I grew up in Northwestern Illinois. Due to this, I am very familiar with the GM A-bodies, and Cutlass Cieras in particular. They were everywhere at the time. So were their brethren, the Chevy Celebrity, Pontiac 6000 (a friend of my dad’s bought a white 6000 STE brand new) and Buick Century. There were at least two Cutlass Cieras on my block circa 1985. They were as common on the streets as CR-Vs and Tahoes are today. Arguably, the most famous Cutlass Ciera was the tan 1988 Cutlass Ciera that Jerry Lundegaard gave the hit men as partial payment in the classic 1996 film, Fargo. Of course, that Oldsmobile was what ultimately led to everything going pear-shaped in spectacular fashion. An aside, if you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it right now. I’ll wait. OK, ready? Then let’s continue!
In Autumn ’81 the Cutlass Ciera first appeared, as a 1982 model. It had some very big shoes to fill, though the larger rear wheel drive Cutlass Supreme remained in the lineup. The Cutlass nameplate was Oldsmobile’s most successful in the 1970s, and the Cutlass Supreme coupe in particular was the undisputed best selling model in the lineup. The Cutlass was downsized in ’78, followed by a more aerodynamic restyling in 1981. It remained in the line with the addition of the Cutlass Ciera, however. It was the first time the Cutlass nameplate was applied to more than one car line. As the ’80s progressed, Cutlassization would run rampant over at Oldmsobile Division. Likely at its peril, but never mind that today.
The 1982 Cutlass Ciera was a response to the recently enacted Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. As a result of this legislation, vehicle lineups had to be more fuel efficient. You could still build full-size cars like the Delta 88 and Ninety Eight Regency, but it had to be balanced by the addition of smaller, lighter and more efficient vehicles to the lineup to offset a given marque’s overall fuel efficiency. As a result, the Ciera had front wheel drive, unit construction and no V8 option.
The standard engine was a 2.5L 4 cylinder, with a 2.8L V6, 3.0L V6, and 4.3L diesel V6 engines standard or optional, depending on the model. It was initially offered as a two-door or four-door sedan in base, LS and top-of-the line Brougham models. For 1983 an ES option was added, with blacked out trim, sporty wheel covers, a console and full instrumentation. The ES model was in the line for several years, but was a rare sight. Base model Cutlass Cieras like today’s featured car, in navy, gold, burgundy or white, with wire wheel covers, were far more common.
As previously mentioned, the RWD Cutlass Supreme remained in production, so the Cutlass Cruiser station wagon remained on the Supreme platform for 1982 and 1983. In 1984, that wagon went away and was replaced by a Ciera-based version. It was immediately popular with first year production of 41,816, nearly double that of the 1983 rear-drive version.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Cutlass name still had quite a bit of cachet with buyers. As did Oldsmobile itself. In inaugural 1982, 9,717 base Ciera sedans 29,322 LS sedans and 33,876 Brougham sedans were built. By 1985 figures were 123,768 LS sedans and 117,763 Brougham sedans. Our ’86 feature car is one of 151,606 base sedans. MSRP was $10,354. Approximately 377,000 Cutlass Cieras of all types-coupe, sedan and wagon-were sold in 1986.
The Cutlass Ciera was a great success, and wound up being the most popular Oldsmobile of the 1980s. The choice of a Cutlass Ciera as the car the hit men drive in Fargo was perfect. If you wanted to blend into the background in Minnesota in the late ’80s, this was the car to drive. They were everywhere there-and in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Missouri too.
They were so common as to be, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Much like a beige Camry or Silver Fusion is in 2019. One of our neighbors across the street, an older lady, had a cedar metallic Brougham sedan, probably an ’84 if memory serves. Our next door neighbor’s daughter, Jeannie, had a cream colored ’84 Cutlass Cruiser with a brown interior and her husband had a full size Custom Cruiser. The Quad Cities loved their Oldsmobiles, yessireebob!
One of our grade school teachers had a burgundy ’85 Ciera sedan that was a little worse for the wear by the time he was driving it in the early ’90s.
Even my driver’s ed car was a navy blue ’96 Ciera with a blue interior. When I started working part-time at an insurance company during high school and college, the underwriting manager had a gunmetal gray ’91 or ’92 sedan. Those are just the ones I remember. Yes, Northwest Illinois really liked their Oldsmobiles, the Ciera in particular.
However, with success can come complacency. The Ciera was a very comfortable, efficient, state of the art car – in 1982. The problem was, there were no significant updates to the car, save a redesigned roofline for the coupe in mid-1986 and the sedan in 1989. Some slight changes were made to the grille and taillights, usually every couple of years, and a driver’s side airbag was added.
Yet despite the lack of changes they kept selling, though they got progressively plainer. As the years went by, the most desirable options such as full gauges, super stock wheels and leather upholstery went away. On the plus side, the longer they were made, the better they were built. By the early 1990s these cars and their A body cousins were some of the most trouble free cars available.
But eventually, it was finally time to retire them, and along with its remaining A body cousin, the Buick Century, they were put out to pasture in 1996. The coupe disappeared after ’91, but the sedan and wagon made it to the end of the line. At the time, I recall reading an article where Oldsmobile made 1982 and 1996 model Cieras available to the press to commemorate all the years of production.
One wag claimed he couldn’t tell which was which. And so ended fifteen years of production. A ‘new’ Cutlass came out in 1997, but it was clearly a badge-engineered version of the 1997 Chevy Malibu. Only the grille and taillights were different, and there really wasn’t a compelling reason to buy one over a Malibu, unless you got the top trim one with the nice wheels, leather, etc. Or you just really liked your local Olds dealer. But it essentially tanked. Oldsmobile never really got a replacement that was a volume seller (at least, until the Alero appeared), and Oldsmobile Division came to the end of the road after a very short run of 2004 models.
I spotted our featured gold ’86 at the cruise night at Isle of Capri casino back on May 11th. The weather kind of sucked, but I went anyway. This monthly event usually draws at least a 100-150 cars, but intermittent rain, clouds and cold meant there were only about 30 cars on this day. But I was still pleased to see this showroom new survivor. It had the ’86 grille, but no center brake light in the rear window, which was kind of odd (EDIT: It’s there, I’m blind, carry on). But what a clean old car. And a reminder of thirty-odd years ago, when these things were everywhere!
Out of all the marques that have disappeared beneath the waves over the past 15-20 years, I still miss Oldsmobile the most.
And if you haven’t seen Fargo and have no idea what the title of this post is about, look no further: