COAL: 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass- An Upgrade


NOTE: Semi-close to mine, but no rally wheels, pin stripes, nor not nearly as nice.

(please welcome our new Sunday COAL series contributor)     After my third year of college in May of 1987 was winding to a close, the folks knew I would need a car of my own to drive. They were tired of getting me and my stuff back and forth to college. There would soon be job interviews, hopefully a job along with that, and it was just time.  I was paying most of my own way for college, still Mom and Dad were generous in doing this for me and I was grateful.  I was home from college for about a week, and my summer job was starting, so we had to move fast.

The exact details of how I came across this car are a bit murky.   Back in those days the used car search began with casting a wide net:  look around at the fringes of parking lots for For-Sale signs, asking around/ word of mouth, bulletin boards at grocery stores, and of course, the weekly classified rag, Tradin’ Times. This was the Craigslist of the day and it was available everywhere.  Dad tasked me to look and report back.  There was a vague mention of a Citation, but I always had a thing for the Cutlass, and I decided to start and finish there.


When we lived in Detroit (until I was six), the guy across the alley had a red Cutlass convertible. Our solidly working-class neighborhood didn’t have much interesting metal, so something that exotic left an impression on the 5-year-old me. I always just liked them from that point, still do. But with the newly introduced G-body that came out in 1978, I just liked the long hood and short trunk, it just spoke to me. And I was not alone.

Looking back, it’s amazing how a midsize car that was sold predominantly as a coupe was so popular for so long. And what was up with the Cutlass? The Monte Carlo, the Regal and the Grand Prix were all on the same platform, with the same basic body lines.  It was brand management and platform sharing run amok.  Sure, everybody did it (then and now), but how did GM get away with this for so long? So why was the Olds version the grand slam year in and year out versus the others? The Monte and ‘Prix were cheaper in price the Regal probably slightly more in the GM pecking order of the day.  Somehow it hit the sweet spot and resonated with millions of consumers. The Cutlass had long been a sales powerhouse. The G body was the best selling car in the America in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1983. 1983 was the last year a rear wheel drive car (not truck) was the number one seller.

I ended finding one on the east side of Detroit not far from the old neighborhood where we used to live that looked promising.  It would have been super nice to have a “broughamy” one.  For me, ideally that would have been a burgundy coupe like above, velour interior, power everything with the Olds 350 V-8. I’m sure I could’ve found one along those lines if I had more time and casted a wider net.  True to form though, Dad wanted me to have a more basic version, “less to break “.  And we had to move fast.

A visit was arranged. The seller had just got a new Chevy Sprint and needed to unload his 1980 Cutlass. My Dad wisely decided to bring along my brother Phil, a former GM dealership mechanic.  After getting burned so bad on the Chevette, once bitten twice shy, but this one met with Phil’s approval.  As it turns out, the seller and my brother knew some of the same people from the old neighborhood, and that lightened the transaction mood considerably. After a slight bit of tire kicking and mild low-balling, $1800 was exchanged and it came home.

Mine was I believe “Light Camel Metallic”, column shift and had an AM/ FM Delco radio, working air conditioning (gasp!) and a tan vinyl interior, the base Buick 231 C.I.D. V-6, and the options list stopped right there.  Some rust spots were nicely masked by the paint color, but when I waxed it…it presented well. It was a huge upgrade over the Chevette. After swapping the Delco radio with an Audiovox AM-FM/Cassette Deck sourced from K-Mart so I could play R.E.M. , XTC and Husker Du tapes, I was one contented young man.

The car left absolutely no impression, positive or negative as far as driving enjoyment or vehicle dynamics were concerned. It had over-boosted, one-finger wheel turn power steering like anything above a subcompact had back then. It was floaty and compliant over the horrible (then and now) Michigan roads, and you wanted to take it slow in the corners. No worry about joyriding here. The anemic V-6 was rated at just 110 horsepower.  0-60 tests in the day showed 0-60 times of 13.6 seconds.  At anything above 65-70,  the anemic six really struggled, worse with the AC on.  Oh….I do recall finding the front bench seat a good thing.  I liked the fact that my first-ever girlfriend would sit right next to me when we went out, or I could cram six people in it. If anything, it was a very comfortable and easy to live with car.

The subsequent 2 years in my care were not good ones for the Cutlass. Out at breakfast one day on a weekend trip home that fall, a drugged-out crazy woman backed into it in while it was parked, then sped off.   Months later, I got in a fender bender with a big Delta 88 in an icy parking lot and got the worse of it. The front bumper and fender were now bent down in a permanent automotive frown. I had no collision insurance thus no repair. The Cutlass soldiered on.

The next summer, on a weekend road trip, I started smelling burning rubber under the hook, and switched the AC off. The air-conditioning compressor seized. My father, angry that I had broken it somehow, thought if we just banged it with a hammer repeatedly it would somehow un-seize it (it didn’t).  It was awfully hot in there on a 90-degree day with vinyl seats. The main redeeming feature of the car was now gone.

It also had oil leak (or burned oil or both) and you had to faithfully check the oil and sometimes I didn’t.  One day  I heard a strange ticking from the engine and the oil lamp gently flickered on. I pulled off in Portland, Michigan and had to dump in 4 quarts. Not a good sign. By this time, it was a hooptee, and it had barely 90,000 miles on it. The car seemed to be dying a slow death. By comparison, it’s amazing nowadays how with routine basic maintenance you can get years of good service out of any brand even at high mileage.

But I owe the Cutlass a debt of gratitude.  It got me through college, and was the car that took me home, literally penniless, from my last semester of college and into my first year in the working world.  I do not recall a time it left me stranded except at the end. About six months into my first job, it started running rough with a serious misfire.  The mechanic diagnosed it as mass electrical gremlins and maladies and it would take time and money to diagnose it, much less fix it.

We decided to throw in the towel. I just needed something a little more reliable, presentable,  and less hooptee-ish as I was wearing a suit to work every day.  This was still in the  Yuppie, Dress for Success era. Dad sold it quickly for 600 bucks to a wide-eyed high school kid from Farmington Hills who said he was going to make it into a hot rod. The deal always was that it was Dad’s car and then any proceeds from the sale were his. Fair enough. Time to get a reliable daily driver and the rite of passage for a recent college graduate: a new car.