(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.