Middle-of-the-Road Muscle: The Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442

THE A-BODY F-85 AND CUTLASS

The new A-body Oldsmobile F-85, launched in the fall of 1963, was nearly 15 inches (38 cm) longer and 500 pounds (227 kg) heavier than the earlier F-85 and traded the Y-body’s unitary construction for a separate perimeter frame. The aluminum V8 was gone, replaced by a new 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) cast-iron small block with up to 290 gross horsepower (216 kW). Also discarded was the unloved three-speed Roto Hydra-Matic, which was replaced by a two-speed “Jetaway” automatic with a novel variable-pitch stator. Stan Wilen’s Oldsmobile styling studio gave the new car tasteful if rather squarish styling, making it look like a scaled-down version of the full-size Olds.

Critics lamented the demise of the smaller F-85 and its lightweight engine, but Oldsmobile buyers apparently did not, for sales increased by more than 35%. Part of the attraction was the ’64s were actually somewhat cheaper than before, reflecting the new cars’ lower production costs. The Oldsmobile Cutlass, still the top trim series, accounted for about 40% of sales.

Although the A-body F-85 and Cutlass sold better than before, they were still not high-volume products for Oldsmobile, amounting to only 30% of its total volume. Customers shopping for an intermediate were far more likely to turn to Chevrolet or Ford, whose midsize cars offered everything the F-85 did for less money. There was also strong new internecine rivalry from Pontiac’s new A-body Tempest and Le Mans.

1965 Oldsmobile Cutlass front 3q
The 1964 F-85 and Cutlass were 203 inches (5,156 mm) long on a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase; the ’65s were 1.5 inches (38 mm) longer overall. This is a pillared Cutlass Sports Coupe; the pillarless Holiday Coupe cost $140 extra, weighed about 25 lb (12 kg) more, and was somewhat less rigid.

THE PONTIAC GTO

The 1964 Pontiac Tempest shared the F-85’s A-body shell, its basic suspension hardware, and much of its running gear, although Pontiac had its own 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc) V8. Prices were very similar, model for model, and on paper, there was little to choose between them. Nonetheless, the Tempest outsold its Oldsmobile counterpart by more than 10%. The reason could be summed up with three letters: GTO.

Pontiac had developed a formidable performance image in the late fifties and early sixties, only to run into trouble when GM president Frederic Donner reiterated the corporation’s anti-racing policy. To keep the fire alive, ad man Jim Wangers and chief engineer John DeLorean had decided to develop a hotter street car. Engineer Bill Collins installed Pontiac’s 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8 in the Tempest, which gave it exceptional straight-line performance at a very modest cost. Although GM policy forbade using engines bigger than 330 cu. in. (5.4 L) in the A-body intermediates, Pontiac general manager Pete Estes decided to take a chance, exploiting a loophole in the corporate rules to offer the big engine as an option package, dubbed Gran Turismo Omologato, or GTO. Despite considerable resistance from Pontiac’s own sales organization, the GTO sold 32,450 copies for 1964, accounting for around 17% of Tempest/Le Mans production. Wangers and DeLorean set about turning the GTO into a marketing bonanza, which had a galvanic effect on overall Pontiac sales.

1964 Pontiac GTO fender badge
“GTO” was a term used by the FIA for the Gran Turismo (Grand Touring) class; Ferrari used it as a model name from 1962 to 1964 and again in the eighties.

The arrival of the GTO did not go unnoticed at Oldsmobile. Despite Wolfram’s intense conservatism, a lot of Olds engineers were enthusiasts, including Dale Smith, Bob Dorshimer, and assistant chief engineer John Beltz. Even Wolfram had signed off on the short-lived F-85 Jetfire, the world’s first turbocharged production car. It was obvious that Pontiac was onto something, so in late 1963, Wolfram and Metzel authorized the development of a GTO rival.

POLICE APPREHENDER: THE FIRST OLDSMOBILE 442

For the sake of expediency, Beltz, Smith, and Dorshimer dipped into the existing Oldsmobile parts bin. The obvious starting point was the heavy-duty parts Oldsmobile had already developed for police buyers. The F-85, for instance, offered a B01 City Cruiser Apprehender package, which included a firmer suspension and the 290 horsepower (216 kW) V8. Oldsmobile PR executive Dave Jarrard suggested that they needed at least 300 horsepower (224 kW), so they fitted the F-85’s 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) engine with a hotter camshaft, dual exhausts, and sturdier internal components, bringing it to a claimed 310 hp (231 kW).

The obvious question is why Olds did not simply use the big 394 cu. in. (6,460 cc) Rocket V8, which offered up to 345 gross horsepower (257 kW). While it was 73 lb (33 kg) heavier than the small-block 330, the 394 was not a great deal heavier than Pontiac’s 389 and probably would have fit under the hood of the F-85 without much difficulty. On the other hand, the Rocket was then nearing the end of its long life; it was due for a ground-up redesign for 1965. Furthermore, there was still the matter of the engine-displacement policy. The GTO had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of that prohibition and at the time the Olds project began, it was not clear if senior management was going to let Pontiac get away with it. Unlike Pete Estes, Jack Wolfram was not one to take a cavalier attitude toward corporate policy.

1967 Oldsmobile 442 badge
When the Oldsmobile 442 was first announced in April 1964, the press release did not bother to explain the name. Olds advertising initially defined it as “4-barrel carburetor, 4-on-the-floor, dual exhausts,” an explanation that was revised many times over the years.

Like the GTO, Oldsmobile’s new performance package was technically an option, listed on the order form as the B09 Police Apprehender Pursuit package. It included the 310-horsepower (231 kW) engine and a full assortment of heavy-duty suspension and drivetrain pieces, including stiffer springs, firmer shocks, front and rear anti-roll bars, and wider wheels, borrowed from the F-85 station wagon. Since the two-speed Jetaway automatic could not cope with the high-revving engine, a wide-ratio Muncie four-speed was standard. The price of the B09 package was $285.14, most of which was the cost of the four-speed; Oldsmobile charged nearly $200 for it as a stand-alone option. Someone, presumably Dave Jarrard, recognized that “B09” was not the catchiest of names, so Oldsmobile advertised the package as “4-4-2” (or just 442).

Since it gave up 59 cubic inches (975 cc) and 38 horsepower (28 kW) to the GTO, the Oldsmobile 442 was not as quick as the Pontiac, but could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 7.5 seconds with a top speed of nearly 120 mph (193 km/h). The 442’s heavy-duty suspension erased much of the standard suspension’s sogginess and reduced the A-body’s customary understeer to more manageable proportions. Unfortunately, the brakes were not similarly upgraded; with only 268 in² (0.17 m²) of swept area, the standard drums were barely adequate for a six-cylinder F-85, let alone the hotter 442.

The launch of the 442, late in the 1964 model year, was low key. Compared to the GTO, it seemed almost hesitant, with cautious advertising and a notable lack of gimmicks. Performance car or not, it was still an Oldsmobile, and an Olds police car, at that. Nonetheless, the automotive press was very fond of the early 442 and several reviewers remarked that it was what the regular F-85 should have been. Car Life, which had been sharply critical of the standard Cutlass, called the 442 one of the best-handling passenger cars made in America.

Even so, production was very limited. Oldsmobile built only 2,999 cars with the B09 package in 1964, about 1.8% of F-85 production. The majority of 442s were Cutlass hardtops, but about ten F-85 sedans also got the Police Apprehender package; most apparently went to the nearby Lansing Police Department.

29 Comments

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  1. I owned an 83 Hurst/Olds, bought it brand new, same body style as the last picture, black with gray rockers, red interior, chrome Olds mag wheels and t top, compared to the “mid size fast cars of the day it flew,routinely raced that bitch and could beat super coupes and lemans. Nicest driving long hauler I ever owned, the Hurst lightning rod shifter was a joke but looked cool. Then I got married and my wife rolled the damn thing in a snow bank, Detroit locker rear end was shit on snow, got more compliments on that car and some day I will find one to collect

    1. We’ll actually be talking about the Hurst/Olds next week.

  2. Nice article. I always liked the Cutlasses from the 1960s and 1970s. The 4-4-2, in particular, always seemed to be a cut above other muscle cars in sophistication and substance.

    What Olds didn’t seem to get in the 1960s was the importance of marketing and image. The cars were usually as good as anyting else out there, and in some ways better, but the division’s image was far too staid, at least until the Toronado came along for 1966.

    In 1965, for example, Pontiac ads were shouting about GTO Tigers and using very stylish artwork to make the cars seem even longer, lower and more glamorous than they really were. The television ads were just as effective and carried the same message.

    Meanwhile, log on to youtube.com and enter “1965 Oldsmobile commercials,” and you’ll be treated to a series of black-and-white ads featuring a stern, short, middle-aged, balding guy barking out the attributes of the 1965 Oldsmobiles. He looks like a typical crabby high school principal. Hardly a great way to cultivate a “with it” image during the go-go years of the mid-1960s.

    In the 1970s, Oldsmobile really hit its stride.
    My parents faithfully bought Oldsmobile Delta 88s. Oldsmobile hit the sweet spot during those years with people like my parents. They didn’t want a Chevrolet or a Ford (too common), but a Cadillac or a Lincoln would have been too ostentatious. Pontiac seemed to be adrift without any real image, aside from the Trans Am, and respectable suburbanites did not dream of baiting the police in a black-and-gold F-body.

    Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth were hardly worthy of notice, and had questionable quality reputations even back them. Mercury was a glorified Ford. The only real alternative was Buick, although my parents, if they had been willing to stretch a little, would have considered a Ninety-Eight. That was their “dream car.”

    Meanwile, many younger people were buying the Cutlass Supreme coupes. They were considered quite stylish during the day.

    In some ways, for people of a certain age, it’s still hard to believe that Oldsmobile went away. But then, we would never have believed that GM could go bankrupt, either.

  3. [quote=pennsycarfan]What Olds didn’t seem to get in the 1960s was the importance of marketing and image. The cars were usually as good as anyting else out there, and in some ways better, but the division’s image was far too staid, at least until the Toronado came along for 1966.

    In 1965, for example, Pontiac ads were shouting about GTO Tigers and using very stylish artwork to make the cars seem even longer, lower and more glamorous than they really were. The television ads were just as effective and carried the same message.

    Meanwhile, log on to youtube.com and enter "1965 Oldsmobile commercials," and you’ll be treated to a series of black-and-white ads featuring a stern, short, middle-aged, balding guy barking out the attributes of the 1965 Oldsmobiles. He looks like a typical crabby high school principal. Hardly a great way to cultivate a "with it" image during the go-go years of the mid-1960s.[/quote]

    You’re absolutely right, and it’s important to note that Oldsmobile advertising is exactly what GM corporate management thought their marketing should be like. Pontiac’s aggressive approach gave Jim Roche and Fred Donner (GM’s chairman and president in that period) absolute fits — they were constantly making angry calls to Pete Estes and later John DeLorean, telling them to tone it down. DeLorean said Roche particularly hated the tiger theme. By 1967, the corporation demanded that Pontiac show them all ad spots before they ran, trying to keep it in check. Once DeLorean left in early 1969, subsequent Pontiac management was much more acquiescent, which is why (as you note) Pontiac’s image was sort of adrift in the seventies.

  4. When I was a kid, we owned a 1962 F85 4-door up until 1977. It was a fine car, but the generator charging system just wasn’t reliable. I remember changing brushes on the generator several times with my father and the voltage regulator a few times as well. The 215 V8 was a great engine. We never had any problems with it. The induction sound was intoxicating. Someone actually offered to buy the car to use the engine for racing.

    The model we had was basically a stripper. Manual steering, manual drum brakes, manual windows, no air-conditioning. Nothing. Just an engine, transmission, body, 4 doors and that’s it.

    As far as the transmission, I could have sworn it was a Turbo Hydramatic.

    I remember many fine summer days driving with the windows down and enjoying the wind in my face.

    1. The 1961-1963 F-85 and Cutlass used the Model 10 Roto Hydramatic. Other than the name, it had nothing in common with the later (and far superior) Turbo Hydramatic. The Roto Hydramatic was essentially a scaled-down, simplified version of the old dual-coupling H-M, removing the front planetary gearset (cutting it from four speeds to three) and fluid coupling and adding a stator to the second coupling to make it a torque converter.

      The Turbo Hydramatic was also a three-speed torque converter automatic, but the similarities ended there. The THM used a Simpson gearset, and its operation was very different. It was also positive and durable, which could not be said of the Roto Hydramatic.

  5. I own a 64 f-85, has a 308 with center console,tach, and bucket seats. Two door. Can’t find any information about this car. Any thoughts?

    1. A 308? Cam? Engine?

      A stock ’64 F-85 or Cutlass would have a 330 cu. in. engine (with either 230 or 290 gross horsepower, depending on carburetion); that was the only engine available that year. If it has an Olds 307, it’s the result of an engine swap — the 307 was a much later derivation of the Olds small block, introduced in 1979 or 1980.

      Olds did have 308-degree [i]camshafts[/i] for both the small-block and big-block engines; it was used on the W-31 engine a few years later. I’m not sure if that cam would work with a 330, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

      The buckets, console, and tachometer were all regular production options, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about those.

  6. The 1967 white “442” with blue stripes is a clone and a poor attempt. A true 442 has a non-functional louvered hood, blacked out tail light surrounds & trunk strip and the grille bar on the cutlass model was the thick one pictured here.
    Sorry, I spent allot of time researching them whilst looking for one for my dad to restore.

    1. Okay, thanks. I’ve amended the pictures and captions; I don’t have other photos of the ’66-’67 4-4-2 to replace them with at the moment, although I’ll looked to do that in the future.

  7. As the bean counters slowly usurped the reins of GM, marketing became even worse as was demonstrated in the 90’s with their ad “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”. It certainly wasn’t. That was a 442 and your grandfather’s was one of the Rocket 88’s with all their racing accolades. It showed how little marketing pinheads knew about the history of their own company. Not surprising, it was the first to get the ax. So, Pontiac’s next and I guess it’ll come down to one car, probably Chev, which will be nothing but a Toyota with Chev decals.

  8. Just stumbled upon your site recently (a reference from TTAC), and I have to say, I’m hooked. I see you also have an article about the Hurst/Olds, but what about the forgotten Olds factory hot-rod, the Rally 350, often referred to as the “executive’s hot rod”?

  9. I owned a ’69 442 from 1979 to 1981. My car was equipped with the 400 C.I. V-8, Muncie “Rock Crusher’ 4 speed with factory Hurst shifter, 3.73 12 bolt positraction rear end and the Tick-Tock-Tach. The ’69 442 was a torque monster and a pretty good handling car for its size. I autocrossed the big Olds very successfully against Mustangs and Camaros since the Olds was always bumped up to the pony car class.

    The Olds had a hard life before I bought it. I straightened out the body and painted it Charcoal Gray to offset the Dark Red interior and Black vinyl top and finished it off with black stripes. I sold the car to a 16 year old in the fall of 1981. The last time I saw the car was in Youngstown, Ohio around 1985. It is one of the few cars I wish I’d kept.

    1. In 1969 I bought my first Oldsmobile, a 1966 442 two door coupe; red with a black vinyl
      top. It came equipped with tri-power and a four speed. I think it had a hurst shifter. It was used when I bought it. It was my corvette,road runner eater. It was extremely fast and also a great road car. I got into a lot of trouble with that car. Never lost a race except against my buddy’s 57 chevy with a 454 tunnel ram. Top speed was over 130 mph as recorded by the highway patrol. Possibly the best car I ever owned. Still miss that car!

  10. I bought a ’67 Cutlass Supreme , 330 c.i. , Super Fast on top end . I totaled it @ 6000 miles and put the engine in a race car . It was sold as a ” Dimonstrator” Head parts from a 330 wouldn’t fit , had to use 455 parts . In 1968 the W-31 , 350 c.i. came out . What is this engine , all matching #’s , excellent condition worth ?

    1. Sorry, I’m wholly unqualified to appraise either engines or cars — not my area!

  11. You give short shrift to the 1968 version of the Cutlass, which is a shame–those cars 9esp. the versions from 69-71) were quite remarkable. The first car I ever bought was a used 71 Cutlass coupe. It was a fantastic car–smooth, fast pick-up, surprisingly crisp handling, and a comfortable ride. It was the the perfect road trip car, and more fun than bigger vehicles. The 69-71 Cutlasses and Skylarks were legendary for their reliability and durability. The bodies sometimes were undermined by salt (mine wasn’t for some reason), but it was not unusual for people to get 125-150K miles out of the drivetrains, which was quite novel for US cars of that era. Mine was totaled in a relatively low speed accident (no damage to me) with over 100K miles, but I never owned a car that so well combined power, comfort and handling until my 1999 Passat which lacked the Cutlass’ reliability and durability. Those cars also had really classic styling in the coupes (the 4 doors had more awkward proportions–Chevy did a better job with those). The next generation cars were not only less well built, they just seemed bulky by comparison.

    1. Except for an unfortunate typo (which I just fixed), I’m not sure how the ’68 Cutlass is shorted here, since it has a whole section of an article on the whole run. I just didn’t have any photos of the ’68 at the time of writing.

      I’ll freely admit I’m not a fan of the looks of the 1968-69 A-bodies, although I do think the 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass is the best-looking of the bunch. I agree that the two-doors look better than the four-doors (as with a lot of cars from the ’60s and ’70s, one gets the impression the two-doors were done first and the sedans were an afterthought).

  12. I’m looking at a 1963 F85 cutlass convertible that claims to have an original 394, 345 hp. 440 ft. lbs. torque engine. I cannot find anything to support this engine being offered as an option in this car. Only available in the dynamic 88 or police cars as I see it. Any thoughts on this?

    1. The 394 was never a factory option in the F-85 or Cutlass and certainly not in 1963. Even when Oldsmobile had authorization to off an engine bigger than the 330, they went for the new 400, not the relatively elderly 394. So, while there were occasionally odd factory one-offs built for VIPs or favored customers, that one sounds unlikely. Is it actually a 1963 Cutlass? The most obvious explanation would be that somebody is misreading the VIN (which changed format after 1963) or something like that.

  13. Will a non over drive floor shifter work in a over drive floor shifter 1987 cutlass salon

    1. I can’t advise you on modifications and repairs, sorry!

  14. I apologize if this has been covered, but two of the differences in a 442 compared to GTOs and SSs and GSs were the rear sway bar, which every 442 hack (and became common later on Chevelles with the F-41 suspension), and the “convertible”frame, which every 442 had at least thru the 60’s. Instead of being just an open inward facing “C” channel in the middle, the perimeter frame rails had an additional slightly smaller “C” channel nested inside with the opening facing out, giving you a “fully boxed” frame, a ” boxed girder”. Far far stiffer for a minimal weight increase.

    Used on convertible, taxi’s, and police cars – and all 442s. The convertible frame was an option on 64/65 Chevelle sedans and hardtop, and it was cheap, but very few were bought and it wasn’t an option after 65. I’m a Chevy guy, but the difference the frame made can’t be overemphasized.

  15. I have a black 1975 442 Cutlass with a built up 455.The car is a larger and heaver than the 1964 – 1972 cutlass, doesn’t look as classic ether. But does have it’s good points.It is a more modern driving car than the older years.Because of the stronger frame better steering, factory disc brakes and rally suspension.It is also more aerodynamic and comfortable at speed.Belive it or not this cutlass body style has aged well,with the chrome and the curvy body.The factory white stripes look great on the black body.The black interior has swivel buckets also.It is to bad Oldsmobile only made 6,227 in 1975.About 2% of cutlass sales.It is a overlooked fun big blocked car from the 70’s.

    1. The Colonnades had their faults, but the chassis really was much improved compared to earlier A-bodies. The earlier 442 was, in some respects, more a mitigation of the flaws of the midsize A-body chassis than anything else; “less bad” as opposed to “more good.” I’m not much of a Colonnade fan from a styling standpoint, but I will agree that with the right combination of trim and color, they can look pretty sharp.

    2. Hello, I bought a Black 1975 442 new and now looking for one. Would you be interested in selling?

  16. Appreciate the article! I own one of the 148 F-85 Base Club Coupe 442s from 1964. Bench seat, vinyl floor, four on the floor.

  17. Why did GM ban multiple carburetors? I’ve heard they can be hard to service and with low sales it might have been difficult to train mechanics to warranty fix them. Or maybe because they don’t add much power, just for looks. My experience with cars of that era is that their is much more power to be gained on the exhaust side than the intake. Most cars had very restrictive exhaust manifolds, so more carbs didn’t help much until you installed headers. But then you had to tune all those carbs all over again. Have you read anything about why they banned them? My favorite line in this article is about how offering multiple carbs really threw off the 442 name.

    1. If it were just a matter of sales or of feeling like there wasn’t much benefit relative to a big Quadrajet, I imagine it would have been left to the discretion of the individual divisions. I don’t know exactly what the rationale was for the corporate edict, but from the timing, I assume it was either 1) not wanting to appear to promote performance too much (a constant GM corporate preoccupation in this period); 2) concern about meeting emissions requirements, which were already in effect in California and about to take effect federally the following year; or 3) some combination of the two.

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