COAL: 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass S – Never As Good As the First Time

Ah 1976!  Year of the Bicentennial, Philadelphia Freedom, red, white & blue bell-bottoms and Operation Sail.  It was also the year of my first car – a popcorn buttery yellow 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass S sedan.

The story of GM’s A-body “Colonnade” intermediates has been amply documented across the internets.  Longer, wider and heavier than any A-body of the past, the 1973-77 versions were EVERYWHERE growing up.  Malibus, Monte Carlos, Grand Prixes, Regals and, the most common of all, Cutlasses.  There was a Cutlass for every garage – family car, sporty coupe, Brougham personal luxury, station wagon.  You could dress it up in vinyl roofed splendor or dress it down in vinyl bench economy.  It’s hard to overstate the Cutlass sales juggernaut – over 500,000 sold in 1976 alone, making it the most popular car line in a market of 10 million total car sales.  Yes, 1 in 20 of all cars sold in the US that year, domestic or import, was a Cutlass.  Numbers like that are inconceivable in today’s car market.

The version I inherited from my uncle in 1988 was both completely basic and unique at the same time.  After returning home to New York City from college, I wanted something to drive occasionally to visit friends and do errands.  Living in Queens, public transportation was a bit more sketchy and waiting for bus and subway transfers could easily turn into an over hour plus long journey.  My uncle had just purchased a lightly used Chevy Celebrity and was looking to get rid of the Cutlass.  I eagerly accepted.

Now let’s talk about this specific car – it was a 4 door S model with vinyl seats and manual everything else.  It had an A/C that rivaled a meat locker, even in midsummer.  It also featured a unique front end for the 1976 model year – a shovel nosed version of the standard Olds waterfall grille, shared only with the uplevel sporty 442 model.  Not that many Cutlasses featured this front and it was noticed by the car cognoscenti at the time.

It also had the Olds-built 260 V8.  The 260 was quite possibly the worst combination of gutless and fuel gulping – hit the gas pedal, feel a nudge of torque and then wait.  If the A/C was on, wait longer.  It made 110 hp and, while smooth in that classic 70’s GM V8 kind of way, it went nowhere.  Except to the gas station.  Often.  Like 10 miles per gallon in the city.  The nearly free car emptied my wallet every fill-up.

There was rust everywhere – most especially, the rear quarter panels and under the sides of the trunk.  It had lived its entire life in NYC and salt had done a number on the underside, even for a car that was only 12 years old at the time. This was a common problem for cars of the era and there were tons of rusty A bodies driving around the city in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  In my case, I stuck garbage bags in the corners of the trunk to prevent water from splashing up into the trunk or things falling out.  Needless to say, I never put anything of value in the trunk for any length of time.  It also had the easy-grip post door locks.  In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I ended up living for 4 years, this meant my car was an easy target.  I lost a couple of box radios and some cassettes, but, fortunately, nothing of great value.  At one point, it was a weekly occurrence – I considered putting a blanket and a cup for donations in case someone decided to spend the night in the back seat.  The car was certainly wide enough.

The car had its quirks – a finicky carburetor, frozen door locks.  But it also competently handled drives out of town – to DC, Long Island and the Catskills.  Despite the fact that it did not have the best space utilization, I fit 9 people in the car in a drive to Rockaway Beach.  Three in the front, three in the back and three on the laps in the back.  And it got bounced around NYC traffic – door dings, a rear bumper that fell off when it got hit by road debris on the Williamsburg Bridge  (I had the bumper in the back seat for a few weeks) and a side swipe by a Volvo on Canal Street (my entire car was worth as much as the guy’s rear passenger tail light).  While parking it in NYC was always a chore, it was the perfect city car – it could take a licking, kept on ticking and I didn’t care what happened to the body.  I unsuccessfully tried to use body colored spray paint to cover the rust marks on the door.  I got cheap parts store seat covers for the ripped vinyl seats.  And the AM radio still worked.

So, what can I say – the Cutlass was my erstwhile friend and traveling companion for over 4 years.  It survived until my third year of law school, to be replaced by another hand-me-down car of a very different nature – my parents’ 1983 Nissan Stanza.  Still, I know there are thousands, probably millions, of stories of folks who spent some part of their lives in a mid-70’s Cutlass.  Next to the redesigned Impala/Caprice models that came to market in 1977, everyone has a Cutlass story – the ultimate mass market, middlebrow American car.  So, I tip my hat to the car my friends called “The Yellow Submarine”.