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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.