Traditional. It’s one word that comes to mind when thinking about both Oldsmobile and the holiday season. After what seemed like fifteen minutes of fall in Chicago, winter weather has come roaring into the Windy City with full force. Many holiday-themed parties are now taking place. There are city lots that would otherwise be empty where Christmas trees are (still) being peddled for the season. I like that the dark green color of this ’77 Cutlass Salon echoes that of an evergreen, with our featured car also covered by a blanket of snow and standing curbside in the urban forest known as the north side neighborhood of Ravenswood.
Perhaps it was a kind thing that most views of this Cutlass’s sheetmetal were partially obscured by its snow covering this past Sunday afternoon. It didn’t take 20/20 vision to see that its body was in terrible shape, even if the rear bumper was still accounted for (the absence of which is a common malady of these cars). Even so, it was refreshing to see all of its visible body panels in the same, uniform color, as were all four of its Super Stock II wheels. It’s true that even the most barren-looking fir tree can be made more beautiful by a covering of freshly fallen snow.
These cars were thick on the ground when I was growing up in the Midwest. Around this time of year and after school was out, and with my early-life memories starting around the late-1970’s, our family of five would soon be piling into our nicest family car (first, a ’77 Plymouth Volaré coupe through ’85, then an ’84 Ford Tempo GL 4-door) to drive about two hours south to my grandparents’ farm in northwestern Ohio. Their little hamlet of Malinta seemed worlds removed from what seemed then like the bustling, little GM factory town of Flint, Michigan, where my family lived.
One of my absolute favorite things about such family road trips to the farm, during any time of year, was looking out the window and learning to spot and identify the correct makes and models of cars. It was for this reason that I always wanted a “side” in the back seat of the car – so I could have my own window. That my older brother would get a window seat was a given – I usually had to compete with my younger brother to “claim” the other one.
Growing up as the middle son of three brothers can sometimes involve games of strategy and alliances. I wasn’t buying the argument that the three of us Dennis brothers had to be seated across the back seat in a manner that corresponded with our birth order (which, then, would always place me in the center seat – and also over the dreaded transmission hump), though I’m sure my older and younger brothers probably tried that argument with me more than once. The oldest sibling’s influence on the youngest will always beat that of the one in the middle. It’s a fact I (ruefully) came to accept.
Nonetheless, it became clear in my observations when I was fortunate enough to secure a window seat that many nice-looking families had Cutlasses… and that our Plymouth and Ford “loser-mobiles” were simply not in the same class as an Olds. Sometimes, I was able to lock eyes with other kid passengers of other cars on the expressway, and while I mostly behaved, I remember having a slight inferiority complex on behalf of our Plymouth. (How the cars our family owned became a part of my own identity.) While we were never poor, our Plymouth seemed to reinforce the Dennis family mantra of frugality bordering on asceticism, while Olds riders and drivers seemed just a little bit more solidly upper-middle-class. And yes, I was jealous…
…Which brings me back to our featured car. This was a really nice ride at some point. It’s not even “just” a Supreme or a Supreme Brougham… it’s the upper-echelon, flagship, ostensibly Euro-themed Salon, which was in its last year in this handsome bodystyle before adopting the terrible posture of a hunchbacked, quasi-fastback, simultaneous with its downsizing.
This Salon coupe was the second-most-expensive Cutlass offering for 1977 (after the Vista Cruiser wagon), which was part of what made these images so hard to take in. In mint condition, this conifer-colored Colonnade would flip so many switches for me. It is in a dark, understated, distinguished color. It has the SSII wheels. It’s one of the best-looking midsize cars of its generation. And if I’d be so lucky, it might have an actual, 185-horse, 403-cubic inch Olds Rocket V8 under the hood to move its 3,800 pounds of personal luxury. Sigh. The reality is that this part of the U.S. isn’t called the “Rust Belt” for nothing, and this car – fully exposed to the winter elements – will be 40 next year, if it avoids the crusher through the next few weeks.
Our featured car was one of of about 56,800 Salons produced for ’77 (which came only as a coupe that year, following the discontinuation of the 4-door Salon), which represented about 9% of about 632,700 total Cutlasses produced for the model year. This ’77 Cutlass total production figure represented a massive 26.5% jump over the 1976 total of just over 500,000. The popularity of the ’77 Cutlass helped Olds Division smash the One Million barrier (about 1,136,000 units) for the first of six non-consecutive years without breaking a sweat, though I’m sure those working on the line were sweating plenty to build these cars to keep up with insane demand.
Cutlass Salon prices for ’77 started at about $5,300 (about $21,000 in 2016), which represented $300 ($1,200 / adjusted) over the base price of a Supreme Brougham coupe, which outsold the Salon by a ratio of over 2:1. The “plain”, old Supreme coupe sold close to 243,000 units that year for about $600 less than the Salon (roughly $2,400 / adjusted). For the money, what would your choice have been? A Supreme coupe would have been enough Cutlass for me.
I found the “Happy Honda Days” billboard in the background of the above shot particularly ironic. If this Cutlass had eyes to see, it would probably be retracing the chain of events that led to its orphaning and Honda’s usurping of Oldsmobile’s role as the make of choice for much of middle America. By the time the Accord became the top-selling passenger car in the U.S. for model year 1989 (the first import-branded car to do so) with close to 362,700 sales, total Olds production at roughly 533,800 was about half of what it had been just three years prior, and our featured car’s direct descendant, the new-for-’89 W-Body Cutlass Supreme, scored just 100,000 sales. The Accord and the Cutlass Supreme had essentially swapped roles, as was reflected in the driveways and garages of many households.
Time waits for no one – or no car, for that matter. Twenty-Sixteen came and is on its way out, and the once stalwart choice of the American middle class that was Oldsmobile has been gone for almost fifteen years now. Regardless, however, of how many Oldsmobiles, or Cutlasses, remain on the road in the years to come, both brands will undoubtedly remain interwoven in the lore, hearts, memories, and past aspirations of many car lovers. Some traditions are hard to let go of.
Ravenswood, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, December 11, 2016.
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