CCCCC Part 10: 1978 Cutlass Supreme Brougham: Supremely Popular, With Certain Exceptions

(first posted 2/13/2011)     The Complete Cutlass Chronicles are about the rise and fall of the house of Cutlass. And here we are, at the very zenith of the Cutlass Supreme Coupe’s arc. Well, strictly speaking, the almost identical ’79 was the very tippy-top, but let’s just say that almost a million 78 and 79 coupes (combined) were sold during those two heady years at the top, before the long decline set in. And what do we account for the Cutlass’ out-sized success? Beats me.

Just kidding. Let’s say that I’ve learned the lesson of the Cutlass coupe’s success, or more like had it pounded into me. That’s the huge benefit of writing Curbside Classics: so many of my old prejudices have fallen away, to one degree or another. I’ve learned to appreciate what other folks found so appealing in cars that I found so lackluster at the time. And looking at this clean example here, that’s not all too hard. This one is actually rather sympathetic to me.

I wanted to like GM’s new downsized A-Bodies when they arrived in 1978. Even though I wasn’t really likely to consider buying one, I was pretty impressed with the B-Bodies that arrived the year before to great acclaim. And I got to drive a really well optioned ’77 Caprice, with the 350 four-barrel and F-41 suspension. Pretty impressive, for Detroit iron, given my import proclivities.

The A-Bodies seemed like another perfect step down in size, yet retaining RWD and V8s; potential 7/8 scale Caprices. Somehow, they just never quite lived up to their potential, and they tended to look just a wee bit too shrunken with their mighty small little wheels and tires.

The A-Body that appealed to me the most was the Malibu coupe: clean, unpretentious; no Broughams or tinny wire wheel covers. With the 160 hp 305, it had decent performance and handling, with the F41 suspension handled almost as well as it looked.  If the 350 and a four speed had been available, it could have made quite a rep for itself, a true Malibu SS reincarnated. No such luck.

In hip and trendy West Los Angeles in 1978, GM was quickly getting into serious doo-doo. If it weren’t for the resident GM-maniac, the one who was even impressed with his test drive of the new Cimarron, I probably wouldn’t have even spent that much energy thinking about them, although I couldn’t (yet) quite resist GM technological prowess. And that’s despite the fact that it always under-delivered.

Nobody I knew then drove a Cutlass Coupe. But when we flew to Baltimore to visit family, the place was absolutely crawling with them. It was a perfect Towson-mobile: nice folks driving their new Cutlass Supreme Brougham to and from their brick colonials. Don’t get me wrong: there was something seductive about that; my life in LA was unstable, and trying to keep numerous Peugeot 404s running while living in an apartment in Santa Monica and trying to make a living as a free-lance tv production jack-of-all trades was always precarious. Those brick colonials and Cutlass Supremes looked so stable, secure and comfortable.

I guess that sums up the allure and success of the Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupe: folks want to feel comfortable and secure, and what better than this car to convey that every morning as you climb in for the ever-more crowded commute to the office park. There were easily a half-million folks a year willing to sign on the dotted line for that. Just not me.

I used to not care for the the lines of this car very much: way too boxy, and lacking in genuine character. I know; the Colonnades were huge pigs, but they were dripping with character, for better or for worse. The downsized A-Bodies are way too sanitized, or generic. It was the beginning of the dreaded look-alike curse that soon became a deadly cancer at GM. If you didn’t really care about these coupes and look closely, the Buick and Olds versions were utterly interchangeable.  The tract houses of cars.

Yes, outside of California, where folks were clamoring for 3-Series, clattering Mercedes diesels or Hondas, the Cutlass was the hot little ticket for baby-boomers starting to get serious about their careers and ready to ditch the weird clap-trap cars of their hairy youth. How many noisy and aging muscle cars or VWs were ditched in the inexorable big step to respectability, comfort and a bit of driveway prestige? Millions.

To each their own. In just a few years later, I was driving a Buick Skylark Limited, with plush loose-pillow seats. Well, it was made available to me as a perk for my new job, but sure, it was comforting, after a fashion. Not that the seats were actually more comfortable than the Peugeots, and I missed the sunroof in the mild coastal climate. But the first trip into the hot interior, and my first air-conditioned car was a revelation.

So yes, I get the Cutlass Supreme Coupe. And this particular example is as palatable to my taste as possible: white, no vinyl top, no wire wheel covers: If I had owned one back in the day, this is how mine would have looked. Now I wouldn’t have bought one back in the day in hip Santa Monica, because young folks are so damn image conscious. The Cutlass just wasn’t cool. But I look at it now, and see a pretty clean and timeless coupe, even if it is a bit generic. That’s not say that I wish that I had actually had one, but that’s as good as it’s going to get, from me, anyway.

Chapter 11 Is Here