CCCCC Part 7: 1975 Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Sedan – The 216″ Long Surprise

(first posted 4/14/2011. CCCCC stands for the Curbside Classic Complete Cutlass Chronicles)     The Colonnades were literally a huge surprise, and on so many levels. As I recounted in the last chapter of the CCCCC, their appearance left quite a few jaws hanging. They were just so utterly unpredictable, and had very little if any family relationship to the rest of the GM line. The prior A-Bodies were trying so hard to be little B-Bodies. No more; and the starkest contrast was with the four door, one of the most compelling and original sedans in US design history. Even Europe took notice.

The key to putting these cars into proper perspective is to toss the terms “intermediate” or “mid-size” out one of those frameless windows right from the start. This car measures 216″ long. That’s a mere nine less than the famous 225 inch length that led to the name Electra 225. And it’s four inches longer than a 1977 Caprice. Yes, the Colonnade made a very nice full size car, in the early-mid sixties idiom.

The Europeans saw it and accepted it that way too. I remember reading a review of a Cutlass sedan like this in auto motor und sport that was rather flattering in almost every respect except its fuel consumption and ergonomics. And why not? The Colonnade four door had a decidedly continental flair to it, with that delicate and graceful greenhouse.

And with the full-on handling package as all Europe-bound GM export came equipped with, it acquitted itself quite well indeed. Europeans could still muster a bit of awe at the effortless power delivery of a four-barrel 350 backed by a THM 350. Of course, their test was of a 1973, before the energy crisis made it that much less palatable in its thirst. But in every other way, I can assure you that this Cutlass sedan with the right options was still able to make a very positive impression on the increasingly chauvinistic Germans.

Of course, GM didn’t bother to send the Colonnade coupes over there. Their remarkably poor interior space utilization, visibility, and affected styling would have made them a laughing stock. The Europeans could accept the Mustang and Camaro for what they were, but when it came to giant coupes with cramped rear seats, the Europeans just didn’t get it.

Maybe my continental roots colored my response to the Colonnades too, even before I read that review. I was rather impressed by the sedan indeed, and the Cutlass version was the best of the bunch, over the long haul anyway.

The Pontiac Grand Am was very dramatic, without a doubt. But a bit over the top, too, especially for a four door sedan. Very American, despite its pretensions about “foreign intrigue”. Foreign? Huh; Germans might have had a chuckle about it, while dissing it for its American excess. Anyway, Americans by then knew that foreign meant Mercedes, but don’t tell Detroit that. How long did it take before all those “Euro” badges finally disappeared?

No, the Cutlass, which was also cultivating a bit of Euro flavor with the Salon version, was much more in the true international spirit: no phony baloney. The only bone to pick was that even the sedan didn’t have terrific interior space, but then it was only a “mid-size” American car.

That would soon be fixed, when the Colonnade sedan’s 116″ frame reappeared (in slightly modified form) under the down-sized B-Bodies in 1977. Didn’t that make it odd: the full-size cars were now shorter than the mid-sized ones, for that one year of overlap in 1977. But the much more rectilinear and upright new B-Body had as much interior space as the old full-sized cars, and all was good. And the Olds 88 went on to being the most acceptable big American car in Germany too, especially with the diesel engine. They loved that; seriously. A big Ami strassenkreuzer mit Diesel and decent mileage. What’s not to love?

Well, the Colonnade sedan may have been the Europeans’ choice, but it sure wasn’t back home. The Cutlass Coupes outsold the sedan by more than four-to-one. Sedans were out; coupes were in, unless you had made the transition to foreign cars, like a Mercedes. I can tell you that in California in the mid-late seventies, a clattering Mercedes 240D conferred a lot more driveway or valet parking status than a Cutlass Salon with its array of international flags on its flanks. They weren’t reading auto, motor und sport in LA; except me.

Before we dive back to current reality, let’s also put this car in relationship to its competition. Once everyone got through the energy crisis of 1974, GM roared ahead in that decade, to its final big market share peak of 1978 (48%, if I remember correctly). GM’s design superiority was on full display, especially with the mid-sized cars.

The Torino looks like it its diet has consisted of Big Gulps and Big Macs for some time. And the Satellite? It actually aged better than the Torino thanks to being less fussy, but its fuselage styling was very old hat by then. It does look a bit melted though, like a stick of butter left out in the sun.  The Olds sits right up on its capable suspension, and looks like it’s still ready to take on the world.

Chapter 8 Is Here