The Oldsmobile 442 was Oldsmobile’s entry in the “Supercar” wars of the mid-sixties and early seventies. Although it was never as lauded or as popular as the Pontiac GTO or Dodge Charger, it outlived many of its rivals and helped pave way for Oldsmobile’s ascendancy in the 1970s.
This week, we look at the history of the Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442.
THE FIRST OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS
Back in the benighted days of the seventies and early eighties, the best-selling nameplate in America was not a Chevrolet, a Ford, or even a Toyota, but the ubiquitous Oldsmobile Cutlass. In 1977, the division’s best-ever sales year, Oldsmobile sold 1.1 million cars, about 675,000 of which were Cutlasses of one sort or another. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was not the world’s most attractive design, nor was it outstandingly quick, economical, or luxurious, but it was a competent middle-of-the-road car and it sold like mad.
It was not always so. The Cutlass got off to a disappointing start in the early sixties and for much of the decade, it was overshadowed by its A-body cousins, the Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu and Pontiac Tempest/Le Mans/GTO. It was not until the early seventies that it began its remarkable ascent.
The first Oldsmobile Cutlass was a 1954 show car, a plastic-bodied fastback with a louvered rear window and dramatic fins. It took its name from the U.S. Navy’s Vought F7U Cutlass fighter, which entered squadron service around the time the show car debuted.
The Cutlass show car was not GM’s prettiest design, but it was quite racy, something that could not be said of contemporary Oldsmobiles. The original Olds Rocket Eighty-Eight of 1949-1950 had been the darling of hot-rodders and stock car racers, even winning the first Carrera Panamericana rally, but since then, Olds had succumbed to middle-age spread. By the late fifties, the Oldsmobile brand was most easily defined by what it was not: not as sporty as the new Pontiacs, as posh as a Buick, or as prestigious as a Cadillac. An Oldsmobile was a big, soft, conservative car, aimed at middle-class buyers with little interest in performance or ostentation.
GM’S SENIOR COMPACTS
In the late fifties, the United States suffered a short but severe recession that began in the fall of 1957. Auto sales were hit hard, particularly middle-class brands like Buick and Oldsmobile. Many buyers turned to compact imports; Volkswagen sales rose to more than 120,000 units in 1958, causing considerable alarm in Detroit.
In response to the recession, General Motors decided to invest heavily in compact cars. The first would be the Chevrolet Corvair, followed a year later by a line of “Senior Compacts” from Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. All would share a new unitized body shell, known internally as the Y-body, and a new 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8, co-developed by Buick and Oldsmobile.
Despite the recession, Olds management was not convinced that they needed a compact car. Although Oldsmobile sales had taken a 22% hit in 1958, they recovered handily for 1959 and Oldsmobile customers were not exactly crying out for a smaller car. Chief engineer Harold Metzel had considerable doubts about the unitized Y-body, preferring the greater isolation of body-on-frame construction. Everyone was worried about the new aluminum V8, which was expensive to build and strained the corporation’s manufacturing technology to its limits. Left to its own devices, we’re not sure that Oldsmobile would have built the Y-body at all, but the corporation was already committed and development went forward at a brisk pace.
The “Senior Compacts” went on sales in the fall of 1960 as 1961 models. At the suggestion of general manager Jack Wolfram, the Oldsmobile version was dubbed “F-85.” The name was inspired by another 1954 show car, the F-88, which was itself was inspired by U.S. Air Force nomenclature. (There was no production F-85 aircraft, but the USAF had assigned that designation to an experimental McDonnell “parasite fighter” called Goblin, which was intended to be carried in the bomb bay of a heavy bomber.)
THE OLDSMOBILE F-85
The F-85 was the smallest car Oldsmobile had offered since 1932, nearly two feet (60 cm) shorter and more than half a ton lighter than the division’s contemporary full-size models. Prices started at less than $2,400, about $450 less than an Oldsmobile Dynamic Eighty-Eight. Standard power was Oldsmobile’s version of the 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8 with 155 gross horsepower (116 kW).
Despite its smaller size, the F-85 drove much like the big Oldsmobiles of its day, with a soft ride, slow steering, and a near-total aversion to enthusiastic driving. With the optional Roto Hydra-Matic, it was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 14 seconds seconds, a top speed of 102-103 mph (164-165 km/h), and up to 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) — reasonable if hardly startling.
By the time the senior compacts appeared, the economy had recovered and even compact car buyers were turning to sportier, more luxurious models like the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. Late in the 1961 model year, Oldsmobile launched an upscale version of the F-85, a coupe with bucket seats, better trim, and a 185-horsepower (138 kW) version of the small V8. The coupe was dubbed F-85 Cutlass, taking its name from the earlier show car.
Although the F-85 was practical and reasonably attractive, early sales were disappointing, totaling around 80,000 units for 1961. The principal problem was price. An F-85 Deluxe four-door sedan, the most popular model, cost almost as much as a full-size Ford Galaxie. Worse, the aluminum engine proved to be every bit as troublesome as Oldsmobile engineers had feared, driving up warranty costs.
The other Y-bodies weren’t faring much better. The Buick Special sold fewer than 87,000 units for 1961, well below expectations. Pontiac’s four-cylinder “rope-drive” Tempest was doing somewhat better thanks mostly to its lower price, but it was expensive to build, so its profit margins were slim.
By mid-1961, the Senior Compacts were starting to look like a miscalculation. Although they weren’t small except in a relative sense, they lacked the size and gravitas that shoppers of GM’s mid-price divisions had come to expect. The Y-bodies’ technical novelty, meanwhile, provided little obvious benefit while making the cars too expensive for shoppers looking for a plusher economy car or midsize family sedan.
The latter point was underscored by the continued success of Rambler, which was No. 3 in U.S. new car sales for 1961 thanks mostly to the popularity of the roughly Y-body-size Rambler Classic, and the introduction that fall of Ford’s midsize Ford Fairlane and Mercury Meteor sedans. The Fairlane was a bit bigger but hundreds of dollars cheaper than the F-85 or Buick Special even with its new compact V8 engine. Consequently, the Fairlane outsold the 1962 Oldsmobile F-85 and Cutlass by about three to one, as did the 1962 Rambler Classic.
It didn’t take long for GM group vice president Ed Cole to get the message. In early 1962, he decreed that rather than continuing to struggle and trip over one another in the now-crowded compact market, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac would drop their Y-body cars after 1963 in favor of a new line of intermediate models. The new cars, which would share the new A-body shell of the forthcoming Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu, were to be far more orthodox than the Y-bodies, allowing Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac to offer more car — if not necessarily more space — for less money.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Everything Olds Is New Again: The 1960-61 Oldsmobiles and the Age of Planned Obsolescence
- George Hurst and the Hurst Olds
- How Big Is Too Big? The Midsize Ford Fairlane and Mercury Comet
- Out in Front: The Front-Wheel-Drive Oldsmobile Toronado
- Rocket Bomb: The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Dawn of the American Horsepower Race
- The Strange Tale of the Buick Skylark, Buick-Rover V8, and 3800 V6
- Three Deuces, Four Speeds: The Rise and Fall of the Pontiac GTO