COAL/QOTD: 1981 Olds Cutlass Diesel – Did You Ever Own a Car With a Terrible Reputation That Was Actually Pretty Good?

It’s tough on my ego to admit it, but over 48 years of driving, I’ve bought a few stinkers – cars with some REALLY bad reputations; a 1981 Buick Skylark (X-car), a 1981 Olds Cutlass diesel, and a 1986 Ford Escort GT.  For me, the 80’s were definitely the deadly decade.  I bought each of these three new – and two very quickly lived up to their well-deserved reputations as rolling pieces of %&*#.  But one, surprisingly, never gave me a bit of trouble.

Early 80’s Cutlass very similar to mine – without the halo vinyl roof

I won’t bore you with all the tales of woe the Skylark and the Escort gave me – suffice it to say that one almost burned to the ground from a loose carb leaking gas over the exhaust manifold and the other lost its brakes (thankfully while stationary) from a bad master cylinder – both in the first year of ownership.  Those two cars were undoubtedly trying to kill me.  But the one with probably the worst reputation – the Olds diesel – never gave me a problem or left me stranded in the two years I owned it.

At this point you’re probably asking; “An X-car, an Olds diesel, and an Escort – what were you thinking?”  Well, back in the Jurassic Age before the Internet, if you wanted to do some research on a prospective new car, you had a couple of different options; 1) you could read the reviews in the major enthusiast magazines of the day (Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Road and Track, etc.), 2) you could stop by the library and see if they had any JD Power satisfaction surveys, and 3) you could ask someone who owned one.  I always tried to do at least two of the three.  All three cars had very favorable reviews in one or more of the major car magazines.  Motor Trend even picked the Citation (Chevy’s X-car version) as the 1980 Car of the Year.  Now forty years later, they’ve yet to live it down…

Within two months of owning the Buick Skylark, I realized it was an absolute disaster, so I started looking for something new.  I didn’t care for the downsized 1978-80 model Cutlasses – I thought they looked shrunken and stunted – but the re-style in 1981 was a real improvement – hitting that fine line that made the previous A-Body Colonnade Cutlass a million seller.

So, now you’re asking; “But why the 350 diesel?”  Yes, I knew they had problems, but I read a Car and Driver article that spotlighted the updates GM had made; strengthened head bolts, a fuel-water separator, a roller cam, and revised bearings, etc.  At that time, diesel fuel was also still 10-20 cents cheaper than gas (though it would go up right after that).  Lastly, the dealer was ready to deal, and even after the significant markdown, GM had a separate $750 rebate.  So I rolled the dice and bought it.

And remarkably, all turned out well.  I took several trips from upstate NY to central Ohio and back and the Cutlass never missed a beat – typically averaging over 30 MPG on the highway.  In town it averaged around 22.  It wasn’t fast by any means, it had only 105 hp and 205 ft lbs of torque, but the torque came in low and would give a nice push up to 35-40 mph.  After that, you had to pray for a tailwind.

Yes, it was slow.  But it rode well, got good mileage, looked nice, and unlike the Skylark, always started and ran.  So overall, it wasn’t a bad car.  I was lucky in having the Gen 2 version of the LF9 engine, which fixed most of the previous deficiencies.  If only GM would have addressed all those shortfalls before it was introduced three years earlier, we’d likely have a different legacy today regarding diesels in the US.  But that was the typical GM playbook of the 70s and 80s – push it out, even if it was half-baked.  And as we’ve seen, it’s a lesson that US manufacturers never seem to learn, i.e., 2011-16 Ford Powershift transmission.

I went overseas in mid-1981 and put the Cutlass in storage – came back for visits a few times, pulled it out and it ran fine.  I then sold it to my sister who at that time had two teenage boys – who quickly nicknamed it “The Gutless.”  But can you think of a better car for a teenager?  It’s not like they’re going to engage in any dangerous stoplight Grand Prix’s – unless a diesel Chevette pulls up in the next lane.

If you’re curious, yes, I still have nightmares of burning up in that Buick.  And in a future COAL, I’ll tell you about the Escort and the pieces of paper napkin found clogging the A/C system – but before I attempt that, I need to renew my depression medication.

So, did you ever own a model with a terrible reputation that turned out well?

Related posts:

Curbside Classic: 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Diesel – In Defense of the Olds 350 Diesel V8

eBay Find: 1981 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham Diesel – Those Brown Diesel Wagons Are So Yesterday