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 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.
I remember back when the GM-10 was under development. It seemed that every month, the car mags (that I read regularly back then) had a little blurb about the upcoming GM-10 and either why it was supposed to be so great or why it was so long in coming. Boy did these get forgotten in a hurry.
To my eye, it was just not an attractive car. I was in my late 20s-early 30s when these came out and should have been the prime demographic for a new Cutlass. But I cannot think of a car that I was less interested in. (For comparison, I was impressed with the 86 Taurus and we owned and loved an 88 Accord). And that was before I knew about the awful engine durability. Even today, I cannot imagine owning one of these. Not even for free. OK, maybe for free BUT ONLY if it has a 3800.
My parents were loyal Oldsmobile owners, and I was very curious to see the new Cutlass Supreme. I initially liked it, but it grew stale rather quickly. Olds restyled this car once, gave both the coupe and sedan a rather formless, unattractive mug, killing whatever interest I had in it.
Now, almost 30 years later, these cars still hold no interest for me – and that extends to all versions of the GM-10 cars. The only domestic cars that really interest me from the mid- and late 1980s and early 1990s are the Fox-platform Continental sedan, Mark VI, Thunderbird/Cougar and Mustang/Capri. And this is from a guy who grew up in household that thought GM in general, and Oldsmobiles in particular, were the greatest!
In many ways, Oldsmobile really died in 1984-88, when it replaced the Toronado and the rear-wheel-drive Ninety-Eight, Eight-Eight and Cutlass Supreme with smaller versions. They lost whatever character they had possessed, and just seemed cheap and insubstantial.
I don’t think you can squarely place the blame at the hands of the actual cars. There was a profound market shift away from traditional sedans and wagons as the means to carry families as the Astro piece pointed out yesterday. It hit GM particularly hard since it always seemed to have 2 models at each brand for every segment of the passenger car market, especially in the Eighties.
When the buyers went to A Caravan or a Cherokee, the die hard brand fans (for some reason more pronounced at Olds than Buick) went for the tried and true, which really was only the Cutlass Ciera at Oldsmobile. Buick was able to spin some kinda Nouveau Old tradition on The Regal that lead it to have a happier future. Well, the Regal Sedan is the best looker out of all the initial W-bodies too, so there’s that.
Although the initial C/H front drivers were rather interchangeable, the 1991/92 updates created a good deal of brand identity, you couldn’t really accuse the LeSabre and Eighty Eight of those years of sharing each panel as the 86-91 cars. And if my memory serves me correctly they didn’t exactly drive the same either, and Oldses moved further away from traditional interior design, with semi circular gauges versus ribbon speedometers and the such. And I’ll proudly take any tomatoes I’ll get for saying the interiors were far less tacky in the 86-00 FWD GM full sizers than they were in the B/C RWD.
But as a rule I hate Broughams and feel American (and some Japanese) Automotive furnishings went through a dark ages from about 1968 through 1985. I’d take the firmer padding of my Dads 1995 Eighty Eight for 6 hours over my Uncles 1984 Ninety Eight any day of the week.
Laurence, you are being easier on GM’s cars themselves than I would be. As for this Cutlass, I was right there in the desired age and education group. I lived in the heart of the midwest. My extended family had GM cars in garages all over the place. I didn’t know ANYBODY who owned one of these. I mean ANYBODY. Nor did I know anyone who wanted one but just couldn’t afford it yet. Tauri, Crown Vics, Caravans, Cherokees, Explorers, Aerostars, Town Cars, Accords, Mazda 626s, Civics, Stanzas, Mustangs, Camrys and Pulsars- these are some of the cars that my friends and family members were buying in those years. The rare GM cars bought by the older folks who did not defect were all LeSabres or Park Avenues or Cutlass Cieras.
Of course, one guy’s experience does not speak for everyone. However, from what I saw, the GM-10 was an epic failure.
I remember they caught my dads eye in 1988, he was 40 at the time, and he looked again at them in 1997. He hated the Cutlass Ciera, but went with the Eighty Eight because they weren’t physically that much larger but are roomier.
They were more popular on the coast(s?) and there’s still a fair number of the sedans around these parts, probably due to their popularity as “Scrapers” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scraper_(car). They weren’t complete utter failures that everyone makes them out to be, just failures compared to the G Body Cutlasses or the Cutlass Ciera, accurately described in the comments as a modern day Plymouth Valiant.
Well someone has to offer up the obligatory “that’ll buff right out” comment with regard to the subject vehicle. 😉
Speaking of the Quad4, my mother-in-law had an Achieva with that engine–a car she bought without consulting any of us sons-in-law who had experience with cars and would have warned her; she had decided she wanted an Oldsmobile and just assumed they were still as good as the Oldsmobiles she had had in the ’60s–and it was a complete POS. The engine eventually threw a rod.
Back in 1992, my cousin and I decided to pretend that we were a young married couple (I was 17 she was 14) and go car shopping. The rather gullible salesman at the Toyota dealer we stopped at decided to show us a rather nice 1988 Cutlass Calais sedan. It was fully loaded and had the Quad4. The three of us hopped in and went for a ride. At a stop light I couldn’t help but notice how rough the engine idled. I mean, it was BAD. Well, we soon turned and headed out of town. As soon as the speed limit went up to 55 I pushed down on the pedal to speed up, and…the car lost speed, and soon, the engine died! I coasted over to the shoulder and the salesman jumped out and practically yanked me out of the car so that he could try and get the car to start. It wasn’t happening. He then looked at me and said, “I’ll be back…” and started walking back toward town. I sat in the car and looked at my cousin. We started laughing like crazy!
I will say that while we were waiting we turned on the radio, and it had incredible sound!
After a little while the salesman showed up to get us in a new Corolla. When we got back to the lot, we stood around for a few moments and then he said, “Um…could I um, interest you in anything else?”
We politely declined and got into my car and drove away. We laughed about that for years!
The moral of this story? The Quad4 was a dreadful little engine…
Thanks, Paul, for running the article and adding the brochure shots. I came across the car when dropping my daughter off for daycare one morning…the car just sat there, waiting to be towed away. I happened to run into the Cutlass at the Walmart and starting taking photos, with the Accord in the background. You can’t tell, but in the Accord a young guy was talking on the phone…he was spooked as I took the photos, as he quickly drove away after I managed to snap about three photos!
I didn’t know there was serious issues with the Twin Dual Cam 3400, other than it had a timing belt instead of the traditional GM chain, and it was a tall engine (and a tight fit) that you had to rotate the engine and loosen motor mounts to do a routine tune up on. Then again it explains why the vast majority of the surviving W-bodies are 3.1Ls or 3800 Regals .
The biggest problem for the last Cutlass Supreme wasn’t necessarily the Accord/Camry or even the Taurus, but the Cutlass Ciera. A lot of traditional Cutlass buyers were turned off by either the modernity, the marketing campaign, the loud Quad 4 or 3.4L or didn’t want Convertibles. Plus the Cutlass Ciera was one of those JD Power and Associates Initial Quality all stars by the early 1990s, and significantly cheaper. I don’t think you could load out a Cutlass Ciera Cruiser with leather, power seat and a CD player and crack $18,000 with the “Olds Edge” or whatever the single tier pricing was called. The first year Cutlass Supremes did that they were still in the low $20K range (although they dropped).
There’s the argument that the Cutlass Ciera killed Oldsmobile (It brought out the “Old” in Oldsmobile). It’s the kind of product rot, no matter how good that car became in an appliance sense, that took a lot of loyal Olds Customers away from more superior and profitable products. How many blue hairs saw a Blue light special on the Ciera and didn’t buy an Eighty Eight for their last car? Just sayin….
I was a member of the local chapter of the Oldsmobile Club of America in the 1990s. One of the members worked at a local dealership, and he didn’t speak highly of the 3.4 V-6, which was confirmed by other mechanics. I believe it’s telling that it didn’t last very long in the GM line-up.
I agree with your points regarding the Cutlass Ciera and its effect on Oldsmobile’s image. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the Cutlass Supreme sold well because it was a reliable, comfortable car that was viewed as stylish and handsome. It became the symbol of the Oldsmobile Division as a whole.
By the mid-1990s, the Cutlass Ciera was the division’s most consistently popular car, but it had evolved into a late 20th century version of the Plymouth Valiant/Dodge Dart. This was hardly the image that had brought Oldsmobile to the number-three slot in the sales race. The Cutlass Ciera may have been reliable, but it was hardly stylish or handsome, let alone enjoyable to drive.
The Ciera came to epitomize Oldsmobile, unfortunately, which really hindered the division’s efforts to attract a younger audience.
That’s a bit odd about the Dual Twin. I’m betting the dislike amongst techs was in part due to the lack of education about the engine more than a design issue.
I had a Lumina Z34 that I bought with 34,xxx miles and sold with a tick over 120k that gave me no issues. The transaxle however….
When I was a VW tech I worked with a bunch of ex-Chevy dealer techs. They didn’t have a single nice word to say about the 3.4.
There are engines that the general public generally likes that mechanics hate, and it usually has to do with poor planning on the manufacturer’s part with regards to ease of repairs, if not overall quality or reliability.
Having a real shitpile of an engine is one thing, but having a real shitpile of an engine that is shoehorned into place making EVERYTHING harder to fix is another.
Couple of points:
Not to be devil’s advocate, but I thought these looked cool when they came out. Very spacey and “rocket-like”. Also, I rode in one in the early ’90s (probably an ’88 or ’89) and it was pleasantly surprised by the interior and the ride. It was a class above Taurus, even if that model was more groundbreaking.
Also, wasn’t this car at least a size or two bigger than Accord/Camry? It doesn’t seem fair to compare the two as competitors to Cutlass. I’m sure it was considerably more expensive, too, as previously noted. Of course, that’s part of the problem — except for size and (hopefully) room, I guess the Accord/Camry were offering more for less money at the time, and that may have been part of the Cutlass’s downfall.
I rode in a co-worker’s 1990 Cutlass Supreme sedan when it was brand-new. My impression was that it was more “old school” than the Taurus/Sable, which featured a firmer suspension that was tuned more like the suspension of a European car.
Regarding the interiors, by the early 1980s, the Brougham Look had largely run its course. Ford went in the direction of more European-inspired ergonomics and design, while the GM offerings went for a more “high tech” look, with electronic gauges and a multitude of confusing buttons. The Taurus interior was much cleaner in design and more user-friendly than the interiors of the GM cars.
I always thought that the interiors of GM cars – particularly the dashboards – looked flimsier and cheaper than those in the Fords, and the “high tech” look dated quickly. The Fords just seemed to have a more enduring design. Even today, a 1986-90 Taurus doesn’t look like a 25-year-old car.
I never understood why GM left the FWD A-bodies on the vine to rot instead of dumping them for the W-bodies (or rather, leaving them on the vine to rot).
The FWD A-bodies were great cars for what they were. I grew up in the back of an ’86 Celebrity wagon (the Chevy version of the Ciera), purchased used by my folks with 80,000 miles or so in the early ’90s. It lasted, with only routine maintenance, over 200,000 miles, including an unfortunate incident where it was rear-ended by a Ford Probe halfway through its life. The Probe folded up like an accordian, while the Celebrity had minor bumper damage. In the end, it was sent off to the junkyard due to a weird shaking when it ran between 40 and 60 mph combined with the final failure of the A/C. It was replaced by a Ford Windstar which didn’t last half as long.
GM continued to produce the A bodies because they sold too well to discontinue. The A body was supposed to be gone in 1991 after the 4-door Ws hit the market, but the people who were showing up in GM dealerships to buy a midsize car always gravitated to the Ciera and Century instead of the W bodies. And with the tooling paid off, those things were nothing but straight profit, so GM just kept making them.
Of course, that mostly meant that the 30- and 40- somethings that were the target market for the Regal and CS weren’t showing up. That was the real problem. Those folks were all at the Toyota dealership.
I sometimes think that the dearth of buyers for domestic makes is a consequence of generational change.
It seems to me that the early baby boomers all drove around in VW bugs (over generalizing, I know but bear with me), because it wasn’t Dad’s GM/Ford/Chrysler product. Then as the BBoom matured and raised families they ‘discovered’ Japanese makes, and again, it wasn’t Dad’s GM/F/C product again. Granted many folks I’m acquainted with have to come to abandon their domestic products due to poor quality. But look at it this way…
My kids are 18 & 21 years old (millenials), and they and their friends aspire to owning VWs and Audis, BMW’s and Mercs. I don’t think many of them consider the Japanese makes as aspirational, as many of their parents have them.
Is it a generational thing?
I think it’s a significant factor. I certainly don’t want the same cars as my parents- British shit boxes and their true successors, Mitsubishis.
It also looks like our subject damaged car is at least a 1995. It has the dual airbag dashboard that carries to the end of the model cycle.
Correct. The W-Bodies in general got all-new dashes for `95, all but the Lumina.
I had a `95 Cutlass Supreme 4 door back in `00. It wasn’t a horrible car, but the dash was cheap and the 3.1 severely strained with a load of any kind.
The 1995 Lumina was an all new redesigned car that came with dual air bags and optional ABS on base models.
I was already accustomed to Accords by the time we rented one of these cars. We thoroughly hated it by the end of the week. I don’t know if the power door locks were operating incorrectly, but when I stopped by a mailbox so my wife could mail a letter, I found that I had to turn the key off so the locks would release and she could get back in the car. Just putting it in park wasn’t enough. The interior lights didn’t come on when the door was opened, and on a dark night when I dropped the key onto the floor I had to feel for it. This kind of nit can be excused on a car that has enough good points, but that Olds was p-poor to mediocre in about every respect.
My father was an Oldsmobile man… Until these came out. Several rockets had graced our driveway over the years, including a ’68 Delta 88 with the top option 455 4 barrel and a ’77 Cutlass Salon with a 403 and all available options. He even sold Oldsmobiles for a couple of years. He took one look at these and bought an Accord. He wasn’t the only one to have that reaction…
I think the biggest problems with these final Cutlass Supremes was that they just weren’t memorable cars. The RWD ones had a certain style and feel that always reminded you that you were driving an Olds. These just felt like Generic GM Car.
Ten years ago I worked for a small Chevy-Olds store, and while my Contour was in the shop, I took a 1993 Cutlass Supreme sedan for my “demo”. It was well used but it did the job. The best thing about it was it did really well on gas. I had a day trip to go on and I took the car. I filled the tank up and and over the course of the trip, which was about 180 miles, I only used a little over a quarter of a tank.
The car was reasonably roomy and somewhat comfortable, but it didn’t have that “Olds” feel I was hoping for. Oh well…
That’s exactly what the problem was. Oldsmobiles did have a unique feel to them and these just didn’t have it. These cars felt like they weren’t even trying.
A shame really.
The GM product life cycle:
Spend several years developing new product.
Release product to great fanfare.
Irate customers discover product’s flaws
Dedicate time and effort to correcting product’s most egregious flaws.
Release improved product to consumer indifference.
Pull plug on product.
You hit the nail on the head
You forgot the decontenting stage in between “release improved product” and “pull plug on product”.
To the “new” GM’s credit they seem to be getting more and more models right on the first try, though not all by any means.
Greg, glad you pointed out about GM’s woes predating Roger Smith. One comparison of any GM vehicle designed or built prior to 1970 with the ’71 full-size, ’73 midsize and pickups…the Vega…and it seems to me like the only decent vehicle rolling off GM’s lines that debuted 1970 or after was Camaro/Firebird.
To hear Harley Earl’s grandson tell it at http://www.carofthecentury.com/ , the rot began in 1958 when Bill Mitchell took over as head of GM Design, believing control shifted to the accountants at that time. Aaron Severson’s excellent history of the Corvair lends weight to that theory… http://ateupwithmotor.com/component/content/article/65.html , as bean counters demanded changes to the 1960 model that made the car flipover prone under certain conditions. Yet GM hit several home runs between 1958-71…so I’m more likely to pin it to really kicking in with the ’71 full-size and Vega.
Another view from John DeLorean’s “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors” is that things started to turn bad when Frederick Donner took over as chairman from Harlow Curtice in 1958. Donner had come up through the finance ranks. DeLorean paints him as someone who preferred yes-men and top-down authority to good independent managers at the Divisional levels.
chas and jp,
Bunkie Knudsen remembered that, in 1958, Donner said that the company needed to pay attention to the effect on the stock price when it made a decision. This set off Bunkie’s alarm bell, as he believed that the stock price would take care of itself if the corporation produced top-quality products that appealed to customers.
In a large organization like GM, the rot doesn’t immediately affect the entire organization. It takes time for bad management to show up in ALL of the products, especially in a corporation like GM, which was fairly decentralized (the divisions still had a lot of autonomy in the early 1960s).
Contrast this to AMC, where the man at the top had an immediate effect on the entire company, either for good (Romney) or bad (Abernethy).
Someone once said that GM was so big that, if run poorly, it would take everyone about 30 years to notice. Which turned out to be distressingly accurate.
I’m going to suggest that GM’s mistake was trying to beat the Camcords on their own terms. Ford didn’t do that, really. The Taurus was a whole size bigger than an ’86 Accord. The Taurus was more about combining the best qualities of the Volvo 240 and the Audi 5000 with American affordability. Is it possible that Honda grew the Accord in part to compete better with the Taurus?
GM should have stuck with the traditional, Brougham-y cars, and devoted their R&D money to making them as safe, efficient and good handling as the Camcords — in other words, give buyers an alternative.
The evidence for why this could have worked can be seen in what happened with the full size cars in the 80’s. GM’s original plan was to phase out all RWD car platforms (except Corvette, of course) around 1985. But people kept buying the traditional RWD cars. GM responded by reintroducing the full size Pontiac as the Parisienne, and keeping the RWD Cadillac going as the Brougham, and producing the full size wagon in four divisions even after the B-O-P sedans were finally discontinued.
They kept building the cars — but they didn’t keep developing and improving them! The 1990 Cadillac Brougham is hard to tell apart from the 1980, or for that matter the 1977 — except that the ’90 has the abominable door-mounted front safety belts because GM was too cheap to redesign the dash to accommodate airbags. The cars were decontented across the board. Faced with clear evidence that buyers still wanted good traditional RWD cars, GM did everything they could to chase them away. When GM finally got around to improving the cars in 1991 (’93 for Caddy), the underpinnings were fantastic, but the cars were afflicted with the beached-whale styling that made them look bigger and heavier than they were — not the way to go to retain and bring back customers.
Full disclosure. My paternal Uncle Tim had TWO of these cars. My Dad’s family was very loyal GM and one of the last cars my Grandfather owned before passing away in 1983 was a 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88, before that he owned an early 1970s Impala sedan. Other than a VW Bus, my Uncle Tim has only owned one other non-GM product, a Ford Windstar minivan.
When the new FWD Cutlass Sedan was released he went out and bought one for his family. It replaced a G-body Grand Prix coupe which then became Uncle Tim’s work car. I don’t recall him having any real problems with that Cutlass (‘cept the transverse fiberglass rear leaf spring collapsing at about the 100,000 mile mark) and I do remember the digital dash, the car was fire-engine red with a red “cordory” interior. The car became my cousin Brian’s first car when he got a licence and Brian replaced it with a red Grand Am GT about the time he went to college.
So after that experience with the first year Cutlass sedan my Uncle Tim goes out and buys a (wait for it) a last year of production Cutlass convertible with the “wonderful” 3.4 DOHC engine. That car lasted quite a few years (but was driven sparingly) until the car ate it’s headgasket like every other 3.4DOHC engine on the planet.
Uncle Tim replaced the Cutlass with… FWD 3800 powered Monte Carlo SS. Still a GM guy. He’s even owned a Opel GT.
Thank god we got spared these we had the early Commodores straight6 motors including Nissan RB30 Skyline motor at one point with turbo option intact then GMH went V6 but with 3.8 Buicks which seemed good better than the EAFalcon which nearly bankrupted Ford Australia with warranty repairs they were at Yugo level durability howling diff taxis were everywhere, Falcon owned the Aussie cab fleet but the EA was crap lots of engine swaps at lowish kms Ford had to lift its game in the face of V6 Commodores as Holdens were the same size but the cops got Holdens and taxis stayed Ford, Holden had a V8 where Ford was 6 only but it was a far more promising vehicle line up than US buyers faced and the halo cars here are more realistic they are recognizable as upgrades to the daily drivers and I regularly see turbo Falcons and 6.2 litre Holdens playing with the traffic occasionally you can catch/see these cars out in the wild being driven hard.
But you did get the VR Statesman…
Ah,a thing of beauty to all. Seriously, it wasn’t a bad car, but it never exactly screamed quality. The interiors were pretty nasty, but it was really only a placeholder until the better models came along. Kind of like the contemporary Olds Cutlass, except Holden lasted about 12 years longer….
It reminded me of the 1991 VQ Statesman, a guy at school would sometimes drive his father’s and get it up to about 135mph on the highway (62mph limit). Even the LWB cars were still fairly light. That guy was a bit silly.
The only version of these cars when they came out that I liked was the Chevy Lumina. I actually priced one in comparison with a Plymouth Acclaim. We bought the Acclaim.
When the Olds convertible was released, that got my blood moving, as I really thought that was the car I could aspire to own, someday. Never understood the roll bar thingy, though – a bit too heavy-looking and overbearing.
It was remarked that two-door cars suffered due to the times. Well, I believe someone who has a good deal of knowledge far more than I, debate this topic as the subject of an article. My very firm belief is that when two-door pillarless hardtops and B pillared coupes lost the roll-down back window feature, that was the death-knell to that style, as they immediately became impractical.
The Ford Taurus was quite impressive when it came out, but the early models – well, something was rather odd about them that turned me off. One detail I noticed was the shift selector just stuck straight out of the steering column, not a graceful, seprentine shape, just like if you stick a dowel rod with a knob on the end! There were other details, too, and when these GM models came out, I still thoug they were much more refined than the Ford. Reliability was unknown. The early Taurus 4 cyl. had issues, too. When Ford came out with the 1992 Taurus and fixed all the stuff I thought odd, including cleaning up the design to make it stand out – then I wanted one.
The GM’s? Nope.
@Zackman: I have a friend who has a 1992 Lumina, daily driver, over 300K miles on it. Still keeps on truckin. Looks like hell, though…
I was in love with the Taurus when I first saw pix of it in the mid 80’s, much like I’m in love with the 2013 Malibu right now. I was paying off a 5.0 L Mercury Capri (or two) and put money down on a house, so I didn’t go right down to the Ford dealer and drive one around, I was afraid I’d find myself further upside down in car loans if I did.
As it turns out, one of my friends got one as a company car, and when she was in town, we drove the hell out of that car. It was really a good car, Ford had done a great job with it. But the issue that bugged me with the car was the 1992 refresh, it was not enough of a difference.
EDIT: Ford came up with the mildly updated 1992 version due to acceptance of the original Taurus, it’s a logical assumption to give the people more of what they wanted.
If they’d really been on the ball, they would have released the 1996 update in 1992. I think they could have gotten away with it, because I believe folks were expecting a blockbuster followup to the original bombshell.
Not unlike the recent release of the new Hyundai Sonata. The last Sonata was not a bad car, but not groundbreaking, but the new one sets all kinds of standards that everyone seems to have to catch up to now.
Imagine if Ford had done that in 1992 with the Taurus. I really don’t think the Accord and Camry would have battled it out for sales supremacy against each other during the 90’s, Ford would have been calling the shots.
Keep in the 1992-95 Taurus was the best selling sedan at the time; they took a nose dive at the introduction of the oddly-ovoid, more expensive ’96 Taurus.
Meanwhile, the 1992-97 Camry, over-engineered during the development of Lexus, became the #1 selling sedan and that’s all she wrote.
Never understood why Ford blundered so badly. Here’s a great book on the fumble by Ford:
@Dave M: Yes, the price increase was the other big thing I forgot about in 1996.
The company I worked for at the time had the 1996 versions as fleet cars, they were actually pretty good cars. I remember being impressed with the refinement, but the whole ovoid theme was a little too omnipresent. But it was a leap in refinement at least at the higher trim levels, which IIRC, was far better than the immediately preceding car.
If they could have released the more refined car for 1992, I still think Ford would have been able to dominate the market longer.
The funny thing is that from about 1992 right to the 1995 models the Taurus was the biggest pile of crap when there trans axles took on electronic controls and the 3.8 ate head gaskets and blew bottoms ends like crazy. Not to mention all the A/C issues, electrical gremlins, broken springs and horrible rust issues on there strut mounts and sub frames in the rust belt. These cars were so bad we literally walked right by any example that was offered to us at our used car dealership.
In comparison we to this day still come across many clean used W-body cars from each division from the 1992-1997 time frame that seem to run out pretty well and still go down the road smooth with negligible wear and tear. If anything the rear disk brakes have often failed due to improper cleaning and the incorrect caliper slide lubrication being used. Also the 1994 onward 3100 needs to be upgraded to the improved intake manifold gasket design in order to survive high mileage and some cars need the rear fiberglass mono-leaf rear spring bushing replaced on high mileage examples. Also of note- we have a local taxi company running 3 early 90’s Lumina and each is up over the 300K mark and still run strong. He once told me that he will never drive any 90’s Taurus again because they spend so much time in the shop nickel and diming him to death.
There’s a 1994 Cutlass (W-body) for sale a couple of houses over from me. This is interfering with my decision whether to fix up my old Sunfire or sell it off. It’s a 2 door with the 5 spoke alloy wheels that came from the factory with the little Rocket logos in them, in my favorite color, dark blue. For a 17 year old car, it doesn’t look too bad. I’m going to see if I can catch my neighbor this weekend and drive it. I think I know what to expect.
In 1991, I was hawking several car lines for a multi line dealer, but spent the vast majority of my time at the Toyota store (it was my ‘home’ base). We bought the auction cars for all of the Atlanta area dealerships at the Newnan auction, and they were all PDI’d at the Toyota store; then they were driven to whatever other store they were going to be retailed from.
I joined one of these parties once when it was a rainy day, (not many ups) and I ended up in going to three of our sister dealerships in three different cars. I drove a Ford Tempo, a Nissan Stanza and a fairly new V6 Cutlass Supreme. I frankly don’t remember anything about the Stanza, it seemed like a UJC with the typical smelly A/C units common down South. The Tempo was awful, and it was particularly poignant, as I had convinced my mother to buy one a year earlier. She never asked me about which car to buy again, and I can’t blame her.
The Cutlass Supreme was the nicest and fastest of the group I drove that day, I’m not a huge fan of Toyotas, but the then contemporary Camry was one of the best cars you could buy at the time. While it didn’t feel as solid as the RWD Cutlasses of the past, it was pretty darn good on the Georgia tarmac at 85 MPH. I drove a new Camry on a demo shortly after returning back to the dealership, I liked the V6 Camry better for some things, but not all.
I think the critical mistake GM made was not killing off the Ciera after the introduction of the W-body Cutlass (W-Cutlass). I think they learned their lesson (kind of), because when the current Malibu goes out of production, the ones they produce for rental units are labeled Classic. But the W-Cutlass suffered from Jan Brady syndrome, there was no place for it to go. It couldn’t go up, there was the 88 & 98. It couldn’t go down (depending upon what year) there was the Ciera and the Calais at the lower end.
By the time GM released the Intrigue, they had rationalized the product lineup much better, but I think that period of time was when the bulk of the Baby Boom generation was at their peak of influence, and they were not interested in any Oldsmobile, their father’s or otherwise. I sometimes believe that no matter how good the car was, if it didn’t say Honda, Toyota or Nissan on it, the Boomers just weren’t interested.
BTW, my Sunfire has the balance shaft LD2 2.3 Quad 4 motor, which seems to run out pretty well. I’ve had it for five years now, and have only put routine maintenance into it. The whole car reminds me of the late 70’s Trans Ams, the automatics came with the 403 Olds motor instead of the 400 Pontiac, which were manual trans only. An Olds motor powering my Pontiac, seems pretty OK.
“The Tempo was awful…”
Ha ha ha! I couldn’t have said that better myself! A Cavalier (Cockroach of the Road©) beats those things any day of the week!
Have a great weekend – and check out that car!
@Zackman: Yes, even my 14 year old Cavalier is a better ride than a new Tempo. What’s sad is that I grew up in a Ford (owning) family. That car and a couple of other Ford products with equally bad experiences have turned me off of Fords for a long time.
I will look at the Cutty this weekend if the rain holds off. I never do that kind of stuff in the wet…
Yeah, I was riding in a Tempo and made the crack that the Ford tempo was adagio or andante rather than allegro.
@Zackman: Now I see why the Cutty is so cheap. I did a little recon last evening while the neighbors were away, and noticed a HUGE oil spot underneath where the car sat. (It’s been there for a couple of weeks) I think it’s coming from the trans.
@geo: Man, it’s always something, isn’t it? Always a catch!
I remember when C/D first reviewed the production W-body Supreme in late 1987, they more or less liked the car, but couldn’t figure out whom the car was aimed at. With only the 2.8 V6, it was too slow to appeal to the enthousiasts even though you could get it with a 5-speed manual. It wasn’t going to appeal to the buyers of the old G-Body Supreme. It really was a car without a market.
I would say that the most bizarre year for this series was 1990. That was when the base model came with the H.O 180hp Quad 4. If you opted for the automatic, you got the base 160hp version. Finally, you could opt up to the 140hp 3.1 V6. Is this the only time in automotive history that the more money you spent in options, the less hp you got?
Nope. Oldsmobile also pulled off this neat little trick in 1981-1982 on the Cutlass coupe and sedan. Buyers had the choice of a base 110 Hp 190 torque 3.8 231 V6 as the base engine or the 100 HP 190 torque optional extra cost 260 V8 which even came with worse rear end gearing than the 231 V6 2.29:1 vs 2.41:1. The result, the extra cost 260 would get beat in a race by the no charge 231 engine but the 260 would last for far longer and run smoother over the long haul so the extra cost was probably worth it in the end.
My second car was ’92 Lumina Z34, drove for a couple of years. I was happy with the Twin Dual Cam 3.4L’s 200 hp (with the automatic), but after plugging up half a dozen coolant leaks, the radiator itself failed. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, had A. my temperature gauge not failed, and B. the head gasket hadn’t been so prone to failure. Fail, fail, fail.
But other than a few other annoyances–the B-pillar mounted door handles were terrible, and both (you guessed it) failed–I really did like that car. Roomy, powerful (to me anyway), and most importantly, cool-looking. I was 20, so the appearance was the most important part.
When I first saw it, I had horrible taste in car styling, and thought the best looking car in town was a Lincoln Mark V (factory two-tone paint job with a TV antenna in the back!), so needless to say I wasn’t thrilled with the sporty side skirts and spoiler. But once I got adjusted to the late 80’s, early 90’s mindset, I loved it. I think it’s still one of the better looking designs of the time. But maybe I’m biased.
@Drew: The FWD USDM Lumina was really pretty decent attempt by GM to ape a contemporary Honda Accord as much as possible. I have a friend who has a 1992 Eurosport, with about 300K miles on it. It’s rusty, but it still runs rather well.
The impression I get when I sit in it is of a larger 1986 Honda Accord. You have that low seating position, huge windows all around and it gives me that feeling that I’m being transported in a fish bowl. It’s especially apparent after having been in our 2009 G6 which feels like a suit of armor, compared to the Lumina. My mother had a 1986 Accord, and that was the same feeling I got from riding in/driving it.
To me most of those generation of Hondas had you sitting on the floor of the car, almost like your knees were higher than your waistline, but I’m 6’1″ and that may not be a good comparison for many people. But it did keep me from considering those cars seriously.
Yeah they were low to the ground. I kinda like that in a car, but I’m tall too, and if it weren’t for the decent size and the airy greenhouse, it would have felt too cramped because of that.
I actually have fond memories of our 1989 Cutlass Supreme International (the top trim level for that year). We overpai…err…bought a used one in 1993 as newlyweds and it served us for 3½ years until our first child was born. It had the 4-seater package (rear bucket seats, no less), and was jet black. It did remind me of what Darth Vader might drive (this was before the Impala SS, which I eventually replaced the Cutlass with!) and had the fluorescent instrument panel, electronic climate control, trip computer and power everything (including a sunroof). We nicknamed it the Electromobile.
It had the 2.8L V6, which had no place in a car this size. Slightly underpowered, the engine worked too hard to deliver the fuel economy it was supposed to have, but proved to be very durable. Even all the electrical components held up over the years. The only major failure was the engine computer croaked on day 28 of the 30-day dealer warranty (how often does THAT happen?)!
It was the ideal car for the “young married” demographic that we were in the mid-90s, but I can’t see it servine any other purpose than that. My parents rented a 1995 Cutlass Supreme once, and when I drove it, I realized that GM had actually REGRESSED from the 1989 model we had. Go figure…
I do remember the hype about the 1998 Intrigue that was going to ‘save’ Olds. But it seemed like a warmed over 1995 Lumina. Older buyers stuck with W body Buicks, and younger buyers didn’t even bother with Intrique.
Urban legand is a well heeled lady sees an Intrigue and wants to buy one. But, she goes to an Infiniti dealer to find one, since no Olds badges on it. “I saw the nicest car, name starts with I…” “Oh yeah, must have been one of our Infinitis, look at this nice I30 here [Maxima]…
“Everyone be quiet.” -Olds Cutlass
My dad bought a 4-door Cutlass Supreme in the early 90’s after a series of other Oldsmobiles through the 80’s. My dad was about 50, and I was in my early teens. We both agreed that the car was good looking, but like everybody else’s stories, it became his last Olds… followed (of course) by a Camry.
I own four 97 Olds Cutlass Supreme SL 4-Door Sedans. Yes I currently own FOUR!
3 were rebuilt and #4 is my daily driver with 207000 miles on the odometer. I drive it 118 miles, 5 days a week. The trip includes gravel, curvy ups and downs, and interstate. I drive the hell out of it. The car likes to fly. No smoke, no rattles. Drives and handles like a Nascar. My point is that the overwhelming majority of the population do not take care of their car’s. Blame for problems is directed elsewhere. Anything the automakers do or don’t do is all about MONEY. Nothing more. They spend millions convincing us its not about money. The sad part is….we like it. I will never get over Oldsmobile being gone…..
R.I.P. Oldsmobile …GOD DO I MISS YOU!!!
79 Cutlass Salon Brougham Aeroback Coupe-bucket seat-floor shifter-climate control-power locks factory HO 305 Chevy car(this isn’ t RARE or anything!!!)
Now that’s an interesting option sheet. Do you still have the car?
It occurred to me when I read this to try to think of anyone I knew with a W-body. And I could only think of three…one of the guys in charge of my Boy Scout troop bought an early Lumina for his wife, a friend’s parents had a mid 90’s Regal GS, and a guy at my high school got an early 90’s Grand Prix around graduation to replace his hand-me-down Plymouth Voyager. So they were around, but not particularly memorable in any of these cases.
Hey, This car has a PA plate on it. Where is this at?
Something about the way they handled the glassy treatment on these cars never worked. I think it is the way it cuts into the rear quarter area. A similar treatment on the Sable had this window line sitting on the top of the trunk line, giving it a light and sleek appearance. In contrast the Cutlass looks heavy and ponderous, like someone grafted a very thick glass bowl onto the car. Not a great design effort.
I’m sorry, but my feeling on what killed Oldsmobile and nearly killed GM is that the folks in charge never understood that their customers changed. After DECADES of GM and FORD bench marking each other…and giving foreign cars (particularly the Japanese brands) the bare minimum of acknowledgement, they had become as attractive as any offspring of HEAVY in breeding.
GM went from industry leader to also ran by sticking with uninspired engines and ultra conservative styling. Then…compounded those faults by failing to update their cars. GM and FORD got it into their “heads” that the Japanese brands rarely produced “radical/all new” designs, and used that as an excuse to leave cars in production because “they were what the customers were buying”.
I believe that you are somewhat correct in your thoughts on this with GM and Ford letting cars stagnate too long.
However I can see why GM used Ford as the benchmark instead of Toyota and Honda in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ford was undergoing a remarkable change and was a success story. The 86-91 Taurus/Sable caught everybody with their pants down and was a big big seller. In 1992 Toyota produced a new Camry that used Toyota’s Lexus division as a benchmark for quality. It was well made(and is in my mind the best Camry so far made). However the 92-96 Camry and the Honda Accord were also considered “also rans” in the period of 92-96 as the Ford Taurus claimed the top selling crown from 92-96 (spanning all the years of the 2nd gen(92-95) and the first year of the 3rd gen(1996) only to lose the crown to the 97-2001 Camry(which in my mind is the worst Camry every made and started Toyota down the path of cheapness(rubbish engine that sludged worse then the Dodge 2.7l etc) )
Now one can argue that perhaps fleet sales made up the bulk of the 92-96 taurus sales but that does account for the fact that after 1997 sales on the Taurus slumped, which means a lot of folks other then fleet folks were buying them.
You cannot really blame GM for trying to ape Ford as the 86-91 and 92-95 taurus was a huge success and changed the auto industry immensely(adios boxy cars and Hola curvy jellybean shaped cars) just like GM’s own 1977 B Body downsizing did 9 years earlier.
“GM went from industry leader to also ran by sticking with uninspired engines and ultra conservative styling. Then…compounded those faults by failing to update their cars. GM and FORD got it into their “heads” that the Japanese brands rarely produced “radical/all new” designs, and used that as an excuse to leave cars in production because “they were what the customers were buying”. ”
Ironically that paragraph could describe Toyota in 2014 as continue to offer the Camry and Corolla in bland styling in the hopes that people will simply continue to buy the cars on the basis of reliability then looks as the last good looking camry was made from 92-96.
The tree improved the looks of that car.
I probably drove a few rental Cieras in their time but the Supreme triggers no feelings one way or the other. However, sometime in the mid-90’s I had a 2 door Achieva rental while our Corolla was in the body shop. A totally mediocre car, but I thought the Quad4 was much better than contemporary reviews described it. At least, it had enough power to create nearly as much torque-steer as the 4 speed X11 HO Citation I drove 15 years earlier. And it never stalled or seemed to idle rough. My only other Olds memories are lusting after ’68-69 442’s when I was in junior high. I still remember the 1/25th scale 442 model I built and painted bright orange. Otherwise, by the time I started coming of automotive age, the Rocket 88 was from an earlier era, while Pontiac at least had the TransAm and Buick the GS455, and GM’s real enthusiast brand was Chevy.
I owned no less than 3 W-body Supremes, one a green 2 door loaded with the 3.4 DOHC, the other two 4 door SL sedans, one white loaded SL with the 3.4 DOHC and the other a less loaded gold SL with 3100. My folks had a 1992 dark blue SL Cutlass followed by a 1994 red SL and then a 1999 Lumina which was an excellent car in every way. None of these cars gave us any major problems or ever lost it’s engine or trans axle and if anything the interiors on all held up remarkably well over there time with us.
My 1994 white 3.4 sedan with maroon leather interior was virtually a trouble free car up past 100K miles with the only things needing done were a leaky o-ring on the back of the A/C compressor and of course a new timing belt that was done to perfection by a good friend who worked at a dealer and could do these in his sleep. I keep all the fluids and filter changed right on time and keep tires rotated and brakes checked so those were never an issue.
The tan 1994 was my second car bought a year after the white car and it too served me really well past 150K. of note the driver’s power window motor quit working so I replaced that myself and the intake was done again by my dealer friend who did an awesome job also cleaning the injectors and throttle body so that the engine ran as smooth and quiet as ever.
When the tan 4 door got smashed in an accident coming home from work one rainy night I replaced her with a dark green 2 door that was loaded up just like the 1994 white car. I drove that car up to around 90K and it was flawless and had the dual air bag dash and more contemporary instrument cluster.
After that came a pair of 1996 Lumina’s in LS trim. One was a 3.4 Dohc and the other a 3100. The 3.4 was black and the 3100 was white both with bucket seat interiors. Those were by far my favorites. They got the simpler coil over strut rear suspensions and improved 4 wheel disk brakes and were very solid smooth quiet driving cars that never gave me any problems. Dads 1999 LS Lumina went well over 200K before he sold it to a young girl who drove it one Winter and totaled it sadly.
I would say that of all the W-body cars I have owned from the 90’s the 1996 and dads 1999 LS Luminas were by far the best.
i personally liked the last gen of Cutlass Supremes