If you think that luxury cars have to be big, fat, floaty barges gliding on a cloud of isolated marshmallowness, we invite you to have a look at Roger Williard's '66 396 Caprice. It's a luxury car alright, with enough dress-up to rival Buick and Oldsmobile, but without the spongified softness of yesteryear's barges. And it's got that big-block Chevy kick that we've grown to love. Now here's a luxury car we can appreciate.
Let's start this tour with the heart of the matter, the engine. Base engine in the Caprice was a mild small-block--fine for routine operation, but Roger's Caprice walks up the option list to the 325hp L35 396 4V. In only its second year of production, the Mark IV big-block was making a huge impact, taking Chevrolet's flagship Corvette to unprecedented levels of performance (now displacing 427 ci). In the Chevelle, the 396 transformed the popular mid-size from a mild cruiser to a serious muscle car. But both of these performance leaders were relatively new to big-block power.
In the big full-size machine, the new big-block had some large shoes to fill. The 409 was a proven winner, with options all the up to 425 hp. But the fact was that while the 409 was plenty of engine in its day, it was 1950s technology with inherent airflow limitations. The 396's redesigned heads took the combustion chamber out of the cylinder and moved it into the cylinder head. While the 409's unconventional porting and layout gave it some quirky response to camming, layout of the 396's big ports and valves gave the big-block better airflow characteristics and performance potential.
At 425hp, the '65 396 was already making big headlines in the Corvette, but even in lesser states of tune, the 396 was a big step forward, filling in a wide gap between the 327s and 427s. Not since the 348 did full-size Chevrolets have an entry-level big-block, and the 396 had far more punch than the 348.
Roger first saw this amazingly well-preserved Caprice advertised in a trader magazine. Answering the ad took him to Pella, Iowa, and the grandson of the original owner. That was three years ago. When he bought it, only 47,000 miles showed on the odometer. It was obvious that the car had been very carefully cared for over the years.
"It's a real nice, low-mile big-block car," says Roger. "It's got the Protect-O-Plate, and all paper. It's numbers-matching all the way."
Even engine components like alternator, carburetor, exhaust manifolds, and distributor are original to the car.
The driveline is beefy all the way, with a Turbo 400 transmission, and 3.73:1 Positraction 12-bolt rear.
"The grandson had repainted it," Roger relates. "He taped off the chrome and reshot original color."
But Roger had something better in mind. He lives near Scott Tiemann, operator of Super Specialties in Portland, Michigan, and renowned restorer of many national best-of-show winning supercars.
"I took the car apart and stripped it, and Scott painted it with lacquer. It's as close to original as it can be," Roger says confidently. No sheetmetal patches were needed. Wheel opening moldings and sill plates have been replaced, all the rest of the trim is original. Even in Iowa, with the right care, rust needs not be a problem. Aztec Bronze is the exterior color, and it looks right at home on the hardtop Caprice.
"Interior is absolutely original and pristine," Roger tells us. Sure enough, it is. Seats are covered in fine fabric that is not split, torn, separating, or even discolored. The dash is perfect-o, and the carpet looks like its ready for the holidays. The interior looks like it stepped right off of the pages of the '66 Chevy brochure.
While it was down for paint, Roger took the opportunity to freshen up the motor, transmission and brakes. By winter 2005, the refurb was complete. The next spring, Roger was set to debut his find.
One of the places he went was the Pure Stock Drags. On the scales, the luxury Caprice was definitely a heavyweight, weighing in at a very well- fed 4,250 pounds. But that didn't stop it from making a fine showing. At the 2006 event, Roger cracked the 14-second barrier and recorded a low e.t. of 13.953 at 99.34--phenomenal for such a heavy car with only 325hp, and launching on repro bias ply tires.
"It won't attract people like a red SS Impala," Roger has learned from experience, "but people who are car fanatics are just in awe." Count us in with that last bunch.
"It's a pretty low-option car really," says Roger. "Tinted windshield, but no electric windows or air conditioning."
When you're low on options, but still look like you're dressed for a night on the town, you're doing something right. And when you can dust most original muscle cars with a sub-14 second blast, and do it dressed to the nines, you're ready for double duty.