Classic Curbside Classic: 1965 Oldsmobile Cutlass Coupe (CCCCC Part 2 – 1964-1965) From Modest Beginnings…

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(The original featured car in this post was a ’64 F-85 coupe. But since then, I found this ’65 Cutlass, so the pictures have changed, as well as quite a bit of the text)

One of the key aspects of the remarkable rise of the Cutlass was its ability to keep morphing into something more…one size bigger, and bigger again, then smaller, and smaller again. The Cutlass eventually rose to the top of the charts in the seventies because it surfed that mega-mid-sized affordable-luxury coupe wave that swept America in the seventies and eighties. Ironically, the Cutlass didn’t play a leading role in creating that wave, but it sure knew how to ride the tube. And it all started with the 1964-1965 Cutlass, the first big step into its successful future.

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The Y-Body compacts of the 1960-1963 era (the Corvair lasted a bit longer, of course) were a one of GM’s rather typical swings between its two personality sides: bold pioneer of new technology and pragmatic, rationalizing, bean-counting profit squeezer. The endless stubbing of its toes in pioneering new tech that almost never arrive quite fully baked makes GM’s history endlessly fascinating and the fodder for Deadly Sins.

The Y-Bodies undoubtedly never made any substantial (if any at all) profit for GM, and rather than forge ahead with their unibodies, aluminum V8’s, turbo-charging, rear transaxles, and other technical delights, GM decided to give them all the grand heave-ho for 1964. No more of that Euro-style high-tech stuff; until the next big experiment that is (FWD X-bodies).

1964 F-85

Once again, GM had been snookered by Ford, as was so common in the late-fifties to mid-sixties era. Ford’s utterly pragmatic 1962 Fairlane not only was the first Big-Three intermediate, it was also cheap to build, being essentially a stretched Falcon. GM saw the (black ink) light, and the 1964 intermediate range would be the General’s first but not last giant wave of rationalization. The sizzle was going to be more important than the steak from here on out.


1964 F-85

GM’s all-new 1964 A-Body mid-size range not only grew in stature, but also now rode on a separate 115′ wheelbase frame (BOF). Now that was an interesting choice, given where Ford and Chrysler were going at the time. Presumably GM felt that it allowed these intermediates to achieve a level of sound and vibration isolation at a price that was less than trying to accomplish the same goals with a unibody.

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Ultimately, it was a prescient move too, given the direction these cars evolved. As their luxury aspect increased, the inherent advantages of isolation was a substantial aspect of their success. Ford joined the BOF party with their intermediates in 1972, and Chrysler just had to make do with its unibodies, for better or for worse; mostly the latter. And it certainly gave GM lots of flexibility with wheelbase lengths and body proportions, in the coming personal coupes and the Vista wagons.

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Of course, the big story of the ’64 A-Bodies was the Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu and the Pontiac Tempest/LeMans, a one-two punch that quickly relegated the Fairlane to also-ran status by 1965, after a strong start in ’62-’63. That left the Olds F-85/Cutlass and Buick Special/Skylark pretty much without any meaningful mid-price level competition, since Chrysler’s shrunken “plucked chicken” cars were still considered full-sized, at least until 1965. Mercury? The poorly selling intermediate Meteor disappeared in 1964, while a somewhat bigger Comet did reasonably well until 1965, when it too was swamped by the GM A-Bodies.

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So unlike with the Mustang, Ford’s pioneering intermediate Fairlane was not able to secure a lasting beachhead. GM’s wave of these ’64 A-Bodies was essentially the end of Ford’s string of end-runs, and would power the General to dominance in not only the mid-size market, but to the top of the whole market. And that’s where the Cutlass story really begins…albeit modestly, in 1964.

1964 F-85

The F-85 and Cutlass were the weakest selling of the A-Bodies, which pretty much reflected Olds’ stature in the sales pecking order at the time. Obviously, styling is largely subjective, but I it seems pretty apparent that the Olds studio was the most conservative and least imaginative of the bunch.

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Not bad; clean, simple, angular; just not very inspired. For 1965, the front and rear ends received a bit more style, reflecting the new ’65 full-sized cars. Of course Pontiac was on a tear then, and the Tempest/LeMans was a major beneficiary, especially with the stacked-headlights 1965 (CC here).

And the Buick Special/Skylark certainly had more flair, with its sculptured rear end and a bit more dynamic front end. These A-Bodies allowed for very little leeway among the divisions, but the Olds version comes off as the most generic, along with the cheaper Chevelle/Malibu.

I know there are plenty of fans of these cars, and there is a distinctly business-like atmosphere that works well, like the very stealthy early 442. That was originally a performance package available on all non-wagon F85s and Cutlass models, including this police-oriented four door, with red-wall tires, no less. Sorry, but we’re not going to spend much time talking about 442s here, as we did that pretty thoroughly in the 1968 442 CC. But I never get tired of that ad, despite it looking more like it’s from 1954 than 1964.  Quite the contrast to Pontiac’s ’64GTO ad campaign.

Olds Cutlass 1964 LJ

What we will talk about is the evolution of the Cutlass’ role in relationship to its F-85 progenitor. In the 1961-1963 models, the Cutlass was strictly the top-line coupe and convertible version, whose sales were good, but never exceeded the pedestrian F-85 four door sedan’s. That changed in 1964, and quite dramatically so. The Holiday two-door hardtop (Laurence Jones’ write up here) was now the biggest seller in the line, foreshadowing the emergence of the Cutlass coupe’s future dominance. Oddly, in 1964 wagons were available in the Cutlass trim, but no four door sedans, yet. Olds would shuffle the F-85/Cutlass mix a few more times, until the F-85 petered out all together. By 1967, the F-85 was becoming an increasingly minor player, and the last ones, all 3,789 of them were sold in 1972.

What about the ’64 – ’65 cars, regardless of trim level? The big news other than that new BOF A-Body was under the hood. The aluminum V8 was packed off to Rover, and each of the divisions was left to adapt or create their V8 engines.

In 1964, Oldsmobile’s V8 engines appeared in their new gen2 form, in both low and high deck versions, but otherwise sharing the same bore centers and other key dimensions to allow them to share the same transfer line. The low-deck engine started with 330 CID (5.4 L), bumping up to the that common GM 350 CID (5.7 L) size in 1968. Olds had a reputation for building as high quality engine as anyone, and the gen2 carried that tradition forward, through 1976, anyway. In typical fashion, name debasement was at work here too. The turbocharged Jetfire’s name now graced these 330 CID engines.

1964 F-85

Beefy (but not overly heavy) blocks cast with a high nickel-content, forged crankshafts, excellent heads that had a unique combustion chamber which allowed this engine to outlast most in the ever-tightening emissions era, and just all-round goodness; it’s hard to find beefs about Olds engines of this vintage.

The F-85 also came in a six cylinder version, the 225 CID (3.7 L) 90 degree Buick V6. To the best of my knowledge, that was truly a Buick engine, unlike the aluminum V8, which had Olds-specific modifications. If so, this is an historic first, the true beginning of cross-divisional use of engines, not counting the minute number of Buick aluminum V8s that found their way into the ’61 and ’62 Le Mans.

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The rough-running uneven-fire unpleasant Buick V6 made 155 hp. Olds should have just bought straight sixes from Chevy from the get-go. The 330 V8 came in a 230 hp version for the F-85. Cutlass came standard with a pretty potent 290 hp version. And the 1964 442 had a 315 hp version. For 1965, the 442 got the 400 CID engine, and joined the GTO in the muscle-car race .

In 1965, engines were shuffled a bit, and the Cutlass now came standard with the 315 hp former 442 engine, according to the Encyclopedia of American Cars. That’s a bit surprising to me. Cutlass was still accentuating its performance aspect, just below the 442.

We can’t overlook the distinctive Vista Cruiser wagon (’65 above) either. This greyhound-bus inspired bubble-top wagon sat on a longer 120″ wheelbase, in contrast to the regular F-85/Cutlass wagons. The extended wheelbase length was all in the rear, and allowed for the fold-up third seat to face forwards, something that hadn’t been seen since American cars became low after 1957. The Vista Cruiser’s approach was similar to the extended wheelbase Peugeot wagons, and from 1965 through 1970, it filled the role as the biggest Olds wagon, as there was no B-Body version.

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1965 was a banner year for GM, as well as the market overall. The F-85 and Cutlass saw nice gains across the board, with the new F-85 Deluxe series coming on strong. Olds was still trying to get a feel for the sweet spot in terms of model content and mix. The Cutlass’ Supremacy in the model line-up was still in the offing, but not very far, as we’ll see in our next Chapter of the Complete Cutlass Chronicles. That is, just as soon as I find a replacement for that ’66 that is no longer in the garage where it always used to be…

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Chapter One of The Complete Cutlass Chronicles is here

And Chapter Three Is Here

Related reading: 1964 Cutlass Holiday Hardtop Coupe – L Jones   1969 Vista Cruiser CC