CCCCC Part 13: 1992 Cutlass Supreme – How The Mighty Have Fallen

(first posted 8/11/2011)      From tiny acorns grow mighty oak trees. The 1961 Oldsmobile F-85 planted the seed that grew into the best-selling Cutlass Supreme. Unfortunately, during the 1980s and 1990s, competitors smashed the dominance of the Cutlass Supreme as thoroughly as a tree demolished this Cutlass Supreme sedan during a severe spring thunderstorm.

In typical GM fashion, it was Oldsmobile itself that began chipping away at the roots of the Cutlass’ success. It applied the Cutlass moniker as a prefix to the 1982 Ciera and 1988 Calais. The Cutlass Supreme, meanwhile, continued in its rear-wheel-drive format through early 1988. Soon there were three very different vehicles wearing the Cutlass nameplate, all aimed at different buyers. It all made for a confusing family tree, to be sure, and one that left many potential customers scratching their heads. GM marketing at its finest.

The first tree that came crashing down on the Cutlass wasn’t from Japan. It hailed from Dearborn in the form of the 1986 Ford Taurus. While the 1973 Colonnade Cutlass Salon had made a stab at the “euro sedan,” the Taurus was a bold gamble to completely modernize the mass-market American sedan. The styling was inspired by the Audi 5000, and there was no version with a vinyl top and softer suspension for the folks who really loved their LTD Landaus and Delta 88 Royales.

The Taurus gamble paid off for Ford, as, for the first time since… forever… GM was on the defensive in the family sedan market. GM fought back with the GM-10 program, which included this Cutlass sedan. Unfortunately, GM was in the middle of the Roger Smith era when this car was developed and introduced.

Today it’s fashionable to blame all of GM’s ills on former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chairman Roger Smith. As anyone who has read John DeLorean’s On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors knows, the rot had set in before he took the helm. Smith realized that GM had serious problems, and set out to do something about them. Unfortunately, he had an uncanny knack for implementing programs that either failed to address the original problem or actually made it worse.

The GM-10 cars were delayed by Smith’s infamous corporate reorganization plan, and the coupe versions debuted first in early 1988. Unfortunately, it wasn’t 1973 anymore, and most customers wanted four doors, both in response to child restraint laws and their own aging physiques. Ford didn’t even bother with a Taurus coupe, correctly figuring that the slick Fox-based Thunderbird could handle that (dwindling) demand. It didn’t help that the coupes traded their formal rooflines for glassy greenhouses, reminding many of GM’s radical 1959 four-door hardtops. Nostalgia was big in the 1980s, but that didn’t (yet) extend to car styling. People still wanted some privacy behind the wheel.

The Cutlass Supreme sedan and convertible debuted for the 1990 model year, and by then, two more trees were crashing on the Cutlass Supreme in the form of an upsized Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Accord took over the best-selling spot from the Taurus, before the Camry snatched it. In a few short years, the Cutlass Supreme went from class leader to also-ran.

These Cutlass Supreme sedans are both post-1991 models. It’s hard to tell the exact year. Ironically, the company that had perfected the art of the annual model change in the postwar years was, by the 1990s, allowing its bread-and-butter offerings to stagger on without change for too many years.

The greenhouse of these cars was a styling focal point, as can be seen on the intact Cutlass Supreme. This one was parked at a local Walmart, where a chief predator–a 1994-95 Honda Accord–was lurking in the background. The setting is appropriate, as GM and Oldsmobile were on their way to acquiring the image as the Walmart of the auto industry – without any of the profits – when this Cutlass Supreme was produced.

The window treatment makes the car seem shorter and gives it a turtle-like appearance. The Saturn S-Series was accused of cribbing this greenhouse from the Cutlass, but the reverse is true. The Olds stylists saw the Saturn under development, and used this greenhouse for the Cutlass Supreme. It’s fitting, as there was initially talk of folding Saturn into Oldsmobile as the start-up costs mounted without any return. Later, as Oldsmobile sales sank, there was talk of folding Oldsmobile into Saturn.

While there was a rocket logo on the hood, there wasn’t rocket power under the hood. Most Supremes came with either a corporate 2.8 liter or 3.1 liter OHV V-6. These were probably the best V-6s available among the domestic offerings at that time. Only problem was that, by the late 1980s, GM shouldn’t have benchmarked its cross-town rivals for drive train refinement and durability.

For those who wanted something different, there was the ballyhooed 2.3 liter “Quad” four cylinder and the short-lived 4.3 DOHC V-6. Their purpose was to boost the technical credentials of the Cutlass in the face of those pesky Japanese interlopers, and prove that nobody sweated the details like GM. Unfortunately, most of the sweating was done by hapless owners who unwittingly performed the final durability tests on these engines. Both engines confirmed that, with a GM product, it was best to stick with the tried-and-true, continuing a tradition that began with the original Corvair, Pontiac Tempest transaxle and Buick aluminum V-8.

I heard a Quad Four idling in a brand-new Achieva, and it sounded like a coffee can full of rocks. One can imagine how Cutlass Supreme prospects reacted when they heard that engine in what had been America’s sweetheart. As for the 3.4 V-6… the less said, the better.

The Cutlass Supreme staggered on through 1997, with GM steadily eliminating the convertible, the 3.4 DOHC V-6 and the more interesting trim levels. Without much fanfare, it was replaced by the Intrigue, a car that was supposed to revive Oldsmobile’s glory days in the family sedan market, but ended up as another failed attempt to push back the Japanese dynamic duo. The Cutlass nameplate suffered the ignominy of being slapped on a badge-engineered version of the Malibu, before it was put out of its misery in 1999.

This hapless Cutlass Supreme SL was sitting on a main thoroughfare of Harrisburg when it became the only local casualty of a series of violent storms that hit the area. Fortunately, there were no human casualties. The Cutlass Supreme was situated in the path of a stately oak tree that could not survive the storms, and was unceremoniously towed off to the salvage yard… much like its parent brand was in 2004, after over a century in the business.