Today, the most popular new cars tend towards silver silvermist combover anonymity. Because, as you know, it is much better to have a car that does 17 things crappily rather than one that does one thing very well. But I digress. Things change. It’s a given, especially in the fickle car market. But approximately 45 years ago, the top selling cars in the land of the free were actually attractive. Due to having several in my family when I was a kid, I especially long for the 1976-77 Cutlass Supreme; in all likelihood, so do a number of people, as they set sales records in the ’70s and early ’80s. Luckily, I spotted a primo example at the Oldsmobile Nationals in Brookfield, Wisconsin back in 2015.
We’ve all heard the Colonnade story: In 1973, GM unveiled the new A-bodies. They were new and modern, but were festooned with the first 5-mph safety bumpers. And in certain quarters, draw a serious amount of ire from Monday morning quarterbacks. But at any rate, sporty muscle coupes were on the way out, with the world of Brougham taking over. The Cutlass coupes, in various S, Salon and Supreme forms, did quite well.
But in my opinion, they hit their stride in 1976, when an attractive new face and sheetmetal greeted visitors to Olds showrooms. The smooth sides (sedans and wagons retained the 73-75 fender blisters), quad rectangular lights and waterfall grille all looked great. It was a clean, attractive restyle, what one would call a near-luxury car today. For the up-and-coming young professional to announce his moving up in the world.
My Aunt Candy got one about a year after my Uncle Don bought a brand-new 460-powered 1976 Starsky & Hutch Ford Gran Torino.
If I may be allowed to digress from Cutlass Supremes for a moment, Uncle Don’s Starsky & Hutch was a factory-built special edition. like many other Torinos, Gran Torinos and related Elites, his was built at the Ford plant in Chicago (which just recently was completely revamped to produce the new Lincoln Aviator and Ford Explorer, but that’s a story for another time) and shipped to Bob Neal Ford in Rock Island. Probably the day after Don took delivery, he got rid of the factory Magnum 500 rims and purchased proper slotted mags. He also had to give the car a bit of rake to match the TV Torino. My aunt fondly remembered flying across the I-280 bridge across the Mississippi in it at better than 100 mph.
So the S&H was perhaps a little too fun. My Uncle Don frequently switched cars anyway, because he could, and because he liked variety. A late model ’76 Supreme Brougham, in triple burgundy (much like the featured CS, but a CS Brougham with the standard full wheel covers and decadent, crushed-velour, floating pillow seating) was its replacement.
My Uncle Don was a master mechanic. He could fix anything. When he worked at Bob Neal, my grandparents, who drove Lincoln Marks and T-Birds, demanded that Don–and only Don–work on their cars. This built a little resentment among the other mechanics, but he couldn’t have cared less. It also gave him a degree of freedom when dealing with BS from the dealership and other employees. If somebody pissed him off, he could go to any other dealership in the area and get a new job, probably the same day. This gave him a great level of freedom. One time, Erv Peters, a Ford dealer Don worked for in the early ’80s, asked Candy how to keep Don on staff. It was easy, she told him–just pay him more money! Kind of hard to keep your star mechanic at low pay when he could say F you and move across town to another service department. Ha ha!
Anyway, the Cutlass was a good choice. In the mid-’70s, Oldsmobile Division was in an enviable position, largely due to the Cutlass line. The coupes in particular flew off dealer lots. Folks of a younger age may not understand just what Oldsmobile meant in the ’70s. It was an aspirational brand, a mini-Cadillac, if you will. Sales were brisk: The Supreme coupe alone sold 186,647 copies during the year. The flossier Brougham coupe, priced about $300 higher, also sold decently, with over 90,000 finding owners.
During the 1976-77 period, Cutlass was number one in sales. No mean feat when one considers that just a few years earlier, Ford, Chevy and Plymouth were the top three brands. Olds turned all that upside-down with just the right combination of comfort, luxury and price. It paid off handsomely.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Cutlasses were attractive cars. For those who didn’t care for the Brougham treatment, a Cutlass S or Salon could be ordered with buckets, console, Super Stock wheels, white-letter wide oval tires and no full-vinyl or Landau roof. But plenty of buyers went for the top-trim Brougham coupe too. The expected Brougham badging, floating-pillow seating and chrome stand-up hood ornament all came standard to set Broughams apart on the outside.
Inside Cutlass Broughams, you found floating pillow seats, in La Mancha crushed velour and Dover knit cloth, with an abstract design that for some reason resembles bowtie pasta to me. There were also plenty of other factory options to be had by those in the mood for a fully loaded Olds. But for those who found the Brougham too baroque, the standard Cutlass Supreme coupe had less ornate yet pleasing interior selections. As can be seen here in our triple burgundy example. Not everyone wanted the Louis XVI interior, ha!
As a kid growing up in the mid- to late-’80s, I saw plenty of these. In addition to my aunt’s, there was my cousin’s first car, a ’77 Supreme. It was light metallic blue with a blue interior, white landau top and color-keyed Super Stock wheels with whitewalls. My uncle had found it for her. She drove it without incident, until the rear bumper fell off a year or two later. That was a chronic problem with Colonnade Cutlasses, especially in the salty Midwest. I remember seeing many of them, sans rear bumper, on the road. Uncle Don fixed the missing bumper by installing a wooden bumper. It was no simple 2 x 4, either. He made it fit the contours of the rear deck and even painted it in matching blue. It did the job until she traded it for her first new car, a ’90 Cavalier coupe.
As for my aunt’s car, she kept it for several until Don found a 1978 Thunderbird with the bucket seats and center console with floor shift. It was in good shape but had faded paint, so he repainted it in non-metallic midnight blue, which contrasted nicely with the chamois Comfortweave vinyl interior. Curiously, Candy’s Olds never lost its rear bumper despite never being garaged; however, the nearby Blackhawk Foundry toasted and faded the paint and pitted the glass in no time. EPA violations, anyone? But its interior was still pristine when they sold it. And the EPA finally caught up with the foundry; it was closed and unceremoniously bulldozed in about 2005.
The ’77 Cutlass Supremes were little changed (a new waterfall grille was the primary exterior difference), but sold even better, with total sales of 242,874 Supreme and 124,712 Supreme Brougham coupes. Keep in mind, those figures don’t include sedans and wagons, or 442, “S” and Salon coupes. It was good to be an Olds dealer in the mid-’70s!
In Broughams, the pasta-pattern interior fabric was gone, replaced with striped velour. The waterfall grille was revised, and the cool “eyeball” HVAC vents in the dash were replaced with rectangular units. I’ve since read that they had to be replaced, as the molds for the earlier dash had worn out! Other than that, things were very familiar.
A-body Oldsmobiles were downsized for 1978, but that didn’t affect sales. If anything, production increased, and the Cutlass Supreme coupe would continue to be a cash cow (and object of desire) well into the ’80s. Coming from such highs, it was surprising to many when Olds lost the plot in the late ’80s and started its long decline that finally led to oblivion. But in 1976 and 1977 Oldsmobile, and in particular, the Cutlass Supreme, was belle of the ball! And they still look good today.