You may recall that last week I started a new series about Ghost Cars, cars that were once everywhere, and are now vanished, nearly forgotten. Lots of readers responded with some great suggestions, and one of those suggestions caught my attention: the Oldsmobile Cutlass. Not because the car itself was especially interesting (it’s teetering on Meh territory, if you ask me) but because the Oldsmobile Cutlass line was such an unstoppable best-selling force in America from around 1976 to 1983. And I really don’t understand why.
For every year from 1976 to 1983 (well, except for 1981, when it was beaten by the Chevy Chevette, and maybe in 1980, when the Citation seems to have edged it out? There seems to be some dispute. But it was always right up there either way) the Oldsmobile Cutlass was America’s best-selling car.
Now, this is maybe a little deceptive, as the Cutlass name contained a lot of different variations, including coupés, four-door sedans, wagons, and weird four-door fastbacks that were not hatchbacks. Here, check out the Cutlass lineup from 1979:
Cutlasses made up a pretty decent portion of the overall Oldsmobile lineup, and most sales numbers don’t seem to differentiate Cutlasses by type.
Even so, we’re still talking about staggering numbers of cars; in 1977, for example, GM cranked out 632,742 Cutlasses. Holy crap that’s a lot of cars.
Just for comparison, Mazda sold—in total, across all models—279,076 cars in America in 2020. In fact, in all the time that Mazda has been in America, they’ve only exceeded Oldsmobile Cutlass sales a handful of times. And only then if we’re counting just the Cutlass’ declining years.
So, yeah, America had an intense, insatiable Cutlass-hunger for a long time, and, even more weirdly, this was especially the case for the two-door Cutlass Supreme Coupés, which seemed to represent the most of the sales, according to some sources.
I mean, I guess a lot of people wanted to live in the earthtone wonderland of guys like that dude up there, communing with ornate still-life setups before sliding back into the fried-seafood-special-colored-and-textured interior of the Cutlass, losing oneself in a world of sorta-decadent sorta-luxury.
I remember growing up around these cars, and I’ve even driven them a few times. They were absolutely everywhere. They do qualify as Ghost Cars since they’re all but extinct now, and they may qualify as Meh Cars because, honestly, they weren’t really terribly interesting. But the sheer number sold makes them sort of transcend either category, and makes them a glorious mystery to me.
Why, exactly, did Americans buy so many of these, and for so long a time? Their golden age of sales period actually straddles two generations of Cutlass, going from the larger, somewhat swoopier-looking fourth generation (1973 to 1977) to the fifth gen (1978-1988), slightly downsized, more rectilinear, a bit more fuel-efficient, but still basically the same type of old-school front-engine, rear-wheel drive car.
The Cutlass line wasn’t bad-looking, in either generation, with that “waterfall” grille on some variations, and fairly clean lines and proportions. But it’s not like they were all that different than their other GM siblings that were being built on the same basic platform.
I mean, even the most daring of Cutlass designs, arguably the weird-non-hatchback-fastback-with-a-trunk Cutlass Salon versions had their own near-identical G-Body counterparts in other GM divisions, like the Buick century:
Really, Cutlass Supremes weren’t all that different than Chevy Monte Carlos or Pontiac Bonnevilles or Buick Regals in most ways, so why did the Cutlass become so popular?
It’s also worth remembering that the Cutlass was a top-seller in an era when GM four-doors didn’t even have rear windows that rolled down. And somehow people were still buying these things like they were pornography made of melted cheese.
The Cutlass’ sales heyday came in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, which was the gas crisis era, not a time you think a large, somewhat archaic body-on-frame RWD car with big engine options would have been popular, but there it was.
Sure, ads claimed the V8 could get 19 mpg city, 27 highway, and 22 combined, but did anyone get those kinds of numbers out of these boats? Maybe if you drove with the delicate grace and gentle touch of a raven feather carried aloft by a breeze you could squeeze out 27 miles on the highway at a constant 48 mph or something, but beyond that I’m pretty skeptical.
Sure, there were some interesting performance variations (like the 4-4-2), but those weren’t the ones selling in big numbers. And spec-wise, the Cutlass line was generally on par with the other American RWD V6 and V8 offerings from the Big Three, with no real significant technical innovations to make them stand out. In fact, you could order Cutlasses with engines from most GM divisions (Buick V6s, Olds, Pontiac, or Chevy V8s).
So what was it about these cars that lured so many buyers? I recall the two-door coupés being used as family cars, and while the trunk was vast and there was room in the back for kids, it’s not like there were any advantages to these things over any number of other cars.
A four-door Volvo 240 would have been much more practical and about as good on gas, but they were niche players, at best. Volkswagen sold a lot of very fuel-efficient and practical Rabbits around this time, but nowhere near the number of Cutlasses sold. Honda Accords were starting to make their mark, but, really, no import could touch the Cutlass, no matter how much more sense they made on paper.
In fact, the Cutlass that did eventually get modernized into a more modern transverse-engine, FWD version, the Cutlass Ciera, isn’t even included in the counting of these best-selling Cutlasses. So it clearly wasn’t about technical sophistication.
Why didn’t the more modern-seeming Ford Fairmont ever manage to take the Cutlass’ crown? Or the Granada, or LTD? Or what about a Plymouth Valiant, or any number of GM G-body clones take the top spot at any time in the Cutlass’ five-to-six-year domination?
As much as I lament the market’s current near-total fascination with SUVs and crossovers, there’s at least some sort of logic, or at least the pseudo-logic of why people buy cars, at play. SUVs tend to have flexible interior room and at least the illusion of freedom to go anywhere, which I can understand as traits worth seeking in a car.
Also, it’s not currently just one model of SUV that’s being sold more than others—it’s a general style that’s dominating.
The opposite was the case with the Cutlass—it came in multiple body styles, but it was that one Cutlass family that somehow always came out on top. So, I’m still baffled.
Was it marketing? If it was, it must have used some advanced mind-control tactics, as I’ve never met anyone who remembers an Oldsmobile Cutlass ad. Here’s a couple commercials of the era, for example:
Yeah, those are, uh, forgettable. Let’s find another:
Huh. That’s a slightly different kind of forgettable. I don’t think this was a marketing triumph.
I’m not saying there was anything wrong with the Cutlass, but what, exactly, was so right about it? It must have been something, even if that something was just finding that exact right mix of price, status, availability, familiarity, and maybe apathy and simple momentum.
There’s got to be some lesson here. I just wish I was smart enough to actually suss it out.
So the next time you see one of those rare surviving Cutlasses, one of the tiny percentage of survivors out of all those millions of Cutlasses, maybe take a moment to really inspect it, get up close and look into a rust hole to peer into its oily soul, and see if you can get a sense of whatever dark magic was at play to make these things so wildly, inexplicably, popular.