I’d say the 1978 – ’87 A-body (turned G-Body) Olds Cutlass four-door sedan had a pretty rough go of life from the time it appeared. The newly-downsized Cutlass Salons popped onto the automotive scene following the successful, more traditionally-styled Colonnade generation. Never mind that the four-door Cutlasses of the 70’s never even remotely approached the sales figures of the various two-door offerings. The 1973 – ’77 era of Cutlass was nonetheless a rational, reliable, uncomplicated, mainstream American sedan choice for much of middle America. Assembly quality wasn’t great, as high demand for the hot-selling Supreme coupes probably led to faster assembly times and sloppier workmanship, but the Colonnade Cutlasses in any form were reasonably attractive.
Then the Cutlass Salon happened.
Paul Niedermeyer has covered this stylistic faux pas, so I won’t rehash what he has already succinctly summarized. I remain baffled as to how General Motors gave the green light to making the non-Supreme / -Calais Cutlass look like a hatchback without actually giving it the utility of one. The aforementioned article also referenced their available, gutless, 260 small-block V8 and fixed rear door windows. Then there was Oldsmobile’s truly tragic experiment with Diesel power. Though the “Aeroback” four-door sedan lasted only through 1979 and the two-door through ’80 (the latter selling about just 4,400 units that year) , I mention these things only to set the stage for what I observe as the downsized, RWD Cutlass sedan’s all-too-brief time to shine.
Let me tell you a story, for a minute, of a Midwestern kid who grew up in the 1980’s in a family between two brothers that were almost ten years apart in age. My older brother is roughly six years older than me, and he had attended elementary school up through the late 70’s. Let’s think back to that time period in all of its plaid-country-shirted, bell-bottomed, corduroy glory. Growing up in a household with one working parent, my dad, and a stay-at-home mom, we didn’t waste a lot of anything – which meant we recycled and reused a lot of things, including clothing. By the time I got to elementary school, it was the mid-1980’s. I’ll be darned if I know how my older brother managed to preserve so many of his disco-era duds so well, while actively going out with his friends and doing regular kid stuff. My point is that by the time I was his age, I had a healthy helping of his hand-me-downs mixed in with a few, new items of clothing purchased from K-Mart, Sears, or if Mom was feeling generous, J.C. Penney. Nothing said “please beat me up” like rocking a pair of bell-bottomed Lee jeans on the soccer field during recess in the Reagan era.
What does any of this have to do with our subject car? Everything. With a roofline cribbed straight from Cadillac’s groundbreaking, “sheer look” Seville luxury compact (pictured above) which came out five years earlier, the restyled 1980 Cutlass sedan sported a look that although it fixed the terrible, hunchbacked profile of the Cutlass Salon, still didn’t look entirely original. The refreshed Cutlass sedan was, almost literally, wearing the first Seville’s hand-me-downs.
Still, for any fans of the respected Cutlass nameplate, any improvement over the Aeroback was welcome, and the ’80 four-door sedan sold quite well – posting better than a 300% increase over the previous year’s 39,000 figure, to the tune of almost 124,000 units. Perhaps its new, formalized roofline wasn’t quite as out of touch with the times as the duds my mom let me out of the house wearing, but still, anyone who had bought a Seville in the 70’s with its unique look as even partial motivation for their purchase was probably more than a little upset when the redesigned, GM A-Body four-doors came out for 1980.
The four-door Cutlass had a great sales year for 1980, and then again for ’81 (with almost 110,000 units). It now had the reasonably modern “clothes” on the outside, bore a slight resemblance to the most expensive Cadillac of five years prior, and had finally found broad acceptance from American buyers. Enter the front-wheel-drive Cutlass Ciera for model year 1982. Did any of you (also) have a little baby brother or sister arrive who proceeded to steal your spotlight almost immediately? The Cutlass Ciera, basically an X-Body Omega stretched with additional front and rear overhang and a handsome new skin, suddenly made the ’81 Cutlass sedan look outdated within just two model years of the older car finally having gotten its “look” together.
The newly rechristened G-Body Cutlass four-door soldiered on through model year 1987, sharing its “Cutlass” sub-moniker with the Ciera, which continued to improve and sell in ever greater numbers to much of middle America. My family had one. Actually, everybody and their uncle seemed to have a Ciera at some point, given its super-long fifteen year production run. With the benefits of FWD traction, powerplants that were more efficient, and the promise of opening windows and access to fresh, outdoor air for all occupants, front and rear, the Cutlass Ciera seemed to eliminate most of the deficiencies of the X-body Omega (safety, reliability) upon which it was based, and capitalize on its strengths. The Ciera sedan was certainly a more rational purchase for most families than the “traditional”, RWD Supreme, even if the early Ciera two-doors with their bolt-upright greenhouses and gawky proportions were about at sexy as a Maytag washing machine.
Back in Supremeland, though, the handsome coupes kept selling. Their look, feel and content was still just right for many Americans who still wanted home-grown personal luxury. The sedans, though, seemed to have little raison d’etre, so to speak – offering little if any extra style (which is debatable) for their extra premium over the Ciera, much the like Regal to Century over at Buick. I’m trying to imagine what the target demographic for the RWD Supreme sedan would have been. I’m guessing it must have skewed older, for those not quite ready to embrace FWD “technology” that was becoming more and more commonplace by the early 80’s. The G-Body sedan couldn’t have been targeted toward those who wanted some of the Supreme coupe’s style but needed four doors, as the sedan had little if any of the coupe’s panache.
By the time the Supreme sedan was phased out after 1987 (with the newly renamed “Supreme Classic” coupe continuing on into ’88), its aerodynamic, FWD, W-Body platform replacement which arrived for model year ’90 made all Cutlasses of the previous years instantly look geriatric, even the Ciera. Never mind the ill-advised “not your father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign which accompanied it – the new Supreme seemed like a cool, high-tech Generra Hypercolor t-shirt in an era of tie-dyed Hanes. We can read about how the W-Body’s actual, lackluster story played out thanks to a great piece by Greg Beckenbaugh. In the meantime, though, let us acknowledge the G-Body Cutlass four-door’s all-too-brief time in the spotlight in its quest for just a fraction of the popularity and attractiveness of its coupe sibling at the Oldsmobile family table.
The subject car was photographed in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, March 5, 2016. The ’76 Cadillac Seville was photographed downtown in Chicago’s Loop district on Thursday, October 16, 2014.
More related reading from:
- Jim Grey: CC Capsule: 1986 Cutlass Ciera Brougham Sedan – Dressed In Its Sunday Best; and
- Tom Klockau: Curbside Classic: 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham Sedan – Why Brougham When You Can Supreme Brougham?