Fifty years on from their planning stages, it’s obvious that the 1964-67 A-Body intermediates were one of the greatest hits of General Motors. In all four flavors, from the lowliest Chevelle to the mini-limousine Cutlass Supremes and Skylark four door hardtop, GM set the seeds for a marketplace domination that lasted for nearly twenty years.
Even in their most conservative state, the predecessors of the Easy A’s, as I’ll call them, were pretty odd ducks. The Pontiac had “rope drive” and half of a 389 V8 throbbing along with 50/50 weight distribution. The Oldsmobile brought turbo power to the masses, often strangled by a junior version of the Roto-Hydramatic. Even the Buick had the pioneering (and troublesome engineering experiment) Aluminum V8 and the V6 that never dies.
In all that innovation, a lot of research and development, and money was spent to give each of these cars unique qualities (which some would state were dead ends). Meanwhile, Ford stepped into the valley between the seventeen and a half-foot Galaxie and fifteen-foot Falcon and built the Fairlane. Dull as mashed potatoes, with very lean gravy (the Windsor V8 in its infancy; the most basic of creature comforts) the Fairlane still cleaned up. But one place where Ford faltered was casting this image upscale: the Meteor twin of the blockbuster Fairlane was a dud.
If there’s anything that General Motors got right for a majority of the 20th Century, it was brand loyalty. Where Mercury never got an image as anything beyond a fancy Ford with extra chrome, for reasons tangible and not stepping from a Chevrolet to a Pontiac to an Olds to a Buick translated in a swapping of values.
If only this could be applied to the burgeoning market interested in a more sensible package. Junior LeSabres, Half Pint Bonnevilles and a more discreet Dynamic Eighty Eight perhaps? Although that might have been (s0mewhat) the intention of the original B-O-P Luxury Compacts, it definitely wasn’t the focus of the radical Corvair or the Falcon fighting Chevy II/Nova.
Much ado was made about the fact that the Chevelle was nearly the same size as the 1955 Chevrolet standard line, but an F-85/Cutlass wasn’t all that far off from a 1954-55 Eighty Eight, except in wheelbase length and weight. And for whatever reason, from the generic Chevrolet to the more aggressive Tempest/LeMans, the design language of all four screamed Mid-1960s chic in a way that the 1964 Fairlane, just rid of tailfins for 1964, could not. If General Motors was going to be late (again) to a market segment, it was going to have the best tailored clothes to the party. And in the case of the Easy A’s there were quite a few options to choose from.
But remember all of that innovation that came right before? Other than Pontiac deciding that a racy OHC Inline 6 was just what was needed to spice up your average family sedan and Oldsmobile engineers discreetly creating a Autobahn killer in the form of the Cutlass Supreme Turnpike Cruiser, nothing quite revolutionary was baked into them.
They forsaked unit bodies for body on frame designs, and quite infuriatingly (at least to my young mind) still offered in bulk 2 Speed Automatic transmissions when 3 speed automatics were de rigueur in the Plymouth Valiant since introduction, and by 1965 were among the options on Falcons.
I guess I’ll have to put my number-of-transmission-gear-snobbery aside and admit that they were pretty much good to great cars for the time that accomplished what they were supposed to do. Their body on frame construction gave them the isolation that was the calling card of the larger B and C body cars.
By 1965 more than a million of the various variants came down the production line in factories across the country. And not only did they kick off the Muscle Car era with Pontiac dropping the 389 into them to create the GTO, by the next year you had 4 different flavors of Protein Shake, from the Boy Racer 396 SS to the drive softly but carry a big engine Skylark GS.
They could be optioned to be more sprightly and economical that their B body big brothers too. And, especially in the Oldsmobile’s case, they could be taught to dance well enough to outshine ever softening Mopars and just about any FordMoCo product of the United States on sale in the mid 60s.
And beyond the technical levels, by aping styling trends from their big brothers, they were always a leap ahead of the-now rationalizing Mopars and the befuddled Fairlane in styling. Add in the cornucopia of body styles full size buyers expected, from Convertibles (which Ford didn’t match til 1966) and Four Door Hardtops (which Ford didn’t offer for Mid sizers until 1970, Chrysler never bothered). We won’t even really discuss how AMC, being a pioneer in more rational size, had nothing really but ever fancier upholstery to keep up with this juggernaut.
Giving buyers a plethora of options, with the option to believe they were being more sensible by not purchasing the behemoth across the showroom floor, was a winning option as many new younger car buyers balanced family ingrained brand loyalties with changing expectations of what a car should be.
Some would argue the next generation (starting in 1968) A bodies were a greater hit. Awkward proportions on the sedans are glaring faults to me, as is the still continued use of 2 speed automatics. And then they split into rivalries between each other, most pronounced when the “G” (or A special) Grand Prix and Monte Carlo came at the turn of the decade. Or that the Colonnade era A’s were bigger hits (dominated by the Cutlass juggernaut, and just as big and thirsty as B-bodies had been 10 years earlier).
Between the general high quality, all around competence and typical longevity and general goodwill these mid-sizers created, and in a lot of cases they are quite stunning for ordinary family cars, I consider them one of General Motors Greatest hits.
It’s interesting to see the scope of condition of these from tired beaters to full restored ones still being prefered daily drivers in the Bay Area of the GM faithful. I’ve had my eyes on a particular 1965 Skylark Hardtop coupe that is on Craigslist, remembering that it would be less troublesome than my dream 1962 Skylark. It created the last bastion of buyers that could not fault GM cars. Experiencing these Princes to the throne, you can understand why GM was once the finest Kingdom capitalism gave birth to.