Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Oldsmobile F-85 – Y Not Better?

GM’s all-new 1961 Y-Body “senior compacts” (Olds F-85, Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest) had a lot of potential but just didn’t quite hit the mark. This was GM’s moment to show the world how to build a better compact, and yes, there were a number of ambitious aspects, like the aluminum V8 and the Tempest’s independent rear suspension. But both of those were substantially flawed. In the case of the F-85, it was its “Roto Hydramatic” transmission, which although shifting smoothly also shifted much too slowly, giving the 155 hp V8  F-85 a 0-60 time a half second slower than a  112 hp ’61 Lark six. Really?

The other issue was its very slow steering and soft suspension. If GM was trying to make their light new compacts feel, steer and handle like a ’59 Olds 98, mission accomplished! But that’s not exactly what compact buyers were looking for. A missed opportunity.

Reading all these various period article on the new B-O-P compacts, never once is it mentioned that they share the same body shell with the Corvair. Journalists back then were a curious mixture, both more acquiescent to the manufacturers as well technically savvy. It’s a reflection of the times; I was reading an article last night about the history of mass media’s objectivity, and its rather loose relationship to that, as it’s a lot harder to pull off than it might seem. What really is true objectivity?

For instance, in the 1950s and early-mid 1960s, most reporters, including those in the top national newspapers, had been in the military press corps during WW2, and clearly felt they had to not question the government’s take on things, as that would have been disloyal to the country. Many were also in cahoots with the CIA. The government’s numerous less salacious activities such as propping up various dictators were just not questioned, and that included the Vietnam War until that became a bridge too far. They felt a shared vision of the government’s goals and activities, especially during the Cold War era; that’s not really objective reporting.

Yes, I’ve digressed, but one get a similar vibe from these period reviews. They will note certain shortcomings, like the slow shifting “slim Jim” in this F-85, but would they ever have questioned the general goals of the Y-Body program? Was it to just offer Olds buyers a smaller one but that drove like the bigger one? Or was it to woo import buyers, who were more interested in lively steering and handling, and more ground clearance than the absurdly little 5.5″ of the F-85 (empty) and a low roof line? “What’s good for GM is good for the country”.

There was a lot of industry boosterism, but then that’s always colored much of the automotive media. It wasn’t until the late ’60s, with articles like Brock Yates seminal “Grosse Pointe Myopians that car magazine writers began to more seriously question the industry.

Although GM had enough funds for the aluminum V8, the V6 that came the next year, the Tempest slant four, and three different automatic transmissions, the didn’t spend quite enough to differentiate the three visually.

The arrival of the V6 in 1962 gave the Special both the engine that it should have had from the beginning as well as a more unique identity. And of course the Tempest’s big four, rope drive and rear swing axles gave it plenty of character; a bit too much so, under some circumstances. No wonder the F85 ended up the weakest selling of the three over their three-year lifespan, with the Special coming in #1.

CL points out that the F-85 and Special were of course the most alike of the two, but there were differences. Whereas the Special got its own unique and surprisingly effective (and efficient) 2-speed “Dual Path Turbine Drive” automatic, the F-85 had the new optional three-speed Hydramatic with “Accel-A-Rotor”. (Ate Up With Motor has detailed descriptions of bothe these here).

According to CL, the Roto-HM gave very smooth shifts, but they simply were too slow. The result was a 14.5 second 0-60 time, slower than both the Lark six (manual) and the ’62 Chevy six, with PG.

I had a fair bit of seat time in a ’62 Cutlass coupe (at age 16), with the 185 hp 4-barrel V8, and although I had very little comparison except to or TF Dodge, the Roto-HM seemed “off”, with its odd mechanical feel in second gear (torque converter not active), and the slow shifts, as noted in the review. It felt very inferior to the TF in our Dodge. This Cutlass was then 5 or 6 years old, and ran hot constantly.

CL calls out the soft ride, although high speed stability was “excellent”. I can concur, from my first run to 100 mph, which was cut short by the billowing steam pouring out of the hood just as the needle seemed to hit that mark.  But “The heavy front end tends to plough when cornered at the limit”.

The manual steering had 5.3 turns lock-to-lock, which made it light, but of course slow. The Cutlass I drove had power steering, but I remember it too as being quite slow and without any feel or feedback. The Cutlass, despite its sport pretensions, didn’t convey an actual sporty feeling at all. It felt just like a 7/8 scale big Olds.

The 215 cubic inch aluminum V8, whose block came from Buick but the heads were different, and produced by Olds, “runs quieter than the proverbial sewing machine”. The brakes performed adequately, for the times.

The unitized construction body “was absolutely rigid” and panel gaps and door fitment were “all excellent”. Interior space was “generally satisfactory”, essentially the same as the Corvair, except that it had a flat floor. (The extra wheelbase went into a longer front end, to make room for the drive train).

Am I being a bit harsh on the Y Body? Maybe. They were ambitious, but a significant amount of that ambition didn’t pay off. The aluminum V8 was difficult and expensive to make, had a bad tendency to overheat (and worse) and was ditched after three years. Seems like a proper 60 degree V6 in iron might have been a better choice. GM’s many automatic transmission experiments were getting a bit old. And a bit less Novocaine in the steering and handling might have been in order.

There’s probably a good reason these cars are so rare today, and don’t seem to have a fraction of the following that their cousin, the Corvair has. Would you want one?