Is the final version of the RWD Cutlass Coupe a Classic? Not exactly in the definition of the CCCA. More like CC, as in Coca Cola.When the same basic concept has been built continuously for twenty-eight consecutive years, and became the best selling car of its kind for much of that time, not to mention the best selling car in some of those years, I’d say it has the right to wear that label. Which the final version of 1988 actually did: The Cutlass Supreme Classic. But there’s a very dangerous, even deadly risk in wrapping oneself in the Classic moniker. Where does one go from there?
This final version of the RWD Cutlass Coupe was made through 1988. And although the Cutlass name was prostituted across a farrago of Smallmobiles, and the Cutlass Supreme name was revived in GM-10 FWD form, this one really is the end of the road for the Classic Cutlass. And for American ADD standards, a twenty eight year run of the same basic concept might as well be an eternity.
The Cutlass Coupe arrived in 1961 as a sporty variant of the brand new F-85 (CC here), GM’s first bold foray into the step-up compact field. The premise of compacts one step above the lowest cost ones was an iffy proposition, and high-trim versions like the cutlass largely saved their bacon.
Americans wanted style and spirit, not dreary stripper F-85s. Although performance was a significant part of the new Cutlass image, one in tune with the times, ultimately it was its other qualities that made it a classic. A stylish coupe, with the amenities to make it a comfortable one. The perfect combination for millions of Americans to plant on their suburban driveways.
And although the Cutlass Coupe stayed largely true to its original conceptual premise, it obviously also became ever more conservative, especially in its final iteration. The original Cutlass was a brash new thing; in fact there had never been anything like it before. Downright revolutionary! Yes, the Cutlass reflected its times (and the people that made those times) almost perfectly through its lifespan. That may well be the key to its enduring success. How many sixties “revolutionaries” ended up voting for Reagan? I know of at least one.
It should not come as a surprise that this final incarnation of the Classic Cutlass (1981 – 1988) almost perfectly overlaps Reagan’s years in the White House. Maybe it should have just been called the Cutlass Conservative. The Cutlass was the last hold out of its genre, a living time capsule. While even American car buyers were snapping up jelly-bean Taurii, the traditional square-edged Cutlass coupe soldiered along.
And although the image of the Cutlass evolved substantially, the final version is surprisingly close to the original in terms of its size. The Classic is a foot longer than the ’61, but that’s all due to excessive overhangs. It actually rides on a wheelbase (108″) four inches shorter than Job Number One. Close enough, for almost three decades of change. But size is itself is hardly the final determinant.
There’s some even greater communality under the hood. The 3.8 L V6 that quite likely reside under this one and so many others was directly derived from the 215 CID (3.5 L) aluminum V8 that powered the original. In 1983, at least, there were some other choices too, including no less than two diesels; the 5.7 L V8 and the 4.3 L V6, which supposedly had solved all of the V8’s shortcomings. Few wanted to be GM’s beta testers to find out if that was really the case.
And the not-so-hot 260 CID V8 was also on the tepid tap. 1983 was the tail end of the big bad energy crisis v.2, and the engine choices reflected that. Towards the end of the Cutlass’ long run, the 307 Olds V8 with a four barrel carb at least provided a bit more of that original Cutlass zest, although there’s little doubt in my mind that it couldn’t have outrun a ’61.
The role of the original Cutlass had long been taken over by the BMW 3 Series. A sporty coupe is a classic concept in its own right, but time stands for no car. Perhaps the Cutlass represents the crash of GM better than any other car, the poster boy of everything that went wrong, despite the fact that these final Cutlasses were probably some of the better-built GM cars of the era.
GM failed to see that the war it was fighting wasn’t just against cheap economy cars from Japan, but a paradigm shift that literally turned the American industry upside down. Americans always wanted the same thing the original Cutlass promised: a ” high-styled! high-spirited!” coupe. But what changed was the expectations of the ownership experience. Even though “high-styled” may have become ever-more conservative for many Americans, that wasn’t good enough. We don’t have to recite the endless litany of GM’s quality woes to know what happened. Even if the last years of the Cutlass were better than some of its earlier ones, that wasn’t nearly good enough. One short section of dike does not hold back a tsunami.
There’s a bittersweet aspect to the Cutlass Classic: the last of its kind could have just been another stage in its evolution. American cars are in another ascendancy, and a new Cutlass Coupe would be a nice alternative to to an Infiniti G or 3 Series. But that ship left a very long time ago, and the Cutlass backed itself into a corner. It’s too nice of an example, and too sunny of a day to call this Cutlass a GM Deadly Sin. But ultimately, that’s what it represents. Change or Die.