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

THE BIG-BLOCK OLDSMOBILE 442

As conservative as GM’s senior management was, they were not oblivious to success. When the GTO became a hit, the Engineering Policy Committee slapped Pete Estes on the wrist and changed the engine-displacement rule to allow the A-body intermediates to use engines up to 400 cu. in. (6.6 L). Buick quickly got into the act with its GS400, a big-engined version of the A-body Special/Skylark, and later in the year, Chevrolet launched the first Malibu SS396. The door was now open for a big-engined Cutlass.

In the summer of 1964, Jack Wolfram departed for health reasons. He did not formally retire until the end of December, but Harold Metzel succeeded him as Oldsmobile general manager on July 6, with John Beltz taking Metzel’s place as chief engineer.

In some ways, Beltz’s promotion was more significant than Metzel’s; Cole expected Metzel’s tenure to be short and was grooming Beltz to take his place. The 38-year-old Beltz was one of GM’s brightest executives, with a quick wit and a notoriously sharp tongue. Beltz coveted the No. 3 slot in total sales, then held by Pontiac. To get there, he wanted to offer Pontiac-like performance.

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible frontIn 1966 and 1967, the Oldsmobile 442’s standard engine was the 400 cu. in. (6,548 cc) L78, rated at 350 gross horsepower (261 kW). This one has the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, a new option for 1967. So equipped, it’s capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over seven seconds, running the standing quarter mile (402 meters) in 15.5 seconds at 91 mph (147 km/h). This car is a clone; we’re not certain what engine it carries.

That fall, Oldsmobile introduced its redesigned big V8. Its block was similar to the 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) engine, but had a taller deck height and unique cylinder heads. In big Oldsmobiles, it had a bore of 4.13 in (104.8 mm) and a stroke of 3.98 in (101.0 mm), giving a displacement of 425 cu. in. (6,964 cc) and up to 370 gross horsepower (276 kW).

Installing the 425 in the Cutlass would have provided scorching performance, but GM policy still prohibited such a move. Instead, Oldsmobile developed a de-bored, 400 cu. in. (6,548 cc) version for use in the 442, rated at 345 gross horsepower (257 kW) and 440 lb-ft (594 N-m) of torque.

The Police Apprehender package continued to use the small-block V8, but for 1965, the 442 became a separate option, including the big engine, dual exhausts, and heavy-duty suspension. The four-speed manual was now a $188.30 option, reducing the price of the 442 package to $156.02. About 40% of buyers paid $209.82 for the newly available two-speed Jetaway, which had been beefed up to withstand the big engine’s torque. The engine and equipment changes made hash of the original definition of “442,” so Olds advertising now defined it as a 400-cubic-inch engine, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhausts.

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible front 3q
The 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass was 204.2 inches (5,187 mm) long on a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase. A contemporary Oldsmobile 442 convertible with automatic weighs about 3,950 lb (1,790 kg). This car is actually a Cutlass Supreme — although it has 442 identification, it lacks the real item’s hood louvers and thinner grille bar. It has front disc brakes, which became optional for the first time in 1967, providing much better stopping power than the standard 9.5-inch (241mm) drums.

With 35 more horsepower (26 kW), 85 lb-ft (115 N-m) more torque, and less than 100 lb (45 kg) more weight than its 1964 predecessor, the big-block 442 was a good deal faster. Even the automatic version could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than eight seconds, nearly matching the four-speed ’64. Fuel economy inevitably suffered, but with premium gasoline going for perhaps 35 cents a gallon (9 cents/liter) — about $2.40/gallon in modern dollars — that was not a major concern for contemporary buyers.

Nevertheless, the 442 still felt a little sedate by Supercar standards, lacking the GTO’s ferocious full-throttle roar and rakish image. Except for the tacked-on chrome louvers on its fenders, the new Olds remained a resolutely middle-class car. Sales for 1965 topped 25,000, a healthy 15% of F-85/Cutlass production, but the GTO still outsold it by around three to one.

For 1966, Oldsmobile added a hotter tri-power L69 engine (see sidebar), but sales remained flat. The ’67s did no better, despite useful new options like front disc brakes and the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic. The 442’s performance was credible enough and it remained one of the better-handling Supercars, but Oldsmobile was simply not on the radar of a lot of younger buyers.

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible rear 3q
Like all GM’s A-body intermediates, the 442 had a live rear axle on coil springs, located by four trailing arms. Its heavy-duty suspension package included stronger boxed suspension links and a rear anti-roll bar, which reduced but did not eliminate the A-body’s strong understeer. Sharp-eyed readers will note the Cutlass Supreme badge on the tail, between the stripes. This is not an authentic 442, lacking the real thing’s blacked-out taillight surrounds.

SIDEBAR: The Tri-Power Oldsmobile 442

Most fans of sixties Supercars associate triple two-barrel carburetor setups with Pontiac, but the first GM division to offer such an arrangement was actually Oldsmobile, which launched its tri-carb J-2 option in January 1957. The J-2 package, priced at $83, included a trio of Rochester 2G carburetors with a vacuum-operated linkage. The engine normally cruised on the center carburetor, but greater demand would engage the front and rear carbs for more power. Oldsmobile rated the J-2 engine at 300 gross horsepower (224 kW), compared to 277 hp (207 kW) for the same engine with a four-barrel carburetor.

1958 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight convertible J2 engine

Demand for the J-2 engine was never very great and some customers found it temperamental. Sedate, day-to-day driving rarely engaged the front and rear carburetors, which then would become gummy from disuse; some customers simply removed them. Oldsmobile quietly dropped the option at the end of the 1958 model year.

Pete Estes, who had been an Oldsmobile motor engineer during the J-2’s development, became chief engineer of Pontiac in September 1956. Pontiac launched is own triple-carburetor setup, directly inspired by the Olds design, in early 1957. Pontiac did a much better job of promoting the “Tri-Power” engine than Olds had and Tri-Power remained a prominent Pontiac option through 1966.

1967 Pontiac GTO Tri-Power engine
A late-model Pontiac Tri-Power engine. This is actually a 1967 GTO, retrofitted with a ’66 manifold and carbs; although Pontiac dropped the Tri-Power engine in 1967, the earlier manifold bolts onto the later 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) engine.

Oldsmobile briefly revived the triple-carburetor option in 1966. Known as RPO L69, it was available only for the 442, priced at $114. Unlike the earlier J-2, the L69 engine had three Carter two-barrels with a more predictable progressive linkage. Oldsmobile claimed 360 gross horsepower (269 kW), the same as Pontiac’s Tri-Power 389 (6,372 cc) V8.

Olds marketing didn’t even try to explain how the triple-carburetor engine fit into the 442 designation, but with only 2,129 sales, it hardly mattered. In 1967, GM management banned multiple-carburetor engines for all cars except the Chevrolet Corvette and Corvair, outlawing both the L69 and the Tri-Power Pontiacs. Oldsmobile probably would have dropped the L69 anyway, because sales did not justify its high production costs. Nonetheless, tri-carb 4-4-2s set several class records in NHRA competition and Loyed Woodland and Bob Andresen won the 1966 NHRA C/Stock national championship with an L69 442.

Like Pontiac, Oldsmobile replaced the triple-carburetor engine with a highly tuned four-barrel version with cold-air induction, known as the W-30. Actually introduced on a very limited basis in 1966, it carried the same 360-horsepower (269 kW) rating as the departed L69. Oldsmobile continued to offer W-30 engines in various forms through 1980.

28 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.

  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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