Long Before the SUV Age, America's Best-Selling Car Was a Cutlass Coupe

This is going to sound extremely alternate-universe for a second but in the midst of the 1970s, Americans bought more Oldsmobile Cutlasses than anything else, and more coupes than any other body style.


(Welcome back to Carspotting! We’re back with The Worst Walking Tour of New York City, headed by me, a hack who is barely qualified to tell you how to get to the Empire State Building from here. We’re out to find the best cars of the Big Apple.)

It was in ‘76 that America bought about half a million Oldsmobile Cultasses, most of which were two-doors, as the wonderful tome of history Curbside Classic recounts. The exact figure for the entire Cutlass line was just a hair under the 500,000 mark, as The Washington Post reported right before the end of the year. This meant it was outselling its intentionally mass-market sister brand Chevrolet with its full-sizers.

It’s just very hard to put yourself in that mindset, particularly in terms of today’s all-conquering crossovers. A 1977 model-year Cutlass Supreme, like this longtime resident we found out in Astoria, Queens, just looks unfathomable as a best-selling car. On the one hand it’s weird, with just two doors for its two rows of giant bench seats, a huge trunk leaving a ton of potential high-roof cargo space unoccupied.

On the other hand it’s very normal, with almost no styling details other than a waterfall grill and some very low-cost, almost-flat curved taillights. The glory days of Detroit spending big on garnishes and things went away by the mid-1960s, let alone after the Oil Crisis of 1973 and the rise of the imports.

This was the last year of the “colonnade” cars, identifiable by 1) being giant and 2) having a kind of turret-style top with extra side windows. Lots of pillars, or columns, in a row. Colonnade.


Were these particularly efficient cars? No. Were they particularly safe, or fast? No and no. They were very middle-of-the road, just with a slightly upmarket badge and a slightly frivolous coupe shape.

Oldsmobile’s assistant general sales manager at the time, John M. Fleming, explained this a bit to The Washington Post:

“A lot of the explanation is that over a period of time, an awful lot of people have moved down in size, from the traditional family-sized big Ford and Chevrolet to intermediates.

“They found they could buy an Oldsmobile for not much more than the Ford or Chevrolet,” he said. The Oldsmobile name is a step up, and they change feel pretty good about the change, he said.


What that says about America at the time that this blocky thing was our best-seller, that it made America feel good, I can only dream to say.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



My first car was a 1978 Cutlass Supreme handed down from Grandma. By the time I got it in 1994, she has racked up a whole 42000 miles on it. Still had the original paperwork in the glove box. Price was a tick over $4200 for crank windows, AM radio and AC. Back seat was large enough for “activities”. Had the 305 pushing 140 horses and went zero to 60 eventually.

The most amazing thing about it was the fact that a widow was able to afford a brand new car on her Husband’s pension (he died in 1975, I never met him). According to the handy dandy online Inflation Calculator, $4200 in 1978 dollars is about $16,500 in 2019 dollars. Imagine being able to buy a brand new Camry for $16,500 today.