(first posted 8/13/2014) This particular zone of the Broadway Auto Row in Oakland has long been a lucky spot for me to spot cars on gloomy days. This is the second time that I’ve run across a particular car that holds a special place in my heart and it’s always great to spend some curbside time with what once was “America’s Sweetheart” car. It surely provided relief to the dreariness of a gloomy Bay Area day.
The Cutlass concept had come a long way over the ten-and-a-half years it had been on the United States auto market. Long gone were the aluminum V8, Roto-Hydramatic, and modest dimensions. The sports/personal flair, to a certain extent, remained in select models, but owning an Oldsmobile still implied the “Holiday” experience of relaxation, good taste and good fortune.
The seeds of the Cutlass’s split nature were planted in the mid-1960s. The Cutlass never reconciled its ambitions to be both a “Little Limousine” for the masses (as reflected in the 1966 Supreme Hardtop sedan’s budding brougham affectations) and not “Your Father’s Oldsmobile” (long before that ad campaign was launched in the 1980s). Oldsmobile offered everything from stripper economy F-85s, technological tour-de-force Toronados and Budget Cadillac Ninety-Eights. The multiple personality disorder had already planted host seeds in Oldsmobile showrooms.
At the turn of the decade, the multiple personality disorder was more or less understood as variety being the spice of life. It did create some winners and losers, however. Certain models contained recipes more palatable to consumer tastes than others. In the personalization and self-actualization days of the early 1970s, the coddling comforts of Air Conditioning, tinted glass and vinyl roofs conferred more savvy than free in-the-breeze sporty, top down motoring.
Oldsmobile had spent most of the 1960s responding to different trends than creating them or being at their forefront as was the case in the immediate postwar era. Through those responses, the brand became a master at marketing the American automotive experience; there’s a little bit of irony that Oldsmobile therefore entered the 1970s the best poised of all General Motors brands to tap into the following decade’s zeitgeist. By 1970, Oldsmobile wasn’t necessarily trying anything new or bold (though in reality, no General Motors brand was and one could also say the same of all American manufacturers at the time). Oldsmobile did, however, distill what everyone loved about the American car and offered it across their entire line-up.
The virtues were plenty. Proven moderate displacement V8? Yes. Smooth shifting automatic transmission? Yes. Perceived and actual above-average build quality? After five years of the same basic design, all of the fundamental flaws that could be engineered out of the A-Body cars had been (though there would be suspension geometry improvements that would settle the handling even further with the Colonnades). For now, there were a few strategic catalog line items that could improve the basic Cutlass Supreme experience, moving it away from nautical yacht and more towards speedboat.
By 1972, however, the Rocket 350 was rated at 180 hp net in 4-barrel guise. Somewhere in the math between that figure and the 310 gross horsepower reported in 1970, and 260 gross in 1971, there could have been a few ponies lost to tightening emissions standards. In addition, lower compression ratios and the pressure from higher insurance rates gave more reason to dial back outright straight line performance. The sporting factor of the Cutlass experience was diminishing ever incrementally.
The truth of the matter was that the Cutlass wasn’t supposed to carry this tradition of carefree, open air sportiness into 1972. The initial plan called for the Colonnade Cutlasses (and other assorted A-bodies) to debut that year. Incorporation of new safety standards and production delays (some caused by the 1970 UAW Strike) pushed the development schedule, delaying the seismic shift achieved by those “mid-sized” cars to 1973.
Pure serendipity was the score for the endangered Cutlass Supreme Convertible coupe in 1972. In an odd shuffling of the deck, the Cutlass Supreme ragtop was handed the crown of America’s best selling convertible, right when it was going into retirement. Not quite a posthumous #1 hit, but pretty close. Perhaps this last minute swan song represented a sign of what possibilities could have been explored not for the fears of rollover standards and general consumer apathy.
Those open-air carefree convertible ambitions were handed over to the Delta 88 for the next three seasons. The ambition never really died either; there were the Hess & Eisenhardt Cutlass Ciera convertible from the 1980s and the reborn GM-10 Cutlass Supreme convertible from the 1990s that tried again at this particular “Oldsmobile Feeling.” The days when the mid-sized American convertible symbolized ultimate freedom behind the wheel were long gone by 1990, though. The American automotive market had become quite fractured with too many consumer choices.
By the 1990s, convertibles represented only a few primary ambitions. One would be to spoil your teenage daughter. Another would be to offer the perfect way to see coastal resort towns in your rental car. The Chrysler LeBaron fulfilled that desire handily, domineering the convertible niche left wide open by the last beloved Cutlass Supreme convertible.
The Cutlass went in a completely divergent path, forsaking any opportunity to truly embrace frolicking in the sun as everyone’s favorite Holiday. The tastefully tailored swimsuit was replaced with the equivalent of bell bottoms, platforms and a perm as the ’70s wore on and the purity of the ’73 Cutlass was watered down. Although the roadability of the Colonnade Cutlasses deserves praise, they too quickly established some core themes of rot that would start to unmask the Oldsmobile personality disorder still lurking underneath the surface. The identity crisis that would reach a critical state by 1990 was long in the making.
Like the Flair Bird I found in the same spot, on the same street, this particular Cutlass gives me a rather hard pang of nostalgia for an era I didn’t get to experience first hand. As with the Flair Bird, as we glide deeper into the 21st Century, a car like a 1972 Cutlass Supreme Convertible makes no logical sense. It is of the type of vehicle we’ll never see come off the production line to win surprising sales victories under ominous circumstances. The Cutlass Supreme convertible was a casualty of the American automotive landscape’s transformation.
That said, it is somewhat of a humble legend; carrying on the open air torch into a very dark age in American automotive history and doing so with class, poise, charm, quality and bravado that once were distinctly Oldsmobile traits. Like many an unsung music legend from the state of Michigan, the penultimate Cutlass Supreme convertible is a greatest hit that’ll never get old.
Seeing this makes me think of the movie Kingpin.
Very insightful words Laurence. I completely forgot that the Colonnades were supposed to be introduced in ’72, and that the Cutlass convertible would have departed a year earlier.
I honestly think these Cutlass convertibles have the perfect size and proportions, especially as a classic to own in today’s world. I just saw a gold one like this earlier this week. They’re good-looking cars in motion.
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, the New Orleans Olds dealers would lend a batch of Cutlass convertibles to the parade krewes during Mardi Gras. Either the queen, captain, or maidens would sit on top of the back seat and throw doubloons, beads, etc.
After Mardi Gras, the dealers would sell the convertibles as slightly used (precursor to “Certified Used”). These things would fly off the lots and the dealers were looking forward to the next Mardi Gras season.
Let me guess…Royal and Mossy?
Funny thing is, I never owned a convertible UNTIL I “moved to the mainland,” as I like to call my exodus from Louisiana.
Between the miserable heat and humidity, the effects of mildew on the top, and the incidence of theft in New Orleans, most of my buddies owned convertibles once, and only once.
With today’s technology, “hardtop convertibles”/retractables are the answer to most of these issues. Makes mildew, degradation of a fabric top, excess wind noise, and theft concerns a non-issue. And, while the power assembly for a heavy steel top was quite a technical feat (and a problematic complex beast) back in the days of the Ford Skyliner, now it’s a much more commonplace item. Perhaps still prone to issues with age, but on a recent vehicle, you get the virtues of a convertible with far fewer drawbacks. My wife has mentioned the idea of a convertible as her next car, and I’m on board as long as it’s a retractable (probably a Volvo C70 or VW Eos, preferably certified pre-owned).
Great writeup also! Oldsmobile really did hit their stride around this time and the ’72 is kind of a happy accident and a nice find. Wonder if that’s the original color?
Chris, I have owned two hardtop convertables. A Merceees SLK and a BMW 335i. You are right, these largely remove the disadvantages of a convertible and with the top up they really are like coups’s. Bthe BMW in particular was very useful as it was a full 4 seater.
The tops on both of these cars were remarkable – no leaks, no wind noise and no problems either – they just worked properly every time.
Writing this, I think I need another one!
” You are right, these largely remove the disadvantages of a convertible and with the top up they really are like coups’s.”
+1. Personally, Ive never liked ragtops on cars, unless its a long and low big sled. Think ’60s Impala, Sport Fury, ’65 Imperial, etc. Midsizers look like ladys cars with ragtops, even if theyre triple black. On old school 4x4s like Jeeps, Scouts, Ramchargers, etc then a removeable soft top is mandatory for me. They just don’t look right with an integrated roof…or much more than a rollbar and a bikini top.
Ive always liked a roadster with a detachable hardtop. A BMW Z3/4 with a color keyed hard lid would be my ideal sportscar. Open roaster in fair weather, closed coupe in lousy.
In a swoon here, Laurence. I spent many hours in the showroom of Collins Oldsmobile in the summer of 1972 when my mother was trying to find the Cutlass she wanted. It was late in the model year and supplies were thin.
On the showroom floor was a Viking Blue Cutlass Supreme vert with white buckets. I did my very best sell job, but Mom wasn’t having any of it. Most folks would have been happy with the Pinehurst Green Supreme 2 door hardtop we got with buckets, console, air and power windows. But to me, it was nothing but a huge downgrade from that blue convertible.
Great piece Laurence. Everytime I read about an Oldsmobile from the “good old days” it makes me sad that the brand had to go away. However, since at the end Oldsmobiles were nothing more than a Chevy with a different trim package, maybe killing the brand wasn’t such a bad idea. If the brand was going to go perhaps it would have been better for it to be put down earlier, say around 1980 or so. That Cutlass convertible is one great looking car.
They still sold huge gobs of Oldsmobiles in 1980, and for most of the rest of the decade.
Choosing an Olds instead of a Chevy used to be like getting a Honda instead of a Hyundai. The basic concept behind each car is the same, but you pay extra for a little more refinement.
Olds declined badly after 1987, when younger buyers went to imports and older buyers went to Buick, Chevy or Toyota.
Oldsmobile sales were strong in 1980, and would again hit the magic 1 million mark in 1986. It was after 1986 that the brand began its decline.
Joe, I wonder why they deleted so many of the GM brands. They could have moved away from the redundant badge engineering days and developed the brands to present genuinely different products for different market segments, rather than compete with eachother for the same sales.
It was the same in the UK with BMC. In the end the same products were available with differing badges and slight trim differences. The only real difference was the sales channel.
I am amazed at the prices on those used vehicles. Would anybody pay that much for a 3-4 year old Sienna? Or is that photo from 2010 when the plate sticker was also yellow?
There’s a 2013 Odyssey in the back behind the M-class so the pics seem current. Oakland’s Auto Row knows no shame when it comes to asking sky-high prices…I can’t quite place the actual dealer frontage from when I lived in that area five years ago but can see Connell across the street. VW would be right next to that IIRC but across the street (where these cars are) was an independent I believe, not a franchised dealer.
It’s the used section of Mercedes Benz of Oakland (as of this past Saturday). Like Jim said, the big city dealerships just count on people not willing to go out and bargain at Suburban and Semi-Rural dealerships, and start the bargaining prices higher up.
Well part of me says that if you can sucker someone into buying it for that price go for it.
The dealer Connell used to sell Oldsmobiles, appropriately. I think they;re today a multiple line dealer, now selling GMCs, Buicks, Cadillacs and Nissans.
Good story and a handsome beast. I would’ve picked that color too.
+1 on that orange. Laurence’s darkroom mastery makes that colour pop.
I had to make a quick trip to OldCarBrochures. I spent so much time pouring over 72 Olds literature that I used to know every single color name, but I had forgotten this one. Saddle Bronze, and it was available only on mid-sized cars. There was a Cutlass Supreme 4 door hardtop in that color on the showroom floor as well. However, that color never made Mom’s short list.
That looks a lot more orange than what Chrysler called “saddle bronze” on my ’66 Windsor. My car is closer to what GM would’ve called “saddle tan”.
I always liked the look of this generation of Cutlass, as well as the 1966-67 restyle of the previous generation, which had a barbell shaped grille opening, a dip in the beltline, and neat looking tallights. Nice find!
Great post and pictures. This is another almost timeless car that should still be in production. I did not realize that the Cutlass was the best selling ’72 convertible, but it makes sense. Sales were 11,571, compared to the 3,000 to 5,000 range that most convertibles managed in ’72. Chevelle sold 4,853, and Oldsmobile’s big Delta 88 was not that far behind with 3,900.
The sales figures along with its timeless qualities have sure made this a winner in popular culture. You still see these regularly in advertising of all sorts.
I had some up close time with this era Cutlass convertible. A college friend bought a ’70 Cutlass convertible in the mid ’80s and did a decent job restoring what needed to be done to make it a nice ride. The distinctive Oldsmobile V-8 sound was just a bit sweeter with the top down. To your point about the Sebring convertible, that same friend bought a new one a few years ago – but the back seat is nowhere near as useful as the one in the old Cutlass. In the same college era, I looked seriously at buying a very nice original ’72 convertible, but various issues, including my available parking being outdoors and the idea of ruining it as a daily driver in rust county stopped me.
I’d put this car, with the ’73 chassis updates, on any list of cars that should still be in production – and provided it didn’t have much direct competition, I’d bet it would sell something like 20K a year almost indefinitely.
Very nice photos.
I like it,I’ve never seen an Oldsmobile in that great colour before.A convertible is a magnet for vandals and lager filled scrotes in the war zone I live in.
” lager filled scrotes ”
Theres something I really like about a lady swearing in a British accent. Just sayin!
White over orange was pretty commonly seen on this vintage Olds Cutlass in the Bay Area.
The detailing on the orange Cutlass is really well done and this is one of those cars where it would be fun to talk to the owner. The aftermarket side molding works great with the rocker and wheel lip trim and the rakish exhaust tips are the perfect touch.
Not sure if a ’72 Cutlass could be had with factory dual exhaust but you could get that on many GM products like the Z28 and Trans Am. No one else offered that on a volume car and played it up so much. Then on the Colonnades there were those gigantic rear sway bars that hung down for all to see. My Dad was into hot rods and we would go to the shows. To see the Chevy 350/350 in all of the Ford roadsters said a lot to me about General Motors quality and engineering.
What GM was good at at the time worked really well on a Cutlass style car.
The owner made one gaffe though; far as I can tell the ’72s had more “racoon eyes” headlamp bezels. It appears they subbed in the 1970-71 full chrome ones either in lack of consistency or preference.
I thought something looked off with the front, but I could not put my finger on it. Now I see it. The car in this picture has what I would guess as the least common color ever offered on these. I had forgotten about it altogether, until I looked at the 72 Olds brochure this morning.
Dual exhaust was available on the Cutlass through ’74, true duals for sure disappeared with the introduction of catalytic converters in 1975. A 1973-4 transmission cross-member added to my ’75 Hurst/Olds made for the easy addition of dual exhaust, the only way a Lansing 455 should be heard.
The best place for the leaky T-tops was in the trunk, to that same end.
I really like the photography here. It would make a really interesting posting to have an explanation of what you do to achieve the effects in your photos.
Nice colors to greet one on a foggy morning; thanks!
I had a Freudian slip when I first glanced at the title: the photo of a convertible with the top down somehow evoked the danger to one’s head in a roofless rollover, and so momentarily misread the headline words “Carefree Conclusions” as “Carefree Concussions” 🙂
Nice car, nice pix, nice write-up.
The last of the great Oldsmobile’s. Also a really nice color. And being a convertible is just icing on the cake.
Favorable story about GM car: check
Flattering photos of GM car: check
Uniformly positive comments on car and story: check
Providing Carmine some evidence that we’re not entirely a pack of trolls who get off on baiting him: priceless.
HA! I think the bulk of the GM bashing is that they strayed away from cars like this and started trying to knock off their own version of cammaccords. CRAPPY knockoffs, at that.
Ive long said that once you figure out what you do best, you should do it with a vengeance. If people will pay to restore and own a car like this, they will pay to buy it new. Let Toyota and Hyundai make the appliances, we’ll make the ‘good stuff’. If you don’t do a job with passion, youll do it half assed. Our econoboxes and sedans are pretty bottom rung, but our muscle cars and pickups are well made and worth the money. We could make cars like this again and theyd be great.
Enough to make me want to emigrate and get w work permit!
i have a 1986 cutlass supreme brougham with a terrible rag i want to remove does ne one have ne advice on the proper way to do this and is there an easy way lol i got cash and im pretty handy so i kno i can get it done i do all my repairs just never removed tops
If I were looking for a car to take to weekend shows, a 1972 Cutlass convertible would be high on the list. The ’70-’72 Cutlass 2-door hardtops are all lookers, but the ’72 convertible would be my pick. Yeah, not as powerful as the previous years, but it will run well on unleaded gas. A big, honking 455 wouldn’t be needed, either, as a 350 would be plenty for casually driving around with the top down on a pleasant summer evening. And then there’s the added bonus of not being particularly maintenance intensive, either, a real plug-n-play car show entrant.
One with a big honking 455:
I always loved these convertibles and this generation of Olds.
That first photo is great. The imports are looking longingly at the Olds, wishing they could have some of the characteristics of great design from her.
Great photos, well composed article. I think it’s fair to say Laurence’s contributions are missed.
My first car was a ’71 Cutlass “S”, my sister’s car that I wrecked two weeks later. It was replaced by my mom’s ’72 Cutlass Supreme, bright red (I picked the color, she added the damn white vinyl top) with black interior, as all interiors should have always been and should forever be,
It was the worst of the 5 Cutlass’s we owned from my sister’s first car, a ’68 stripper with only an AM radio and A/C, to the last one, a ’73 Supreme in an awful blue. Others were the replacement for the car I wrecked, a bronze ’73 Supreme that never seemed to run as well as mom’s car did. Nothing about it was as good as mom’s car was. The color was terrible, so was mom’s, so I considered that a draw. The bronze car rode worse, got worse mileage, had to have repairs almost immediately, while the baby blue car just sailed along, perfect from day one until mom sold it to a neighbor in ’75.
Getting back to the ’72, it had electrical issues the entire time I had it, about 2 years, starter/flywheel problems, a flat spot on acceleration that took endless tries to finally repair, and a weird noise that turned out to be the exhaust pipe rubbing on something in the back, and the transmission refused to shift into 3rd. The dealer couldn’t fix it, but $25 at a transmission shop cured it around Jan of 74. By the spring of that year, I was ready to see it gone, and in Nov of ’74, it was replaced with the first car I paid for, a ’74 Roadrunner.
That F-85 is still in Berkeley, at an auto repair shop on Shattuck Ave. last I checked it was for sale
CC-in-scale hasn’t finished building one of these, but it’s almost the right colour. 🙂