Chevy's Caprices, Biscaynes, and Impalas embodied everything that was great about America. These cars offered full-sized American value with glamorous shapes designed by pens and emotion, not by committee. Big chrome bumpers and stadium-sized interiors rested on a rugged full frame to offer a sublime and assured ride that could handle any roadway that came across its cast-iron path.
In the early 1970s, full-size cars were still selling briskly despite the temperamental OPEC situation that often relegated larger cars to the used car lots and the bottom of resale value charts. To meet the demands of its customers, in 1977 Chevy introduced an allnew downsized Caprice/Impala set on a shorter 116-inch wheelbase. In a move to improve fuel economy and ef-ficiency, the new car was offered with a 305ci V-8 rated at 140 horsepower, choked by a Rochester two-barrel and a pellet-style catalytic converter. But as the Caprice and most every other GM car during the 1980s began to lose market share to the imported competition, GM felt the traditional Caprice of yesteryear needed a radical makeover.
In a rather bold maneuver, Chevy prewent for a completely new concept with its replacement and put a rounded silhouette onto its full-framed chassis from model year 1991-96. Gone were the chrome bumpers and traditional styling cues. In their place came urethane bumpers, higher-quality interiors, and later on, LT1 power. Sales went into the toilet. The jellybean shape never caught on with anyone except those responsible for taxi and law enforcement fleet sales. The conventional Caprice buyer no longer paid attention. By the mid-1990s, the damage was already done, and in 1996 the last of the great ones rolled off the assembly line.
Still, these cars have their loyal, faithful fans. To find out what all the hoopla was about, we decided to pound the pavement in search of a "bubble" B-body for some real-world driving impressions and dragstrip thrashing. Our search soon steered us toward the police sedans equipped with the 9C1 police package.
After about a month of looking, we found a relatively clean '96 Caprice 9C1 from a friend who once roamed the Midwest with the Iowa State Highway Patrol. With 115K on the clock, it had faithfully served with no major issues, as the well-maintained example had no record of accidents or major failure, and was delivered to our office doors for $3,000 even. The seller even included the nifty spotlight on the driver-side door.
To Race A Caprice Is To Love A CapriceLooking at the spec sheet, the Caprice had a few things working against it for optimum dragstrip performance. The curb weight, at 4,085 pounds (with a half tank of fuel and the spare tire removed), was somewhat of a surprise. We figured that the stripped-down Copper would weigh less than 4,000 pounds, but we couldn't do anything about it and moved on. Based on previous experiences with these cars, we expected the factory 260hp LT1 to catapult this double-row sofa on four wheels into the mid-15s. But to our surprise, the first pass netted us 15.251 at 91.11 mph with a 2.22 short time. Certainly not bad for our 88-degree test day, but we knew there was more in it.
The first order of business was a trackside exhaust system upgrade. By replacing the factory cat-back and its four mufflers with a larger, freer-flowing Edelbrock system, we were able to benefit from the system's 2.5-inch mandrel-bent pipes all the way to the tailpipes. Also, the sound that we now had bellowing from the rear of our Caprice was more befitting of an American V-8 icon rather than a plebian civil service vehicle.
Back on the strip, the cat-back was worth .217 seconds, as our timeslips dipped to a 15.037 at 91.45 mph from our previous best of 15.251 at 91.11 mph.
Strategize And Categorize
At this point, many dragstrip enthusiasts start throwing all sorts of horsepower-enhancing parts on their ride. This may sound like fun, and it often is, but it's not the most effective way to drop e.t.'s. Instead, it's usually better to concentrate on getting the power that you already have and putting it to the ground by improving ef-ficiencies in the driveline and suspension. With that in mind, our next round of mods would include a higher-stall torque converter and some mild suspension upgrades.
Because our goal was to have a streetable, strip-capable machine, we wanted a torque converter that would put the engine revs into the meat of the LT1's torque peak without the excessive slippage that would hurt performance or fuel economy. So we kept our goals realistic and headed over to Level 10 Performance in Hamburg, New Jersey, for a new converter. Once we gave proprietor Pat Barrett the detailed intention of our ride, he recommended one of his 10-inch performance converters, and on top of that an internal transmission upgrade because of the dragstrip action our car was going to see.
In addition, the switch to the heavier-duty internals from a later-model 4L65E would ensure greater torque capacity and dependability. With the higher stall converter and the firm shifts provided by the specially modified valvebody, the car felt incredibly crisp-as if it lost 1,000 pounds.
Next up, we looked to the suspension for more e.t. We thought it would be a good time to upgrade our leaky shock absorbers for better wheel control and the rear control arms for better traction. Since the rear control arms are pivotal in controlling that stonkin' huge 8.5-inch rear axle, we opted for solid billet aluminum units from Metco Motorsports. They replace the flimsy factory stamped steel units and eliminate all the rubber bushings at each contact point for better control. In their place, stiffer yet pliable polyurethane bushings do a much better job of positively locating the rear axle. Even better, Metco offers these control arms in factory or extended length versions; the latter relocates the axle housing rearward about an inch to properly position the rear wheel within the wheelwell housing, which is a problem that has plagued all Caprices with full-radius rear wheelwells from 1994-96. We opted for the extended-length units.
To match the improved performance the new control arms would provide, we then installed a set of Edelbrock's IAS shock absorbers on each corner of our Killer Whale. These shocks replace the factory units perfectly and offer much improved control over slow- and high-speed maneuvers thanks to an internally variable valve that varies firmness based on shaft velocity.
Because the Killer Whale was a former highway patrol vehicle, it was geared with rather tall 3.08s. We knew that for better e.t.'s we had to step up the gearing a bit for greater torque multiplication to get this two-ton titan out of the hole. While we were tempted to go with 4.10s, we decided to install 3.73s to maintain good fuel economy on the highway. When you go shopping for a gearset, make sure it's for a '91-96 B-body, as it must have the proper pinion shaft size to accept an ABS toner ring. Speaking of which, that's another expense, so plan to spend another $30 for the sensor ring because it's not included with the gearset that you'll buy.
A quick search on eBay revealed a plethora of used gearsets from various sellers. We found a set of used OEM 3.73s, purchased a new ABS toner ring from our local Chevy dealer, and brought everything over to our local GM performance experts at J&T Auto in Huntington Station, New York.
With our suspension and rear axle parts installed by Matt Pospishil and John Moundros of J&T Auto, we soon returned to the track, and to no surprise we were hurdled by traction woes. Because police-spec Caprices came with steel 15x7 wheels with a 5x5 bolt pattern, our tire choices for a drag radial are limited to a 245 sectionwidth tire. Since it was hardly a step up from our existing 235s, we looked for wider 15x8-inch wheels that would allow us to mount a much wider 275-section-width tire. We wanted wheels that would still look stealthy enough to match the factory steel wheels, so we started to look for a pair of older 2WD GM pickup trucks. Because they were equipped with a 5x5 bolt pattern and an 8-inch wheel, we began looking for a set, and lo and behold, we found a pair for $50 on the Internet. The best thing about these wheels is that they are hubcentric and have the proper offset. What a steal!
After an afternoon of sanding and painting with some fresh semi-gloss black rattle-can paint, we had J&T Auto mount on a pair of 275/60/15 Nitto NT555R Drag Radials. Nitto's drag radials have proven to work well for us on the dragstrip, and because they tend to wear longer on the street, it would be perfect for us, because swapping the tires at the track is no fun when each combo weighs 80 pounds. We could have gone with the shorter 275/50/15, but we liked how the taller profile looked on our heavy Chevy.
All said and done, our Caprice was back on the starting line, and after a hellacious burnout to break them in, we were rewarded with a 14.802 at 91.77 mph, for a drop of .235 seconds. This just reinforces our earlier point that by improving the chassis and driveline, we were able to drop over two tenths without adding any more power.