In today’s automotive landscape dominated by crossovers big and small, pickups that rarely see cargo beyond grocery bags, and ever-fastback rooflined sedans, it’s hard to imagine that this two door, vinyl-roofed, bench seat-laden Oldsmobile Cutlass was once one of the most popular cars in America. Alas, like wood paneled walls, disco, and leisure suits, popular trends die out. Furthermore, who in 1978 could have envisioned now-ubiquitous features such as blind-spot monitoring, autonomous emergency braking, and Apple CarPlay? A lot can change, and this is living proof.
In fact, the year after this newly downsized for 1978, post-Colonnade Cutlass Supreme coupe rolled off the assembly line, the Cutlass once again recaptured the title of Best-Selling Car in America, a title it first claimed in 1976, and one it would reclaim the aforementioned 1979, as well as 1980, 1981, and 1983.
In this era of economic uncertainty and rising fuel prices, buying a new Cutlass was a sign that you were upwardly mobile and had a few extra bucks to spare for a “nice” car, but a also a sign of sensibility. It was enough to make a statement, but not a big, ostentatious one.
Available in a wide range of configurations — including 9 separate models, 4 bodystyles, and 6 engines for 1979 alone — the Cutlass aimed to suit most budgets and lifestyles, making it a proverbial right car at the right time for this era.
While the notchback Cutlass Supreme coupe was the most popular body by far, it’s worth noting that a traditional notchback sedan wasn’t offered until 1981. Prior to this, buyers seeking a 4-door Cutlass were faced with an unusual looking fastback sedan, bearing the Cutlass Salon name. A 2-door Cutlass Salon fastback was also offered, though despite their looks, neither featured a true hatchback, but rather a traditional-sized trunk opening below the rear windshield.
In any event, the Salon models proved less popular, something solely attributed to their styling. Truthfully, they were ahead of their time, as just look at present-day sedan landscape. Most new sedans on the market do indeed feature fastback rooflines and low trunk for increased aerodynamics, making them appear to have full-hatch openings. In fact many of them do.
Furthermore, it should also be worth noting that the top six best-selling vehicles in America for 2018 were in order: the Ford F-Series, RAM pickup, and Chevrolet Silverado, each with over 500,000 sales, followed by the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, and Honda CR-V. Equally notable, while these vehicles offer trim levels from spartan to well-equipped and, in some cases luxurious, none are primarily marketed as premium vehicles, and none are “cars” in the sense of a sedan or coupe.
Today of course, there are very few true mid-range “premium” brands, falling between affordable mainstream brands and luxury brands. Much of this is the result of once value brands moving increasingly upmarket with ever luxury and feature-packed trim levels, and that of once exclusive luxury brands reaching ever downward with smaller, de-contented models.
Changes in industry trends and consumer preferences were becoming quite apparent even throughout this generation Cutlass’s run. Following the introduction of the front-wheel drive A-body Cutlass Ciera in 1982, all bodystyles of this rear-wheel drive G-body Cutlass, regardless of equipment level, were now called Cutlass Supreme — a move that further diluted the Cutlass and Oldsmobile nameplates, and one that further confused buyers.
The front-wheel drive Cutlass Ciera was initially intended as a replacement for this older featured generation Cutlass, but the latter’s strong sales prompted Oldsmobile to continue its production. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that the Cutlass Ciera overtook the Cutlass Supreme in overall sales, with its 4-door sedans fittingly more popular than 2-doors, while the rear-wheel drive Cutlass Supreme’s 2-door models remaining far more popular than its 4-door sedans until the very end, despite the G-body’s declining popularity.
By 1988, the compact N-body Calais (a name previously a Cutlass model) became the Cutlass Calais, and the new front-wheel drive W-body Cutlass Supreme debuted, though Oldsmobile kept this G-body Cutlass Supreme coupe around for one final year as the Cutlass Supreme Classic.
While these overlap allowed Oldsmobile to maximize its short term profit, it only emphasized Oldsmobile’s growing irrelevance and built up an inflated sense of success and security. This bubble soon would burst, and along with other key factors, led to the demise of both the Cutlass and then Oldsmobile altogether. Looking at this 1978 Cutlass Supreme today, it’s astonishing to believe that this was the most popular car in America 40 years ago. How the times have changed.
Photographed in Braintree, Massachusetts – November 2018