THE FINAL OLDSMOBILE 442
Oldsmobile downsized the Cutlass in 1978 along with GM’s other A-body intermediates. The new Cutlasses were closer in size to the old Y-body senior compacts, 197.7 inches (5,022 mm) on a 108.1-inch (2,746mm) wheelbase. The smaller dimensions did not dampen the cars’ popularity; Oldsmobile sales topped a million units in both 1978 and 1979, more than half of which were Cutlasses.
Eager to exploit the apparent power of the Cutlass name, Oldsmobile applied it across a broad swath of its line-up. By 1982, there was both a front-drive A-body Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and the rear-drive Cutlass Supremes and Cutlass Salons; they had little in common except the name.
In a fit of nostalgia, Oldsmobile revived the 442 in 1985 as an option on the rear-drive Cutlass Salon coupe. Returning to something like the original meaning of the designation, the new 442 had a four-barrel carburetor, four-on-the-floor (albeit an overdrive automatic, not a close-ratio Muncie), and dual exhaust. The engine was now Oldsmobile’s 307 cu. in. (5,033 cc) small-block V8 with 180 net horsepower (134 kW). Even by 1985 standards, its performance was not exceptional; Car and Driver‘s 1985 test car ran from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds and had a top speed of 113 mph (182 km/h). It handling was nothing special either, but the limited run of 3,000 cars sold out quickly. It received an encore in 1986, little changed, and appeared again in 1987, its last bow. The last rear-drive Cutlasses died the following year, along with the final G-body Monte Carlo and the Buick Regal, Grand National, and GNX.
By then, Oldsmobile had hit the wall. The Olds brand had already become rather anonymous and Roger Smith’s mid-eighties reorganization stripped it of any remaining distinction from its Chevrolet and Buick stablemates. Increasingly anonymous styling and lackluster performance didn’t help and most yuppie buyers ignored Olds completely. Its traditional customer base was aging and the division was no longer adding many new buyers. Sales tumbled by more than 35% in 1987, falling an additional 20% the following year.
Noting the success of the front-drive, N-body Pontiac Grand Am, which Pontiac had successful marketed as a poor man’s BMW, Oldsmobile revived the 442 nameplate in 1990. Now called “Quad 442,” it was based on Oldsmobile’s own N-body, the Cutlass Calais, powered by the Olds-designed Quad 4 engine with 180 horsepower (134 kW). This time, Olds claimed the designation meant four cylinders, four valves per cylinder, and two overhead camshafts, but buyers were not convinced. Sales were dismal and the Quad 442 vanished after 1991.
The Cutlass name, now diluted beyond recognition, slowly faded away in the nineties. The Cutlass Ciera died in 1996, the Cutlass Supreme the following year. The last Cutlass, a clone of the undistinguished N-body Chevrolet Malibu, ended production in 1999.
Oldsmobile spent much of the decade trying to reposition itself as GM’s sophisticated “import-fighter” division with the sleek new Aurora luxury sedan and the midsize Intrigue. It was to little avail. The middle-class customers who had made Olds so successful in earlier years had since turned to Japanese sedans like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
In December 2000, GM announced that it was pulling the plug on the Oldsmobile division. Production ended in April 2004.
REQUIEM FOR A MIDDLEWEIGHT
Despite its remarkable longevity, the Oldsmobile 442 remains one of the more obscure Detroit Supercars, perpetually overshadowed by the GTO and the big-engine Mopars. In some respects, it was a better car, but its conservative looks, obscure name — even Oldsmobile often seemed unsure what “442” meant and it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue — and half-hearted marketing left it feeling a little stolid.
By contrast, the same middle-of-the-road quality that kept the 442 from being a serious contender was exactly what made the regular Oldsmobile Cutlass such a success. The Cutlass was a thoroughly ordinary car, but it made a decent stab at being all things to all people, offering everything from Vista Cruiser station wagons to personal luxury coupes. It was much like that great exemplar of American culture, the all-you-can-eat buffet; the food wasn’t great, but there was something for everyone and the price was right.
Unfortunately, in its pursuit of the mass market, Oldsmobile sacrificed any semblance of brand identity. When it began losing its traditional buyers, it had no outstanding qualities to attract new ones. Later offerings like the Intrigue were competent, but not exceptional. In some ways, they were just as good as their Japanese rivals, but there was no compelling reason to buy one instead of a Camry or Maxima, so few buyers did.
We’ve said before that the blind pursuit of greater volume is a perilous endeavor. In the short term, it can be extremely lucrative, but the tastes of the mass market are always changing and if you sacrifice too much of your brand identity, you’ll have nothing left when their attention shifts elsewhere. It’s too late now for Oldsmobile — and perhaps GM — to learn this lesson, but Toyota and Honda would be well advised to pay close attention.
Our sources for the development of the F-85, Cutlass, and 442 included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Linda Clark, “1964 Oldsmobile 442: Muscling in on the Ponycars,” Special Interest Auto #69 (June 1982), reprinted in Cutlass And 442: Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 124-131; Daniel Strohl, “Objectified Oldsmobile,” Hemmings Muscle Machines November 2004; and Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996). Additional details came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Auto ’90 Vol. 516 No. 1 (1990), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Keith Dickson, “OLDSmobility – The 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442 Resource” (3 March 2003, www.oldsmobility. com, accessed 9 February 2010); James M. Flammang, “1962-63 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire: First Wave of the Future,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 6 (April 2003), pp. 9-17; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. fourth edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); John Heilig, “Cutlass Supremacy: The Story of Oldsmobile’s 1973-77 Intermediates,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 2 (August 2005), pp. 8–21; Tim Howley, “1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire: Turbo Before Its Time,” Special Interest Autos #152 (March-April 1996), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); John Lee, “The J-2 Rocket Engine,” Special Interest Autos #114 (November-December 1989), reprinted in ibid; “Olds FAQ — 442” (10 October 2000, Oldsmobile Mail List Server Community, The Olds FAQ, www.442. com/ oldsfaq/of442.htm, last accessed 8 February 2010); and B.T. Van Kirk, “1968-84 Hurst/Oldsmobile: Executive Hot Rod,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 3 (October 2000), pp. 8-21. Former Pontiac ad executive Jim Wangers also offered some useful observations about the late John Beltz in a telephone conversation with the author on 17 September 2009.
Information about the Vought F7U Cutlass came from Greg Goebel, “[1.0] Crusader in Development,” v2.0.8, Air Vectors, 1 December 2014, www.airvectors .net/avcrus_1.html, accessed 1 December 2014; Jim Winchester, “Type Analysis: F7U Cutlass: The Navy’s ‘widowmaker,'” International Air Power Review Vol. 15 (2005), pp. 98–113; and the Wikipedia® entry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F7U_Cutlass, accessed 8 February 2010). Background on the abortive McDonnell XF-85 Goblin came from Joe Baugher, “McDonnell XP-85/XF-85 Goblin,” www.joebaugher. com/ usaf_fighters/p85.html, accessed 8 February 2010.
We consulted the following period road tests: “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire,” Car Life Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 1963), pp. 31-35; “Oldsmobile F-85” Motor Trend February 1961; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile F-85,” Car Life May 1961; “Oldsmobile F-85,” Car and Driver May 1961; Bob McVay, “Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass: Softly sprung F-85 offers luxury and performance sans blower,” Motor Trend July 1963, reprinted in Oldsmobile Automobiles 1955-63 (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1989); “Oldsmobile Cutlass 442: Springs and Things Put This Olds Right ‘Where the Action Is,'” Car Life August 1964; Bob McVay, “Hot Olds F-85 Cutlass Road Test,” Motor Trend September 1964; “Car and Driver Road Test: Olds 442: A comprehensive, sophisticated package of options, aimed right at the Pontiac GTO market,” Car and Driver May 1965; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile Cutlass 442: Handle Bars Make the Difference,” Car Life May 1965; Bob McVay, “Olds F-85 442: Mighty 442, a real driver’s machine, fuses lightning-fast performance, excellent handling with family comfort and utility,” Motor Trend May 1965; John Ethridge, “Olds 442 Road Test (The ‘2’ could also stand for ‘dual personality’),” Motor Trend June 1966; “Car Life Road Test: Tri-Power 442: Oldsmobile’s Performer Meets the Challenge,” Car Life August 1966; John Ethridge, “Olds swings a pair of keen Cutlasses,” Motor Trend February 1967; Roger Huntington, “Turnpike Cruiser: Oldsmobile Designs a Long-Legged, Strong-Willed Gas Miser,” Car Life April 1967; “Cutlass (Kut’las), n. a short, heavy, slightly curved steel weapon,” Road Test February 1968; “Car Life Road Test: The Handler: Olds 442: Long one of America’s most surefooted Supercars, this swift new version still shows its claws in corners”, Car Life June 1968; Mal Bracken, “The Opulent Olds Cutlass SX,” Motorcade April 1970; Joe Oldham, “Hurricane Outrageous…the ‘O’ is for Dr. Oldsmobile’s stormin’ W-30,” Cars August 1972, reprinted in Cutlass And 442: Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); “Car Life Road Test: 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass Holiday,” Car Life December 1963; Eric Dahlquist, “Olds 442,” Hot Rod March 1965; Danny Collins, “Olds Rocket Launcher,” Auto Topics September 1965; “Car and Driver Road Test: Oldsmobile 442,” Car and Driver December 1966; Bill Sanders, “Olds 442,” Motor Trend October 1968; “Olds W-30: As if W-31 wasn’t hot enough,” Road Test, March 1970; “Car Life Road Test: The Great Escape: If we had a getaway to make, we’d do it in a W-30 442,” Car Life March 1970; “RT/Test Report: Olds 442,” Road Test May 1971, reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); Martyn L. Schorr, “CARS Road Test: 1,000 Miles in a 442 Olds,” Hi-Performance Cars April 1967; Bill Hartford, “Popular Mechanics Owner’s Report: What Cutlass Owners Say About Their Cars: Olds Cutlass: Performance Yes, Economy No!” Popular Mechanics May 1967; “We compare the $4,000 American Sport Sedans: Cyclone GT – GTA – GTO – 442 – GS400 – SS396 – GTX – R/T – Rebel,” Road Test June 1967; David E. Davis, Jr., “Modern Muscle: Grab your Frankie Valli cassettes and we’ll see you at the beach,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 1 (July 1985), pp. 38-43; Michael Jordan, “Oldsmobile 442: Lean, mean, and born to run,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 8 (February 1978), pp. 64-70; Alex Meredith, “SIA comparisonReport: 1966 GTO vs. 1967 4-4-2: First-Generation Muscle Machines,” Special Interest Autos #122 (March-April 1991), pp. 18–26; and Bill Sanders, “Now You Can Have It Too: Econoperforleration* (*Economy, Performance, Acceleration): Oldsmobile Has Added It for 1968,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 7 (July 1968), pp. 94–97.
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