Have you ever rode around with your grandparents and thought, “THIS would make a great sleeper?” Don’t laugh. A lot of horsepower and torque has been domesticated over the years, subdued in a massive wheelbase and burdened with zip-code-sized body panels. By the 1990s, big-blocks had horizoned-out in autos, but the appeal of GM’s later model, B-body platform, is it was still a rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame offering up until 1996, the year this car was produced.
These cars are enjoying a surge in popularity right now. They’re priced right and the factory V8 and rear-wheel drive platform means they can be built to perform. This is exactly what we plan to prove as we transform this tired, old, stock 1996 Chevrolet Caprice into a formidable street/strip machine. The road will be long, and to kick things off we’re going to perform an extreme update to the suspension by installing QA1’s Stage 2 Drag Kit.
The 1996 Chevrolet Caprice is generally considered a run-of-the-mill four-door full-size sedan. However, the large engine bay and aerodynamic contours make it a great donor for a number of aftermarket builders and tuners with the goal of making them into sleeper-type door-slammers.
As part of an ongoing build to convert the 260-horsepower family-centric car into a massive single-digit drag machine, our own Brian Havins has begun work on the nearly 30-year-old car. He decided to start with the suspension and chose QA1.
According to Havins, “The idea behind this build is to develop a modern-day sleeper from a bone stock 1996 Caprice. We thought that no one is going to think a four-door Caprice with 20-inch chrome wheels is going to be fast.” Once complete, this GM B-Body should scare the hell out of competitors at the strip, and those would-be racers who rev their engines at stoplights.
The lineage of the Caprice goes back to 1965, when Chevrolet added the name as a trim package for the four-door Impala. By the 1966 model year, the Caprice was its own badge. Full-size Chevrolets saw sales of over one million units in the 1965 model year. The full-sized sedan, coupe, and station wagons were among the best-selling cars in America. The Caprice itself was the largest road car that the Chevrolet ever produced. With cheap gas and growing families, the Caprice proved to be the right car at the right time for many of the population. Survivors of this era are still on the road today.
The car in our hands, a fourth-generation Caprice, was nicknamed “the whale” by many publications at the time of its release for the 1991 model year. This was due to its roundish shape in a world that was far more used to the more boxy styling from the 80s. However, those in the media who drove the full-size car were impressed. The new Caprice was named 1991 Car of the Year, by Motor Trend Magazine. Numerous municipalities also lined up to update their police and service fleets.
December 1996, however, would be the last production run of the fourth-generation B-body. Customers were already moving towards SUVs and the more mid-sized Chevrolet Luminas. The last Caprice, amongst its two engine options, featured a 5.7 liter LT1 V8 engine, installed in this Caprice, and the base 4.3 liter L99 V8 — the “more economical” choice. Over the six-year span of the fourth generation, more than a half million were sold. However, in 1996 only a little more than 27,000 were in that tally.
The next generation, the Caprice LTZ, a smaller mid-size sedan, on the same platform as the Lumina, would replace the “whale” in the following model year.
While the engine is being acquired, a great place to start is the suspension components. The complete kit itself lists for $4,522.99 on QA1’s website. However, replacing the components can be done in affordable stages. Havins, however, had completion in mind.
“On this particular car, the front end was completely worn out. Upper and lower ball joints, inner and outer tie rod ends, and the center link — all junk. The project can be done in stages, but in our case, we would have to replace all of these components. This made sense to do it all at once. Everything needed to be replaced on this old dog,” Havins said.
According to QA1, “If you don’t want to make the full investment right away, you can build your car in stages, using our parts list as a road map to get to the level of performance you want. You will have the peace of mind knowing you won’t have compatibility issues moving forward.”
QA1’s drag racing suspension kits for 1994-1996 B-bodies claim improved launch, straight-line stability, and consistent performance. It will give new life to a tired suspension. Available in three stages, the kits offer easy bolt-in installation and illustrated instructions. QA1 has in-house technicians who are available to answer any questions that come up during the installation.
The kits include spring rates selected to maximize performance and are tuned towards the average weight of a small block Chevy or LS-powered vehicle. The level two drag racing kits, like we are using here, have stiffer springs to maximize stored energy for weight transfer and produce a good launch at the start of a run.
Another consideration: if the B-body has been heavily modified from its original weight, the QA1 kits can be ordered without shocks. This way, one can find dampers with the proper spring rates required for their application. When buying the kit without shocks, springs or thrust bearings will not be included.
With the 1996 Chevrolet Caprice in the garage, it’s time to swap out the old for the new. Here’s how it was done.
Focusing on the front of the car, Havins began by removing the sway bars, then the shocks and springs. Always be careful when removing the springs, they are strong and compressed. Patience is key, particularly for the beginner. From there, the upper and lower A-arms were removed. No extra steps were needed, such as heating the nuts to loosen them, WD-40 penetrating spray got the job done.
More analysis and assessment now needed to be done as the old parts were removed. The condition of the mounting points is very important. Measurements and one-to-one comparisons of the OE and custom parts were done. In this particular case, everything looked good, so Havins could begin assembling the coil overs and collars.
The shocks mount to the collars and then are bolted to the chassis. Releasing the springs on the coil-over can be done a couple of ways: Using a spring compression tool -or- slowly lowering the car to the ground. Havins used the more budget-minded solution. With the dampers in place, the control arms go in next. The QA1 A-arms are beautiful tubular specimens — compared to the heavy, burdensome-looking OE parts.
There won’t be a new front sway bar installed as this is a drag setup. With everything in its place and satisfied with the fitment, the greasing, and tightening of parts begins. From there, the spindle and brakes are re-connected. At this point, based on the wear, it would be a good time to assess the rotors and pads. If the existing parts are worn, nothing works better than new. In this case, the brake parts were fine.
With the almost effortless removal and installation on the front of the car, it’s time to move our focus to the rear. The Caprice has a solid axle with a four-link design. Suddenly, the job does not go as easy. This is where you hear the creative blend of expletives, out-loud engineering critiques, and provincial curses.
After removing the rear sway bar and securing the axle with jack stands, out came the shocks and springs. The rear upper control arms posed a challenge, thanks to frozen bushings. Havins says, “I had to beat the living hell out of the upper bushings to remove them This was by far the hardest part of the installation. The car is from up north and has a bit of rust that caused issues here. Ultimately we had to use a torch and a big hammer.”
With the frozen bushings removed, the new bushings went in effortlessly. Then it was time to install the upper and lower control arms — once again a thing of beauty compared to the OE counterparts. From there, the bolt-on coilover adapters and coilovers go into place, followed by the sway bar. Once again with everything fitting correctly, Havins greased and tightened all the components.
A very slow drop from the jack ensures all the springs are compressed correctly and in place. But now it’s time to put the beautiful 20-inch wheels on this developing monster. The Holley/REV wheels’ slightly recessed spokes in chrome really make the Caprice pop. Holley/REV offers many different applications and wheels for just about every situation. Not only do they give the car a new tough stance, but they are also ready for the rigors of high torque loads at the drag strip.
The original 15-inch wheels and all-weather tires will also get a major update with 20-inch Holley/REV spoked racing wheels and Mickey Thompson Street Comp tires. It’s a great place to start prior to dropping the planned 1,000-hp LS engine into the Caprice.
The Mickey Thompson 305/35/20 (rear) and 255/35/20 (front) Street Comp tires complete the look and will be ready to dig into the pavement on the street. For the strip, Mickey Thompson sent a set of 305/35/20 ET Street S/S shoes. From there, a trip to 4 Wheel Performance in Wichita Falls, Texas, saw the outfit take care of the mounting, balancing, tie rod adjustment, and alignment.
With everything in place, it was back to the garage where the rear of the Caprice was jacked up again to set the ride height by adjusting the coilovers and checking the pinion angle. Then it was time to take this bad boy out for a ride.
Needless to say, the 260-horsepower LT1 is not the engine planned for this build, so the launches are not going to be that impressive. However, with the suspension dialed in a comparison to the stock suspension from a previous test drive should be noticeable — and it was!
Getting the car out on the street was a night and day experience for Havins. “We dialed in a couple of clicks on the coil-overs to stiffen the ride in the rear, which made a big difference. Overall it was a massive improvement over the factory suspension.”
The Caprice was way more responsive to all the changes Havins made. The rear tires really did dig in and made for impressive launches despite the tired old 350 cubic-inch LT1 under the hood. The was not a car intended for drag racing, it was made as a comfortable commuter car with room for five adults. But with this suspension, Havins is stoked and inspired to find that LS engine.
Make sure you follow along as our Caprice goes through even more changes in the near future.