(first posted 1/25/2013) Richard Bennett’s recent ode to his new-to-him 2001 Alero had me waxing nostalgic for Oldsmobile. Due to having several in my family when I was a kid, I especially long for the 1976-77 Cutlass Supreme; in all likelihood, so do a number of people, as they set sales records in the ’70s and early ’80s. Luckily, I spotted a primo example at the annual car show in Geneseo last fall. Let’s take a closer look at these classy coupes…
We’ve all heard the Colonnade story: In 1973, GM unveiled the new A-bodies. While much more modern, they were a love-it-or-hate-it proposition (ask Zackman how he feels!). At any rate, sporty coupes were out, and the world of Brougham was in. The Cutlass coupes, in various S, Salon and Supreme forms, did quite well despite the lack of roll-down rear windows on the two-doors. But in my opinion, they hit their stride in 1976, when an attractive new face lift greeted visitors to Olds showrooms. The smooth sides (sedans retained fender blisters), quad rectangular lights and waterfall grille all looked great.
My Aunt Candy got one about a year after my Uncle Don bought a brand-new 460-powered 1976 Starsky & Hutch Torino.
If I may be allowed to digress from Cutlass Supremes for a moment, Uncle Don’s Starsky & Hutch was a factory-built special edition; like many other Torinos and related Elites, his was built at the Ford plant in Chicago and shipped to Rock Island. Almost immediately after the S&H came in to Bob Neal Ford, Don got rid of the factory Magnum 500 rims and purchased proper slotted mags. He also had to give the car a bit of rake to match the real thing. Despite the combination of giant bumpers, various emissions systems and Ford-O-Matic strangling the Gran Torino, my aunt fondly remembers flying across the I-280 bridge across the Mississippi in it at better than 100 mph.
So, the Gran Torino was a little too fun. A one-year-old ’76 Supreme Brougham, in triple burgundy (much like the CS two photos above, but with the standard full wheel covers) was its replacement.
My Uncle Don was a master mechanic. He could fix anything. When he worked at Bob Neal, my grandparents, who drove Lincoln Marks and T-Birds, demanded that Don–and only Don–work on their cars. This built a little resentment among the other mechanics, but he couldn’t have cared less. It also gave him a degree of freedom when dealing with BS from the dealership and other employees. If somebody ticked him off, he could go to any other dealership in the area and get a new job. One time, Erv Peters, a Ford dealer Don worked for in the early ’80s, asked Candy how to keep Don on staff. It was easy, she told him–just pay him more money!
The Cutlass was a good choice. In the mid-’70s, Oldsmobile was in an enviable position, largely due to the Cutlass line. The coupes in particular flew off dealer lots. Folks of a younger age may not understand just what Oldsmobile meant in the ’70s. It was an aspirational brand, a mini-Cadillac, if you will. Sales were brisk: The Supreme coupe alone sold 186,647 copies during the year. The flossier Brougham coupe, priced about $300 higher, also sold decently, with over 90,000 finding owners.
During the 1976-77 period, Cutlass was number one in sales–no mean feat when you consider that just a few years earlier, Ford, Chevy and Plymouth were the top three brands. Olds turned all that upside-down with just the right combination of comfort, luxury and price. It was a perfect storm.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Cutlasses were nicely styled. For those who didn’t care for the Brougham treatment, a Cutlass S or Salon could be ordered with buckets, console, Super Stock wheels and no full-vinyl or Landau roof. But plenty of buyers went for the top-trim Brougham coupe like the red-and-white example pictured above. The expected Brougham badging, full wheel covers (or the optional Super Stock wheels pictured) and stand-up hood ornament all came standard to set Broughams apart on the outside.
Inside, and unsurprisingly, you found pillow-top seating, in La Mancha crushed velour and Dover knit cloth, with an abstract design (that for some reason resembles bowtie pasta–to me, at least). Fake wood trim also abounded, but power windows still cost extra. There were also plenty of other options to be had by those in the mood for a fully loaded Olds.
As a kid growing up in the mid- to late-’80s, I saw plenty of these. In addition to my aunt’s, there was my cousin;s first car, a ’77 non-Brougham Supreme. It was light metallic blue with a blue interior, white landau top and color-keyed Super Stock wheels with whitewalls. My uncle had found it for her and deemed it mechanically sound. She drove it without incident, until the rear bumper fell off a year or so later. That was a chronic problem with Colonnade Cutlasses, and I remember seeing many of them, sans rear bumper, on the road. My uncle fixed hers, though, by installing a wooden bumper to replace the absent chrome one–and it was no simple 2 x 4, either–he made it fit the contours of the rear deck and even painted it in matching blue!
As for my aunt’s car, she kept it for ten or so years until my uncle found her a nice ’78 T-Bird with the rare buckets and console. It was in nice shape but had faded paint, so he redid it in non-metallic midnight blue, which contrasted nicely with the chamois “comfort-weave” vinyl interior. Curiously, Candy’s Olds never lost its rear bumper despite never being garaged; however, the nearby Blackhawk Foundry wrecked the paint and pitted the glass in no time. EPA violations, anyone? But its interior was still pristine when they sold it!
I was happy to inspect this bright red Brougham at the show. It was in mint condition, and is probably a clean original rather than a restoration. But as nice as this car is, it just doesn’t look right with raised-white letter tires. RWLs are just not right for a Brougham, although they would look good on a Colonnade 442. So of course, I had to alter it digitally with whitewalls. Much better.
The ’77 CS was little changed but sold even better, with total sales of 242,874 Supreme and 124,712 Supreme Brougham coupes. Keep in mind, those figures don’t include sedans and wagons, or 442, “S” and Salon coupes. It was good to be an Olds dealer in the mid-’70s!
In Broughams, the pasta-pattern interior fabric was gone, replaced with striped velour. The waterfall grille was revised, and the “eyeball” HVAC vents in the dash were replaced with rectangular units. I’ve since read that they had to be replaced, as the molds for the earlier dash had worn out! Other than that, things were very familiar.
A-body Oldsmobiles were downsized for 1978, but that didn’t affect sales one bit. If anything, production increased, and the Cutlass Supreme coupe would continue to be a cash cow (and object of desire) for many years to come. Coming from such highs, it was surprising to many when Olds lost the plot in the late ’80s and started its long decline. But in 1976 and 1977, Oldsmobile was King of the Brougham Hill.
Love Cutlasses? The Curbside Classic Complete Cutlass Chronicles are here.