(first posted 3/26/2014) I could hear it from a mile away, like a dishwasher slowly prowling my neighborhood. The famed Iron Duke has never failed to turn my head. Normally that messy sound would be nothing to get excited about, but I happen to enjoy the very clean 1987 Olds Cutlass Ciera its hitched to.
Despite seeming much more recent, Fargo, which famously starred the A-body Cutlass, is quite close in age to this twenty-seven year old car. In that classic movie, these cars were justifiably identified as a middle American institution, if not an especially glamorous one, and it’s a very fitting portrait.
The famously blundering and square car salesman depicted in the film foreshadowed both the characters’ unraveling state of affairs and shaky situation at Oldsmobile in general. When your best seller is loved regardless of its soggy dynamics and breathless engine, you might be in quite a bit of trouble, and when the brand tried to shift buyers’ focus to newer, more current models, they faced quite a bit of difficulty. But what am I going on about? We all know that story.
There’s a lot people loved about these Oldsmobiles. Specifically, and as this hood ornament shows, they brought a very American sense of luxury to middle class buyers at an affordable price, and with lighter bodies than the RWD midsizers they replaced, performed well enough with a 2.5 liter four to keep those accustomed to the prior decade’s gutless sixes from noticing much of a difference around town. Considering the domestic competition, the too small K-based cars and the very new Taurus, these were the most traditional front-drive option. And as stodgy as they were, the A-bodies didn’t look bad at all. Oldsmobile’s version had the most cohesive styling, avoiding the Buick’s and Chevy’s unrelieved squareness, and the Pontiac’s blunt-looking front end.
The rounded front end signifies that this is a post ’84 car, and the quad headlamps mean it’s a pre-1988. The thin, horizontal grille slats combined with quad-headlamps indicate an early-build 1987. Note the “fuel-injection” badge; lower-trim levels of the Accord pictured behind this car didn’t benefit from that technology, though single-point, throttle body form, it’s arguable whether this Olds did either.
Brougham-lite styling cues and international flair? You really could get it all in an Oldsmobile. It must have been a real treat to sit through one of the marketing department’s planning sessions where such crucial decisions, such as whether or not to include the Portuguese flag, were made. The badge doesn’t look out of place here, if you pay zero attention to the car’s actual qualities. Besides, with Cadillac using faux-French model designations like “D’Elegance,” this klassy touch is rather innocuous.
But as we see by these muscle-car era inspired Rallye wheels, the identity crisis has a third dimension. Perhaps Oldsmobile should have capitalized more on this image as the decade wore on. With no F-body to infringe on Pontiac and Chevy’s turf, and considering the Cutlass’s success in the late ’60s and ’70s, it would make sense, especially with some genuinely good V6 engines coming through the pipeline. But no, the tug-of-war between chrome-plated glitz and import-lite pretense continued until the bitter end.
Not that there was any glitz here. This was about as stripped as it got, and might be the only A-body I’ve ever seen without A/C, let alone a tape deck or rear defroster. Like an good American car, you could order a Cutlass Ciera with any multitude of options, including a big engine, leather bucket seats, and a variety of power assists. No one told the dour personality who ordered this car, originally.
It would make sense that this rust-free car benefited from a dry, cool environment, making these options unnecessary, but it appears this car was purchased for use on the hot Indiana plain. Without A/C, the Iron Duke probably worked well enough on the unrelentingly flat highways which serve that part of the state. Just roll down the windows and listen to that four-cylinder drone. If there were a good year to order the V6, though, it would’ve been 1987, after Buick 3.0 had been dropped, Chevy’s multi-point 2.8 and the H- and C-body’s Buick SFI 3.8 were both upgrades, the latter hitched to the excellent 440T4/4T60 automatic.
And, if your rear seat passengers begin fogging up the rear window, positioned so close to the backs of their skulls, just tell them to stop breathing until you get to church or Thanksgiving dinner (I can’t picture this car being driven anywhere else).
The salesperson who helped move this very basic car off the lot may not have made much in commission. The buyers probably came in knowing exactly what they wanted, and that didn’t include any options of frivolous dealer add-ons. After twenty-seven years of Goodwrench replacement parts and slow slogs around town, this car looks as new as ever, and it didn’t require any of Fargo’s famously mocked paint sealant.