Curbside Classic: 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – The Jennifer Of Cars

(first posted 6/20/2018)      In the mid-1970s, about 60,000 US baby girls were named Jennifer each year – a staggering 4% of all girls.  Parents flocked to the name for good reason – it was fresh, sophisticated-sounding, and (since it was nearly unheard-of just 20 years before), was seen as unique.  But over time, the name Jennifer became a victim of its own ubiquity, its freshness diluted by overuse.  Just a few decades later, the number of babies named Jennifer had diminished by 90 percent and was falling fast.

During the same period, an equally staggering 4% of US new car sales were Oldsmobile Cutlasses.  Consumers flocked to the car for good reason – it was fresh, sophisticated-looking, and (with a new, formal design), was seen as unique.  But over time, the Oldsmobile brand became a victim of its own ubiquity, its appeal diluted by mismanagement.  Just a few decades later, Oldsmobile had rolled out its last car.

Is this a coincidence?  Yes, of course… but it’s an interesting coincidence.  Both are reflections of people’s choices and aspirations in 1970s, and if this white Cutlass needed a name, I’d call it Jennifer.

The mid-’70s Cutlass was somewhat of an accidental phenomenon.  Upon its introduction, few would have guessed it would become the most popular car in the United States, even outselling its Chevrolet cousin.  While the seeds of this popularity were planted with earlier Cutlasses and by good product planning, much of its success is attributable to plain good luck – this car was in the right place at the right time.

Cutlass debuted for 1961 as Oldsmobile’s compact, then in 1964 the name was shifted to Oldsmobile’s entry into the then-nascent “intermediate” market – a segment that would soon dominate showrooms from all Big Three manufacturers.

An all-new car for 1968, the third-generation Cutlass (and other GM A-bodies) reflected its era, with a swoopy, fastback-inspired appearance.  Intermediates developed into the auto market’s sweet spot, and consumers developed a fondness for luxury-type features ordinarily associated with full-size cars.  Offering a taste of luxury on a mid-size car with a mid-range price turned out to be Oldsmobile’s specialty.  And for Cutlass’s next generation, the timing couldn’t have been better.

The fourth generation Cutlass was introduced for 1973, by which time intermediate cars comprised North America’s largest-selling segment.  GM called its new intermediates “Colonnades” due to their pillared – rather than genuine hardtop – roofs, and they featured contemporary designs that captured consumers’ desire for something fresh.

GM made significant styling changes for the Colonnades.  Notably, not one of their intermediates featured a proper hardtop (likely in anticipation of government rollover standards).  This was somewhat controversial at the time, and one Ford executive predicted that “GM will get clobbered if they drop the hardtop.”  He was quite wrong.

Colonnades also reverted to more conventional notchback styling, turning their backs on the previous decade’s fastback trend.  While Base and Cutlass S coupes still featured a quasi-fastback design, the upmarket Supreme featured a true notchback appearance.  Guess which was the better seller?  By far it was the notchback Cutlass Supreme.

Cutlass Supreme’s success pointed to the future – customers were tiring of fastbacks and the remaining vestiges of 1960s sportiness.  The Supreme, with its formal notchback, scalloped creases emanating from the wheel wells, and opera windows, was seen as forward progress.  At a time when the Brougham blossom was already blooming and intermediates consumed an ever-increasing market share, Olds hit the nail on the head with this subtly broughamy intermediate.

Ironically, Olds officials were caught somewhat off guard by the Cutlass Colonnade’s success.  In late summer 1972, Oldsmobile General Manager Howard Kehrl sanguinely forecasted an 8.6% increase for 1973 total division sales, based largely on anticipated sales of the compact Omega.  Instead, total division sales increased by 21%, thanks instead to the Cutlass.

Source: Standard Catalog of Oldsmobile, 1897-1997. Includes RWD Cutlass models, including Cutlass Supreme, Salon, Cruiser wagon and 442.

The Cutlass Colonnade and its 381,000 first-year sales was no one-year wonder.  After dipping for the recession-tainted years of 1974 and ’75, Cutlass sales skyrocketed for its 4th and 5th model years, peaking at 632,000 units for 1977.  Olds propelled to America’s third best-selling make (overtaking Plymouth), and for several years Cutlass was the nation’s #1 nameplate.

Seventy-nine percent of those 1973-77 Cutlasses were 2-doors, and 74% of those 2-doors were Cutlass Supremes – so our featured car is a perfect example through which to examine the Cutlass Colonnade phenomenon.

A whole book could be written on the Cutlass and its many variants, which were produced in coupes, sedans and wagons, all in a vast array of trim levels.  Entry-level Cutlasses marketed as bargain or fleet specials cost about two-thirds that of a fully-loaded Supreme, advertised as Oldsmobile’s “little limousine.”

Offering one model with such a large price differential was a curious strategy, and somehow it didn’t turn off higher-end buyers.  Oldsmobile’s Marketing Director opined that this somewhat unconventional approach was key to the Cutlass Colonnade’s success.  “Can it be,” said James Bostic in 1978, “that Oldsmobile has abandoned the industry’s traditional mass market approach to pursue a strategy of market segmentation within the Cutlass line?”  Whether knowingly or not, Bostic foretold the future.  Following up on the Colonnade’s success, Olds tried to be all things to all buyers, and on top that, the Cutlass name was slapped on just about every vehicle imaginable.  While this market segmentation exercise produced near-euphoric results in the mid-1970s, it eventually led to a dilution that killed the brand’s image.

One of the more intriguing Colonnade variants was the Cutlass Salon, marketed as a touring car with a handling package and “European trim.”  Salon’s main feature was the anti-roll bar equipped handling package, and although calling this car European was a stretch, it did offer a reasonably responsive ride for its day.  Even the standard Colonnades handled better than their predecessors, as Olds put considerable effort into improving the Cutlass’s drivability.  Still, Salons didn’t exactly fly off of dealers’ lots — they accounted for about 10% of total Cutlass Colonnade production.

But enough of market strategy, let’s look at this car itself.  As with other Colonnades, the 1973 redesign provided a clean profile, as well as a clean break with the past.  This was considered a modern design, and GM reaped the rewards for accurately gauging customers’ preferences.  Two (instead of four) round headlights visually amplified the voluptuous fenders, and combined with the unique side sculpting, provided a distinctive, if somewhat extravagant, image that was perfectly suited to a mass-market Oldsmobile.

In an era when long, low and wide cars were appreciated, design details visually augmented these dimensions.  The lack of vent windows, for instance, created a long expanse of side glass that drew out the car’s length, matching the (unnecessarily) long hood.  Other small features further augmented the design themes, such as the frameless side windows and “lift-bar” door handles.

In the rear, protruding vertical tail lights duplicated the prominent headlights’ visual effect (this particular tail light design was used only for ’75, but others were similar).  Olds also used the new tactic of inserting plastic fillers between the bumper and the car, giving the extended bumpers a more integrated appearance.

Bumpers, in fact, were one of this car’s more significant innovations.  The front bumpers were mounted on a shock absorber system, consisting of retractable hydraulic cylinders.  Further, the grille was hinged at the bottom to retract with the bumper during minor collisions.  This all added 60 lbs. to the car’s weight, but met federal bumper standards more elegantly than most cars of its day.

Inside, Colonnades debuted a completely redesigned interior, with a cockpit-style dashboard featuring two prominent gauges set in deep housings, complemented by swiveling round vents on the passenger side.  Front seat accommodations were comfortable and roomy – the rear, however, offered a surprising lack of room for a car of this size (the sedan, riding on a 4” longer wheelbase, was more spacious back there).  Such a shortcoming hardly hurt sales, however, even though the Cutlass was marketed heavily to families and others with the need to carry passengers.

The most notable interior feature of this particular Cutlass is the front seats, which reveal two rather short-lived attributes: the seats swiveled and they featured reversible cushions.

Though swiveling seats weren’t a new concept (Chrysler marketed them in the late 1950s), GM’s application in certain Colonnade coupes marked the highest production volume the concept ever attained.  Meant to ease ingress and egress into both the front and rear, these seats could swivel 90°, and in some respects, did make access easier.  The concept – though a relatively popular option – didn’t outlive the Colonnades, perhaps because the added complexity caused hassles, or perhaps because these one-piece seats didn’t recline.

Reversible cushions were even more short-lived, being an only-for-’75 feature.  Vinyl on one side and velour on the other was supposed to give drivers the best of both worlds, but it was probably a better idea in concept than in execution – just imagine the kind of detritus that gets caught in the depths of a car seat!

The above ad shows a Cutlass performing all of its seat-swiveling and fabric-reversing tricks.

When the Cutlass Colonnades first debuted, available engines included two V-8s (350 or 455 cu. in.).  However, in response to global fuel worries and an uncertain economy, for 1975 Olds added a standard 250-cid (Chevrolet-sourced) six-cylinder engine, as well as what it called a “baby V-8,” at 260-cid.  Producing only 110 hp, this was certainly no rocket, but even the larger V-8s (170-hp for the 350 and 190-hp for the 455) had vastly reduced power from earlier years.

From a modern perspective, the Cutlass Colonnade’s sales success may seem illogical – after all, it broke no new ground, had only marginally acceptable performance, and a somewhat cramped interior.  So what was the appeal?  A summary of its appeal can be found within a period Car and Driver Cutlass test:

 “…smoking tires and fire-breathing engines are gone, but now we have real bucket seats, rays of sunshine through a crush-resistant roof, and big car comfort… It seems that the Feds couldn’t squelch innovative thinking at Oldsmobile.”

At the Malaise Era’s dawn, even the hint of novelty was cause for celebration, and a quantitatively ordinary product could easily capture the public’s imagination.

The public’s imagination was definitely captured.  1975, our featured car’s year, was a jubilant time for Oldsmobile, which achieved an 8.6% US market share.  In what seems like deja vu, in late 1975, Oldsmobile executives made yet another bullish prediction for the next year’s sales – which again turned out to be overly conservative.  This time, newly appointed General Manager Robert Cook predicted already-hot Cutlass sales to increase by another 20% for 1976, citing “a solid basis of economic indicators.”  In reality, sales of the mildly facelifted Cutlass increased by 51%, and then for one more trick, the Cutlass Colonnade posted its best-ever sales for its final year of 1977 – with over 600,000 sales.  Cook later noted that “Cutlass came on like a tiger.”

A more analytical outtake was provided in 1977 by Oldsmobile Assistant General Sales Manager John Fleming, who noted that “An awful lot of people have moved down in size, from the traditional family-size big Ford and Chevrolet to intermediates.  They found they could buy an Oldsmobile for not much more than the Ford or Chevrolet.”  He was right.  With its solid value and the enticing cachet of the Olds nameplate, Cutlass was the perfect car to succeed in its era.

For 1978, Cutlass was redesigned along with other GM intermediates, though Olds kept to its tried-and-true formula of providing big-car amenities with an intermediate size and price tag.  For a few years, it seemed as if Cutlass’s success would continue indefinitely, but by the early 1980s, the concept grew stale.  This 5th generation Cutlass stuck around for a decade, which was probably twice as long as it should have.  But more importantly, the Oldsmobile brand had grown stale as well.  Its cars were no longer fresh, sophisticated-looking, or unique, and consumers moved on to new concepts.

So it is that our featured car, nicknamed Jennifer, can be both phenomenal and mundane.  Few other cars achieved such rapid success on the sales floor, and maybe because of that success, the Cutlass Supreme lost the sparkle that helped it succeed in the first place.  A similar set of circumstances befell the name Jennifer once the 1970s ended… the name just lost that unquantifiable sparkle that attracted parents in the first place – a victim of its own success.  And since car designs and baby names both reflect expressions of people’s personalities, it’s hardly surprising that such fashions would crest and fall similarly.  For a short while though, both Jennifers and Cutlasses represented trends that sizzled with excitement and optimism.

It makes one wonder, though: 40 years from now, will someone write an article associating Toyota RAV4s and baby girls named Olivia?


Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in April 2018.


Related Reading:

1976 Cutlass Colonnade Coupe: Expletive Deleted   Paul N

1975 Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Sedan: The 216″ Long Surprise   Paul N

Cutlass Supreme And Brougham Coupes: Absolute Supremacy   Paul N

1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham: The Right Car At The Right Time   Tom Klockau

1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham: Finest Brougham In All Of Hampton, IL!   Tom Klockau