(first posted 4/4/2016) Rest assured, this is not a belated April Fool’s Day post. In the August 1973 issue of Car and Driver, the editors lined up a rather unusual comparison test, pitting the newest sedan from Stuggart against the latest from Lansing. Were they crazy?
Actually, the test made some sense. First off, in 1973 Oldsmobile still enjoyed a sterling reputation with American car buyers, and sales were on the upswing. Likewise, Mercedes was rapidly gaining traction in the American market with pragmatic, impeccably engineered cars. Though Mercedes-Benz cars were far more expensive, both brands were targeting affluent buyers seeking something beyond just “standard” transportation. But what would the cars have in common, besides both being all-new designs with 4-doors and wearing body-colored wheel covers? Quite a lot, it turns out.
GM was tentatively dipping their toe into the “European” arena with some of the new-for-1973 A-body variants, offering packages/models with more responsive handling and, at least in some cases, better seats. The Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon and Pontiac Grand Am were the leading examples of this new breed.
Given that handsome, conservative styling was also typically part of the allure of European designs, it made sense for Car and Driver to pick the Salon for the test. The Oldsmobile was more cleanly styled than the Pontiac—the Grand Am, with its ultra-prominent “deformable” snout, severely sloping deck lid and bullet shaped fenders, would likely have been too garish for anyone with more Continental tastes.
The purpose of the test was not to deify Mercedes and embarrass Oldsmobile, rather it was to highlight the different philosophies that produced the cars. The Benz was a technological tour de force, offering efficient packaging, state-of-the-art safety features, sophisticated suspension and powertrains. Naturally, it was priced accordingly ($14,266 as-tested, which is $76,185 adjusted), with a cost-be-damned mentality in the quest for the best—too bad Cadillac didn’t take note.
The Cutlass was also a refined design—at least as far as cost-controlled, tried-and-true American components were concerned. For its size, packaging wasn’t great, and all the technology and features were very familiar. But everything worked as intended, and the Olds represented affordable, mass-produced Detroit iron at its finest. Plus, the Salon offered some surprisingly nice features for the class, with a reasonable $5,231 price tag ($27,935 adjusted).
Interestingly, for comparison purposes, Car and Driver used the 1972 predecessors to the featured cars: the Mercedes 280SEL 4.5 and the Oldsmobile Cutlass represented the swan song of their old designs (remember when GM thought a design was “done” after 5 years—not 15 like the embarrassingly ancient Ciera?). For both the German and the American, C&D noted that in some ways neither ’73 car was as good as the model it replaced.
While the 450SE trounced the Cutlass when it came to the sophistication of the mechanical components, in real-world use their performance was remarkably similar. The Oldsmobile was geared for softness, isolation and “fingertip” control, so it felt different than the precise, mechanical Mercedes. But the numbers don’t lie—the Oldsmobile was in no way left in the dust by the Mercedes.
In fact, in a few key areas, the Olds was superior to the Mercedes. Ride comfort and quiet, typical strengths of American cars, were lacking in the German machine. The jarring ride and higher ambient noise levels in the Mercedes made the environment less pleasant for passengers than for the driver, whereas the Oldsmobile coddled everyone in the car.
The interior trim in the Salon also earned praise, with nice corduroy cloth all around and reclining buckets in front. Too bad more Cutlass buyers didn’t go for this package—most Cutlass Supremes came with bench seats featuring “embroidered” filigree on the backrests covered in brocade cloth or vinyl.
Speaking of vinyl, the MB Tex upholstery in the 450SE truly was some of the toughest stuff on earth—and I know that from direct experience. My Mother-in-law had a 1979 300SD—the diesel-powered S-Class from the last years of this generation—which she drove for almost 20 years and hundreds of thousands of miles. While the car was well worn from a long, rough life in Bergen County New Jersey, the MB Tex looked like it was brand new, even though the seats underneath were sprung. I sometimes wonder if the shredder was even able to eradicate the MB Tex after the car was scrapped…
Car and Driver also went into detail on the testing procedures used to evaluate the cars. Given how incredulous some readers might be about the closeness of the results between the “best sedan in the world” and a “pedestrian domestic,” it was wise for the editors to document their protocols.
In summary, Car and Driver liked both cars and viewed them as good expressions of their manufacturer’s intent. They did offer feedback on how to make the cars better, advising Mercedes to improve the ride and comfort in the S-Class while admonishing Olds to make the Cutlass tighter in structure and improve handling feel.
In spite of its “engineering über alles” mentality, over the years Mercedes-Benz would incorporate market feedback, and the brand’s offerings became quite luxurious in addition to retaining their performance prowess. However, GM certainly didn’t take any of C&D’s constructive criticism to heart, and sadly, Oldsmobile is now gone (which would have been unthinkable in 1973). In fact, the brand entered its death throes with the ultimate bastardization of the once-great Cutlass name, offering a frumpy, rebadged Chevrolet model with ancient mechanicals and cheap materials. Definitely not my father’s Oldsmobile…
Nor did the “European” direction effectively take root with domestic offerings in the early 1970s. Personal luxury was ruling the roost for American buyers, as epitomized by the Cutlass Supreme coupe. While sales breakouts for the Salon aren’t available for 1973, they couldn’t have been that high. The Salon package was only available on the Cutlass Supreme sedan, which sold just 26,099 total units for ’73, compared with the phenomenal 219,857 Supreme coupes sold that year. For 1974, a breakout of cars with the Salon package was listed, and a mere 6,766 sedans were so equipped, about 2% of total Cutlass output that year. Even factoring in the new-for-1974 Salon coupe, which sold 31,207 units, the “Euro” package was just a small blip on the Cutlass radar.
The Salon nomenclature couldn’t have helped. While the name was undoubtedly meant to evoke a Parisian drawing room or a gathering of intelligent, artistic people, most Americans probably would have thought first of hair, nails or tanning. For whatever reason, Oldsmobile seemed to like the name—it denoted the “European” Cutlass models through 1977 (the Salon sedan bowed out after 1976). Then it was applied to all the hunchback sedans and coupes with the 1978 A-body redesign, at which time the “sporty” Cutlass Supremes were renamed Calais. Even though the Salon name seemed to die along with the unfortunate aeroback body style, it actually wasn’t gone for good at Olds. The strange name then reappeared for 1985 on the “sporty” Cutlass Supreme coupe, after the Calais name transferred to the N-body.
The other issue was that European brand intenders in 1973 likely did not want an Oldsmobile, or any other “European inspired” car from an American brand, no matter how competent. While the Cutlass was considered classy in Beverly Hills, Michigan, it wouldn’t get a second look in Beverly Hills, California. It was too big, too “styled” and too “common” to be considered desirable by the coastal automotive cognoscenti.
Still, it was gratifying to see an article where a GM car could more than hold its own against one of the world’s best from Germany. It was a testament to how good Oldsmobile once was, and a credit to Car and Driver for producing a surprising and thought provoking article.