COAL: 1989 Olds Cutlass Supreme – A Beautiful Machine

I was young, married, with three little kids, and another one on the way.  Money was tight.  My father-in-law found out my wife and I were sharing our ‘94 Grand Caravan  and said “I’m going to give you my old car.”  He was a loyal GM owner who had an ’89 Cutlass Supreme.

The car was two-tone silver with a generous amount of optional equipment.  I remember it had the cloth interior, but it did have factory alloy wheels.  It was a very aerodynamic-looking car.  I don’t know what it’s technical coefficient of drag would measure, but this was the Ford Taurus era and it seemed like every car redesign was smooth shaped.  My favorite part was the hood/headlight area, beautiful lines here.

A disclaimer: I don’t view these old GM products with disdain.  Rather than seeing them as “Deadly Sins”, I see many of these models as usually-reliable machines accomplishing their intended purpose.  They are flawed, imperfect, four-wheeled, transportation devices.  It is easy to criticize, but GM got a lot right.  There is no such thing as a perfect car.  Every car manufactured has its Achilles’ heel.

GM’s W platform served millions of Americans for decades.  The W body included the Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Chevrolet Lumina.  The “BOP” front drive compacts debuted in 1988 and slowly replaced the GM G bodies.   This was a new design, not a restyle of the G bodies.  The only carry-over were the model names.

The G body was an old-school intermediate, body-on frame, rear wheel drive that debuted in 1978.  At the close of the 1980s many of GM’s offerings were using V6 engines, but the tried-and-true 305 small block Chevrolet V8 was still available in the G body. Interestingly, production wound down – but didn’t cease right away. Chevrolet kept the Monte Carlo around for one extra year.  You couldn’t get the Lumina right away, it debuted after its corporate cousins.

The fact that these cars were downsized goes without saying.  But for the sake of a quick history lesson, let’s review.  GM’s ’78-’87 personal luxury intermediates were large on the outside and small on the inside.  The weight of one of these was in the 3,300 – 3,400 pound range.  I gutted an ’87 Regal for drag racing a few years go and at the track it tipped the scales at 3,240.  With the ’89 re-design they were shorter, lower, and their weight dropped by 400 to 500 pounds to the neighborhood of 3,000 lbs. or so.  Like sticking to the Weight Watchers plan, a unibody, front-drive, and a V6, and the pounds melt away.

When calling these W cars “deadly sins” people sometimes forget about the models that  came before them.  Also, people forget about market share.  GM owned a huge chunk of the domestic market way back when.  Sales were not a problem.  For example; the chassis of the Corvette was unchanged from 1968 to 1982 because Chevy sold every Corvette they could build.  In a similar way, These W cars were hot sellers.  There is little motivation for improvement when you sell 150,000 units per year.  And of course, quality drops as production increases for other reasons too.

Sales success led to creativity in the model naming department, at least at Oldsmobile. They had so much success with the Cutlass that they began using the name on everything!   There was the (regular) Cutlass, the Cutlass Calais, the Cutlass Salon, the Cutlass Ciera, etc. etc. The Cutlass I had was a Cutlass Supreme.

This car provided transportation to and from work for me.  It also provided the opportunity for my wife to take the kids out with the minivan.  The Olds was a roomy five-passenger car with an enormous trunk.  One interesting feature was that the outside door latches were incorporated into the B pillars.  Different and quirky became a pain-in-the-neck when a convertible version was planned.  To keep the standard location of the door latch, the Cutlass Supreme convertible had to have a hoop (a fancy roll bar).

What I remember most about these W cars was the distinctive exhaust sound.  Many GM products of this era had the tried-and-true 2.8 L V6.  The exhaust systems in all of these sounded exactly the same.  It had a resonating, throaty sound.  The Beretta, Corsica, Cavalier, and a slew of other GM FWDs all had this same engine.  I’m guessing ninety percent of them had that identical automatic overdrive transmission too.

The transmission is why I sold it.   I had been delivering pizza on the side to make some extra cash and the miles racked up quickly on the little Olds.  At about 200,000 the trans started slipping and like Andrea Bocelli says, it was time to say goodbye.