Curbside Classic: ’67 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – Falling Prey To American Luxury

From time to time mom and dad took the family to visit Mr. Blanco, a schoolfellow of his who resided in the same recently-built suburban quarter of San Salvador. Theirs was the ‘traditional’ middle class family, mom and father, with a girl and a boy, living in a new corner house with a large tree partially covering the residential street. Under the shade of said tree was an ever present grey late 60’s Oldsmobile of Mr. Blanco’s possession. An Oldsmobile in San Salvador? In my many years in the nation, Mr. Blanco’s was one of a handful I would ever see, and its presence could only be explained by a passion he had developed for American makes while attending studies in Puerto Rico.

As the Cold War turned icier and international tensions heated up, Kennedy’s Admin took steps to slow the advances of the reds with the Alliance for Progress, a good will US Program aimed towards Latin America. It was a two pronged approach; on one hand offering military support, and on the other development programs with grants and fellowships offered in selected fields. Dad and Mr. Blanco belonged to a handful of selectees for Agricultural Studies in the Puerto Rican Campus of Mayaguez, a prominent college in the US colony that offered advanced studies in various agricultural expertises. Not only was the US providing these development opportunities to individuals, but El Salvador’s National School for Agriculture was to be fully refurbished as well; with a new campus to be filled with modern labs, and quarters that would accommodate a few thousand specialists. Agriculture in El Salvador was about to face its own Green Revolution.

The US is quite known for its ‘carrots and sticks’ politics approach, and while the latter part of that equation tends to grab most of the attention, the US did feel compelled to throw a few ‘carrots’ around after the fall of Cuba to Castro’s Revolucionarios in ’59. Throughout the 60’s, Puerto Rico was selected as a show card of sorts by the US, turning the island into a showcase of what results an American and Latin alliance could have when ‘working’ together. In a scant decade the island went from a mosquito infested backwater filled with shanty towns, into a modern Miamiesque tourist destination for American retirees and modern urban areas. My mom’s slums in Humacao were razed and in its place, factories appeared; the modern shape of Puerto Rico took place. A miraculous change that no silent-generation Puerto Rican forgot, with US goods acquiring a mythical status. Even Tang and canned Corned Beef were considered GOOD, and Sears was the ultimate in bourgeois refinement.

Not only Puerto Ricans were dazzled, those Latino US-sponsored grantees arriving to the Mayaguez Arts And Agriculture College were in awe too. In a few months, the campus was filled with Venezuelans and Central Americans, and both Dad and Mr. Blanco were certainly impressed. In a postcard sent by dad to his family (which I found after his passing) on that first semester, he went on at length about the ‘prestigious and modern’ school he now belonged to. The impression the whole complex made on those new comers is hard to fathom, as the chasm between developed Puerto Rico and very rural Central America must have been mind boggling.

Not all was studies for the grantees, of course. While dad developed an interest in Puerto Rican women (this photo by him at a local parade shows a woman who resembles my mother a great deal), Mr. Blanco apparently took to American cars, as his later devotion to Oldsmobile shows. Actually, a Beetle was Mr. Blanco’s car during his stay in the island, but according to mom (and later evidence) the guy ‘got tired’ of the little vehicle very quickly. At some point in those years he must have tasted those midsize GM-goods and became a Detroit convert. Back in El Salvador, he got a hold of his Oldsmobile as soon as his early paychecks arrived; as a US trained specialist, he could afford it.

As we all know, not only was Puerto Rico riding high during the 60’s, but GM itself was firing on all cylinders during that definitive Mitchell-styling decade. A Supreme of same vintage and color as the one on this post was covered by Paul previously, and it goes into some length as to why the model became so successful. (Heck CC has a full Chronicles of Supremes).

And once Mr. Blanco developed a taste for American style driving, we all know there was nowhere else to go, as no other nation ever even tried to build cars with such a feel. Some quirky styling cues here and there appeared on Vauxhalls and Datsuns, but no other carmaking nation even attempted to provide a similar driving experience. Not remotely.

What lengths Mr. Blanco went through to acquire his Oldsmobile I’ll never know; must have been quite a quest though, as the brand was never sold in the region. Still, as a US trained specialist with a plump salary, he had the means to go after his heart’s desire. Whatever pains the proceedings took, in the end it was all to be smooth gliding; literally. Mr. Blanco had obviously fallen prey to that soft feel only American machinery provided; where a finger’s twitch got that steering turning and all controls moved softly to one’s touch. The Olds’ strong and faithful 8 cylinder pushed the car with a might few cars in the nation could compete with, gliding easily over the less than smooth Salvadorian streets. No cheap-o Japanese Corolla or Sunny, or antsy European Fiat could compare; and Volkswagens were obviously out of the question for Mr. Blanco.

Can we blame Mr. Blanco for his excesses? Of course not. Bill Mitchell’s first decade was an endless string of styling hits, with just about each entry a desirable one. Mitchell himself was apparently more into Buick and Cadillac, but all GM stylists were on a roll and Oldsmobiles carried in spades the stylish-yet-elegant presence all GM offerings had at the time.

Meanwhile the Alliance for Progress made good on its promise during my dad’s absense, as the School For Agriculture became the National Center for Agriculture Development (CENTA). Not long after his return dad became one of its specialists in soil studies, and me and my brother were to spend many afternoons wondering in awe at the sci-fi labs he worked at. With its modernist outwardly-slanted windows, and filled with all sorts of specialist tools, the labs felt like a spaceship in our young minds.

Obviously during those visits we were not to touch anything, as doing so would have meant absolute banishment from its grounds. But just hanging and looking around brought about enough wonder. Just what were each of those special tools? Some even looked like ray guns! And our favorite, the centrifuge. Had we been able to reduce ourselves to ‘beaker size,’ we would have certainly taken rides inside until we puked to our content.

Mr. Blanco remained faithful to his Oldsmobile for as long as I remember, and I knew, as the car was a staple on our drive to school. To be honest, I can’t say for sure if his was a Supreme, a Delta or a plain Cutlass, as my kiddie knowledge of the brand was null. I do know it was a mid-60’s model, as the two-barrel Olds’ face is an indelible memory of the vehicle. Eventually Mr. Blanco’s Olds didn’t move much from under that tree shade, as not even he could cope with its gas guzzling qualities, driving instead a lowly Japanese (can’t recall what) on his daily chores.

Success stories like those of dad and Mr. Blanco were rare though. With conditions in the nation not improving the hoped for Green Revolution turned into a Red Revolution, with the country entering a grueling civil war by 1980. Another case of ‘too little, too late,’ and historically where the ‘military’ part of the Alliance took prominence (and if you wish to talk about that at length, a different forum than CC might be ideal).

Meanwhile in the US, GM was about to enter an age of ‘too little, too much,’ providing too little development, too little engineering, and too much of the ‘luxury for a price’ attributes that had been its mainstay, eventually choking on excess and hubris. We all know how Oldsmobile ended and the news of its demise somehow hit me hard, even if I never came close to having a direct relationship with the brand.

GM generally kept their upscale brands away from South America, sticking solely to Chevy and GMC in the region. To see an Olds in these lands is an absolute rarity, and I can count in the digits of one hand the amount of times I’ve ever come across one. To see this particular sample marooned in a low class neighborhood was a complete surprise, a true synapses-reactivating occurrence. And I do have a soft spot for Olds’, especially of this vintage; partly because of Mr. Blanco, partly because cars of the 60’s are my favorites from US makes (in case it wasn’t obvious). Fords are too ordinary, Chevrolets too plain, and I’ve never been much of a Buick man. But I could do with an Olds like this, even if it would take me a while to get used to its ‘driving dynamics.’

Sticking to vintage and in disrepair, both adjectives reflect the National Center for Agriculture Development (CENTA) quarters nowadays. After the Civil War ended, and proving that ‘modernity’ needs a deeper understanding than acquiring tools, later governments decided to leave behind such ‘quaint’ notions as food production, and took to pirating Windows 98 licenses while giving away cheap laptops to high school students; because, modernity? After all, agriculture is so passé, you know?

On a recent visit the CENTA installations were barely in running order, with a scant workforce of barely a hundred or two, and structures in serious need of maintenance. Solitary buildings, endless empty hallways, and desolate pathways gave the whole place an eerie appearance awfully reminiscent of… an abandoned communist compound.

Back in ’67, for Oldsmobile, Mr. Blanco, the CENTA, and my dad, was much to come; heights of prominence indeed. Now it’s all fading images and memories. Whatever remnants there are, are to be cherished, if ever so briefly.

More on the ’67 Cutlass:

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – America’s Love Supreme Starts Here