Curbside Classic: 1977 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 – Strength in Numbers; Some of the Time

(first posted 8/23/2017)      Ask half a dozen guys what “4-4-2” stood for, and you’ll probably get seven different answers. Ironically, several might be right, because the number stood for different things over the 4-4-2’s long life-span (1964-1991, although it skipped a few years in the 80s). But when it did stand for something, it always related to its engine and/or drivetrain. Its meaning changed already in its second year. And by the time this ’77 was built, there was no consistent meaning anymore; it could have anything from a 105 hp 231 (3.8L) Buick V6 to a 403 cubic inch Olds V8 under the hood. And they say numbers don’t lie.

The first Olds 4-4-2 was a conservative response to Pontiac’s 1964 GTO, which blatantly flaunted a 389 CID V8 in violation of GM’s rule of intermediate cars not having more than 330 cubic inches. It was technically a police package (“B09 Police Apprehender Pursuit”), and included a higher output 310 (gross) hp 330 CID V8 with 4 barrel carb, a stiffened frame, HD suspension and larger brakes, a 4-speed Muncie manual transmission, and of course 2 (dual) exhausts.

It’s been said that only some nine of these four door sedans were ever sold, to the Lansing Police Department, no less. The rest of some 3,000 sold in 1964 were coupes or convertibles. Motor Trend tested a ’64, and it delivered excellent performance for its engine size: 0-60 in 7.5 seconds; the 1/4 mile in 15.5 @90 mph, and a top speed of 116 mph.

The GTO’s illicit huge success caused the displacement limit for intermediates to be raised to 400 for 1965, and Olds wasted no time making that the engine size for the ’65 version. Now the numbers stood for 400 CID, 4 barrel carb, and 2 exhausts, as the Jetaway two-speed automatic was also available. And there the meaning of 4-4-2 stayed, during most of the glory years of the muscle car era. Performance was competitive with the GTO. And sales were quite strong, with just over 25k sold.

1966 brought new styling, and the first W-30 engine, which had a number of high performance parts. But it was more for image than as a readily available commodity, with only some 150 units built; some at the factory; others as a dealer package. 4-4-2 sales slumped a bit from 1965, and were drastically below that of the GTO.

In 1970, GM lifted the 400 inch limit, and the 442 now sported a standard 365 (gross) hp 455 CID (7.4 L) V8. But that was just the starting point, as 1970 would be the pinnacle of the 442’s performance. The optional W-30 version was rated at a mere five hp more (370), but that was just a PR ploy. In reality, the W-30 package, which included functional air scoops on the hood, special cylinder heads, camshaft, distributor, aluminum intake manifold, larger four-barrel carburator and low restriction air cleaner. Sounds more like an extra 50 hp rather than five.

Well, at least the numbers still worked mostly, since the first “4” was presumably as applicable to 455 as well as to 400. Or maybe the W-30 actually made 442 hp? probbaly close to it, anyway.

The muscle car era imploded almost as fast as it appeared. In 1972, the 4-4-2 was downgraded to strictly an appearance and handling package available on four different Cutlass models. The standard engine was now a two-barrel 350 (5.7 L) V8, although more potent engines, including a somewhat emasculated W-30 455 were still  available.


By 1973, with the arrival of the new Colonnade models, raw performance took an ever bigger back seat to luxury and comfort. This was the era in which the Cutlass Supreme Coupe became a mammoth hit, as the Brougham Era rapidly superseded the performance era. The 455 was still available, in more sedate form, but it was the last year that the four-speed manual was.

The energy crisis of 1973-1974 put the final coffin nail in the muscle car, at least for some few years. In 1975, the 4-4-2 package was barely shown in the brochure, and it now came standard with the 105 (net) hp Chevy 250 six. So maybe it should have been called a 2-1-1?  Optional was the new 260 V8, with 110 hp, along with the 350 and 455 inch V8s, although the take rate on the 455 had to have been minuscule that year. The 1976 4-4-2 was essentially the same, except for its new aerodynamic “sloper” nose that was also seen on the Cutlass S, in order to make it more competitive in NASCAR racing.

The 1977, which is what we have here, continued the use of that sloped nose, although now only on the 4-4-2 package. And the engine lineup was revised for a bit better economy: the Buick 231 CID (3.8 L) V6 was now standard, also with 105 net hp. And in addition to the 260 V8, there was still the 350 V8, making 170 hp, and the new 403 V8, which replaced the 455 across the board, and was rated at 185 hp.

Since it was only an appearance package, the take rate on the 4-4-2 package in 1977 is a bit of a mystery (maybe someone has the numbers?), but it has to be very low, certainly in percentage terms. 1977 was an explosive year for Cutlass sales, totaling 633k. But the formal Cutlass Supreme and Supreme Brougham took the lion’s share of those sales, almost 400k, while the Cutlass S coupe managed a mere 70k. Folks were so done with semi-fastback styling and sporty messaging.

But a few die-hard 4-4-2 lovers must have stayed loyal to their favorite number, even if it had very little actual meaning anymore. Well, I suppose a 403 powered 4-4-2 was still close, but I’m pretty sure the genuine dual exhausts were gone with the beginning of the catalytic converter era.

Needless to say, these were rare birds then, and very rare birds now. This one was paying a visit from Washington, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it at an eatery near the campus. Colonnades of all sorts have become quite rare; seems like just yesterday that there were several Cutlass Supreme coupes still around. No more.

This is a true survivor, with a few battle scars, but in quite decent shape, although it is sporting an upper body coat of gray primer. How’s that for a genuine period piece?


These Colonnade Coupes were like over-grown Camaros, with many of the same virtues and flaws. Their styling was certainly very well executed, if not exactly to everyone’s taste. There were the oversize doors that struggled to stay aligned, the better than average handling, the ubiquitous GM power trains. The crappy back seat.

The interiors were also in the same vein, if a wee bit more spacious, although these Colonnade coupes will go down in history as one of the lesser examples of good space utilization. Adequate for two.


That applies particularly to the rear seat, which was nobody’s preferred pace to sit, with non-opening side windows and way to much solar gain.

No wonder the formal-roof line became so madly popular; who would ever want to sit back there on a sunny day?


The 4-4-2 went on to live out its time in a variety of disguises after the end of the Colonnade era, and even recapture some of its lost performance. The numbers mostly didn’t add up, in terms of applying to its power train. And I’m not really inspired to go through them all; Jason Shafer found and wrote up one of the aeroback ’78 versions here.

In 1990, the 4-4-2 number was revived. But in this final (and somewhat dubious) incarnation, it now stood for a 4 cylinders, 4 valve, 2 camshaft version of the FWD Calais. So the next time someone asks you what 4-4-2 stands for, take your pick.