CCCCC Part 6: 1976 Cutlass Colonnade Coupe – Expletive Deleted

(first posted 3/31/2011)      What the hell is a colonnade anyway? And what’s it got to do with a car? Those were the second and third things that popped into my head when I first saw the all-new ’73 GM mid-sized cars. The first: Holy Shit!

And that’s what came to mind again, when I first encountered this Cutlass.

Oldsmobile Cutlass 19731973 Cutlass Coupe

GM had pulled a few surprises on me before (1970 Camaro), but these surprisingly big and drastically different cars were totally unexpected; there was no style continuity with their predecessor. In one fell swoop, GM doomed the hardtop style—which it so proudly invented in 1949—to the ash heap of history.

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For you younger readers, let me clarify: it was a very different world back then in terms of advanced knowledge of redesigned cars. The makers famously tried to keep their new models under wraps, literally, until the assigned release date. Brenda Priddy was still spying on her big brother and extracting blackmail from him. Yes, there were the very occasional spy shots in Pop Science and such, but maybe I wasn’t reading them by then.

Let’s just say that the first time I laid eyes on a Colonnade Coupe was in a print ad for a Cutlass Coupe. That goes for the 1970 Camaro as well: imagine having zero idea about what the 2010 Camaro was going to look like until you saw it in an ad one day…Holy Shit indeed. The element of surprise at anything really new or different long went out of the car business.

These pictures may not do full justice to just how different the new Colonnades looked and felt compared to their predecessors. But how radically different the back seat passengers felt was indisputable: like shit. Sorry, but that word just keeps popping out today.

The sloping roofline, which forced one’s head forward, and that giant rear window to burn your neck were bad enough, and brought back memories of similarly unpleasant experiences in the old GM “bubble” hard tops of yore, except for one or two very big differences: that huge middle column (a colonnade is a series of them) was right where you might just possibly want to look out at the world. And the fixed rear window, which was almost totally behind one anyway, was fixed.

It was all part of a plot to force everyone to buy the highly optional and none-too-cheap Comfortron Air Conditioner, one of the early automatic jobs with the thermostat (just like at home). Well, the federal roll-over standards due to take effect in September of 1973 undoubtedly played into the equation too. It didn’t ban hardtops, but it was going to be cheaper to use a B Pillar to meet them. So we know which way Detroit went. Mercedes never stopped making hardtops, and some of the Japanese did until 1984.

Order up enough options though, like the highly recommended 455 V8 with 250 (net) hp, automatic, AC, and and a few other goodies, and not only would the Cutlass coupe’s roof evoke the ’59 Caddy, but it would weigh about as much too (4,800 lbs). Really great timing, these bigger, fatter 1973s were: within a year of their arrival, the first energy crisis would unfold. I bet “Holy Shit” was said more then once at GM headquarters, as the OPEC oil embargo took effect.

Ford 1972 Torino

Of course, Detroit had been meditating with the “large is better” mantra for some years. The 1971 GM full-sized cars were huge, and Ford’s all-new 1972 intermediates were also very substantially larger in every direction, especially so in terms of weight, having shed its Falcon-platform roots sprouting a genuine frame. The 1972 Torino’s underpinnings would go on to be used in really huge cars, like the Lincoln Mark IV, so it was a hefty affair.

Comparing a 1973 Torino (with the 5 mile bumpers) shows that it was a full inch longer than the featured ’73 Cutlass Coupe, and weighed more to boot (3942 lbs to 3840 lbs). And it Colonnade cars didn’t grow in wheelbase at all; the regular coupes were still at 112″; and the four-door sedans had 116″, along with the stretched-front Grand Prix and Monte Carlo.

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The momentum at the time was bigger, heavier, quieter, and ever-greater isolation from noise. But it’s not like these cars were any bigger on the inside. The truth is, the Colonnades, as well as the new Ford Torino had terrible space utilization. The front was just ok; but the back was abysmal, on the coupes. Expect plenty of expletives from any full-sized passengers asked to ride back there.

A Nova or Falcon undoubtedly had as much useable space. This shot is from a Cutlass Supreme, but the dimensions were the same either way. The only advantage for the Supreme was the lack of that sloping hot glass roof; maybe that’s why they outsold the regular coupes by such a huge margin.

“Mid-sized” coupes that weighed up to almost 5,000 lbs, with 7.4 liter engines, that had about as much interior space as a 2800lb Valiant and sucked gas like a truck was hardly a sustainable trajectory; but it took the OPEC gas crisis to make that painfully clear.

The solution: down-size the engines, not the car (that would take several more years). In 1973, the Cutlass had a 180 hp 350 V8 as standard, and the 455 was optional (and not at all uncommon). By 1976, the Chevy 250 six sporting 105 hp was now the standard engine, along with the infamous 260 cubic inch V8 (4.3 L) that trumped the six by a full five hp. Yup, the 110 hp chicken-shit Rocket, notorious for its feeble torque.  But a five-speed stick was now available, to help jack up the EPA mileage more than any real driving pleasure.

The driving pleasure with the Colonnades was in their handling. GM had decided to get a bit more serious about its cars’ handling, after decades of complaints from auto journalists and others as well as the growing competition from imports, who made suspension quality a top priority. The Colonnades had new front suspension geometry that improved precision and control even when the going got a bit bumpy. Not exactly all that brilliant in the standard form, due to the weight and still too-soft shocks. But GM’s very low-cost suspension upgrade (FE2 in the Olds) included a rear stabilizer bar and a general firming-up that was quite the step forward.

Olds 1976 442

The golden days of genuine performance were truly over, but if the six and 260 V8 were just not going to cut it, the 350 and 455 V8s were still available, although with reduced power output: 190 hp for the 455 (7.4 L)  The 442 was strictly an appearance package with the FE2 sport suspension; engines could presumably be anything from the 250 six to the 455.

I’m quite fond of this particular example, and not just because it’s the only one of its kind still around. There’s several Cutlass Supreme coupes, and we’ll get to them soon, but these regular Colonnade coupes are getting mighty scarce on the ground. It was a regular driver until quite recently, and it now shows off its monkey-bottom from the far end of the driveway.

But its busted up face and general demeanor suits it well: I don’t give a shit what you think.

Chapter 7 Here