(originally posted 3/4/2011)
How did the Cutlass eventually become one of America’s best selling car for years on end, after such a rather modest beginning? And why would it then fade and die so suddenly? These are the weighty questions we will be pondering and attempt to answer in our many-chaptered Curbside Classic Complete Cutlass Chronicles (“CCCCC”).
The Cutlass was born during the most creative years of GM: 1960-1963. It was a time when GM invested massive resources in its new compact cars, the 1960 Corvair and the 1961 Olds F-85, Buick Special, and Pontiac Tempest. They all bristled with innovative features, but were a short-lived and modest-selling phenomena, and the Cutlass only found its real success quite some years later.
The first factoid is that the Cutlass didn’t start life as as an actual “car”, but as a high-line trim model of Oldsmobile’s new-for-1961 compact, the F-85. Like the Tempest and Special, the initial focus was on a more compact and thrifty way to experience GM’s mid-level brands.
The Cutlass coupe didn’t appear until mid-year, sporting bucket seats and other distinctive trim to distinguish it. Essentially, it was the corollary to the 1960.5 Corvair Monza, which the first American sporty-compact car to popularize the genre. GM’s 1960-1961 line of new compacts may have been developed right in the depths of 1958 recession, which favored stodgy Larks and Rambler Americans. But GM very quickly realized two things: that the very practical and cheap Ford Falcon was going to gobble up an outsized share of the new compact market, and that sportiness and luxury could be sold, for a healthy profit, at that. The unexpected and outsized success of the Monza gave Buick, Olds and Pontiac the green light to rush their versions into production too.
GM’s 1961 compacts were a fascinating trio: the Pontiac Tempest , the Buick Special and the F-85. They shared their basic Y-Body unibody shell with the Corvair, although it was of course reworked for the conventional front-engine rear-wheel drive configuration, and their wheelbase was extended 4″ (from 108″ to 112″) at the front. But they retained the Corvair’s basic passenger compartment intact: stepping from a Corvair into Cutlass or Tempest brings that fact home. In automotive history, that makes them quite unique indeed: the same basic car built in both rear and front engine variations.
And with an incredible palette of engines too. The Corvair had its air cooled boxer six, the Tempest a four cylinder cur down from a V8, and Buick developed a sweet little 215 CID (3.5 L) all-aluminum V8, from which it would also derive its cast-iron V6 for 1962. That’s another story too.
Before we delve into the unique Cutlass qualities, what also sets these 1961 compacts apart is their styling. GM designed them to look like almost perfect 7/8 scale models of the big Pontiacs, Olds and Buicks; quite, unlike the approach Ford took with the Falcon. Frankly, Ford probably had the right idea. As cute as these mini-me cars are, they were none too roomy. Their 112″ wheelbases were three inches longer than the Falcon, but the Falcon’s more upright seating probably had them beat. So it only made sense to emphasize their sporty qualities.
Strictly speaking, it was the Falcon’s slightly longer and more stylish offshoot, the Comet, that really competed with these cars, and very effectively. The Comet was perhaps a surprise hit, and sold as well as any two of these GM compacts combined.
Although the popular Corvair Monza is often given credit for paving the way for the 1964 Mustang, it might be more accurate to say that the Cutlass, Skylark and Le Mans really did fair bit of that too. If GM had given these coupes a more overtly sporty design with a longer hood and shorter tail, they could have been quite the hit.
The Cutlass arrived with a 155 hp version of the V8, which really wasn’t quite the same as the Buick engine. Olds engineers redesigned the cylinder head with larger valves and a different combustion chamber, and added a sixth head bolt. And with the mid-year arrival of the Cutlass came an optional “Rockette” high output version, with a four barrel carb, higher compression and whatever else it took to elevate output to 185 hp (gross). That made it it a moderately brisk number, in my experience. The illicit details that led to my first assault on the 100 mph barrier are described in greater detail in my Auto-Bio #9, but let me just say that my steamy experience was fairly symptomatic of these early aluminum V8 cars.
Issues with corrosion from the wrong mixture of materials, along with major porosity and other casting problems led to overheating like that which shut me down prematurely. And it wasn’t just the high speed alone; this Cutlass’ engine incessantly ran hot, and opening the hood was like peering into a hot Frigidaire oven. GM was happy enough to be done with it after 1963 and send the whole thing off to England and into Rover’s waiting hands.
We can’t not talk early Cutlass without touching on the legendary turbo-charged Jetfire version that appeared in 1962. In a classic GM move, it had to play the dangerous role of being the first to adopt a relatively untried new technology, only to get its turbos fingers burned. Both the Corvair and Cutlass turbo engines arrived the same year, and I suppose in relative terms, the Corvair Spyder’s engine was the more successful, given that it was made all the way through 1966.
Both of them used a similar “pull-through” arrangement, with the unusual side-draft carburetor hanging just off the turbine as in the Corvair’s set up. Because of the intrinsic lag of these primitive turbos, the Jetfire’s compression was kept high (10.0 to 1) and boost fairly low (5 psi). That led to a serious detonation problem which had to be quenched by a water-alcohol injection system. Does this not have GM written all over it?
Needless to say, the Jetfire quickly developed a bad rep, despite its impressive 215 hp output, which put it at the same one hp per cubic inch that the Chevy 283 attained (without turbo) in 1957. Maybe Olds should have just gotten Zora Arkus Duntov to do a bit of moonlighting for them. Many of these were soon converted to normal aspiration by dealers.
The Cutlass had another problem, which surprised me when I drove it. GM not only made it look like a big car, they managed the nigh-near impossible by making it feel and handle like one. What a bitter disappointment for what could have been such a nifty little car. The power steering was quite slow and numb, the suspension too soft, and the whole thing wallowed, drifted and plowed like Grandpa’s big Delta 88. What an accomplishment! Maybe the shocks were worn out on the one I drove. But even the high-tech Jetfire didn’t rate any proper suspension improvements. I guess the budget got blown by the turbo.
The infamous “Slim-Jim” Roto-Hydramatic was jerky and slow to shift down, never mind the rep it soon developed for certain expensive weaknesses. This transmission was specifically designed to fit in this little car. One wonders if GM actually made any money on these ’61-’63 Y-Bodies, given all the unique engineering that each division was throwing at them (the Buick Special even had its own automatic!)
The 1963s were restyled to look even more like the full-sized Olds, but the extra length was all extra sheet metal hung out over the ends, which obviously didn’t help handling either.
Some like the cleaner ’63 look, but the artificially packed on width and length spoil the original’s fairly tight package. To each their own.
That of course would all end soon enough. And although the loss of divisional independence has often been lamented, these cars tend to give a pretty convincing case otherwise. The second generation Cutlass, along with the rest of the new 1964 GM intermediates, was to be a highly pragmatic affair, the next step in the consolidation of the GM’s divisions, for better or for worse.