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

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.

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