(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.
Related reading: Iron Duke, 1988 Buick Century and 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser
That flag badge goes back to the 1973 Cutlass Salon. They got quite a bit of mileage out of that tooling.
That also answers the question as to why it includes a Spanish flag that more closely resembles that of Franco’s Spain than the one in use by the time this car came out…
Franco is still dead, by the way.
I had an ’86 station wagon with the 2.8 V6 and third-row seat. Just under a quarter million miles on it. The price was right, $100, back in 1999. My favorite A-body was an ’88 Century with the 3.8, though. It had gobs of torque, and weighed about 2700 pounds. These days, you would never find a power-to-weight ratio like that in a “boring” old man family sedan. The 2700 pound cars these days, are the cars that weighed 2200 pounds just 20 years ago, before all the SRS/ABS/TPMS/TC/DSC etc…, so yeah, my 2800 pound Corolla packs a 1.8. Where’s the V6 option on anything smaller than a Camry? You can keep your duratec-powered Ford Contour, because the Buick 3.8 produced torque above and beyond. As the old saying goes, there’s no replacement for displacement. Not too long after the ’88 Century, if you wanted the 3.8 or “3800 series”, as they now called it, you would be limited to FWD land-yachts like the Bonneville, Park Ave, Regal, Grand Prix, Riviera.
Dodge Avenger/Chrysler 300 with the 3.6 V6 with 283hp has almost the same power to weight ratio and general size as the Century 3.8 V6.
I disagree. The Chrysler 3.6 produces 260 lb-ft of torque at 4800 RPM. The Buick 3.8 produces 200 lb-ft of torque at just 2000 RPM. The Buick’s got a fatter torque curve, and the fact that the Chrysler V6 has a higher peak torque rating is largely offset by the fact that the 300 weighs nearly 4,000 lbs. It’s also nearly a foot longer in overall length. The Avenger is a closer match in size, though it weighs 3,400 lbs.
A friend recently got a 200 as a rental. By his description, the car was not nearly as fast in real life as it would seem on paper. Perhaps he didn’t thrash it hard enough to get everything out of the engine’s higher rev range.
Most of the rental 200s are four-bangers. The few that were V6-equipped and somehow ended up in the hands of rental companies do have a quick feel. I wouldn’t compare it to a 2,700 lb. car with 200 lb-ft of fuel-injected torque available just off idle, however.
Ahh – I had been under the (mistaken) impression that all 200s were V6s. This explains it.
I just spent two days in a rental 200 with the 4-banger. I was impressed with it, actually. One fascinating tidbit that I gleaned from the owners manual, in the form of a question:
How often do you think one is required to replace the spark plugs with the base 4-cylinder engine?
Surely, it’s 100K miles, right? Just like about every car these days?
Nope. Every 30K miles. I’m not exactly sure why – maybe to save $5/car by not using platinum plugs?
Another question: How do you tell a curbside classic reader? They’ll be the one who reads the spark plug replacement interval in their rental car owners manual.
TRDsmith – apparently it the pentastar V6 has 90 % of maximum torque available from 1600 to 6400 rpm, not unusual these days thanks to variable cam timing. The ‘better down low’ impression is common, I think probably due to the more efficient high-rpm power than the old engines making the bottom end seem poor by comparison, as well as heavier vehicles as you have noted.
All these years later, and as good as these have proved to be over the long haul, I STILL cannot work up any enthusiasm for these.
By the way, they’re actually rebooting Fargo – as a miniseries on FX. Judging by the trailers, it looks quite promising, and they also kept the “cars as characters” shtick of the movie, with newer Cieras and LX sedans taking up the mantle. I’m not sure if its supposed to take place in the mid 90’s though, as one scene in a police station features modern computers.
Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jFU0r0xG_c (sort of NSFW)
Call me a cynic, but it’ll start off like Twin Peaks and end up as Northern Exposure. It’s like the mooted sequel to Blade Runner. Magic gets lost.
Don’t be too sure of that – it’s only a ten episode mini-series. That’s it. Gives me hope that the whole thing is coherent from start to finish. Guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.
There may be hope. Twin Peaks was originally a six or eight part mini-series. Then they decided to do another season…
I remember Twin Peaks, I was a fan, but now I can barely recall the show other than Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer.
Yeah, if they extend it after the initial run I’ll be skeptical.
Well your fears were unfounded-season 1 and 2 were superb, IMHO.
Season 3, not so much.
Fargo the TV series has run for 3 seasons – total 30 episodes Ne Story and cast each year. Filmed in Calgary but seem like North Dakota -Minnesota.
Whoa, no a/c in an ’80s A-body? That’s a rarity. I bet that steering column doesn’t tilt, either.
This car has certainly got to be one of GM’s greatest hits for the last quarter of the 20th Century.
I’m sure that the A/C was still optional for these cars at this time. About the time this car was new several families moved into our neighborhood that had transferred from Syracuse, NY for work. One couple across the street from us had two fairly new GM cars and neither had A/C; there comment was that it wasn’t needed in upstate New York. They changed their minds after that first summer in the Ohio River valley and both cars were swapped out pretty quickly. Having said that, I can’t imagine someone in Logansport, Indiana, where it does get hot in the summer, being too cheap to spring for the optional A/C.
It gets hot in Syracuse. It gets hot enough in Plattsburgh and Burlington for A/C too.
True, but I grew up 60 miles south of Syracuse and to this day I still consider AC a luxury. Aside from chain stores and maybe school if the POS system was working that day I almost never experienced AC. The only vehicles with AC (or AC that worked) were the family’s Saabs until they became too old to bother fixing the system.
Now that I am in Oregon I am waiting to see how I do without AC.
From what I hear, it’ll be easier. Much easier. Growing up in Plattburgh in the late ’80s, a lot of people had and used A/C in their cars. Of course, I didn’t know what “hot” was until I moved to central Ohio. I don’t know how the midwest was settled; it used to be forested, but then it was turned into farms and I can’t imagine working in that heat. Maybe the owner of this Cutlass was a farmer who was used to it.
I rarely use AC in the car; only if we’re on I-5 and want it mostly to be quiet inside.
In the house? There isn’t any, and that’s the case for all older houses here; even many newer ones. We get one or two heat waves per summer, but even then, the air is very dry. The rest of the time, the nights are so cool, its a non-issue. Open all windows at night, and run a box fan or two all night if it’s really warm. Close windows during the day, and it stays really nice until evening.
I’ve spent a lot of summers in Indiana near Logansport. It does get hot there, but not so hot you couldn’t get by without A/C most of the time. Typical old school midwestern attitude: AC is just one more thing to break, along with power windows, locks, etc,
That GM look with the rear window only a few degrees off breezeway always had me stumped. It’s as if some exec had decided only half a design was good enough.
Fargo, on the other hand, is top three CoenBroes.
Yeah? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.
It’s a curiosity as to how the Coen brothers came about choosing an Oldsmobile dealership to be used in Fargo. It’s worth noting that GMAC financing does play a significant part in the movie as the whole plot revolves around William H. Macy (the sleazy sales manager) needing cash to repay GMAC financing for money he borrowed to buy non-existent vehicles.
Could this have been done as well with Ford, Chrysler, or another GM franchise? Maybe, but GM and Oldsmobile seemed to fit the role perfectly.
Because here in Minnesota Oldsmobiles were very common, and still can be seen on a regular basis. I am sure that’s a big part of it.
As we used to say, William H. Macy was “out of trust.”
It’s been ages since I last saw the movie, but were the vehicles actually nonexistent or were they simply cars he’d retailed but failed to pay out the wholesale notes on? AKA conversions, this is the most common way dealers become (as Steve noted) “out of trust”.
From what I remember they were fictional, he kept sending over hard to read VIN’s to GMAC. I remember the VIN’s on the sheet in the movie were GM’s vins for the prefix section, they started with the correct 1G4HXXXXXX, which identified them as Oldsmobile vins, but the rest was all a mess.
Curiously enough, despite of doing the effort to put these all international flags, they didn’t seem to figure out that the Spanish flag they added was the pre-constitutional flag (with the black eagle), used during Franco’s dictatorship and which had been already changed by the very early 1980’s to the one that is currently used.
There is a reason that they chose GMAC. The story was (very) loosely based on the real life fraud committed by John McNamara in the 1980s and early 90s -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McNamara_(fraudster)
Those tires need a serious application of Westley’s Bleche-Wite.
This fairly screams “elderly original owner”. Someone who believed in the Sloan Ladder as deeply as the Holy Trinity, and thought he had really made it to own an Oldsmobile; didn’t go for A/C because he’d never had it, even on some black cars, and this one’s a light color with cloth seats (and we’re done with vinyl now that the kids are grown, Edna!)
The near vertical back window on these cars allowed for a huge opening for the trunk, bigger than most cars today. This convenience was negated by the high lift over height making it a pain to pull heavy items from the trunk. Without the constraints of today’s styling and safety requirements the interiors of these are quite roomy and airy. Back seat leg room is much better than a CTS, and it’s possible to sit in the center of the seat. And there’s no stupid massive center console!
I always thought the Ciera was the best looking of the A-bodies.
As you noted, they are very roomy inside, just like the X-bodies they shared a lot in common with.
Too bad the stink of the X-bodies initial troubles (1979 [early MY1980] to 1981 cars) stuck with them. The platform in retrospect was remarkably well engineered and thought out, if not pieced together very well some years.
The market, as it did, moved forward as American’s taste changed to less ersatz “luxury” to a modicum of performance, handling and style which GM sadly refused to recognize and then belatedly and ineptly tried to accommodate.
Watching the crash tests on the X-bodies and A-bodies is eye opening. We’d call them death traps now because contemporary cars are so safe.
This is actually a pretty clean trim line for this car, it looks comfortable and nicely trimmed inside and out without being overly broughamy.
The lack of AC would be pretty rare. I wonder if this scoots around better than the typical 4 cyl. Ciera without the extra weight and belt on the engine.
Even as an Olds guy, I’ll say that the international flag tag sometimes seemed a little forced. The one place it made any sense to me: I had a childhood neighborhood family that was led by an up and coming attorney. In ’73 they moved to a big new house AND bought a brand new Ninety-Eight AND a loaded Cutlass Salon Sedan with buckets, console and the entire option list. With brand new styling and quite rare for the times console 4 door interior, it seemed sort of exotic.
I was a 1972 Oldsmobile Expert after my mother bought a Cutlass Supreme that year. Then, neighbors bought a 73 Cutlass Salon – I was confused on multiple levels. First, I hardly saw the need for a model above Supreme. I mean, what is above Supreme? Then, besides the whole Colonnade thing and the unattractive “dirty silver” color was that logo with all the flags. What is so international about Salon?
I think about every Division of GM tried some new top model with the 1973 A body line – Laguna, Grand Am, Cutlass Salon and I suspect Buick had one too. None of them had any staying power. When my dad and stepmom were shopping Cutlasses in 74, the Salon with its international flags was gone, and the Cutlass Supreme was back on top of the heap, and all seemed right with the world again.
The Salon remained in the lineup all through the Colonnade period in it’s original role, then the name was repackaged for the Turtleback era, then again a “sporty” Supreme all the way until 1987.
Re top-line ’73s, Buick’s was the Regal, and that one at least, had staying power.
Reiterating as roger628 said
The Cutlass Salon was not “gone” in 1974, it lasted through 1977. The Supreme Brougham was really the top Cutlass. Salon was also used for the Aeroback Cutlasses for 1978-79. In other words, reduced to base model for a short time.
And the Buick Regal name had “staying power” for sure. And by the way, the Grand Am made a huge comeback in 1985, lasting until 2005.
I stand corrected. Funny, I don’t even remember the Salon after 1973. It must not have sold very well, which would make sense – Oldsmobile Cutlass buyers were pretty middle-of-the-road folks.
I can’t even identify half the flags on that badge. They could be Martian for all I know! But it looks cool.
From wikipedia… (I think I missed on Portugal and Ireland)
From left to right, the countries are the United States, Canada, Belgium, Finland, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Republic of Ireland, and (then West) Germany
“But no, the tug-of-war between chrome-plated glitz and import-lite pretense continued until the bitter end.”
That is a pretty good summary of a lot of U.S. cars in the mid – late ’80s, even early ’90s. Somehow, Chrysler pulled it off the best when they went cold turkey on tradition around ’93. Brands like Olds and Buick struggled and we know how it worked out for Olds. Ford found a groove and made their Panther / everything else modern showrooms work. Too bad GM mismanaged the B C RWD franchise as the ’80s progressed.
If only it were tan!
You mean Burnt Umber.
Beat me to it!
How were these set up as far as ride/handling/noise,etc?
I remember the Chevy and Buick A bodies well as my family and many we knew had them. The Buicks were quieter and more softly sprung than the Chevys. Was Olds somewhere in the middle in line with the GM social status?
As popular as these were, I don’t think I ever rode in one. If you are upgrading from a Chevy, why stop at Olds when you can get a Buick for about the same? This sameness may have not been a good thing for GM in the long run.
I do recall these cars being pretty decent vehicles, nice to own and drive.
” If you are upgrading from a Chevy, why stop at Olds when you can get a Buick for about the same? This sameness may have not been a good thing for GM in the long run.”
As a foreigner, the whole “5-brand-names-to-one-car” thing always seemed kinda weird to me anyway. Sure it made sense up until maybe the sixties, when there were actual mechanical and bodily differences between each one. But when they went to standardised mechanicals and each brand started going upmarket/downmarket in search of more buyers – once that happened, which brand you bought would be just a matter of styling preference. That’s if you were dead set on buying GM. 🙂
I am guessing it goes back to the same reason in the 50s. You didn’t want to seem uppity by appearing in a brand that was higher. In the 50s each GM had some sort of reputation. You didn’t want your doctor showing up in a Chevy as that meant he wasn’t good enough. And if he showed up in a Cadillac, he clearly was charging too much. Maybe some of that? Or just people wouldn’t cross-shop brands, even if it was the same car.
I wonder what the modern interpretation of this would be, for a doctor driving a BMW vs Lexus vs a Genesis. Sedan vs SUV vs pickup vs sports car. I was in the staff parking lot at a private hospital yesterday, there was a Porsche 911 next to a Civic, overall not many expensive/prestige cars.
I think the one of the few professions that still cares about this is real estate agents because they still do ‘house calls’.
They were decent vehicles if your reference point was domestic vehicles from the 1970’s, but the Ciera and its brethren were outdated by the late 80’s. I bought a new Accord in 1989 and my parents bought a Ciera the same year, and if you drove one car and the the other there was no comparison.
The Honda was a tight, light, responsive car that was a joy to drive. The Oldsmobile was a random collection of cheap parts that more or less headed the same direction down the road. The Olds was fine as long as you never drove a better car or just didn’t care, but if you actually test drove a variety of vehicles most buyers would be hard pressed to want a Ciera.
The Ciera is like bland food; it’s ok as long as you don’t try anything better.
“The Oldsmobile was a random collection of cheap parts that more or less headed the same direction down the road.”
This is more or less how I feel about our newly acquired 2016 Town and Country, although it does hold the road rather well at speed. But in more than a few ways the Caravan/T&C are like the A-bodies of their time: barely advertised, shunted aside by the automotive press in favor of more modern platforms, yet still bought en-masse across the Midwest (whether new or ex-rental/lease) as a high-value, comfortable, roomy family vehicle that undercuts the competition by 30-50% in price. It’s kind of crashy/creaky over many bumps and many interior/electrical/hvac components seem to have short lifespans as a function of FCA seeking out the cheapest Chinese parts possible. But it gets the job done, has a very satisfying motor (less so transmission at times), can knock down impressive highway MPG, and is the car of choice across much of the Logansports and Kokomos of the Midwest (and Canada).
There’s one much like this two blocks down my street, except a year or two newer (has composite headlamps, but before the C-pillar was reworked). And, sure enough, it’s driven by an older fellow. Though if he bought it new, he probably would have been in his 50’s at the time.
There are so many of these from the early to mid 90’s still on the road that it’s easy to forget these 80’s versions are becoming pretty uncommon. GM got some pretty serious mileage out of this basic design though–debuted way back in ’82 and lasted until ’96 with what were, all in all, only cosmetic changes, and not even major ones.
What’s the Iron Duke? Is it a 4 cylinder engine or a 6 cylinder engine? I’ve heard of the engine by name, and I may have seen cars with the engine, but I didn’t know what it was.
The Iron Duke was a largish (2.5 liter) four cylinder engine developed by Pontiac. It was essentially half of the Pontiac 301 CID V8, similar in concept to the four banger developed for the first Tempests, which was half of the 389. To my knowledge all of the Dukes were produced by Pontiac despite being widely used in all GM brands, excepting Cadillac. In addition, Iron Dukes were sold to AMC and were used in their products including some Jeep CJ’s. The Iron Duke went through several iterations and even received TBI fuel injection in its last years. Despite all of the upgrades, including balance shafts, the Iron Duke remained rather rough and noisy; it was generally reliable if not revved up too much.
Actually the Iron Duke has much more in common with the four-cylinder found in Chevy II’s in the 1960’s, which was basically a stovebolt six minus two cylinders. It is a pure vertical inline four, not half a V-8.
Ah! Ok. I knew that the Iron Duke was used in many different applications. I know that the 2.5 litre four cylinder engine was used in AMCs and GM cars. I was told that the Iron Duke was generally an unreliable engine.
You were told wrong for the most part. They may have had issues in the early 1977-81 carbureted days as did many non FI motors during that time but when they went over to TBI in 1982 they were known for going 200K easy. We had no less than 6 in our family during the 80’s and 90’s and not one ever went bad or left us stranded!
The 2.5 was an odd bird in that it could last a long time if not run hard as Joe stated. Their redlines are very low, between 5000 and 5500 RPM (I’m too lazy to walk outside & check a tach for the exact RPM) but they are pretty torquey despite their low 88-92 hp rating.
I think what may be killing off a lot of these now is age — these guys had a phenolic/nylon/whatever timing gear instead of a timing belt chain. The timing gears give the 2.5 its characteristic knocking or clattering sound which is surprisingly loud.
As the timing gears disintegrate (partly due to age + mileage), the only correct fix is removal of the camshaft because GM pressed the gear onto the camshaft. So jumping time => removing the engine to get the cam out. Not fun.
it’s too bad because everything else on this engine is super-simple to work on. You can replace the cylinder head without disturbing the distributor for example.
“5000-5500rpm redline” Good luck getting a stock Iron Duke to turn that fast, willingly. The 1980 version I looked up developed its max hp at 4000 rpm. A gas-powered diesel, in more ways than one! 🙂
Didn’t they finally put in a timing chain later on?
Yes, the final couple of years of production had a timing chain instead of the composite gear. As far as I know there is no easy way to retrofit the chain to the earlier models.
The only problem with the iron duke that I’m familiar with is the failure of the fiber timing gear in some cars. Other than that it’s bulletproof
The Cutlass Ciera mostly got the 3.3L and some got the 3.8L. I believe the 3.3s date to the early 90s through 95.
The 3300 Buick V6 was offered from 1989 to 1993 only on the Ciera and Century cars with 160HP and 185 torque developed at low engine speeds. It replaced the Buick 3.8 V8 after 1988 when it was dropped from the A-body line.
Actually the following cars got the 3300 V6
89-93- Buick Century
89-93- Olds Ciera
92-93- Pontiac Grand Am
89-93- Buick Skylark
89-91- Olds Calais
92-93- Olds Achieva
It was a damn good engine with almost no issues and the ones it had were easy to repair. Engine was easy to work on.
Replacing the thermostat on my ’93 Century 3.3 wasn’t enjoyable but everything else had been great for it being fwd. Also the engine computer does not respond well to having the O2 sensor wire kiss a spark plug wire.
Up until 1992 the iron duke was in the vast majority of cieras
Mother-in-law had an ’87 with practically every available option except the V-6. The 2.5 4 cyl. turned what might have been a pleasant car into a tortuous slug to drive. Noisy, rough and slow doesn’t begin to describe it. Of course she didn’t know the difference between an Iron Duke or a Hemi and didn’t care. When we took the keys away in 2005 it had all of 35,000 miles. She gave it away to a local church.
The 2.8 was for sure offered on the 1987 Ciera A-body along with it’s sister cars at Buick, Chevy and Pontiac. It was the generation II motor with aluminum heads and MFI tied to either the 125C or 440 trans axle with 125 HP and 160 torque later upgraded to 130/170 in 1989. Many were equipped this way and it made for a perfect compromise between the noisy sluggish 2.5 or the torque monster 3.8. My 1989 Ciera with the 2.8 and 4 speed trans was actually quite peppy and easily returned 31-32 on the open road and went 220K miles before I sold it to my friend who sold it to his sister who wrecked it somewhere around 260K miles and still running perfect!
That must be the least interesting car I have ever seen profiled on this fine site. For that reason, it is interesting.
I spent some time with a 3.8 carbureted version….must have been an ’86 model, with CA emissions. The car was comfortable, quiet, with good acceleration….and actually astonishingly good gas mileage—close to 28 highway if memory serves.
This was certainly not the car for an enthusiast, but provided great value for the those buyers (pensioners) that were not concerned about things like sportiness or design aesthetics…..
With no surprise to anyone well familiar with ’80’s GM reliability stats, the engine had issues by 80k miles. The cooling system was unwilling to keep coolant INSIDE the engine….aluminum, steel, gaskets, and plastic parts self-perforated at numerous points….allowing green blood to make steamy intrusions on too many trips to the grocery store.
A carbed 3.8 was never offered in this line. A 3.0 liter Buick built 2BBL V6 engine was offered from 1982-85 so maybe that was what it was. I would nominate that as the absolute worst engine offered in the A-body line from 1982-1996.
I’ve seen the opposite of this car, a 3.8 engine Cutlass Ciera GT coupe, which shows how far away you could get from the featured sedan by checking the right option boxes. these were probably as “cool” as Ciera ever got, these were pretty nice, they had bucket seats and the FE3 suspension upgrades.
Loved seeing those at the auto show when they came out. It was on my dream short list along with the Sterlings.
A rare bird indeed. While most sources show that the GT came out as an ’86 model, there was in fact an ’85 Ciera GT coupe that came out as a mid-year addition to the lineup. My mom’s cousin bought one (of 1084 built) new and it was a real treat as a 16-year old newly licensed driver when he handed me the keys. It was that same color as the one in the photo (the only one available IIRC) and had what are to this day some of the most perfectly bolstered leather buckets I’ve ever sat in. The interior really was the polar opposite of the featured Ciera. Full gauges and a tach, sunroof, power everything, the best stereo GM had to offer at the time short of a Bose system, you name it.
Unfortunately sometime in 1987 it was t-boned by a drunk driver. Thankfully the injuries weren’t life threatening, which having seen photos of what was left of the car was a real testament to just how surprisingly tough the FWD A-bodies were.
The faux suede inserts in the 85’s bucket seats were cool!
Got you beat. I found this car a couple of weeks ago. 1988 Ciera XC coupe. 2.5 ‘Duke and the only options were AC and a radio complete with the bucket seat and floor shift.
In the 90’s, GM was trying to push Olds as ‘import competition’ and a ‘Saturn step up’. But their #1 seller was the decade old Ciera. A 35-45 y/o buyer in 1995 is not going to go to the dealer where his 80 y/o relatives get their velour-mobiles.
Sure, these cars sold easily to older buyers 20 years ago, but then expecting younger buyers to just ‘come in’ and get Intrigues, as if GM is still owned 50% of the market, killed off Olds.
There were originally plans to link up Saturn and Oldsmobile, before it was decided that Saturn would have stand alone stores. Oldsmobile even got close to Saturn like customer service, The Oldsmobile Edge, they were the first “regular” GM division that offered a 24 hour customer care hotline, later they even added the same 30 day return policy that Saturn had.
I was the king of edge returns. Till John Rock himself told me to STOP promoting the program so well. I got the drift and stopped promoting it so well! At the time our market (Columbus,oh) was the “ test market” for the implementation of the Saturn sales system. Therefore John was in town to review the program and during one of the meetings he “ dropped the hammer on me”.😜
I rented this nearly new Ciera in late ’86 to drive home from Arizona. Yes, the Iron Duke was slow and felt like it was always pulling too big a gear, but it did return 33 mpg even when I drove 70 mph (in spite of the 55 mph limit). Other than the casual acceleration, it was comfortable and relatively nimble – and you could see out of it! As I said earlier in the Celebrity post last week, GM did OK with the A bodies.
We had one of these for our Driver’s Ed car, the first year they came out, so that seemed very cutting edge for us kids at the time. Unfortunately my opinion of the thing lowered considerably while driving one around Chicago for a week a few years later. It was rough, slow and that upper portion of the dash had an extremely loud squeak which eventually prompted my passenger to keep her hand mashed on it in an attempt to keep us from both going insane from the noise.
If you grew up almost anywhere in the Houston area in the ’80s or early ’90s and took high school Driver’s Ed, you learned how to drive in a brand new Oldsmobile. Period. I went through DE during the fall of ’84 which made us the last class to have B-body Delta 88s. The next semester they had a mix of Cieras and Cutlass Supremes. After that it was all Cieras.
Every January and June the local Olds dealers (especially Sam “The Rocket Man” Montgomery) would advertise their latest batch of almost new ex-DE cars, sold at a significant discount.
I grew up surrounded by these A-bodys, everybody in my parent’s circle of fiends owned one at some point even if it was to buy their kid cheap high school/college transportation. With that background let me say that that is the lowest option Cutlass Ciera that I have ever seen. NO AC?
A late friend had one of the last years of these cars (I remember that flag badge) – bought new with every option, including bucket seats and floor shift. He was a previous Honda Accord owner, from the U.K. transplanted to SoCal, and really liked the Olds. It must have had the six as I remember it as very smooth and quiet.
This sample is in incredibly good condition for being an Indiana car – someone must have taken excellent care of it over the years.
The generation that remembered the Depression vividly would often not get A/C in their cars. “Don’t need something that’s just going to break”. Same ffeelings about power windows, which were feared to break with windows down in winter/rain.
Auto HVAC systems are so much more reliable these days, and power windows, too.
I agree they are more reliable, but I’ve been totally happy with the manual controls in my Impala. If I’m too warm, I slide the sliders down. If I’m too cold, I turn off the AC or I slide the sliders up. The only downside is just recently the light behind the passenger’s side knob burnt out. And I am not going to tear apart my dash to fix one little light. But it still bugs me!
Now we have drive by wire, electric steering, electric brakes, touch screens, radar cruise control, blind size and zone alert, messaging and A/C seats/steering wheels etc to break down.
The strangest thing about this no-AC Ciera? That dealers tended to keep reasonably equipped vehicles in stock, and therefore a stripper like this was likely custom-ordered. Which means the customer probably could have had one of those fully-equipped Cieras from dealer inventory for the same money.
I have a friend who purchased a Honda Accord DX with roll-up windows and no power locks, thinking those were two fewer things to go wrong. But even he sprung for AC and a decent stereo. I chided him for his choice, citing the reliability of power accessories after nearly six decades of refinement, particularly on Hondas.
One other possibility is the dealership did order it as a loss leader, advertising it at a bargain price as a bait-and-switch and the customer held them to it.
These days it makes much more sense for manufacturers to bake in power windows, power locks and air conditioning because it’s pointless to stock the special parts needed to make the cars without them, like special door trim to accommodate window cranks.
The stripper, as we knew it in the sixties and seventies, is dead.
it’s funny that it’s a stripper with no a/c, but I’m almost sure that the “super stock” style wheels and the digital radio were options, I think this vintage would have still had an AM non-digital radio as the standard radio package.
The stripper is really dead, my friends mother got a Cruze and its base, but really fully loaded, it has power everything, cruise, am-fm-xm,etc etc. plus remote entry and trip computer, its amazing how well equipped a “baser” car really is today.
Technology and economies of scale have closed the gap
between stripper/base trim and top-line trim level.
The only thing differentiating an Audi or Cadillac feature-
wise from a reasonably equipped Hyundai Sonata or Chevy
Cruz *might be* leather seats or actual wood trim in the
dash or door inserts. Big deal!
If you could take that 2014 Elantra back to 1974 it would
blow away that year’s DeVille, both in features and on
a straight line and in the turns!
One quick note. The ’87 Ciera Broughams had the composite headlights. I had a white one and enjoyed the heck out of driving it even with its 2.5 engine. It was a nice little car — sort of like the white ’98 Camry I had…with a touch of GM quirkiness.
While I didn’t own an A-body back in the day, I was around a ton of them. My wife’s stepmother owned two of this series, a 1985 and a 1988 (IIRC). The 85 was a very nice broughamy Ciera, but it was totalled when a drunk driver mistook their driveway for a street. In addition to a new car, they got a new garage door, too.
Several friends of mine had Celebrity A-bodies as their first “grown-up” car; many of us in the mid to late 80’s were getting married and having children. Those of us who didn’t spring for a Chrysler minivan, went for the A-body GM sedan or wagon as they represented a good value generally.
My brother had a 1987 Celebrity with the SFI 2.8 V6 for a number of years, it was a good car for the time he had it. My wife’s stepmother’s Cieras were great cars, if normal, everyday routine transportation is your bag. ~30 years ago, it wasn’t mine, but now, I drive the 21st century equivalent to the A-body, an Epsilon-body Pontiac G6. I get it now…
I still keep an eye out for one of the A-body Cutlass or Celebrity wagons to show up on Craigslist, at least one that isn’t all rusty. I think that would be a nice way for me to haul my drum kit around. But for now, the Aztek will have to do.
geozinger wrote: “but it was totalled when a drunk driver mistook their driveway for a street. ”
LOL. Had to ask, are you a fan of the short-lived line
of Geo automobiles?
Thank you for the Oldsmobile story. Back in the day Ciera was a popular midsized car. They sold way up until the end as many have stayed. I recall that a Ciera Brougham was quite nice when loaded. I recall the brochure showed you could get digital gauges and a 3.8 v6. I liked the 3300 V6 too. It was based on the 3800. It was quite reliable. I wonder why GM stopped building them. The sad thing was at the end even though they were great values, they looked stripped. The ones from the 80’s didn’t.
I also think another thing that messed up things at Oldsmobile is when Cutlass Supreme switched to fwd and got smaller. There was no difference between the W Body Cutlass Supreme and A Body Cutlass Ciera. Granted, Ciera was older, but then add Calais in to that mix, this is why Oldsmobile had issues in the late 1980’s because they had all those Cutlass models and they were all in the same price range among other things. The only thing that separated them was looks and price.
They sold a lot of those Cieras especially in the 1990’s.
1989 Cutlass Ciera International Series( replaced the GT):
1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera commercial:
Even adding more to the mix, they still kept offering a 2door Ciera into the early 90’s while offering a 2door Cutlass Supreme, and still selling a 4 door W-Cutlass along side the 4 door Ciera. Buick had a similar thing going on with the mix of Regals and Centurys.
In agreement. They eventually put Century and Regal on the same platform and The Regal became the midsized Park Avenue in a way and the Century became the midsized LeSabre in a way. The Century and Regal had different interiors and different front end clips, but were the same car in 1997 moving forward. Oldsmobile went a different direction and Intrigue replaced Cutlass Supreme and the 1997 Cutlass( Cutlibu) was a place holder for Alero and it was to replace the aging Ciera. I often wonder what would have happened if tit had received a proper redesign for 1997 instead of the Cutlibu.
Oldsmobile a lot a lot of winners and had they had the backing they needed and wanted from GM, Oldsmobile would have been in a different position.
Those Ciera Broughams and Ciera GTs were nicely loaded especially with a 3.8 liter V6 too.
I always thought they should have done what Buick did with the Century to the Ciera, offer it as a bench seat W-body for the die hard clientele, but I guess Oldsmobile wanted to shake that entire image away. We sold a lot of those bench seat Centurys.
For some reason I thought the quad headlight models only lasted til 1986, I thought they’ve used the euro-headlamps on the 1987 models
My niece had a V/6 1988 vintage, which was passed down to my stepson. That car made it to 225k miles before it finally wore out..
I knew a family who used to own a 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. They were the second owners of the car and I thought that it was quite unique because it had a black paint job with gold pinstripping and purple tint. The interior was tan/beige. It had a bench seat in the front with an armrest in the middle that could be folded up to accommodate an extra passenger so it could carry 6 in total. The front bench seat could only be moved forward or backward and it had a column shifter. The hood ornament would not break off if you tried to bend or twist it. There was something pulling it from underneath such as a cable or spring which kept it upright and flexible rather than firmly fixed. I was told that it did have A/C but it probably quit at some point.
I used to hang out with the family’s younger son so he ended up acquiring the car when we were in high school and tried to make some modifications such as a CD player and sound system. One day we decided to cut class and go for a drive when he hit a small rock on the road causing the rear passenger side tire to go flat and dent the rim. The original Rallye wheels with matching paint that I liked were eventually replaced by a set from another GM car, perhaps a Beretta.
I drove it in the parking lot once and it felt weird that I could see the whole hood in front of me but it was very easy to steer. The 4 cylinder engine was no match for a V6. It started sounding like a diesel engine and eventually died an early death. I assumed that its demise might have been due to lack of funds and some neglect in the hands of a new teenage driver. It was driven rough towards the end of its life with the body starting to rust, turning into a money pit with little or no value by the early 2000s. By then it also had a dent in the rear passenger door from the son trying to drift in the snow. Finally it was parked on the side of the road till it was hauled away and scrapped. The son did keep some parts such as the ornament and badges as momentos.
My maternal grandmother had an ’86. Her’s was white, padded white vinyl top and was the Brougham. Her’s was a V6. Like I said it was white with the whorehouse red interior. It was the first car I remember driving totally on my own. She lives at the end of a desolate road and I was only 14 but she’d let me drive it on that road to her house.
This was the late 1990’s and she had it for a few years. From what I remember it was a pretty decent car for her.
My uncle used to build these, last car ever built in Massachusetts
The first car I ever bought was a 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera brougham with the 2.5 Liter Iron Duke and it will never win any races and it sounds like a tank driving down the road but it’s a great car that has not let me down 🙂
My grandparent’s Ciera was also an ’88 Brougham, and now I know for sure b/c: 1) the headlights were composite as opposed to the quad lamps from ’87 & older, 2) it still had the hood ornament (disappeared in ’89), 3) the rear seats still had lap belts only (again this changed in ’89), and 4) ’88 was the final year for Brougham models (the badges were in between the doors) & possibly the tail lights like on the featured car as well. I remember the badges with all the country flags on them as well. Yep, had the Iron Duke engine under the hood with the Tech IV logo that looked like the number 4 with “TECH” under it. If you knew what to expect from that engine it never felt terribly underpowered in normal driving (you could still get it up to 85 mph with reasonable effort if so desired 🙂 ). Oddly enough, someone who lived nearby owned a nearly identical one (they were both white & had wire wheel covers like the one below) and we were once behind it with ours when going to church! They came from the same dealership too (Twin City Motors, now long out of business). The best thing I liked about it was the horn that made it sound like a much larger car from a decade or 2 before its time–I’m fairly certain several people got surprised to hear that loud a horn from that small a car. Alas, the car aged terribly after my grandparents’ deaths, the transfer of ownership to my mom (their youngest of 4 children) in 2011, and eventually surpassing 160k miles: the rear bumper became more yellow than white, the weatherstripping & exterior door paneling came loose, the power locks quit working correctly, the emergency brake release cable broke, and (breaking the camel’s back) the entire fuel injection system went kaput in the middle of town. A $1000-give-or-take bundle of repairs to what was by then (2017) a 30-year-old, $500 car with who knows what could go wrong next? BYE-BYE! Since it was still (barely) driveable, we gave it to Goodwill after learning they accepted any running vehicle as a donation. Its replacement? My mom’s 2007 Ford Focus.
Dad bought a brand new Cutlass Ciera in the same color and trim as the top photo. The agent told him it was a V6. After showing off the new car, I knew differently but remained mute. It severed him well till it was stolen right out of the drive way. Mom noticed the car was missing when she went to get the morning paper!!
The car was later found sans the engine. Why they took a car with a shaker 4 was a mystery to my brothers and the insurance carrier. No one had the heart (including the adjuster) to tell Dad the truth.
The humble Ciera was the car GM Could Not Kill. Car magazines hated it with a passion from the day it was introduced, yet it always sold well. I believe the last one rolled off the line in 1996 as it could not pass the new side crash standards.
But the last five years, I doubt of anyone bought one new. All the ones I saw were ex-rentals or leases and were dirt cheap. Scads of moms ran their kids around in them, and why not? By this time, they were good, reliable cars and could be had for a pittance compared to a fawned over car like and Accord.
For some reason the Iron Duke versions were never that common in Canada, or at least the ones I saw. Most had the 3300 V-6, or later, the GM corporate 3.1.
I remember GM A-series cars of this era as having wonderful road-holding manners on the highway – rock steady in your lane, you didn’t have to correct. Great salesmen’s cars.
I had a 1990 Ciera and it is pretty good by this time. It was rack and pinion and the rack was properly mounted in the A bodies, unlike in the X bodies.
I suspect that there were still quite a few midwestern retirees still willing to shell out for a new one. They were a pretty good bargain as I recall, a decent amount of car for the money. Plus there were still an awful lot of GM employees/retirees (especially in the midwest) and their employee purchase plan included adult family members. It was no Taurus, but it was a solid car that could usually be purchased at a considerable discount.
In my experience the vast majority of 1990’s A-body Century and Ciera’s were V6 equipped with 1990-93 being 3300’s and 94-96 with the 3100. I owned a very nicely equipped 1993 green grey S model that was fully equipped for the time with all the exterior trim and lower chrome moldings, power everything, 3300 with 4T60 transmission, the deluxe radio with extra speakers, a luggage rack and the usual A/C, cruise/tilt etc. It had every option you could get on the base S model in fact. Absolutely loved that car! It would see 32-33 on a highway trip, was plenty quick for the time and went well over 150K miles during the time I owned it with a minimum of issues and never left me stranded!
That GM goodwrench sticker actually indicative of dealer applied rustproofing and paint sealant. I know this because at the time our dealership sold “ rusty jones” and my Oldsmobile zone service rep was always pushing the GM product. Any ways that sticker is what the dealer affixed to the window to denote that it was On the car. So the dealer actually did sell the car care package 😂
Car dealers in the Toronto area used to keep Iron Duke cars with no A/C on the lot so that the super low prices that they had advertised in the newspapers were legal. My father in-law bought a brown 1986 stripper special. I bought my Mother’s 1988 Olympic Special for my wife in 1991. She drove it with the 2.8 litre V6 for around 10 years. Common problem on these cars was the switch for the lock up torque converter would fail. The transmission would have to be opened up to repair it. Most people would just unplug the switch when the car got old to avoid the repair. Fuel economy would go down a few miles per gallon.
I like A-bodies, as I have some pleasant childhood-teenage memories associated with them, although all indirect: my own family stuck with a string of well worn Japanese compact cars and a pair of Mazda MPVs throughout the 90s and 2000s. And this car being from Logansport is oh-so-typical. I always keep an eye out for well preserved GM iron from rural/small town Central Indiana.
Yargh, that godawful, ear-grating thrash of the GM 4-cylinder engine. I can’t get it out of my head! It bellowed of fuсks just not given at GM. In the words of noted philosopher Bill D. Cat: Ackthpthpth. Thpth.
Even so, I have to admit the cars were sturdy and competent and fairly well built, and it seemed like everyone had at least one somewhere in the family. Anyone else remember this ad? Good job they didn’t carry on to the line about rusted automobiles:
One of my favorite commercials from back in the day
I used to have on of these. A 1991 Cutlass Ciera, white with blue interior and the 3300 V-6 if I’m not mistaken. It was given to me by my parents because I needed a car after totaling my 1997 Civic. I can say that it was a bit of an adjustment going from the Civic to the Cutlass, but I got used to it. It was much more comfortable than the Civic and had a lot more power, I mean that thing would move, and surprisingly good gas mileage for such a heavy car. It was kind of old school though. One thing I didn’t like about it was how the dashboard would rattle/ vibrate at highway speeds, and of course the typical old GM smell and electrical gremlins, but other than that it was pretty solid. I parted ways with it after about two years when it overheated in Houston traffic in May of 2008 and blew a head gasket. It just wasn’t worth fixing due to its age and mileage and plus I just wanted a new car so I junked it. Good memories though.