Vintage Reviews: 1978 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 – Right Number, Wrong Car: American Edition

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Olds was alone among the GM divisions in continuously offering a variant of its 1960’s mid-sized Muscle Machine—the 4-4-2—all the way through the performance-challenged dark days of the 1970s.  Granted, the 4-4-2 had become nothing more than a decorative handling package, but at least it was still available, unlike the Buick GS, Chevrolet SS and Pontiac GTO.  So hopes were high for 1978, when GM’s intermediate A-bodies were downsized, that a trim new 4-4-2 would revitalize the Olds Muscle Car for a new era.  Let’s see how that turned out.

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From inauspicious beginnings as a performance package in mid-1964, the 4-4-2 (standing for 4-barrel carburetor, 4-on-the-floor manual transmission, dual exhaust) came into its own with more marketing emphasis for 1965, and then blossomed through the rest of the 1960s as Muscle Cars captured the imagination of American car buyers.

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The peak year for the 4-4-2 was 1968.  Oldsmobile’s interpretation of the sleek new GM A-body styling was enhanced nicely on the 4-4-2 and performance was strong.  That formula found favor with 33,607 buyers, an all-time high point for Oldsmobile’s Muscle Machine.

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The good times pretty much ended in 1971.  The next year, the 4-4-2 would revert from being a standalone mid-size performance model back to being a trim and handling package for the Cutlass.  But at least it continued to exist, albeit in neutered form.  Buick would throw in the towel on the Gran Sport (RIP 1975), Chevrolet would ditch the Chevelle SS (RIP 1973, though the Nova SS lived on through ’76) and Pontiac would bastardize the GTO name (Chevy Nova clones do not make for real GTOs) before killing it in 1974.

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Like the nerd who just doesn’t want to leave the party even after it is clearly over, the 4-4-2 just lingered on.  By 1977, the 4-4-2 really did seem like the last gasp for a bygone era.  To Oldsmobile’s credit, they offered a unique front fascia for the 4-4-2 that year (reusing the one-year-only swept-back “aerodynamic” front-end from the ’76 Cutlass S), and the Olds-built 403 was a reasonable new top-option for performance.  Car and Driver took a look at this Muscle Car swan song in March 1977.

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In an era that was more “show” than “go,” the 1977 4-4-2 had the potential to play its part well.  While conceivably available on any bench-seated Cutlass S Coupe with a wheezy 231 2V V6, a 3-speed manual and single exhaust (somehow a 2-3-1 doesn’t sound right), most 4-4-2s probably at least had buckets and one of the V8s.  Properly equipped, the car was handsome in the aggressive, old-school muscle style and the bold graphics looked surprisingly good on the big, burly Olds.  Performance, in the context of the times, was also pretty decent.  Car and Driver’s biggest fear, actually, was how Oldsmobile would be able to keep the 4-4-2 magic going against the headwinds of downsizing.

Turns out their fears were well founded.

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Car and Driver’s editors seemed fairly divided on the merits of the ’78 4-4-2.  Some were happy to see some semblance of classic Detroit performance (a little something is better than nothing at all, right?), while others lamented that an opportunity for true reinvention had been missed.  After all, where were the excellent seats or aggressive powertrain components that could tempt discerning performance-seeking buyers?

Another miss was that the top engine on offer in the 4-4-2 was the Chevrolet 305 V8.  Not that it was a bad engine; performance with the 4-barrel was at least respectable if not overly impressive.  But, seriously, Oldsmobile couldn’t see fit to offer a version of its own famous 350 V8?  The genuine Oldsmobile engine would have offered better horsepower and torque numbers, while gas consumption wouldn’t have been much worse (plus no one bought a 4-4-2 for fuel economy).  Adding insult to injury, this alleged Muscle Machine, with a Chevy heart in an Oldsmobile body, was beaten in the quarter mile by a Ford Fairmont!  All the taped-on graphics couldn’t help you look good while losing to granny at a stoplight.

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Unfortunately, all the graphics in the world couldn’t hide the retina-searing shape either.  With a rump only a mother could love, the slant-back A-bodies were a disaster.  Sales for the hunchback sedans plunged 48% versus 1977, while coupe carnage was even worse—down 55% (not including Cutlass Supreme/Calais sales, which in notchback form held up just fine, dropping only 6% from the wildly successful ‘77s).  Out of the 31,939 hunchback coupes produced for 1978, there’s no breakout of how many were equipped with the 4-4-2 option, but it couldn’t have been many.

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The bloodbath continued for 1979.  Slant-back sedans dropped another 24%, while slant-back coupes cratered an additional 62%, dropping to a mere 12,016 units.  Again, no sales break out is available for the 4-4-2 package, but if output was bad for ’78, it was guaranteed to be worse for ’79.

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Clearly, something urgently needed to be done for 1980 to get regular Cutlass sales back on track.  The 1st generation Cadillac Seville provided inspiration to fix the sedans: a handsome new notchback was added, and sales soared an astonishing 452%.  Inexplicably, GM kept the sad-sack slant-back coupes around for one final year of ignominy—Olds only managed to unload a pathetic 4,394 units.  Proof positive that jarringly strange, horribly proportioned 2-door slant-backs with trunks simply don’t sell…

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But then again some folks never learn.

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Oldsmobile did at least come to their senses regarding the 4-4-2 for 1980.  Rather than torturing the once great name for one more year on the hunchback coupes, the 4-4-2 package migrated to the Cutlass model that should have offered it starting in 1978: the sports-oriented Calais.  The W-30 package 4-4-2 was actually the closest Oldsmobile had come in years to duplicating the successful formula from the height of the Muscle Car era.

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The unique 1980 4-4-2 combined many of the elements that had been introduced for the special edition Cutlass Calais-based W-30 Hurst/Olds in 1979, including—drumroll please—the Oldsmobile 350 4V V8!  Also carrying over in the new 1980 4-4-2/W-30 “hybrid” were black-and-gold or white-and-gold paint, bucket seats, full instrumentation and sport-tuned suspension.

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The W-30 4-4-2 package was found on 886 Cutlass Calais coupes for 1980—quite possibly more units than the 4-4-2 hunchback saw for 1978 or 1979, but not really that impressive.  The limited production ’79 Hurst/Olds, by contrast, had retailed 2,499 units.  So the writing was pretty clearly on the wall as Olds entered the emasculated eighties: it was time for performance to go by the wayside.

If only Oldsmobile had offered the 4-4-2 on the popular Cutlass Calais in 1978, the concept might have actually thrived, at least for a few years.  As it was, the legendary numbers were wasted for ’78 – ’79 and the name slumped as badly as the unfortunate Cutlass slanted-backs.

Additional reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 – Esmerelda Had More Sympathy For Quasimodo Than Did The General by Jason Shafer

CCCCC Part 9: 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon – We Don’t Want No Stinkin’ Fastbacks by Paul Niedermeyer