CCCCC Part 5: 1970 Cutlass Supreme Coupe – A New Supreme Era Begins

(first posted 3/24/2011)         Here it is, the supreme formula that took the American market by storm. It started out very modestly; some 68k Cutlass Supreme coupes were sold in 1970. Nine years later, Olds would crank out almost a half million of them. How to explain it? Like many winning formulas, it’s hard to break it down to its components perfectly, because “luck”, “trends” and “fad” are not so easy to quantify. But let’s take a stab at it.

1970 marked a significant new point of departure in the mid-size coupe market. The long run of the sporty mid-size coupe was running out of compression, as we documented in the 1970 Cutlass S CC. But the real origins of this new era can be credited to the pioneering 1965 Ford LTD, which ushered in affordable luxury and launched the Great Brougham Epoch. The influence of the LTD was near-instantaneous, but it wasn’t until about 1970 that it really started to take off.

The reasons are numerous: the performance golden age fell on the sword of its own decadence (high insurance, social and political backlash) and rapidly tightening emission controls. In 1973, OPEC administered the assisted suicide in the form of spiraling gas prices.

But those were only the more technical factors. The whole socio-political climate went through its biggest convulsion ever between about 1968 and the late seventies. The Vietnam War was the biggest catalyst by far; Watergate, a new regulatory fever, environmental awareness and a general spirit of change, any change – good or bad –  was in the air. Lots of younger folks think the sixties was the decade of change, but in terms of actual social, political and regulatory change, the seventies were the zenith or nadir, depending on your perspective and the specific issues. The seventies were the reverberations of the sixties’ vibrations.

And the ’65 Ford LTD was either the prescient prophet or dumb luck gamble, in terms of the car market. Change is intrinsically stressful, except perhaps for those instigating it. To isolate and soothe one’s jangled nerves from all the craziness, folks were drawn powerfully to the idea of a RR-quiet cocoon. And they were getting older, more status conscious, and married, with kids. The clapped-out ’63 Chevy II with a semi-race 327, near-straight pipes and Traction Masters wasn’t cutting it anymore with she-who-must-be-obeyed.

(what’s that on the passenger seat?)

The LTD may have been the St. John the Baptist of the mid-size affordable-luxury coupe decade, but it was St. John DeLorean who really ushered it in with the 1969 Grand Prix. He reincarnated the now-tired formula of the full-size luxury coupe into a medium-sized one, by taking the new-for 1968 coupe A-Body and extending the wheelbase in front of the cowl by six inches.  Thus the G-Body was created, and as a consolation, Chevy got to use it too, for its 1970 Monte Carlo.

Olds was left out of the G-Body party, but crafted its own clever solution: it grafted the G-Body’s formal coupe line and rear to the Cutlass A-Body front, creating a hybrid of the two. Here are all four of them:

That extended front wheels/nose is quite apparent in the GP (top) and MC (second). And the GP/MC C-panel and tail, with a distinct break between the roof line and trunk is also quite apparent. Buick (bottom) stayed with the conventional sporty coupe body at its peril. It may have been the key decision as to why the Skylark gave way for the Cutlass’ Supremacy in the mid-price market.

Looking at sales stats from the 1970 – 1984 years, the peak personal coupe years, tells quite a tale. The GP had a strong start in 1969 with 112k units, quadrupling sales over its pudgy predecessor. It had its first peak in 1973 (154k), dipped again after the energy crisis, and enjoyed its best years from ’76 through ’79, when it topped 200k, peaking at 288k in 1975.

The Monte Carlo started strong in 1970 (146k), and built up quite steadily, cresting at 410k in 1977, a banner year, before its protracted decline.

Buick sales are hard to break out, because the distinct Regal Coupe didn’t arrive until 1974. The Regal started slowly (58k) that year, built up progressively until its peak in 1979, with 273 k units.

And the Cutlass Supreme Coupe also started modestly in 1970 (68k), and didn’t really begin to take off until the new 1973 Colonnade body style (220k). But by 1976, it crested the 300,000 mark (326k), and kept right on going, all the way to 471k in 1979, its all-time peak.

Its secret sauce? Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit; we’re still in 1970, for now. Need to save something for the next few chapters of the CCCCC. But the basic ingredients are all here in this first year Cutlass Supreme Holiday Hardtop Coupe. Let’s just say there’s something to the idea of a safe, golden middle: the GP was bold and dramatic; maybe too much so. And Pontiac quality fell disproportionally in the seventies. The Regal missed the first boat, and never quite caught up. The Monte Carlo? Well, ultimately, it was still a Chevy. The Olds: none of the above. Or is that not giving it enough credit?

Chapter 6 here