Curbside Classic: 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera S Coupe – The Name Game

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(first posted 5/21/2015)    GM’s massive and very expensive investment in new generations of FWD cars starting in 1980 led to some…hedging. Numerous RWD cars that were at one time scheduled to get the ax were given a reprieve. And new FWD models were given…old names. No GM division played that game more aggressively and confusingly than Oldsmobile, which of course had a lot on the line: Its RWD Cutlass had been the best selling cars in the land, or nearly so, for a number of years in the mid-late seventies. So the Cutlass name became a sub-brand, or more correctly, a prefix brand, and found its way on the head end of two whole new families of cars, Ciera and Calais, including this Cutlass Ciera S coupe, a body style that has become increasingly hard to find on the road anymore, especially with the sealed beam headlights.

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It’s hard to imagine a time when GM A-Bodies of this generation won’t still be fairly common sights, including that distinctive bit of light showing through the gap between their solid beam rear axle and the body. But the coupe was never all that common, unlike the four door sedans and wagons.

Olds 1982 br Small Size-01

Quite likely the Cutlass name was adopted for the Ciera because in 1982, when it first appeared, the many issues with the 1980 GM X-Body cars had become a national embarrassment. And since these new A-Body were essentially identical to the X-Bodies under their exterior bodies, Olds may have felt that associating it with the Cutlass’ generally good rep was going rub off on the Ciera. Of course, it may also have been that Olds was just hedging their bets regarding the RWD G-Body cars, since presumably the A-Bodies were originally designed to replace them. By 1982, the very worst of the gas price run-up was already over, and as it turned out, The G-Body was given a very long extension on its life.

Olds 1982 Cutlas Ciera 2 door

One thing is obvious: Olds clearly had no ambitions about the Ciera Coupe being any sort of legitimate successor to the overwhelmingly popular G-Body Cutlass Supreme coupe. In fact, this is not a genuine coupe; it’s a two-door sedan, by my definition that a coupe has to have a roof line that is distinct from the sedan. This one…ain’t.

Which may go a long way in explaining why these early A-Body “coupes” sold so badly. They were uncommonly uncommon at the time, and good luck finding one now. I haven’t seen one of these two-door sedans in a very long time, the Chevrolet Celebrity excepted, but then that was probably more a function of its price. That wouldn’t be enough to entice an Olds or Buick buyer. Coupes were all about a bit of distinctive style, and this didn’t have it.

Olds 1986 Ciera GT

Of course, the real unicorn of the Ciera line was the GT. It was a fairly ambitious effort to mirror Pontiac’s 6000 STE, and Buick had some comparable packages too (T-Type).  But while the STE become a substantial hit, the Olds and Buick versions were relegated to obscurity.

Olds 1986 Ciera SL coupe brochure

The new (genuine) coupe arrived as a mid-model year addition to the Ciera line. It was clearly in response to…a number of things. The prior version was dead in the sales stats. And the new roof line clearly echoes the 1983 Aero-T-Bird’s roof, which was of course an unexpectedly big hit. And the Ciera line and the A-Bodies in general were due for a bit of refreshing, after being virtually unchanged, now into their fifth year.

Olds 1989 Ciera br sedan

The new coupe was also a preview of the new roof line that appeared on the 1989 Ciera sedan. I’m alost tempted to say that at this stage, the Ciera coupe reverted back to being a two door sedan, but obviously the C Pillar is quite different, even if the rear window is the same.

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Despite spending way too much time carefully looking at 1986.5 and 1987 Olds brochures, I’m not totally sure this is actually a 1986. Olds used a bewildering variation of different grille textures and front end designs on these cars; for instance, the more upscale 1987 Ciera Brougham and GT used the new aero nose with composite headlights. Neither the 1986 nor 1987  brochures never show a grille with this exact texture, but then they just don’t show all the various front ends either. So by the process of elimination and deduction, I’m saying it’s a 1986. But I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong. (Update, it’s a 1985 grille, so the car is either a 1986 or 1987)

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My own exposure to this new coupe came in a rather unexpected way, although one not all that unusual, with new GM cars. I went on a business trip to Chicago in the spring of 1986, and was handed the keys to a Ciera, probably the most common rental car in those years. But when I found the car, it was…a coupe! And one I hadn’t even been aware existed yet. Either I was not reading Motor Trend much at the time, or GM was sending new cars out to rental fleets before or just about the time of their official announcement.

The interior was…typical GM of the times, all-too familiar in every way. As of course was the driving experience. driven one GM X or A Body; driven them all. Well, of course except one of those unicorn GTs.

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Let’s just say that despite the array of international flags on its flanks, nobody was going to confuse the Ciera with either a European or Japanese car. They were all-American, if in a new package. The GM A-Bodies simply defined the whole genre of mid-sized FWD sedans for years, until of course the Ford Taurus came along and very much re-defined it. Which soon led to the gradual decline of these cars, as they increasingly became rental, fleet, and retirement-home staples.

In 1986, the engine choices started with the unsavory Iron Duke 2.5 four, and moved up to the Chevy 2.8 V6, both in carb and fuel injected versions, making 112 hp and 130 hp respectively, and the substantially more ample 3.8 Buick V6, rated at 150 hp. With that engine, these cars were quite lively for the times, and made their intrinsic torque steer, or more accurately, sub-frame steer (at least that’s what it felt like), all to apparent.

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The new coupe appeared to sell better than the old two-door sedan, but it still was hardly a big hit. The Thunderbird put the kibosh on those hopes. 1990 was the last year for the coupes, so while Ciera sedan soldiered on through 1996, capping an almost unprecedented fifteen year run, the coupe only had a four and a half year run. Which explains why they are hardly common, unlike their seemingly immortal sedan counterparts.



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