Curbside Unicorns: The Sporty FWD Oldsmobiles of the 1980s

1984 Oldsmobile ES-08-09-10-11-12-13-14-15

We recently saw a rather plain Firenza sedan covered here, looking very much the antithesis of athleticism. Although the Firenza was one of Oldsmobile’s least successful model lines of the 1980s, the division also introduced during the decade of glam rock and leg warmers a plethora of trim levels and option packages that sunk like pet rocks. Oldsmobile may have had a rich sporting pedigree, evidenced by the Rocket V8 and the 442, but by the 1980s it had settled into a comfortable, middle-class groove. That didn’t stop America’s oldest automaker from trying to tap into the sport sedan and sport compact markets, albeit mostly unsuccessfully. The 442 and Hurst/Olds are hardly obscure, but how about a SportOmega? Or a Ciera GT?

1980 omega

Let’s work our way through the decade chronologically. The Omega was the first new Oldsmobile introduced for the 1980s, technically arriving on dealer lots in 1979. The least successful of GM’s FWD X-Cars, the Omega tried to retain traditional styling cues on a much smaller body. The X-Cars’ reliability and build quality issues were legion, and conspired to torpedo sales fairly quickly. The Omega, in particular, sunk spectacularly: 147,918 units were produced in 1981, but just 77,469 in 1982, and sales continued to fall until it was axed in 1984. Omega sedans outsold coupes almost 2-to-1 in 1981, and the gap would widen even more dramatically in later years. This would seem to suggest a more conservative and practical consumer base, but Oldsmobile still launched sporty Omega coupes.


The Omega SX was available from launch, and also was available as a sedan. Around $300 bought you a rear spoiler, sport mirrors, blacked-out mouldings and tape stripes, but no mechanical changes. Both a three-speed automatic and a four-speed manual were available, mated to either the 2.5 Iron Duke four or the 2.8 Chevy V6. Oldsmobile’s brochure touted the former as outperforming the ’79 Omega’s V6 and the latter outgunning the ‘79’s V8. Many look back upon these X-Cars with disdain, and a lot of that is understandable given their lousy reliability. At the time, though, these represented such an improvement in packaging and economy, without sacrificing performance. One wonders how things would have panned out if these had been launched fully baked.

81 sport omega

1981 would see the arrival of three more sporty Omegas: the SportOmega, the ES-2500 and the ES-2800. The first would be a coupe-only proposition, with a slanted fascia, sport steering wheel and FE2 suspension tuning. The SportOmega was also one of GM’s first applications of flexible urethane fenders. Only the pictured color combination was offered, somewhat resembling the defunct Starfire Firenza.

81omega ES

The ES option package was available with both the Iron Duke (ES-2500) and the V6 (ES-2800). They shared the same front end as the SportOmega, as well as the same FE2 suspension tune and blacked-out mouldings. However, the ES came as a sedan only and was much more subtle visually. The package was only available on Omega Broughams, and you could have any color you liked as long as it was silver; interior options were limited to red or blue. Later years would allow you more color options, but the ES was still always based on the higher-spec Brougham.

1983 olds omega es

The SX would continue for 1981, but the sedan variant was dead. Despite the glut of sporty Omegas available in 1981, just 696 Omegas were optioned with one of the sport trims. The SX would die after 1981; it was no great loss as it had no mechanical changes over the standard Omega. The SportOmega was a one year only affair, and the only sporty Omega left would be the ES right up until the end of the Omega’s run. For 1982, it also gained the High Output version of the 2.8 V6, bumping power and torque up from 112 hp/135 lb-ft to 135 hp/145 lb-ft: this HO 2.8 was shared with the Citation X-11, Skylark T-Type and Phoenix SJ.

1984 cutlass ciera ES

The arrival of the Firenza and Cutlass Ciera in 1982 may have played a hand in the Omega’s sharp sales decline. The Ciera, whose A-Body was based heavily on the Omega’s X platform and shared its wheelbase, continued the availability in 1983 of an ES trim in both sedan and coupe variants. Standard features included full instrumentation, a center console, blacked-out mouldings and the FE2 suspension. Cutlass Ciera’s engine options were initially limited to the Tech IV four, a fuel-injected version of the Iron Duke with 92hp and 135lb-ft, and Buick’s new 3.0 V6 (110 hp, 145 lb-ft), shared with the fellow A-Body Century. There was also an optional 4.3 V6 diesel, apparently more reliable than the maligned Oldsmobile V8 diesels, that could also be ordered in conjunction with the ES package; power and torque were 85 hp and 165 lb-ft. (It would also appear the carbureted 2.8 V6 was available some years on the Ciera, but the Ciera’s changing engine lineup during the decade is a headache to understand)

1987 cutlass ciera coupe

The fuel-injected Buick 3.8 V6 would arrive for 1984 as an option on the Ciera, with 125 hp and 196 lb-ft. However, the four-speed manual option was discontinued: the Ciera would never feature a manual again. Despite that, 1986-87 would herald the arrival of sportier Cieras. Firstly, the ES sedan would be replaced by a GT sedan, accompanied by a GT coupe. Secondly, 1987’s coupe would receive a new, more modern roofline, not shared with the other A-Bodies.


The 3.8 was the only available engine on the GT Cieras, and would see horsepower bumped up to 150; the sole transmission was a four-speed automatic, and 0-60 was around 10 seconds. Exterior trim was markedly more exciting than the very subdued ES, and GTs had Eagle GT tires in addition to the usual full instrumentation and bucket seats. The FE3 suspension package had higher front and rear spring rates and stabilizer bars front and rear. Even lesser Cieras would benefit from a mechanical upgrade: the carbureted 3.0 was replaced by a fuel-injected 2.8. For 1988, GTs would be renamed International Series.  Revised sheetmetal would arrive for Ciera sedans in 1989, but the top engine option became the Buick 3.3, yet another smaller version of the 3.8; horsepower increased to 160 hp and torque dipped only slightly, to 185 lb-ft.  The 1989 revision would modernize the aging Ciera, and certainly didn’t hinder sales: Ciera became Oldsmobile’s best-selling car, and stuck around despite the arrival of the new FWD Cutlass Supreme.


The compact Firenza may have helped the Ciera squeeze out the Omega, but it didn’t enjoy the A-Body Olds’ strong sales. In most years, the Firenza was even outsold by its Buick Skyhawk cousin. The Firenza was available in an SX trim from launch with full instrumentation and colour-keyed Rallye wheels. Much like its platform-mates, the Firenza was also available with a sporty hatchback body that boasted 38.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Engine options were limited to a 1.8 carbureted four, stroked and fuel-injected halfway through the year to become a 2.0, as well as the Brazilian-built fuel-injected 1.8 OHC four available with a five-speed manual.

1984 Oldsmobile Small Size-10-11

1984 would see the arrival of the ES sedan and GT hatch. The GT was available only in white/gray or red/gray, with a matching gray interior with red accents. Both the ES and GT came with the rallye suspension package, leather-wrapped steering wheel and 14’ Eagle GT tires. Those seeking more performance would have been pleased with the arrival of the Chevy 2.8 V6 for 1985, available with a three-speed auto or four-speed manual. 0-60 was accomplished in under 10 seconds.

1985 Oldsmobile Small Size-20-21

 1985 Firenza

In 1987 came the arrival of an even firmer FE3 suspension tune, to aid handling, as well as a five-speed manual option for the V6. It would be a last hurrah for the sporty Firenzas, though, with the hatch and V6 options disappearing after 1987 (and the rest of the range following after 1988).

1986 Oldsmobile Mid Size (2)-36-37

The N-Body Oldsmobile Calais was developed as a replacement for the RWD G-Body Cutlass Supreme, with the expectation that gas prices were going to continue to rise. That never eventuated, and instead the 1985 Calais (Cutlass Calais from 1988) occupied the role of a slightly larger compact than the Firenza or smaller mid-sizer than the Ciera. From 1986, the Calais was available in two sporty trims: the ES and GT. The ES featured a firmer FE2 suspension tune, 14’’ Eagle GT tires, and black-out trim. Engine options were the 2.5 Tech IV with a three-speed automatic or five-speed manual, or the fuel-injected Buick 3.0 V6 (125 hp, 150 lb-ft) mated exclusively to a three-speed automatic. The GT was available with the same engine options, but had an even firmer FE3 suspension tune.

1987 oldsmobile calais quad 4

These option packages were just a taste of sportier Calais to come. If the 442 represented Oldsmobile muscle in the 1960s, the Calais (and later, Achieva) was its figurehead for the 1980s and 90s. GM’s much anticipated Quad 4 engine would make its debut in 1988 in the Calais and its Grand Am cousin; initial Calais Quad 4s were known as “GMO Quad 4”, but the engine would be available on all Calais (a $600 option) and standard on the new Calais International. The Quad 4 was the first double overhead cam four-cylinder engine developed by GM since the Cosworth Vega. Its 16-valve, 150 hp four outgunned the hottest Civic (108hp) and Corolla (115 hp) of the time, with a 0-60 in the 8 second range, but where they had the upper hand was in refinement: the Quad 4 lacked balancing shafts, and wouldn’t receive them for years, resulting in excessive noise, vibration and harshness.


Still, the Quad 4 put out a lot of power for its time, and not just for a naturally-aspirated four, and a high output version with 180 hp arrived in just 200 examples of the 1989 Calais International; a five-speed Getrag manual and FE3 suspension tune were standard. Calais Internationals were fully-loaded with power accessories and a leather-wrapped wheel. GM would continue increasing the already impressive amounts of power as the 1990s arrived, and there were even plans for a turbocharged version.

1987 toronado trofeo

The sports treatment wasn’t limited to the compact and mid-size Oldsmobiles, though. The new-for-1986 Toronado would be offered in two trims: a standard coupe, and the Troféo from 1987. The former could still be optioned with a firmer FE2 suspension tune, but the latter would have the firmest FE3 tune standard. 15’’ aluminium wheels and cloth bucket seats with a center console were also standard, as were anti-lock brakes and a CRT Visual Information Center from 1989. These may have been dramatically smaller than their predecessors and a bit stubby, but they were a damn sight sharper than their bland Riviera counterpart. Full-width smoked taillights, hidden headlamps and two-tone paint treatment, as well as the aforementioned aluminium wheels, made the Toronado look smart on the outside. Under the hood, the venerable Buick 3.8 was the only engine option, fuel-injected and putting out 165 hp and 210 lb-ft; a four-speed automatic was the only transmission available. This generation of Toronado, despite the sporty Troféo variant, sold poorly and the line would be heavily revised visually in 1990. As the 1980s ended, though, the Troféo was outselling the base coupe by almost 2-to-1.

1987 Touring Sedan

The ubiquitous 3.8 V6 would also power the Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan, a new take on a flagship Oldsmobile sedan introduced as Buick was steering away from its sporty T-Type models. Forget wire wheel covers, chrome and loose-pillow seats: this wasn’t a Regency or a Park Avenue. Instead, occupants were surrounded by burled walnut trim, firmly ensconced in power Lear Siegler leather buckets and gripped a console-mounted four-speed automatic shifter. Outside, there was subtle cladding, minimal chrome and fog lamps. It was a similar effort to the moribund Electra T-Type, and around 10% of 1989 Ninety-Eights were Touring Sedans.


The final sporty Oldsmobile to be launched during the decade of shoulder pads and big hair was the Cutlass Supreme International, the sportiest trim of the new-for-1988 FWD GM-10 Cutlass Supreme. Although the 1990s would bring a gutsier 3.4 V6 and a short-lived Quad 4 option, the new midsize coupe was available only with the 2.8 fuel-injected Chevy V6 with 130 hp and 170 lb-ft. However, you had the option of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The new Supreme may have lacked the V8 option of its G-Body predecessor, but it was a much more modern car with four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes with optional ABS. Still, the 2.8’s power output may have been laudable earlier in the decade but despite fuel-injection and more modern transmissions, the Cutlass Supreme’s styling was writing checks its power output couldn’t cash, especially against rivals like the new supercharged Thunderbird Super Coupe. However, the flagship International undercut the ultimate Thunderbird by $3k.

1988 Oldsmoblie Cutlass Supreme-06-07

The International came standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a center console, as well as sculpted bucket seats front and rear. The front buckets had side bolsters and headrests that were power adjustable, and leather trim was optional. The interior was very modern and high-tech, featuring electronic analog instrumentation (rather than passé line-style graphics) and an optional head-up display, one of the first such implementations of that technology in a car. Around 18% of 1989 Cutlass Supremes were the top of the range International.


We know now that Oldsmobile never quite established a clear brand image and would die at the beginning of the new century, but it’s interesting to see how they were taking steps as early as the late-1980s to change perceptions. One need only look at their sporty models: the lurid tape-stripes of the Omega SX made way for elegant models like the Touring Sedan and Troféo and Cutlass Supreme International. It’s a shame things didn’t work out.

Curbsiders, were any of these ever a common sight in your neck of the woods? Did any of you own one of these cars, or wish to? Or was a RWD G-Body more your style?