CC Capsule: Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera – Official Car Of The Chelsea Projects

Cutlass Ciera wagon 1b

The Chelsea Houses and the John Lovejoy Elliott Houses are a group of housing projects located between West 25th and 27th Streets and 9th and 10th Avenues in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. I pass directly through this part of Chelsea almost daily, and I noticed something peculiar. Lately, New York City has been surprisingly bountiful with fantastic Curbside Classic sightings.

Why, just this week I complimented a man on his Nash Metropolitan right outside of where I work. Generally, though, pre-1995 cars are in the minority. For every 50 near-new Highlanders, Accords and Impalas parked in a neighborhood, you might find one early 1990s Buick Regal or an MN-12 generation Mercury Cougar. One car, though, that refuses to fade away like its contemporaries is the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. I’ve only seen a handful uptown or in other boroughs, but the Chelsea Projects–despite having little else pre-1995, other than an old Cadillac Brougham–seems to be its nesting grounds.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 3

There’s this white 1989-90 sedan I spotted in the parking lot, still proudly displaying its Big Apple Oldsmobile dealer sticker. I wonder what that dealership sells now?

Cutlass Ciera sedan 4

Another quite tidy example from the same era. 1989 ushered in slightly more aerodynamic styling, but there were few, if any, visual changes up through the end of the car’s run in 1996, except for a taillight change in 1991 (the block taillights were replaced by ones that had three horizontal segments).

Cutlass Ciera sedan 1

These Cutlass Cieras became quite solidly reliable cars. There was no reason for them not to be, because GM sure had plenty of years to iron out any bugs. J.D Power consistently ranked these at the top of their class.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 1c

Because the tooling had long ago been paid off, Cutlass Cieras and their equally long-lived Buick Century cousins were very profitable cars for GM. The Cutlass Ciera was consistently the best-selling Oldsmobile despite the arrival of newer models and even a direct replacement, the W-Body Cutlass Supreme sedan.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 1a

In its final year, the Cutlass nameplate was dropped and it was simply the Ciera, in sedan or wagon form. 115,893 sedans and 8,857 wagons were produced; contrast this with the aging but still considerably newer Cutlass Supreme sedan, which shifted only 43,836 units. Granted, the Ciera undercut it by a good three grand, and a large proportion of Ciera sales were fleet, but that was still a considerable difference. The story was different at Buick, with the 1996 Century sedan shifting 20,000 fewer units than the Regal despite a similar price differential.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 2a

Don’t be mistaken in thinking, though, that it’s only the newer, less angular Cieras roaming this neck of the woods. This must be one of the 1987 Cieras that didn’t come with composite headlamps, as they were standard only on Brougham and GT models.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 2b

The dog dish wheels are an odd touch. Note the Regal in front, which is probably the second most common pre-1995 car I’ve noticed in NYC. I haven’t seen many A-Body FWD Centuries, though, although I recall them being quite common upstate.

Cutlass Ciera wagon 1c

It’s not just sedans around these parts, either. This one is definitely a 1985 Cutlass Cruiser, due to the grille. However, that front fascia looks like it could have been lifted off another Ciera post-accident.

Cutlass Ciera wagon 1

Cruiser sales were always a fraction of total Ciera sales and that percentage dwindled over time. I’d blame that more on the declining popularity of wagons than the wagon’s unchanged rear half. Yes, a 1982 Cruiser looks very similar to a 1996 Ciera wagon from behind but it’s not as though the sedan’s revisions were a quantum leap, aesthetically.

Cutlass Ciera sedan 4a

This is what always bothered me about the Ciera. Why the flags? There was nothing European or global about this car: exports were limited; the vast majority sold were plain-jane S and SL editions; and it was clearly positioned and sold as a more efficient, front-wheel-drive alternative to regular American mid-sizers. The flags made sense on the Colonnade Cutlass Salons, as they boasted Euro styling touches and a handling package. The Aeroback Salons were vaguely European in their styling, despite being flaccid dynamically, so the flags also made some sense there. But on the Ciera?

Cutlass Ciera wagon 1a

By the end, the Ciera was available only in sedan or wagon, with a 2.2 I4 or 3.1 V6 and either a 3- or 4-speed auto. An unexciting end to a fairly unexciting, albeit honest and reliable car. However, let’s not forget the interesting and less common derivatives that don’t exist within the two-block area of the Chelsea Projects. Like the 4.3 diesel V6, with its dismal 85hp and 165lb-ft of torque to propel it (although I hear these were more reliable than the diesel V8s Oldsmobile was also making).



There was the European-inspired ES, Oldsmobile’s answer to the Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport.



Maybe you’d like your Ciera with two fewer doors and a touch of Broughamance?


South of the border, you could get your Cutlass in “Eurosport guise,” complete with ground effects and Pontiac wheels.



But here’s my favorite, and I hope I run into one eventually: the GT, complete with 3.8 V6 (150hp, 200lb-ft), floor shifter, and those funky ribbed door panels like on the 1986 Toronado. Of course, these were only available from 1986-87 (in sedan or coupe guise), so I doubt I’m going to stumble across one.

Two questions, Curbsiders:

1. How often do you see Cutlass Cieras where you live?

2. Are there any neighborhoods or places you know of where a particular car is oddly and disproportionately common? If you tell me you live in Ontario and Pontiac Sunfire sedans are as common as pigeons, I will absolutely agree.

Related reading:

1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser; 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera; 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera Coupe; 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera Brougham; 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser