Curbside Classic: 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham – Adulting, 1970s Style

(first posted 8/9/2017)      I often hear my twenty-something children and their friends talk about “adulting”.  Adulting seems to be the practice of what we of an earlier generation called taking care of business.  Adulting involves putting aside all of the crazy, fun things that you would rather (or could otherwise afford to) be doing and being a responsible grown-up.  For today’s millennials adulting involves things like keeping your bills paid instead of going to concerts out of town and shopping for things like tires or car insurance.  Or in the words of those a generation or two beyond me, vegetables before dessert.

Adulting can also involve buying a new car.  It does not involve buying the wholly impractical (if not bat-shit  crazy) cheap stuff that starry-eyed kids fall in love with, like the 1970s Dodge pickup truck with its roof sawn off that briefly served the teenage son of a family in my neighborhood.  Or the yellow and purple twenty-year-old Nash sedan that showed up with an older brother of my childhood next door neighbor before disappearing just as suddenly.  In my case it was the well-worn $400 ’63 Cadillac that had been sitting undriven in a garage for a year.  “What a great car, nothing ever goes wrong with these.”  No, adulting requires that one choose something normal and practical.

In the 1970s, there was nothing more normal and practical than the Oldsmobile Cutlass.  The car’s size, price, looks, performance and quality hit a home run, making it the most popular single car in America for several years.  Adulting in the 1970s very often involved the purchase of a new Cutlass.

My cousin Butch adulted in just this way.  When he was young and carefree he showed up at our house in a yellow 1969 M.G. Midget.  He may have moved to something more practical than the Midget (and what wasn’t?) but I don’t remember.  But I do remember that day when he had reached that point in his mid 20s where he had a stable job and was engaged.  We had heard that he was looking for a new car and one day he showed up in it – a pale yellow 1978 Cutlass Supreme 2 door trimmed with a burgundy vinyl roof and velour interior.  In other words, a car very much like this one.  I can’t recall if Butch went all out with the Brougham – but probably not as broughaming was not usally a part of adulting.  Adulting involved choosing a more restrained trim level, which was just one more bit of practice in the lifelong art of not getting everything you want.

I was conflicted.  I was happy to see Butch moving on in his life, plainly on the road to happiness and success.  But . . . damn . . . a Cutlass?  To translate my reaction to something more identifiable today, think of a kid buying his first Civic or Corolla.  Or maybe a CR-V or Escape.  A completely acceptable choice, one for which nobody will criticize you.  Other than that it was so . . . adult.

I did not mean “adult” in a good way either, the way we usually thought of adulthood at the time.  I was thinking of it in the modern context of “adulting”.  Poor Butch.  He thought he had bought a new car.  I saw him fastening the shackle around his ankle, consigned to the purgatory of velour and an overmatched 260 cid V8 which also came with a hefty payment book.  Poor bastard.  Jeez, for a lot less money you could buy a ten year old Ford convertible with a 3 friggin’ 90 and have something fun and unique (when you were not wrenching on it).  But that wasn’t adulting.

I would never succumb to the anesthesia that was a Cutlass, of course.  I had gotten a whiff of adulting a year or two earlier when I found myself alone, piloting my stepmom’s ’74 Cutlass Supreme coupe.  I will never forget the sensation of being surrounded by brilliant white vinyl and thinking “OK Jimmy, this is what real life is like.  One of these times you are going to join the great herd by wearing a tie every day and doing all kinds of shit you don’t want to do.  You are going to have to eventually make your peace with a Cutlass.”  It was not a good feeling.  Perhaps that Cutlass moment of clarity hit me particularly hard because I had been riding in the Cutlasses (and F-85s) of parents since I had been a wee tot.  If the ’61, the ’64, the ’68, the ’72, and that ’74 in which I had spent nearly a lifetime had conditioned me to anything it was that fun cars may be for some people, but not for the adults that my family was likely to turn out.  Because we bought Oldsmobiles.  I knew that one day, my unavoidable Cutlass-moment would come.  And there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.

But then a funny thing happened.  Around the time I became an actual (as opposed to theoretical) adult, the Cutlass began to dissolve into irrelevance, at least as far as early-stage adulting was concerned.  By 1985  the adulting concept involved a Honda Accord or a Toyota Celica instead of a Cutlass.  Glory Hallelujah!

Some of us go into adulthood more easily than others, and as far as my automotive life went, adulthood did not get its claws fully into me for several years thereafter.  The ’85 Volkswagen GTI was a thumb in the eye of adulthood and the ’66 Plymouth Fury III that followed it was a kick to adulthood’s groin.  But grownupedness had the last laugh (as it always does) when I married a girl with . . . an ’88 Honda Accord.  But thank the Good Lord it wasn’t a Cutlass.

As I got older and watched Oldsmobile swirl around and then flow down the drain I began to miss the Big O.  Just a little.  Then adulthood got its sweet revenge when I pulled up my big boy pants and sold my beloved ’68 Chrysler Newport for . . . an Oldsmobile.  An ’84 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency, to be precise.  It was the responsible choice, much newer and with fewer miles.  Though this wasn’t so much adulting as it was pseudo-grandparenting.  It was an OK car, but not anything that ever really got my juices flowing.  How adult.

But now, nearly forty years on, I can say that I kind of like this little Oldsmobile.  Except for the color.  Egad, who can like that?  I had to suck up wearing a tuxedo in that color when one of my cousins (was it Butch again?) got married around that time.  It was the ’70s, that’s for sure.  Today I can admire the clean lines of this car, particularly the way Oldsmobile’s stylists were able to capture the essence of Cutlass in the make-or-break stakes of the 1978 downsizing.  The only thing the Cutlass lost in the translation to a smaller, slimmer version of itself was the smooth, torque-making 350 cid (5.7L) Rocket V8 with that signature Oldsmobile sound bubbling from the exhaust pipe.  The wimpy little 260 (4.3L) V8 never possessed the ample, relaxed power of its big brother.  Who knows, this alone may have begun the car’s fall from grace with those classes of matriculating adults whose field of view was wider than that of their parents.  Or perhaps the car was doomed by parental popularity, which has been a killer of minivan and sedan sales in recent years.

Either way, it was a blast from the past to gaze upon this 79 Cutlass Supreme Brougham which, if not something that could pass for showroom new, is agonizingly close for a car going on forty.  But if transported back to 1979 with a second chance, would I sign on the dotted line for a new Cutlass?  Not a chance, Dude – after all, there was a white ’59 Plymouth Fury sedan that was delivered to its first owner on the day I was born, and calling my name from the used car lot of a Dodge dealer in Muncie, Indiana.  Sometimes adulting just has to wait.