The Oldsmobile 442 was Oldsmobile’s entry in the “Supercar” wars of the mid-sixties and early seventies. Although it was never as lauded or as popular as the Pontiac GTO or Dodge Charger, it outlived many of its rivals and helped pave way for Oldsmobile’s ascendancy in the 1970s.
This week, we look at the history of the Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442.
THE FIRST OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS
Back in the benighted days of the seventies and early eighties, the best-selling nameplate in America was not a Chevrolet, a Ford, or even a Toyota, but the ubiquitous Oldsmobile Cutlass. In 1977, the division’s best-ever sales year, Oldsmobile sold 1.1 million cars, about 675,000 of which were Cutlasses of one sort or another. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was not the world’s most attractive design, nor was it outstandingly quick, economical, or luxurious, but it was a competent middle-of-the-road car and it sold like mad.
It was not always so. The Cutlass got off to a disappointing start in the early sixties and for much of the decade, it was overshadowed by its A-body cousins, the Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu and Pontiac Tempest/Le Mans/GTO. It was not until the early seventies that it began its remarkable ascent.
The first Oldsmobile Cutlass was a 1954 show car, a plastic-bodied fastback with a louvered rear window and dramatic fins. It took its name from the U.S. Navy’s Vought F7U Cutlass fighter, which entered squadron service around the time the show car debuted.
The Cutlass show car was not GM’s prettiest design, but it was quite racy, something that could not be said of contemporary Oldsmobiles. The original Olds Rocket Eighty-Eight of 1949-1950 had been the darling of hot-rodders and stock car racers, even winning the first Carrera Panamericana rally, but since then, Olds had succumbed to middle-age spread. By the late fifties, the Oldsmobile brand was most easily defined by what it was not: not as sporty as the new Pontiacs, as posh as a Buick, or as prestigious as a Cadillac. An Oldsmobile was a big, soft, conservative car, aimed at middle-class buyers with little interest in performance or ostentation.
GM’S SENIOR COMPACTS
In the late fifties, the United States suffered a short but severe recession that began in the fall of 1957. Auto sales were hit hard, particularly middle-class brands like Buick and Oldsmobile. Many buyers turned to compact imports; Volkswagen sales rose to more than 120,000 units in 1958, causing considerable alarm in Detroit.
In response to the recession, General Motors decided to invest heavily in compact cars. The first would be the Chevrolet Corvair, followed a year later by a line of “Senior Compacts” from Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. All would share a new unitized body shell, known internally as the Y-body, and a new 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8, co-developed by Buick and Oldsmobile.
Despite the recession, Olds management was not convinced that they needed a compact car. Although Oldsmobile sales had taken a 22% hit in 1958, they recovered handily for 1959 and Oldsmobile customers were not exactly crying out for a smaller car. Chief engineer Harold Metzel had considerable doubts about the unitized Y-body, preferring the greater isolation of body-on-frame construction. Everyone was worried about the new aluminum V8, which was expensive to build and strained the corporation’s manufacturing technology to its limits. Left to its own devices, we’re not sure that Oldsmobile would have built the Y-body at all, but the corporation was already committed and development went forward at a brisk pace.
The “Senior Compacts” went on sales in the fall of 1960 as 1961 models. At the suggestion of general manager Jack Wolfram, the Oldsmobile version was dubbed “F-85.” The name was inspired by another 1954 show car, the F-88, which was itself was inspired by U.S. Air Force nomenclature. (There was no production F-85 aircraft, but the USAF had assigned that designation to an experimental McDonnell “parasite fighter” called Goblin, which was intended to be carried in the bomb bay of a heavy bomber.)
THE OLDSMOBILE F-85
The F-85 was the smallest car Oldsmobile had offered since 1932, nearly two feet (60 cm) shorter and more than half a ton lighter than the division’s contemporary full-size models. Prices started at less than $2,400, about $450 less than an Oldsmobile Dynamic Eighty-Eight. Standard power was Oldsmobile’s version of the 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8 with 155 gross horsepower (116 kW).
Despite its smaller size, the F-85 drove much like the big Oldsmobiles of its day, with a soft ride, slow steering, and a near-total aversion to enthusiastic driving. With the optional Roto Hydra-Matic, it was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 14 seconds seconds, a top speed of 102-103 mph (164-165 km/h), and up to 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) — reasonable if hardly startling.
By the time the senior compacts appeared, the economy had recovered and even compact car buyers were turning to sportier, more luxurious models like the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. Late in the 1961 model year, Oldsmobile launched an upscale version of the F-85, a coupe with bucket seats, better trim, and a 185-horsepower (138 kW) version of the small V8. The coupe was dubbed F-85 Cutlass, taking its name from the earlier show car.
Although the F-85 was practical and reasonably attractive, early sales were disappointing, totaling around 80,000 units for 1961. The principal problem was price. An F-85 Deluxe four-door sedan, the most popular model, cost almost as much as a full-size Ford Galaxie. Worse, the aluminum engine proved to be every bit as troublesome as Oldsmobile engineers had feared, driving up warranty costs.
The other Y-bodies weren’t faring much better. The Buick Special sold fewer than 87,000 units for 1961, well below expectations. Pontiac’s four-cylinder “rope-drive” Tempest was doing somewhat better thanks mostly to its lower price, but it was expensive to build, so its profit margins were slim.
By mid-1961, the Senior Compacts were starting to look like a miscalculation. Although they weren’t small except in a relative sense, they lacked the size and gravitas that shoppers of GM’s mid-price divisions had come to expect. The Y-bodies’ technical novelty, meanwhile, provided little obvious benefit while making the cars too expensive for shoppers looking for a plusher economy car or midsize family sedan.
The latter point was underscored by the continued success of Rambler, which was No. 3 in U.S. new car sales for 1961 thanks mostly to the popularity of the roughly Y-body-size Rambler Classic, and the introduction that fall of Ford’s midsize Ford Fairlane and Mercury Meteor sedans. The Fairlane was a bit bigger but hundreds of dollars cheaper than the F-85 or Buick Special even with its new compact V8 engine. Consequently, the Fairlane outsold the 1962 Oldsmobile F-85 and Cutlass by about three to one, as did the 1962 Rambler Classic.
It didn’t take long for GM group vice president Ed Cole to get the message. In early 1962, he decreed that rather than continuing to struggle and trip over one another in the now-crowded compact market, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac would drop their Y-body cars after 1963 in favor of a new line of intermediate models. The new cars, which would share the new A-body shell of the forthcoming Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu, were to be far more orthodox than the Y-bodies, allowing Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac to offer more car — if not necessarily more space — for less money.