CCCCC Part 9: 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon – We Don’t Want No Stinkin’ Fastbacks

(first posted 5/6/2011)   Your question in today’s class of GM’s Deadly Sins 101 will be to answer the following question: just what was it that inspired the failed Aerobacks? Everything else in GM’s downsizing Great Leap Forward was going so peachy; the B Bodies that appeared in 1977 were a smash success. And all GM had to do was scale the A Bodies down by x%, and call it good. Well, just for good measure throw out a few basic amenities like opening rear windows, but who’s going to notice that, especially when they’re so smitten with those fabulous fastbacks?  So let’s take a look at some of the possibilities:

It’s hardly the first time Olds and other GM cars were infatuated with fastbacks. In 1941, GM jumped into the aerodynamic era with a vengeance, the Olds version being designated Dynamic Cruisers. But one had a choice of either the aeroback or conventional design.

The new 1948 and 1949 GM bodies also had fastbacks in the line-up, along with notchbacks. So was GM drawing on its long fastback heritage?

Maybe not. The times they were a changing, and the first energy crisis began the paradigm shift in American car design that took a long time to unfold, but was clearly heavily based on European and Japanese design influences. The grossly obese Colonnades were perhaps truly the last new American car design that was utterly in defiance of the global trends elsewhere. That had to change, even if the new American cars still had a distinctive way of representing that smaller manifestations.

A full survey of all the the designs that led to cars like the Aerobacks is beyond our scope, so let’s let’s take a look at a few random examples, and you can find some more and use them to support your answers. The Autobianchi Primula was a very significant car, appearing in 1964, and predicting small car trends perhaps better than any other. Of course it was FWD, and a hatch was added after the first year or so, but it created a design pattern whose influence was to be seen around the world for decades to come.

The Renault R16 appeared a year later, and translated the Primula’s superbly practical design and utility into the mid-size class. Its hatchback made it supremely practical.

And the somewhat ungainly Austin Maxi of 1969 was another example of the very early school of (European) mid-size fastback/hatchback sedans. Its lack of proportions gives the Cutlass Aeroback four-door a run for the money.

Of course, the odd thing about the Aerobacks was that they didn’t have hatchbacks, even though that was quite the rage about then, and GM saw fit to give its “compact” X-Bodies like this Omega version hatchbacks. Oh well.

Ironically, the ’78 Malibu (and Pontiac LeMans) didn’t have the fastback, but the Citation plunged Chevy into the European FWD hatchback formula with a vengeance.  And the Olds and Buick versions of the X-Cars? They were as notchy as anything ever was. So it almost seems that the fastback genre was like a hot potato being tossed around between the divisions. And it broke apart while it was in Chevy’s hands. No more stinkin’ fastbacks for us: enter the Celebrity.

We’ll pick up the current end of the GM fastback history, but let’s take a quick look at these actual cars, instead of all their possible influences.  This four door belongs to a neighbor down the street, and has been there as long as we’ve lived here (18 years), so I suspect it’s a lifetime family member. It occasionally gets pressed into towing service. I never asked which engine it has, but I seem to remember hearing it once (a Honda Civic is the main driver) and it seemed to have that distinctive V6 plea for help.

There good old Buick 3.8 V6 sported 105 hp, and was the base engine in all Cutlass, even the 442, which was now an appearance package. The 260 V8 packed all of 110 hp, despite two more cylinders and thirty cubic inches. Chevy 305 V8s were also on tap in 145 and 165 hp (four barrel) versions.

At least the new A-Bodies weighed almost half a ton less than its Colonnade predecessors, so that was quite a help. From today’s standpoint, these cars were pretty light, running between 3100 and 3300 lbs or so; obviously more with the V8 and lots of options. Eliminating rear window openers must have saved a precious pound or so, as well as a few bucks.

The interiors were nothing to get excited about; pretty typical GM cost-cutting wherever one looked. That reminds me, Olds started its crazy Cutlass name game in 1978. The Salon had been a top-line Cutlass with Euro-touches and very nice seats and all. But in 1978, that Cutlass coupe was given the Calais name, and the Salon now meant fastback. OK; keep us guessing, and keep destroying any name equity.

I don’t think I need to actually spell out that the Aerobacks were a failure, do I class? The Cutlass Supreme Coupe (our next class subject) was a huge success, but the Salons foundered and were quickly replaced by mini-B bodies. Fastbacks were essentially banished from GM, as the eighties ushered in the most extreme form of notchback-ism ever seen.

Well, nothing is forever, especially at GM. Fastbacks eventually found their way back into the GM mothership, and one in particular seems to draw on the heritage of the Aerobacks. But we’ll leave that for a CC thirty years from now.

Chapter 10 Is Here