With that knowledge in mind, revue the following account that describes the creative efforts of a small group of people at General Motors Design Staff in the late fall and early winter of 1988, over 25 years ago.
Okay, let’s find out what inquiring minds want to know about the 1991 Caprice.
Continued on page 2.