The Chevrolet Caprice: It's what car buffs call a "beast."

With its nearly two tons of steel and sheet metal sculpted into a whale-like hump, it measures nearly 18 feet -- so long that Dayton, Ohio, police officers have complained that they keep backing into things because they can't tell where the car's sloping backside ends.

Introduced in 1965, the Caprice once was a hot seller for General Motors Corp. But its latest incarnation, which first appeared in 1990, has quickly become an embarrassing flop.

Only 40,483 had been sold by the end of May, down 28 percent from 1991 and running far behind this year's sales target of 228,000 Caprice cars and wagons. As a result, GM will have to close an Ypsilanti, Mich., assembly plant -- one of two where the Caprice is built -- as part of a jolting shutdown of 21 GM factories by 1995.

The bulbous design intended to give the car a stylish new look for the 1990s has been so harshly criticized that Chevrolet has ordered a major face lift beginning with the 1993 models -- using ideas that GM's design staff rejected in the late 1980s.

Many of Chevrolet's 4,600 dealers have been pressing GM to come up with a fix for the car, which they say is failing fast. "The reason we're not selling them now is that we're not ordering them," said Hubert O. Lowe, president of Lowe Chevrolet/Isuzu/Jeep-Eagle Inc. in Upper Marlboro. "There is not enough buyer interest."

There is good news in other parts of General Motors, including the brisk sales of its Saturn cars and the increasing appeal of newer Buick, Cadillac and Pontiac models. But according to a broad range of GM officials, dealers and industry experts, the plight of the Caprice brings into sharper focus the larger question of what went wrong with the world's largest automaker in the last decade, when it relinquished 10 percent of the huge U.S. car market -- and what GM must do to overcome a staggering $7.5 billion loss last year at its North American operations.

"The Caprice accentuates everything that's wrong with General Motors Corp.," said one particularly sharp critic, Dennis Virag, managing director of the Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Mich., which does consulting work for GM and other automakers.

GM originally intended to scrap the Caprice and rely on cars with newer, front-wheel-drive technology. But the Caprice survived this death sentence -- demonstrating what many critics say is GM's single biggest problem: the reluctance of its top management to make tough decisions to cancel unpopular and duplicative models and close older, unprofitable plants.

Powerful resistance to such moves have come from dealers, unions and the fiefdoms within GM's huge bureaucracy and many of their arguments, seen in isolation, appear sound, analysts said. But by bowing to that pressure, GM entered the 1990s with a confusing smorgasbord of models and a less efficient manufacturing operations than any of its major rivals -- despite $77 billion it poured into modernization over the previous decade.

Instead of creating a new Caprice -- or killing it -- GM compromised with the new, "reskinned" exterior draped over the old skeleton and motor. The design, imposed on Chevrolet by GM's corporate design staff, overruled negative comments by consumer panels invited to view a model of the new car. It was an example, critics say, of a top-down, by-the-numbers approach to decisions by a company that too often got too far away from its customers.

"The Caprice was one of those projects that was done the old way, with the designers deciding what the project would look like," said Charles M. Jordan, vice president of GM's design staff.

Saving the Caprice

The debate over the fate of the Caprice in the 1980s was triggered by changes sweeping through the auto industry after the energy crises of the previous decade, which sent gasoline prices up fourfold.

In the late 1970s, GM began introducing a new generation of fuel-efficient cars, built around front-wheel-drive technology in which the engine was placed sideways, eliminating the transmission hump, thus creating more room in the passenger cabin. A more compact car meant less weight, better mileage and lower gasoline bills for its owner.

One of these new, front-wheel-drive cars that appeared on GM's drawing boards in the early 1980s was the Lumina, which some at GM envisioned as the eventual successor to the Caprice as Chevrolet's moderately-priced family sedan.

The Caprice was the latest in a long line of fabulously successful sedans like the BelAir and Impala, on which Chevrolet's fame had rested. In 1965, for example, GM had sold 1.6 million BelAirs, nearly as many as the combined sales today of Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. in the United States.

Abandoning the Caprice line would have been like a death in the family. Nonetheless, GM decided in 1980 to eliminate the car by 1989. But the decision was reversed five years later by Robert D. Burger, a longtime GM executive who had taken over as Chevrolet general manager in 1984. He proposed redesigning the exterior, beginning with the 1991 models, but making no changes to the Caprice's undercarriage. "We decided we would do what we call in the auto business a 'skin change,' " Burger said.

Ealier this year, with Caprice sales plummeting, GM executives again debated the car's fate and decided to extend its life at least through 1996.

The 1985 decision to plan an exterior redesign was logical, Burger said, in keeping with the way GM did things. The GM way was Burger's way: a Midwesterner like so many colleagues, he had earned his engineering degree at General Motors Institute, the West Point of the GM executive corps, and then served 24 years with Oldsmobile. He was "a team player, a corporate man," he said.

In an interview, Burger said he was well aware that smaller, front-wheel-drive cars were gaining wider appeal; but, when it came to the Caprice, he said that customers and dealers "were saying 'Keep it. Don't get rid of it.' "

With GM introducing a series of front-wheel-drive cars, Burger said, it "didn't seem to make much sense to go through the expense of turning the Caprice into another one," a costly process that he said would drained up to $200 million from the development of other Chevrolet cars, including the Lumina.

But Burger saw an opening for a rear-wheel-drive Caprice in the 1990s. "This was not an emotional thing, it was just a business decision," he said. The Caprice had been "a good moneymaker for us. It was a good volume vehicle and it kept the Chevrolet bow tie {insignia} in markets that were highly visible -- the police, the rental car fleets and taxis."

In 1985, U.S. gasoline prices had stabilized and sales of larger, rear-wheel-drive cars were making a small comeback. Burger judged that the moderately-priced Caprice would continue to appeal to older, middle-income car buyers who grew up with full-size sedans.

While the future of the Caprice was under review, key Chevy constituencies weighed in with a lobbying campaign to keep it alive, Burger recalled.

One group was law enforcement agencies, which loved a special, heavy-duty version of the Caprice that handled well at high speeds.

Chevrolet's network of dealers conveyed the concerns of hundreds of local police departments to Burger and others at GM. Rumors of the plan to terminate the Caprice "created quite a stir," said Frank Anderson, a Raleigh, N.C., dealer and chairman of the Chevrolet dealers' group of the National Automobile Dealers Association.

"The dealers felt that doing away with the Caprice would leave a big hole in their lineup," Anderson said.

The Caprice still had a strong following among older customers, particularly in the South and Midwest. Continuing to offer the Caprice name was especially important for Chevrolet dealers who owned only one store -- 2,000 of the 4,600 Chevrolet franchises -- and sold no other GM vehicles or vehicles of other companies. The single-store dealers wanted a full line of Chevy products to attract the widest range of customers.

Roger Smith, the GM chairman who finally approved the retention and redesign of the Caprice, acknowledged the influence of dealers on GM decision making in a recent interview. GM might decide to eliminate a car model, but then the dealers would hear of it and explode, Smith said. He repeated what he said was the usual refrain from dealers on product-elimination proposals: " 'Wait a minute, you're going to what? Jesus, I'm selling all of them, if you cut them out it's going to cut my volume.' "

Auto company executives say that such reactions from dealers can help gauge grass-roots support for models. But industry analysts say wise corporate planners take such comments with a grain of salt. They point out that the interests of dealers and automakers often conflict, and sometimes are diametrically opposed.

An automaker has to make a profit on the new cars it sells. But dealers in recent years have made their largest profits on used cars, parts and service, often selling new cars at a loss. Dealers want the auto companies to provide them with a wide selection of new car models to draw customers into their showrooms.

"We're like kids in a candy store," acknowledged Robert Fogarty, whose Sport Chevrolet in Silver Spring is one of the largest car dealerships in the country. "We want everything, even the things we don't eat."

Hidden Costs

In retrospect, analysts outside of GM said Chevrolet might have done better to pay less attention to dealers and more to drawing up a strategic plan of where Chevrolet should be in the automobile market of the 1990s.

Although Smith recently estimated that it cost $85 million to "reskin" the Caprice -- a pittance in the billion-dollar terms of the auto industry -- there were other hidden costs.

For one thing, the decision assured that two of GM's oldest plants would stay open into the 1990s. One was the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, built in 1942 to make parts for World War II bombers and then converted to a GM truck plant in 1954. The other was an Arlington, Tex., plant built in 1952.

Keeping the plants open avoided friction with the United Auto Workers union and meant that GM could defer charges, such as pension liabilities, associated with layoffs -- charges that affect GM's bottom line and stock price.

Some autoworkers said GM should have bitten the bullet much sooner on plant closings. Dave Perdue, president of Local 276 of the UAW, which represents assembly workers at Arlington, said that is "something Roger Smith should have done years ago. Everybody knew it was coming."

But while the UAW may have known what was good for GM, it wasn't about to make it easy for the company to close plants. "I know who was telling Roger {Smith} 10 years ago 'You'd better not do it,' " said UAW President Owen Bieber, acknowledging the pressure the union put on GM then.

GM was rolling up record profits and, unlike U.S. rivals Chrysler Corp. -- which had narrowly averted bankruptcy in 1979 -- and Ford Motor Co., GM felt much less pressure to cut back. Its share of the North American automobile market was dwindling, but, ironically, according to analysts, that may have made GM more cautious about making trims: If familiar nameplates such as the Caprice were removed from showrooms, more customers would defect to GM's competitors. It was a gamble that Ford, by contrast, has been willing to take.

GM's decision to keep both the Willow Run and Arlington plants running was based on what turned out to be very rosy projections of future Caprice sales. Each plant can produce 240,000 cars a year, analysts said. GM officials believed they could justify running both plants, sources said, if they could sell from 220,000 to 250,000 Caprices a year -- twice actual sales in 1991.

To make the plants pay off, however, GM also had to build other cars in those facilities. One was the Cadillac Brougham. The other was Buick's big rear-wheel-drive Roadmaster, a higher-priced version of the Caprice that is almost identical except for a number of expensive, nonoptional add-ons. GM had dropped the Roadmaster in 1958, but it brought back the car when it decided to keep the Caprice.

While Buick was reviving the Roadmaster and Chevrolet was updating the Caprice, the other GM divisions were introducing new front-wheel-drive competitors -- the Pontiac Bonneville, the Oldsmobile 88 Royale and 98 Regency, the Buick LeSabre and Park Avenue, and the Cadillac Seville.

Thus, the Caprice was guaranteed almost as much competition from inside GM as it was from the outside.

The Design Problem

Once GM decided to keep the Caprice, the Chevrolet Division lost control over the car's design. The task passed to Jordan, the vice president in charge of the GM design staff. Jordan was one of the true czars inside GM.

Since the late 1920s, the design staff had enjoyed unique authority in the company. It was inhabited by people who once preferred to call themselves "stylists," and who had a reputation for being resentful of marketers, engineers and other corporate outsiders who had the gumption to tell them what was and was not attractive.

"We reserved the right to lock the doors and to go into our studios and do our thing," Jordan said recently.

Jordan had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the Caprice and he had virtual carte blanche to do it.

The new Caprice would not be "just another dumb box," he said, referring to the squared-off look worn by the Caprice since the late 1970s. That squareness appealed to the Caprice's older, more conservative buyers. Jordan and his stylists wanted a more curvaceous, contemporary and futuristic look aimed at younger customers.

As usual, the design staff developed a computer model, which was then transformed into a clay mock-up and finally a fiberglass prototype. It did look different -- it was longer and wider. The box had given way to a rounded shape with a large, raised rear end.

Most noticeably, the designers had replaced the old curved and flared rear wheel wells with a new look that visually sliced off the top of the tires.

When the fiberglass prototype was shown to 120 stock market analysts in Newark in April 1987, it made a splash. "The car was underneath a big white tent in the rear of the Marriott Hotel," recalled Maryann Keller, an analyst with Furman, Selz, Mager, Dietz & Birney in New York. "Everyone was very impressed."

Less impressed, however, was a group of consumers that Chevrolet's marketers had selected to evaluate the prototype. Members of the consumer clinic didn't like what they saw.

"The public clinic pointed out the deficiencies in the car," said James Wangers, senior managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants in Detroit and a longtime GM consultant.

Wangers said the people who saw the car wanted rounded wheel wells, which would have shown the whole tire and helped give the car a more stylish look, and a different treatment of the rear end.

Jordan didn't like the clinic's reaction. "We were excited about the design," he said. "We decided not to do anything about it. We believed in the design."

Jordan added, "We were trying to develop an idea of what to do with a large, full-sized car. ... Bob Burger was an enthusiastic, passionate kind of guy. He liked the design. All the car guys liked the design."

He wasn't oblivious to the desires of customers, Jordan said, but he had doubts about the customer clinics. "Many customers don't know beans about what they're going to like in five years," he said. "That's the designers' job. The designer has got to be able to to figure that out and project into the future."

It was Jordan's call, not Chevrolet's. "They do not have anybody in charge of design at Chevrolet. We pick the design we like and we show it to them," he said.

And any efforts to modify Jordan's design would have meant additional expense, and that was not an appealing option. "It was money, money, money," Wangers said. "Everybody was afraid to cross Roger Smith on costs."

But other divisions have shown that, when pressed, the design staff will give ground. Executives at Oldsmobile learned that in 1991, when its consumer clinics turned up problems in the rear-end styling of the 1992 Achieva.

According to Wangers and GM officials, Oldsmobile executives appealed to the design staff to address the complaints. With some reluctance, the design staff made the last-minute changes even though it delayed the introduction of the car by four months.

Bad Reviews

The new, 1991-model Caprice was introduced in the fall of 1990, less than a month after gasoline prices soared with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Energy conservation groups, opposed to the "oil war," ran an advertising campaign featuring the Roadmaster, labeling it "Saddam's Secret Weapon."

A more serious problem was the unpopularity of the car's design. Traditional Caprice buyers were put off, according to several dealers in the Washington area, but the car didn't attract younger buyers either.

"The car didn't hit the emotional nerve of the buyer the way we thought it would," Jordan said.

Analysts who had liked the prototype in 1987 quickly changed their mind. The car "was appallingly ugly," Keller said.

"I don't know what happened," said Joseph Phillippi, an analyst with Lehman Brothers Inc. in New York, who also had attended the 1987 showing. "When you look at the {new} Caprice, it makes you wonder how the project to build that car could have been approved. It looked like it was designed in a vacuum."

An aide to Jordan said the design may have looked better to the analysts in 1987 because then it was somewhat novel, but since then the styling of U.S. cars has improved and by 1991 the Caprice seemed to have "aged."

Others are less charitable.

"It was a classic case of GM being penny wise and pound foolish in its approach to doing things," Phillippi said. "The basic problem with the car is that they wanted to achieve an aerodynamic look. What they did was take the old Caprice, put it on a computer screen and wrap a new skin around it. It clearly was a misguided styling exercise."

The design wasn't the only problem for the new Caprice, however. By loading up the car with nonoptional add-ons, such as an anti-lock braking system, power steering, air conditioning and a driver's side air bag, GM pushed the price up to $20,000 or more, out of reach of many of its core customers -- older people living on annual fixed incomes of about $40,000.

The reaction of buyers was far more negative than Chevrolet had expected. In 1991, sales were 114,599, about half what had been estimated.

Moreover, of the Caprices sold in the first five months of 1992, almost half were sold to "fleet buyers," including police departments, car rental companies and taxi companies. Some analysts believe that because of the heavy discounts it provides on such fleet sales, GM loses money on these cars. GM won't discuss the question.

This year, GM acknowledging that it can no longer justify two plants for the Caprice and its twins, announced the plans to close Willow Run by 1995. It is not clear whether there will be enough rear-wheel-drive business for the Arlington plant long term.

"Certainly it {the Caprice} was a flop," said Ron Harbour Harbour & Associates in Troy, Mich., which issued an exhaustive study of the Big Three U.S. auto companies in 1989.

"Scrap it. Be done with it," Phillippi said.

A number of dealers express extreme frustration with Chevrolet and GM in general over the handling of the Caprice. According to Fogarty, the Silver Spring car dealer, there is "a proliferation of too many models in Chevrolet."

A second common complaint: "They changed the Caprice without telling us what the hell they were doing. They didn't talk to us. The design is all wrong," said one Chevrolet dealer, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Meanwhile, the front-wheel-drive Lumina sold 217,000 cars last year, suggesting to some GM officials and dealers that this was the car GM should have bet on even more heavily.

Getting the Message

GM now is clearly getting the message that it must change. Under pressure from its outside board of directors, the company has announced plans to shut down 21 plants and eliminate nearly 80,000 salaried and hourly jobs by 1995 in a bid to improve profitability.

The directors have forced a major management shuffle as well, with the demotion of president Lloyd E. Reuss and a number of other top GM executives and the installation of a new management group under orders to make quick changes. The new team is headed by John Smith, the former head of GM's European operations, who replaced Reuss as president.

The immediate goal is to create a smaller, more efficient company that can begin earning a profit at GM's currently reduced market share.

But the changes also are meant to give GM a much-needed attitude adjustment, GM officials acknowledge. GM, according to critics both inside and outside of the company, long has been a victim of a management bureaucracy that lacked accountability for its decisions. The new management team already has begun to remove layers of management bureaucracy, making managers in the field directly answerable to top management and the GM board.

"We will probably never do another car program like we did the Caprice," Jordan said.