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.

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