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”.
My TAC officer in OCS had a dark blue 2 door tagged in Nebraska. Hers was only 3 years old at the time. Since this was Ft. Benning Georgia, no rust. Major wear and tear was still some years in the future. After OCS, I moved into a BOQ while in Airborne school. To my surprise, her room was near mine. She gave me a ride to Airborne school almost every morning and we went out a few weekends. I remember the car having really comfy seats, great AC and the oddest location for a clock.
The Cutlass coupe was the king of the Colonnades in Brooklyn NY, They were everywhere during the 70’s and 80’s. Taking a walk along 86th Street under the “el” (made famous from the movie Saturday Night Fever), you would see tons of Cutlass coupes cruising up and down with the appropriate Bee Gee’s music blaring from the Delco AM/FM/8 track stereo!
Coupes ruled supreme! A Brooklynites top priority was style over anything else! Formal landau roofs with opera windows were all the rage! Pinstripes, spoke wheel covers, whitewalls, faux wood…. these cars had it all. The Supreme Coupe, the most popular, had everything one needed for cruising around Brooklyn with the occasional ride to the suburbs, The Supreme Brougham Coupe was the ultimate. Who could refuse settling into those pillow seats? The Salon Coupe was reserved for those who wanted something a bit different with those high back lounge chairs. The base coupe, S coupe, 4-4-2 and the Hurst/Olds were seldom seen, probably due to the lack of the fancy gingerbread. Or maybe because these models had fastback roofs.
The 1973 to 75 coupes were the cream of the cannoli. But the new 1976 restyle was even more delicious. Brooklynites loved the smooth flanks which gave the coupe even more style.
While the coupe was everywhere, sedans and wagons were hardly seen. Even if a family needed more room, they somehow figured out how to make due with a coupe. They wanted to be seen in a fancy stylish car, not a family hauler that someone on the island (referring to Long Island NY) would be driving.
The downsized 1978 to1980 models were also well accepted by Brooklynites(except those fastback Salon models), but it wasn’t until the 1981 restyle when these cars took off again and made the Cutlass coupe the official car of the Borough of Kings.
I have very vivid memories of all the personal luxury coupes that cruised the outer boroughs of NYC at that time. Guys who stood on the corner in my working class Queens neighborhood with their Cutlass Supremes, Monte Carlos, Regals, Thunderbirds and Cougar XR-7s parked at the curb. The cars were usually driven a total of two blocks – from one parking spot to the corner and back. Maybe to the candy store on the other corner for a pack of cigarettes. My pre-teen self watched them carefully wash and polish their cars weekly in the warm weather – it was like a jeweler polishing a piece of gold or silver. You could feel the level of reverence for the machine. Most of these guys still lived with their parents – the car was their sole means of expression and source of expense. And, all the while, the voice of DJ Paco from 92WKTU radio announcing the next disco remix coming out of the stereo.
OMG your so right on point SteveMar. That was how the “guidos” spend their spare time. Me included haha.
DJ PacoNavarro unfortunately passed away last year. He was one of my favorites, along with Joe Causi, who was one of my brothers best friends. Joe drove a 1978 Monte Carlo in beige with a camel interior. Remember Freddie Colon ? Those were the days when KTU was on 92.3
Not sure if you still live in the tristate area or not, but KTU is now 103.5. It’s not the same as it was back in the day. But I still listen to it all the time when I cruise around Monmouth County NJ in my Honda Civic haha,
I spent time in both the most and least common versions of these cars – a 74 Cutlass Supreme coupe (they were everywhere) and a 74 Luxury LeMans sedan (highly uncommon). My Mom drove the LeMans from new until 1980 and my stepmom had the Cutlass for two years longer. Everything you describe about your car brings back memories.
The 2 bbl Pontiac 350 was a fuel-swilling dog in our LeMans, so I cannot imagine how much less pleasant the 260 would have been. The Olds 4 bbl 350 was a pretty good match for these cars. Our cars suffered from the 1974 emissions setups and from lots of cheap trim pieces, but the cars were solid and gave very little trouble. You could have done a whole lot worse in a cheap old car than one of these.
My dad replaced his ’70 Nova with a ’77 Cutlass Supreme and I remember as a small child multiple transmission and engine breakdowns. I must have been three, the summer of ’78, after an Italian dinner at El Monaco’s in White Lake, the transmission blew and we crawled back to Liberty in first gear at five miles an hour. Four engines, three transmissions under warranty? Dad never bought a car from Malcolm Konner ever again.
Dad drove Opa’s ’70 Chevelle for five years from ’79 to ’84, that Cutlass disappointed him so much.
I have probably mentioned this before but I have always found it unusual how the Cutlass sedans did get a new front clip and bumper with the 1976 model year but kept the same doors, body panels with “skegs” and rear end from 1975. Only the coupes had entirely new sheet metal front to back. Must have been how America was primarily a 2 door coupe world back then and sedans were just an afterthought.
I’m pretty sure the new sheetmetal on the coupes was to allow the Cutlass and Century/Regal to share their doors.
Many consider the car of the seventies the Honda Civic. While that car was a well-built, fuel-efficient people-mover, a strong case could be made that the ‘real’ car of the seventies was the Olds Cutlass. It was certainly popular over the entire decade and, to be honest, the amazing sales figures surely made GM executives think there was zero reason to be concerned with the looming Japanese onslaught. Who could blame them?
In that era, GM was like a lumbering Goliath, swinging at a host of Davids. When it was focused and on point, like the 77 B and C bodies, it could execute relatively well. (Even the ‘78 A bodies, while not perfect, were generally well received.). But it’s hard to underestimate how disruptive the twin oil crises plus Japanese automakers were to the company’s planning. On the one hand, you had the Chevette, which was a re-badge of an existing Opel platform, to throw a bone at small economy car shoppers. And then the company tries to engineer it’s first mass market front wheels drive vehicles with the X bodies in 1979/80, sells over 800,000 Citations, but suffers horrifically in the marketplace afterwards because it cut too many quality & design corners in order to rush production and chase sales. By the early/mid 80’s, both vehicle sales and GM’s engineering leadership had collapsed.
Good Goliath/David analogy. The fifties (Chevrolet), sixties (Pontiac), and seventies (Oldsmobile), those three decades belonged to GM. But by the end of the eighties (the Roger Smith years), Goliath was no more, and they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
In fact, the latest big GM news that Cadillac is going to be 100% electric is just another shot at getting back that dominance, this time trying to get it away from Tesla, which I’m going to guess will go down as the car of the 2010s.
The eighties were the decade of Honda for me. The Cutlass (and Olds in general) remained very popular into the early ’80s, but those buyers moved en masse to Accords and Camrys by the end of the decade.
I remember a lot of Olds dealerships paired with Honda, starting in the late seventies and early eighties. So that transition from Cutlass to Civic and especially Accord, worked out well for them. Even though I suspect that transition came earlier in California than other states, I agree that it really took off in the mid-eighties.In fact, I’d say that the four door Accord was one of the big nails in the A/G body coupé coffin.
It must have been especially slow with 9 aboard.
We could have walked faster, until the momentum built. Then thankfully the brakes worked well!
A friend of mine’s mom had one of these, a 2 door, bought new in 76 and drove it till fall 79 when she got the unmarked pre-production Chrysler K-car to drive for endurance testing. I do love the dash in these Olds.
Gadzooks! I had forgotten how much I hated that discontinuous crease on the lower part of the doors. That was the best reason to get the 2 door on these cars.
Hmm I’d never looked at the 260 Olds engine before, but with 105hp and 195 ft*lb of torque it was pretty much the same as the 267 in Dad’s Impala (115hp and 210 ft*lb) so you have my sympathies.
Great writeup and entertaining read. It’s amazing how these Colonnade Cutlasses were once everywhere, and now it’s a rare treat to see one. On that trip with nine people to Rockaway Beach, I bet you’re glad you were the driver!
I can’t remember when the last time was that I saw a Cutlass with that ’76 front end. Always looked a little odd to me, since it didn’t quite seem to match the rest of the Colonnade’s design. But I’d love to see one in person nowadays!
The last Colonnade Cutlass I’ve seen was this ’77 coupe below, which I saw in Washington, DC a few years ago. It bears similar urban scars to what yours likely had. Oddly, it appeared to have been repainted somewhat recently, despite the copious rust, which is why the yellow color seems brighter than one would expect, given the car’s condition.
I spent some time as a kid in the mid-late 80’s in a coupe similar to the one you posted. It was a metallic tan color with a beige/cream colored half vinyl top and interior.
It was my aunts car bought at 7-9 years old. Loved it. It seemed huge. Hauled us on lots of trips to the lake, movies, or what ever she was doing to keep us all occupied.
It had a few issues but it was a great car in my mind.
It even had the same wheel covers as the one in the pic.
Of the early colonnade cars, the Olds Cutlass was one of my favorites.
When the 2 door Cutlass lost it’s side sculpting and went to rectangular headlights, it was an example of screwing up a much better design.
I purchased a used ’77 Cutlass, low miles, well maintained, 350 4bbl, I thought I’d grow to like it.
Nope, it was like the Prom Queen , some years later, after she grew fat and lost her looks.
I never warmed up to that car and quickly sold it to the first person who came to look at it. I realize people love this style , but “Yecch!”
The GM Colonnades were everywhere during these years, and the Cutlass led the pack. In 1976, Oldsmobile was on a roll, as the Delta 88 and Ninety-Eight were also gaining sales strength. Not only was the Cutlass the best-selling individual car line, but Oldsmobile had nailed down the number-three spot behind Chevrolet and Ford.
These cars had largely disappeared by the early 1990s around here, but are now starting to show up at the Carlisle and Hershey car shows.
I prefer the 1973-75 Cutlasses – the single headlight is an important design element in these cars (and all of the Colonnades). But, in 1976, square headlights were the newest thing (at least, in North America), so it was expected that GM would feature them first on an intermediate car.
I’ve always wondered why GM didn’t “iron out” the lower body creases on the Cutlass sedans and wagons for 1976-77. The new sheet metal on the coupes was an effective change that went well with the square headlights. Not changing the side sheet metal on the sedans and wagons reeked of penny-pinching on the order of what Chrysler did with its restyled 1975 intermediates.
The Mopar two-door coupes were new, but the sedans and wagons featured the restyled front end grafted on to the vintage-1971 bodies. We expected that sort of thing from financially strapped Chrysler, but not GM.
I grew up on Long Island in the 70s/80s, and Colonnades were very common.
About that 260 V8…. It was a de-bored Olds 350. 3.50 x 3.385 vs 4.00 x 3.385.
At steady-state expressway speeds, it could get 20mpg or more per Consumer Reports (tested in a 1977 Cutlass sedan—they also noted it was slow, 18-19 seconds 0-60, slower than a Nova six-cylinder, let alone a 305-2bbl V8 Caprice 12-13 seconds). I’m sure it burned less while idling.
Our first car was a Ventura (Nova) equipped with the 260 2bbl V8. When I asked how many mpg it got, he said, “about 15”. As a kid, I thought that was pretty lame–the gas consumption of a large V8 with the power of a six. My father didn’t mind, he liked the car.
But over time, I’ve come to appreciate my father’s perspective. He got that car used, it stayed in the family 10-years. Except for one time (ignition module), the engine started every time. Hot summer or record winter. It didn’t stall. It didn’t hesitate. It was smooth. And, given Long Island’s stop and go traffic, 14-17 mpg wasn’t that bad (started topping off the tank and checking it).
I think GM got it more right with the 307 (3,800 x 3.385) used in the 1980s. That is what they should have used starting in 1975.
I had the exact car but mine had a straight 6 and 3 speed on the column. I have never seen another one. The sloped nose was only available ont he base model S and the coupes including the 442. Nice car, Sky blue with Blue and grey plaid seats. I found it in Suffolk county Long Island for $1000, no rust and this was in 1980 so it was only 4 years old. I would be surprised if there was even 1 of those left
We complain today about the excessive character lines and flame surfacing on the flanks of modern cars. Well, these Colonnade Cutlasses had similar styling flourishes (except of course for the ’76-77 coupes).
And that goes for the Monte Carlo. And a few others I could mention.
The difference between the Colonnades and many of today’s vehicles is that, on modern vehicles, the character lines appear to be randomly placed on various surfaces of the vehicle. Character lines and highlights simply start and stop, without much rhyme or reason. The result looks chaotic and disorganized.
On the Colonnades, the side sculpturing was clearly meant to evoke the fender sweeps of the big, custom-bodied classics of the 1930s. The long hood with sculpturing that terminated in a prominent grille was, again, meant to evoke the cars of the 1930s. Both were part of an overall vision that included the long hood/short deck proportions, and a close-coupled passenger compartment with thick C pillars.
Whatever one can say about the Colonnades today, they were clearly styled by Bill Mitchell’s staff with an overriding theme in mind. They are not chaotic or disorganized in appearance.
Wow. I owned that exact car in the first photo too. Same color and everything. Was my first car, bought it when it was 12 years old for $800. Not nearly as nice as the photo of course, mine was also pockmarked with rust from top to bottom…