Curbside Classic: 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser – Jerry Lundegaard’s Folly?

As a child of the 1980s, I am very familiar with the GM A-bodies, and Cutlass Cieras in particular. They were everywhere at the time, and there were at least two of them on my block. They were as common on the streets as Camrys and Accords are today. Arguably, the most famous Cutlass Ciera was the tan 1988 Cutlass Ciera that Jerry Lundegaard gave the hit men as partial payment in the classic 1996 film, Fargo. Unlike Jerry Lundegaard, the Ciera was a solid hit.

the south side

The Cutlass Ciera was introduced in the fall of 1981 as a 1982 model. It had some very big shoes to fill. The Cutlass nameplate was Oldsmobile’s most successful in the 1970s, and the Cutlass Supreme in particular was the undisputed best selling model in the lineup. The first downsizing came in 1978, followed by a more aerodynamic restyling in 1981. Building on that success came the Ciera, the first time the Cutlass nameplate was applied to more than one car line.

the north side

The 1982 Cutlass Ciera was a response to the recent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. As a result of this legislation, vehicle lineups had to be more fuel efficient. You could still build full-size cars like the Delta 88 and Ninety Eight Regency, but it had to be balanced by the addition of smaller, lighter and more efficient vehicles to the lineup. As a result, the Ciera had front wheel drive, unit construction and no V8 option. The standard engine was a 2.5L 4 cylinder, with a 2.8L V6, 3.0L V6, and 4.3L diesel V6 engines standard or optional, depending on the model. It was initially offered as a two-door or four-door sedan in base, LS and top-of-the line Brougham models. For 1983 an ES option was added, with blacked out trim, sporty wheel covers, a console and full instrumentation.

The rear-wheel drive Cutlass Supreme remained in production, so the Cutlass Cruiser station wagon remained on the Supreme platform for 1982 and 1983. Finally, in 1984, the front wheel drive Cruiser was introduced. It was immediately popular with first year production of  41, 816, nearly double that of the 1983 rear-drive version.  It certainly didn’t hurt that the Cutlass name still had quite a bit of cachet with buyers. Ultimately, the Cutlass Ciera was a great success, and wound up being the most popular Oldsmobile of the 1980s. The choice of a Cutlass Ciera as the car the hit men drive in Fargo was perfect. If you wanted to blend into the background in Minnesota in the late ’80s, this was the car to drive.

These cars were extremely popular in my part of the country. They were so common as be, for all intents and purposes, invisible. One of our neighbors across the street, an older lady, had a copper colored Brougham sedan, probably an ’84. Our next door neighbor’s daughter, Jeannie, had a cream colored ’84 Cutlass Cruiser with a brown interior and her husband had a full size Custom Cruiser. One of our grade school teachers had a burgundy ’85 Ciera sedan that was a little worse for the wear by the time he was driving it in the early ’90s. My driver’s ed car was a navy blue ’96 Ciera with a blue interior. When I started working part-time at an insurance company during high school and college, the underwriting manager had a gunmetal gray ’91 or ’92 sedan. Those are just the ones I remember. Yes, Northwest Illinois really liked their Oldsmobiles, the Ciera in particular.

However, with success can come complacency. The Ciera was a very comfortable, efficient, state of the art car – in 1982. The problem was, there were no significant updates to the car, save a redesigned roofline for the coupe in mid-1986 and the sedan in 1989. Some slight changes were made to the grille and taillights, usually every couple of years, and a driver’s side airbag was added. Yet despite the lack of changes they kept selling. As the years went by, the most desirable options such as full gauges, super stock wheels and leather upholstery went away. On the plus side, the longer they were made, the better they were built. By the early 1990s these cars and their A body cousins were some of the most trouble free cars available.

But eventually, it was finally time to retire them, and along with its remaining A body cousin, the Buick Century, they were put out to pasture in 1996. The coupe had been discontinued after the 1991 model year, but the sedan and wagon made it all the way to the end. At the time, I recall reading an article where Oldsmobile made 1982 and 1996 model Cieras available to the press to commemorate all the years of production. One wag claimed he couldn’t tell which was which. And so ended fifteen years of production. A ‘new’ Cutlass came out in 1997, but it was clearly a badge-engineered version of the 1997 Chevy Malibu, and it tanked. Oldsmobile never really got a replacement that was a volume seller, and Oldsmobile Division came to the end of the road after a very short run of 2004 models.

What prompted this article? A couple weeks ago, I spotted this Cutlass Cruiser (above) on a side street. I still see sedans all the time, but the wagons are rare enough today that I had to go around the block and get a photo. Today, even in my rust-prone region of the country, these cars are a common sight, a testament to their popularity and durability.

Cutlass Cruiser woodie wagon photos by PN