Vintage Review: 1977 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – Downsized Upscale Hauler

Oldsmobile was riding high in the late 1970s, with an excellent brand image earned from offering desirable, well-priced, upscale products with strong resale value.  The mid-sized Cutlass line had become the best selling car in America for 1976, while 1977 ushered in all-new “downsized” full-size cars that featured more rational packaging and fresh, crisp styling.  As part of the monumental overhaul of its big car fleet, all GM car divisions (except Cadillac) received new full-sized wagon bodies, and alone among the buff books, Road Test Magazine reviewed the repackaged Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser.

After initially being used by Oldsmobile in the 1940s, the Custom Cruiser name had reappeared in 1971 on the new full-sized wagon.  All the GM big wagons shared the heavy, complicated “clamshell” tailgate, with the rear window retracting up into the roof, while the door gate retracted below the floor, in order to provide a wide, unencumbered opening.  The optional 3rd row seats faced forward and were accessed by the rear side doors.  Each division’s wagon also got unique sheet metal from stem-to-stern (which was a long way), and only the Olds offered rear fender skirts, in keeping with its mission as a more upscale family hauler.

For the 1977 downsizing program, the full-size wagon bodies were vastly simplified, perhaps in reaction to the overly complex ’71 – ’76 generation cars.  From the cowl back, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick wagons shared all body panels and offered the same conventional rear tailgate design (opened to the side or folded down, as pioneered by Ford with the “Magic Doorgate” in the 1960s).  Each division sported it own taillight lenses (the shapes were all the same), while the front clips were unique, as were instrument panels and interior trim.

General Motors was a powerhouse with a dominant market share position in the 1970s, so this sort of component sharing was a fast, easy way to reduce manufacturing costs—the brand identities for each division were still strong enough that buyers could still justify spending more for an Olds Custom Cruiser, for example, as compared to a Chevrolet Caprice Wagon.  Plus, when proud buyers took home an Olds, they knew they were getting a Rocket V8 under hood…

Or maybe not.  In an infamous move, GM was blithely dropping Chevrolet 350 V8s into Oldsmobiles in 1977, which ultimately resulted in a class action lawsuit.  But the real damage was The General’s reaction to the negative publicity and legal hassles arising from mislabeling motors.  The solution: just make all engines “GM” and swap them willy-nilly among all the divisions.  Who would care, right?

Well, Road Test Magazine for one.  When they reviewed the Custom Cruiser wagon in August 1977, they were happy that the loaded test car came equipped with a genuine Oldsmobile 403 V8.  The engine provided exactly the sort of performance that affluent buyers would enjoy in their big wagon.

The handling of the downsized wagons was certainly well received.  Updated rear suspensions coupled with the refinement found in all the new B-Bodies made the wagons surprisingly responsive for the body style.

The space utilization and the overall quality of the interior trim was also praised (with the exception of the chintzy trim pieces in the cargo area).  The editors seemed strangely unmoved by the fact that the Oldsmobile’s transmission leaked puddles of fluid every time it was parked.  Oh well, since they weren’t the owners, maybe they didn’t really care…

Overall, the Olds earned very high marks for roominess, comfort and performance.  The test car came with a full load of optional extras, and sported a very premium (for the time and type of car) price tag of $8,775 ($36,426 adjusted).

It is interesting to note how Road Test called out the shared wagon componentry and the importance of unique divisional engines.  Given that General Motors had spent decades marketing each brand as being different and special, the harsh reality of platform and engine sharing was a slap in the face to consumers.  GM’s bean counters were happy, but the logic of the premium brand hierarchy and divisional pricing structure was shattered.  After all, it was harder for a buyer to justify the $306 base price premium ($1,270 adjusted) for the Custom Cruiser versus the Caprice Wagon, unless there were some substantive differences like a “better” engine.

Of course, component sharing at GM would get far worse in the 1980s, with a few dated “corporate” engines and undifferentiated styling becoming the norm.  That reality was particularly damaging for GM’s more upmarket divisions—there was no longer an especially compelling reason to buy a Buick, Oldsmobile or Pontiac as compared to a lower-priced Chevrolet.  Many buyers became savvy to the GM clones and took their business elsewhere.

Even today, when they can get away with it, GM skimps on differentiation.  For example, the spiritual successors to GM’s premium full-sized domestic wagon of the 1970s—GM’s current full-size long-wheelbase SUVs—are virtually identical except for taillights, front clips and interior trim (sounds just like the ’77 wagons…).  Only now, despite offering the same bodies, engines and drivetrains, there is an extreme variance in pricing between the three brands that offer the body style.  One of the SUVs pictured above starts at $49,710, one is $68,665 and one is $76,395.  The extra value in the more expensive ones is clear for all to see, right?  What is the saying about a sucker being born every minute?

Base MSRP 1977 Sales Increase vs. ’76
Chevrolet Impala Wagon $5,289  65,363 59%
Chevrolet Caprice Wagon $5,617  56,569 78%
Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser $5,923  32,827 47%
Buick Estate Wagon $5,903  25,075 23%
Pontiac Grand Safari $5,772  18,304 90%
Pontiac Safari $5,492  13,058 27%

 

In 1977, however, GM’s divisional brand images and price/prestige hierarchy were distinct enough to warrant modest price premiums for the Buick, Olds and Pontiac versions.  No matter the division, buyers were very happy with the new downsized wagons, as sales results would attest.  Though Chevrolet was the clear winner in the sales race, the Custom Cruiser was the most popular of the “upmarket” GM wagons and posted a handsome 47% increase versus the 1976 results.

Growing up in New Orleans, these downsized GM wagons were quite common.  In fact, on my block there were two Custom Cruisers.  Our next door neighbors had a 1977, much like the one pictured above (though theirs was Light Blue Metallic rather than Dark Blue).  That Custom Cruiser had fairly minimal equipment (just body side moldings, remote mirrors, power locks, tilt, AM/FM and A/C), but was an excellent workhorse and dutifully served the family for 6 years (replaced with a Diesel Suburban).  Three houses down, the family bought a fully loaded ’78 Custom Cruiser in Dark Camel Metallic with the woodgrain trim (like the Road Test car, it seemingly had every available option and it was most likely powered by the 403).  Theirs even had the built-in CB radio.  We all thought it was such a nice car….  These were the glory days for Oldsmobile.

In many ways, the late 1970s represented the last hurrah for the traditional full-sized American wagon. The 1980s would find these family haulers cursed with underpowered engines for their size and weight, while the interior and exterior designs were left to wither on the vine for years. GM tried one last ditch attempt at rejuvenating the segment with the “aero Shamu” wagons of the early 1990s.  By that time, however, most buyers seeking utility and versatility had moved on to more practical and efficient minivans, or the “go anywhere, do anything” imagery of SUVs.

But in 1977, it was hard to do better than a Custom Cruiser for buyers wanting a big wagon.