COAL: 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass – Weren’t They All That Colour?

Mother threw a high holy tantrum shortly after we got to Denver in the Spring of 1980. The thing of it was, we hadn’t quite exactly moved to Denver; we’d moved to southeast suburban Denver, about 16 miles or so from dad’s work downtown. Wyncote hadn’t been downtown Philadelphia, mind, but Denver was a sleepy town in 1980. There were some RTD buses to and from the burbs, but not many, and certainly no Philadelphia-style railway station for mother to drop dad at in the morning and then carry on using the car the rest of the day til it was time to go pick him up.

So, molten lava and showers of sparks from mother: there would be another car! On the double! It wasn’t an argument, or even a debate; I don’t recall Dad objecting even a little bit (though I imagine finances were stretched, as two kids and a cross-country move will do). I do recall going for a family walk round the subdivision once the decision had been made: I saw a parked orange Gremlin and asked my parents please not to get that kind of car because it hurt my eyes.

I don’t know how much shopping around they did. We wound up at Deane Buick on Colorado Boulevard, where they looked at a Caprice a year or two old before eventually picking a ’77 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme 4-door, painted that metallic medium sky blue one could be forgiven for thinking was the only colour available on Cutlasses from about ’74 to ’83, with a matching vinyl roof. I don’t know why, but dad perceived it as fancier and nicer than the Caprice. There wasn’t much of anything particularly Supreme about it; it had the 4-barrel 350, a remote-control sideview mirror, air conditioning, an AM radio, blue velour seats, and…that’s it. Oh, no, wait, it also had tilt steering. Where the clock would’ve gone there was a cheesy plastic “Oldsmobile” plate designed to shame the owner for being a cheapskate. Here’s Deane Buick about 14 [Edit: 17] years before dad bought the Cutlass there:

Dad’s dinner-party repartee repertoire included “I could’ve bought a Honda and got fifty miles a gallon, but I took a look at the traffic on I-70 and bought an Oldsmobile with a big 350 engine instead!” Oh, dear.

The Cutlass was not such a good car, on or off I-70; certainly it was nowhere near as intrinsically sound of design and engineering as the Caprice. The trunk was ridiculously small, the frameless window glass made a variety of noise, the transmission sometimes engaged Reverse or Drive with a jerk, and I retrospectively have deep doubts about the safety performance of the front seatbelts: the retractor was mounted to the roof above the back seat, and a lonnnnnng length of belt webbing ran from there to a plastic guide loop on the front seat. The longer the free belt webbing, the more the belt will stretch under impact, and car roofs of that time weren’t very sturdy.

This is the closest approximate photo I could find on the web. More or less the right colour, but off by one year and no vinyl roof and fancier wheels and oh, whatever:

The Cutlass seemed built more or less almost somewhat as well as the Caprice. It had more problems—mostly nagging ones, not the dead-by-the-roadside kind…mostly. I imagine it must have run at least reasonably well when my folks bought it, but I recall it pretty consistently running poorly. It took extended cranking to start, hesitated, and had a seemingly incurable rough idle. It pinged and overheated hard on at least one trip up to the mountains. The exhaust also had a nauseating odour to it; I’m pretty sure most of these maladies were down to a severely clogged catalytic converter, but that was not something ever suggested by the service stations dad patronised.

It did make that Oldsmobubble “blub-blub-blub” exhaust note through its single tailpipe. I’m not a fan, and wasn’t back then, either; to me it always sounds like a lame cylinder. But it was certainly a characteristic sound of that car. Not the only one, either; in the ’70s it was trendy for at least two American automakers to cut down on wind whistles by wiring the blower motor to run at an an extra-low speed whenever the ignition was switched on, the idea being to slightly pressurise the interior of the car so any air leaks would flow from inside to outside. What the hey, it was cheaper than properly building and sealing the body! The blower motor was quite audible, even at the very low speed—it served also, by dint of changed tone, as an indicator that a jump start would be needed in the immediate future—and for awhile it was the only thing to listen to inside the car; even in 1980, the AM radio dial was mostly a wasteland.

So dad went and had a better radio put in: a Pioneer SuperTuner, № KP-5500. Why must I remember this flotsam instead of the useful stuff I’m always forgetting? This was an FM-AM unit with a cassette player, our first such thing in a car. Somehow or other four speakers were involved, as well, which meant when sister would wheedle for KBPI (“…Rocks the Rockies!”) or KAZY or one of the other pop-music stations, dad could turn the knob to send all the sound to the rear speakers, then grouse—in an attempted guilt trip that went right over us kids’ heads—that this didn’t stop him hearing Gary Wright rasping about how he Really Wanna Know You, or Stevie Wonder bap-bap-bap-bapping about a Part-Time Lover. Dad preferred classical music or bluegrass or other suchlike.

And with the tape player on board, there was suddenly the opportunity for whatever other suchlike came to mind and hand. There was a small collection of cassettes. A Lynn Harrell cello album, a Miles Davis trumpet album, but the one that got the most play was Champions, a collection of mostly pop tunes covered by the Canadian Brass. Tiresome CanCon in its home market, maybe, but in the suburbs of Denver that was exotic music from a foreign country where they say “aboot” (so goes the persistent myth). It was many years before I discovered the origin of those tunes—”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was the Beatles?! “We Are The Champions” was Queen?!! The ’77 Cutlass steering wheel was shiny, hard plastic, and dad used to tap his thumbs and fingers to the beat. The one with his wedding ring made a louder tap than the rest.

There was a “map light” of sorts—in quotes because GF&L reading anything by it—above the squarish printwood panel that contained the HVAC sliders and the radio. A little black plastic lever sticking down from the right side of its lens “switched it on”, in quotes because what it actually did was slide a blue-green translucent inner lens in or out behind the clear outer lens. In the “off” position, a dim bluish light was cast on the controls; the light got brighter and whiter in the “on” position. But I think either way, it only worked if the parking lights or headlamps were on.

Speaking of which, this was the car wherein started my lifelong fixation with vehicle lighting. I was seven years old or so. Dad was driving me somewhere after dark—we were on Colorado Boulevard between Quincy and Hampden Avenues, and he showed me how there was a high beam for when the road ahead was empty, and a low beam for when other cars were around. I had enough arithmetic to reckon that out: four lamps, two beams; a pair for low beam and a pair for high beam. The maths broke down for me when I went off to summer camp, though; counsellor Howie had a VW Beetle with just one lamp on each side, and I followed the poor guy around asking him pesky questions (Yes! Yes, Daniel, I have low and high beam! Now will you please go ride horses or make lanyards or something?). The idea of two filaments in one lamp hadn’t yet occurred to me.

Know why the turn signal bulb and reflector are inboard like that, instead of centred or doubled or otherwise spread across the whole width of the lens? It’s because front turn signals less than 4 inches from the low beam have to put out light at least 2.5× the intensity of turn signals farther away from the low beams, and brighter turn signals cost more to make.


The Cutlass didn’t age well, though that wasn’t entirely due to inherent shoddiness. Vinyl tops attract and hold dirt, and this one never got cleaned (beyond the occasional trip through a car wash) or dressed, nor did the paintwork ever get polished or waxed. Velour upholstery doesn’t mix well with little kids; despite dad’s no-feets-on-the-seats rule, they got and stayed much grubbier than the vinyl ones in the Caprice. There was about a 3″ × 5″ vertical rectangle of gummy grey adhesive on the inside of the left rear door window, left behind by some sticker on the Deane Buick lot and never cleaned off.

The left quarter panel went to crumbly rust above the wheel arch; I suppose it’s possible this was accelerated by that time dad didn’t quite get the tire chains on properly and that one swhacked at the sheetmetal with every rotation of the wheel. If your eyes are quick, you’re about to (twice) see the ugly “repair” effected with nothing but epoxy spray paint from the hardware store, not close to matching—and you’ll see a handful of other cars, into the bargain, in these clips from when dad taught me to ride a bike:

The Cutlass had an insatiable appetite for brake light bulbs, usually left ones. And it seemed to eat water pumps and batteries and mufflers—the latter probably because of the acidic half-catalysed exhaust and Midas’ half-quality parts and half-assed work.

Almost no photographs were taken of dad’s Cutlass, and even fewer survive; the one at the top of this post is the only one I can find. Here it is again:

That’s Christmas day 1982, or maybe a day or two later. The Blizzard of ’82 on Christmas Eve wallopped Denver-Metro with multiple feet of snow, and as you can see—more pics in this slide show—the drifts were extreme. The storm cleared up by the morning after, but the snowdump hung around for a recordsmashing forty-six days. Sister (10) and I (7) were little enough to be exempt from shovelling duty. Mother had this mishegoss idea to throw coins and candies in the snow and invite older neighbourhood kids to find them in the course of shovelling; realism prevailed over that one.

When it was finally possible to reach and open the car again, it was reluctant to start—on top of its usual crankiness, the battery and the oil had been in a deep-freeze for days on end. Eventually it did fire, but wanted to stall. Mother stood on the accelerator; I remember the racecar sounds and the odd, burnt odour of the exhaust. Who needed those smelly ol’ piston rings, anyhow?

There was another cold-start adventure, too, on a cool schoolmorning when I was eleven. Mother was running late getting ready to go, and asked if I would go start the car. In my head, I went Ohboy ohboy ohboy, really?! COOL!!! With my voice, I went “Okeh, where are the keys?”. I fairly floated out the front door, keys in hand. I was actually going to get to start the car! I unlocked it, sat in the driver’s seat(!!!), put the key in the ignition—oh, just as blasé as you please—and turned it. The starter cranked.

And cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked some more, because I didn’t know to kick the gas to prime the intake and close the automatic choke. Mother emerged from the house, smiling and shaking her head. Dammit, no, I can do this! Just as she neared the car, the engine fired, sorta, in that loping, dubious manner of a cold engine started without the choke. So it was, after all, a start.

By 1987, the Cutlass was bedraggled enough that my folks decided it was time to sell. Ads were placed in Denver’s two(!) daily newspapers. The Denver Post’s classified ad phone number was 825-2525, in accord with which they were usually running an “8 days, 2 lines, 5 bucks” deal, and dad showed me how all the relevant information was made to fit with extreme abbreviation: 77 CutSup 4dr 350 AT-PS-PB $900 696-0909. Signs were also posted on the bulletin boards at the grocery store and around my school.

Classified-ad weirdos did not suddenly appear with the advent of Craigslist, I’m here to tell you. It was conveyed to me one day that after I got home from school someone would be coming to see the car, and I should show it to them. Mom and dad were both at work, I guess, which would mean Laurie was watching us kids, but this still makes all kinds of no sense at all. I was a fifth-grader, still firmly in the never-get-in-a-car-with-a-stranger age range and years away from holding even a learner’s permit, yet somehow I was meant to show the car…?

Oh, someone came seeing the car, alright. Dude screeched up in a red-orange Chevrolet Monza, opened the door, and bopped up the driveway, making obviously deliberate effort to look, act, and sound like a mix of Wolfman Jack and John Travolta. The result was a bit like a parody of Disco Stu.

I was standing by the Cutlass, the only car around except for his. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the Monza and said “At’s my go-cart ovuh here!”, then made a big overproduction of looking around and said “Wherezza Cutlass at?” I indicated the car I was standing next to. He squinched up his face and said “It’s a four-door!”.

I said nothing. He rolled his eyes, bopped around the car, muttering “four door…!” under his breath and shaking his head, rolled his eyes again, gave forth a big sigh that was more exaggerated than exasperated, and said “Well, I’m here, I guess I’ll take a test drive, but…man…four-door!”.

We got in the car. I fastened my seatbelt, whereupon he turned to me and angrily said “Hey, man, I don’t have to do that! Hate seatbelts!” He started the car and backed it out the driveway, shifted to Drive and punched the gas—hard. Then he stood on the brakes, shifted to Reverse, nailed the gas, hit the brakes, shifted to Drive, stomped the gas, etc. Back and forth we lurched, about 25 feet each way, about ten times (me, I don’t hate seatbelts). He pulled over, pulled the hood release, got out, bopped to the front of the car and opened the hood, pulled the transmission dipstick, and went “Transmission is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!!! Lookit this grit in the fluid ovuh here!”

He resumed his test drive; I directed him around the neighbourhood while he cursed the existence of four-door cars. Eventually he parked back in the driveway and allowed as how he might buy it, even though it was a four-door. I told him he’d have to talk to my dad. He bopped back down the driveway to his Monza and screeched off.

We never heard from him again, and dad explained how the act was intended to justify a lowball price. The Cutlass did eventually sell, I don’t recall how or to whom, but the idea of a trade was explored with the seller of its replacement—a car that was aspirational, I suppose, but was very much not an improvement over the Cutlass. We’ll get to that after I tell about Laurie’s cars next week.

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