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

THE 1968-1969 OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS

GM redesigned the entire A-body line for 1968. While the outgoing cars were angular and sedanish, the new ones had a curvaceous semi-fastback shape. Two-door and four-door models now had different wheelbases, 112 inches (2,845 mm) for coupes and convertibles, 116 inches (2,946 mm) for sedans. (Styling considerations were the main reason for the split-wheelbase approach, but it may also have been intended to reduce freeway hop, which the earlier cars’ 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase apparently exacerbated.) The new coupes looked bulkier than before, although they were a few inches shorter. Their shape now bore a certain resemblance to the Pontiac Firebird, which Harold Metzel and John Beltz probably appreciated; they had lobbied without success for an Olds version of the F-body.

1969 Oldsmobile 442 Holiday coupe side view
The 1968-1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442 were shorter than before, although they were somewhat heavier. A 1969 like this one is 201.9 inches (5,128 mm) long on a 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase. This 1969 442 is a Holiday Coupe (pillarless hardtop), with an original base price of just under $3,200. Note the lack of front vent windows, deleted for 1969.

Oldsmobile took a new approach with its engines for 1968. Since the introduction of the original Rocket V8 back in 1949, most American V8s had been decidedly oversquare (with a wide bore and short stroke), theoretically improving their rev potential. Recognizing that most customers didn’t drive hard enough to take advantage of that potential, Olds lengthened the stroke of its 1968 V8 engines, combined with lower numerical axle ratios and new camshafts designed to improve low-end and mid-range torque. Olds had essayed this idea in 1967 with the L66 “Turnpike Cruiser” option for the Cutlass, which had a low-revving two-barrel version of the 400 cu. in. (6,548 cc) V8 and a tall 2.56 rear axle. Now, they applied the same idea to the rest of the ’68 line, including the 442.

In Oldsmobile’s big cars, the longer stroke increased displacement to a whopping 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc), but corporate policy prohibited doing that with the A-body. (Olds did install the 455 in the limited-production Hurst/Olds, but the division claimed that the conversion was actually carried out by Hurst, not at the factory, allowing them to sidestep the corporate rules.) Instead, the 442’s standard engine was de-bored to 3.87 in (98.4 mm), while stroke increased to 4.25 in (108.0 mm). Total displacement changed only fractionally, but the revised engine was noticeably less eager to rev than before. The changes made sense for sedan buyers, but they did nothing to convince the demanding youth market that the 442 was the hot setup.

1969 Oldsmobile 442 Holiday coupe front view
The long-stroke 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) V8 added in 1968 had the same rated output as the previous engine, 350 hp (261 kW) and 440 lb-ft (594 N-m) of torque, but the torque peak was 400 rpm lower, as was its practical rev limit.

While the new F-85 and Cutlass were not racy or assertive enough to snare a lot of Pontiac fans, they went over quite well with Oldsmobile buyers. Sales soared to more than 350,000 for 1968 and a still-respectable 300,000 for 1969. Most of those were Cutlasses; the basic F-85 accounted for only 21,563 sales in 1968, 8,440 in 1969.

Oldsmobile now listed the 442 as a separate mode, rather than an option package, but it was still an also-ran. Sales peaked at 33,607 in 1968 and dropped below 30,000 the following year. Supercar customers preferred GTOs, SS396s, or the new Plymouth Road Runner, while most Olds buyers were happier with the Cutlass S and Cutlass Supreme, which combined sporty looks with sedate performance and a big-car ride.

1970: THE TWILIGHT OF THE SUPERCARS

In April 1969, John Beltz replaced Harold Metzel as general manager. Beltz’s promotion coincided with an ambitious revamp of the division’s marketing strategy with an over-the-top, Frankenstein-themed “Dr. Oldsmobile” ad campaign, pitched at younger buyers.

GM rescinded its engine-displacement limits for 1970, finally allowing Oldsmobile to install its big 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) V8 in the 442 without subterfuge. Combined with the W-30 cold air package, the big engine was conservatively rated at 370 gross horsepower (276 kW) and 500 lb-ft (675 N-m of torque). Performance was ferocious; in March 1970, Car Life clocked a W-30 442 with automatic at 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than six seconds, running the quarter mile (402 meters) in the low 14s at over 100 mph (161 km/h).

1969 Oldsmobile 442 Holiday coupe interior
One tends to associate muscle cars with bucket seats and center consoles, but this 1969 Oldsmobile 442 has a bench seat, a column-mounted shifter for its Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission, and robin’s egg blue vinyl upholstery that seems more appropriate for Grandma’s Delta Eighty-Eight than a Supercar. The original buyer did not pay the extra $84.26 for the absurdly named “Rocket Rally Pack” [sic], which included a tachometer, full instrumentation, and a clock, all deeply recessed and rather difficult to read.

It didn’t help: sales were fewer than 23,000 for 1970 and fewer than 7,600 for 1971. In 1972, the 442 reverted to an option package on the Cutlass. A 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) small-block V8 was now standard equipment, although the W-30 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) V8 was still available, now rated at 300 net horsepower (224 kW). Business remained grim, again failing to crack 10,000 units.

The sales slide had less to do with the virtues of the 442 than with a general decline in the Supercar market. The Baby Boomers who had embraced the GTO and its ilk were starting to have children of their own, trading their pony cars and muscle cars for cheaper compacts. The market was also over-saturated, with too many models competing for a shrinking pool of buyers. Worse, insurance companies had declared war on muscle cars. A base-engine 442 was far from the hottest car of its era but it was still subject to punitive surcharges that could make insurance almost as expensive as car payments.

Despite the decline of the 442, Cutlass sales were still quite good. Even in 1972, the last year of the 1968-vintage body shell, Olds still moved more than 330,000 units. Fully a third of those were the Cutlass Supreme, Oldsmobile’s answer to the popular Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix in the personal-luxury market. The muscle car era was over.

1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible side
Convertibles were also dying in the early seventies. Olds sold only 10,255 Cutlass Supreme convertibles in 1971 and 11,572 in 1972, its final year.

THE 1973–1977 COLONNADE CUTLASS

GM originally intended to introduce the next-generation A-body in 1972, but a lengthy UAW strike in 1970 delayed the launch by a full year. The new cars finally bowed in the fall of 1972 as ’73 models.

By the time the new A-bodies appeared, John Beltz was dead. Many colleagues expected he would eventually become president of the corporation, but in 1971, his health began to deteriorate rapidly. No longer able to work, he died at home on May 14, 1972, only 46 years old. His replacement as Oldsmobile general manager was Howard Kehrl, who had succeeded Beltz as chief engineer in 1969.

Kehrl arrived just in time to reap the rewards of the new Cutlass. (The F-85 nameplate was now gone for good.) The previous Cutlass was reasonably successful, but the new model actually outsold both the Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu and the Pontiac Le Mans, with impressive first-year sales of more than 400,000 units.

1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme front 3q
The 1973 Cutlass Supreme coupe was 207 inches (5,258 mm) long on a 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase; 1974 models were 3.6 inches (91 mm) longer, thanks to the addition of a 5 mph (8 km/h) rear bumper. Exaggerated side sculpting is a bit much — and very vulnerable to parking damage — but the styling of these cars was very popular in the mid-seventies.

The mid-seventies were a good time for most intermediates. Customers were beginning to shy away from land yachts, particularly in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, but conservative buyers were still wary of the social implications of driving a compact. Middle-class midsize cars — most of which had become nearly as big as the full-size models of a decade earlier — represented an acceptable compromise.

In that climate, the Cutlass became extraordinarily popular. Like the rest of GM’s mid-seventies “Colonnade” intermediates, its assembly quality left much to be desired, but contemporary buyers liked the styling and it was a good value for the money. A basic Cutlass cost about $150 more than a V8 Chevelle, but it had a nicer interior and came standard with a 180 horsepower (134 kW) 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) V8, while the Chevelle’s standard 307 (5,025 cc) had only 115 net horsepower (86 kW). The Cutlass was not an exceptional car, but buyers looking for middle-of-the-road transportation could do a lot worse.

Surprisingly, the 442 clung to life, a shadow of its former self. It was now little more than an appearance option for Cutlass coupes, although it still included a competent heavy-duty suspension. You could order a 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine and a four-speed transmission, if you could afford the insurance, but few customers bothered. The option survived through 1980, never accounting for more than about 1% of Cutlass sales.

1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme rear 3q
The Cutlass Supreme shares its body shell and roofline with the contemporary Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Buick Century Luxus, and Pontiac Grand Prix, although it does not share the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo’s longer wheelbase. Its curious mixture of sporty styling cues (like the painted wheels and pod-like rear fenders) and upright formality (like the opera windows and formal roof) is at best an acquired taste, but contemporary buyers loved it.

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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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