1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme: King of the Coupes

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.

1976 Oldsmobile Mid-size and Compact-02-03

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.

Twin S&H Gran Torinos at the 2012 Maple City Cruise Night in Monmouth, IL

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.

1976 Oldsmobile Mid-size and Compact-04-05

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.

1977 Oldsmobile-04

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!

1977 Oldsmobile-05

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.

20 Replies to “1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme: King of the Coupes”

  1. AvatarTomko

    ‘77 Supreme Coupes were my favourite Colonnades.
    ‘78 and ‘79 Supreme Coupes were my favourite A bodies. ‘82 and ‘83 Malibu as close second.

    Reply
  2. AvatarJohn C.

    These late seventies plc were sort of a pinnacle. V8 smoothness in combo with the better 70s transmissions made the best of the times before displacement took a bigger hit then weight in the coming downsize. The cars were more likely to have things like AC and CC that made spending time on a long commute more bearable. It is interesting how much influence they had on the Japanese inline six hardtop coupes of the period. With the exception of a very few Mazda Cosmos, most of those cars never got here. I wonder why? Perhaps a little head to head would have shown just how far behind our Japanese friends really were in areas like response, noise control, creature comforts, and transmission smoothness.

    Reply
    • AvatarCarmine

      I think Toyota might have imported a few hardtop Crown coupes in the early 70’s too but not many. Probably the expense in re-designing the dash for LHD emissions and bumper compliance combined with a market(the US) that was not quite ready for more expensive Japanese offerings is probably what kept some of those cars out. The Cosmo was a Rotary engined car from what I recall.

      Reply
  3. tmkreutzertmkreutzer

    Great one Tom! Lovely cars. My father was an Oldsmobile man and I’d probably be one today too if it were still an option.

    I’d enjoy hearing the “rest of the story” on the Gran Torino and why it was replaced in just a year.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

      As I recall, he just got tired of it. He switched cars frequently in the ’70s, as he was making good money and could afford to trade up.

      Reply
  4. AvatarDrew

    As always, a great read and plenty of pics to drool over. Thanks Tom!

    I graduated from high school in 1977. The school parking lot was full of Cutlass Supremes (or is Cutlasses Supreme?). I thought they were the prettiest of the GM “intermediates”.

    Reply
  5. Avatarsgeffe

    So that dash with the “molded” surround was a one-year thing in ‘77! Didn’t know that!

    It certainly says something when the B-bodies that came out in the last year of the Collonaides were shorter and lighter!

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      It said the future was one of austerity and economy rather than big dreams of future plenty for all.. One wonders if wage equalizing tariffs and perhaps the colonization of one or two oil rich Sultanates or Emirates where we found the oil for them anyway would have restored some mojo?

      Reply
      • AvatarCarmine

        Rational thinking perhaps took hold, these cars were kinda big for the sake of being “big” they really don’t have any interior space advantage over the much trimmer 1968-1972 A-body cars and the didn’t lose much to the downsized 1978 cars. Even before the gas crisis the decision was made by management after the big 1971 full size cars came out to start trimming down the sizes of the cars. Bill Mitchell himself said that the cars were getting “too big”.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn C.

          The shear look at the end of his career was a masterful response to an austere future, but America shows its best when it has big canvases to work with. Case in point. The S10, Ranger, and Dakota were masterful responses to the simple Japanese pickup, but it was still the full size truck where America could show it’s best. Another fuel crisis could easily have seen the big ones canned circa 1986. If that had happened we wouldn’t even have a vestige of the old industry.

          Reply
  6. Avatarstingray65

    These were all over the place back in the day, but after 40+ years they are rare on the ground so it is fun to see picture of a nice one. GM had a license to print money with all the hundreds of thousands of personal luxury cars they pumped out on this platform in the 70s – if it wasn’t a Cutlass, it was a Regal or Monte Carlo or Grand Prix, because nobody but farmers and tradespeople drove pickups back then.

    Reply
    • AvatarCarmine

      I remember as a kid when I first saw a…GASP…4 DOOR TRUCK!!!….how could such a thing exist???

      Who would buy such an insane vehicle?

      Today they’re everywhere.

      Reply
      • Avatarstingray65

        CAFE standards created the big truck market. Instead of investing in technology to keep HP and torque from shrinking faster than their cars were being downsized, Detroit just kept making cast iron OHV carbureted engines mated to 3 speed automatics. The simple technology worked well on big V-8s (when fuel economy wasn’t a concern), but resulted in real anemic performance when it was used on much smaller 4 and 6s (and small V-8s) that were “required” to meet CAFE.

        Thus trucks (and truck based SUVs) became the only place Americans could buy the big simple V-8s and ample interior space they desired. I think the move to trucks would have been greatly slowed if Detroit had much more quickly invested in 4-5-6-8 speed automatics (and 5-6 speed manuals), fuel injection, 4 valve heads, etc. to get as much power and speed out of smaller engines as their foreign competition did. Given the much earlier pioneering that Detroit did with automatics (Olds 1940), lock-up torque converters (Packard 1949), fuel injection (Chevy 1957), turbocharging (Olds and Chevy 1962, Buick 1978), 4 valve heads (1975 Chevy), they really didn’t have much excuse to not more fully develop and implement these technologies at a faster rate than their much smaller foreign competitors, but instead they just put most of their effort into making and marketing low tech trucks.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn C.

          The idea that “investing” could have prevented the horsepower decline is just false. Look at the MB OHC 4.5 V8 from the W116. It debuted in 1973 with 190hp and ended in 1980 with 160hp. They were all fuel injected. It did not avoid the need for catalyst. Big engines are going to put out a lot of exhaust and are a challenge to meet standards. The lefties that put in the standards would have understood that the big engines were going to be hardest hit. It was the time when the American cars were just to big according to them, so two birds with one stone. A stone thrown directly at fellow Americans.

          Reply
          • Avatarstingray65

            160 HP from MB OHC FI 4.5 liters versus 150 for the Caddy OHV 4 barrel 6 liter (368) V-8 or the 129 HP from the Ford 2 barrel 5 liter (302) from that era sounds like a pretty serious difference due to technology (not to mention BMW getting 168 hp out of 2.8 liters). Are you trying to tell me John that GM or Ford with their huge labs, budgets, and economies of scale weren’t capable of making a motor (especially for their premium brands) that could run with relatively small German producers just barely out of rebuilding from the damage caused by B-17s and B-24s?

            What is even more strange is that it took GM and Ford until 1981/1980 respectively to introduce an overdrive automatic and until the 2000s to move beyond 4 speeds. BMW actually used GM-Europe 5 speeds during the 1990s, but GM never put them on US models. A nice 5 speed (or more) automatic can keep even an anemic motor in its narrow power band to maximize its acceleration potential and fuel economy, and it is simply a comedy of mis-management that the Detroit automakers who invented and popularized the technology fell behind the Europeans and Japanese in the 1980s and have only caught up in the past couple of years.

          • AvatarJohn C.

            When did Mercedes get around to the overdrive top gear?1992 with the W140? Remember the Germans were going for much more aggressive gearing to keep their cars within their narrow power band for autobahn work. US German car tuning then saw super tall final drive ratios and second gear starts to you know keep them out of the thin band. Strange times.

          • Avatararbuckle

            The anti-pushrod & 4-valve head talk has been a joke since 1992 and GM’s 4-speed automatics were generally quite good. Good enough that some very premium European brands used them for a long time.

            GM didn’t lose customers because of Cutlasses and Impalas. When they fell on their face and destroyed goodwill during this it is when they abandoned their core strengths and chased after what European and Japanese companies were doing.

  7. AvatarMike

    My dad must have been a trendsetter, then. In the late 70’s he bought a 1976 GMC half-ton pickup, two wheel drive, standard cab, and from that point until his retirement a few years ago he only drove pickups. I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a pickup in our driveway.

    Reply
  8. AvatarGeorge Denzinger

    I wanted one of these so badly back in my high school years (1977-1980). Like others mentioned, these things were everywhere, but at least the landscape looked good. I knew several people with some version of these cars, I went to my high school senior prom in a borrowed 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix (with T-tops no less!). Properly equipped, these cars were great drivers. They may not have had the high horsepower numbers from earlier in the decade, but they still had the torque, especially if you had one of the 350+ cubic inch engines.

    The closest I ever got to owning one of these was a 1977 Olds Delta 88 that I married into. Essentially a very similar car underneath, it was a good car that if driven responsibly, would treat you very well. But, we both liked to open up that 403 and let it sing…

    I would still like one of these for my MM Garage; but it’s highly unlikely I will buy one. I would probably like to get a compact car from the 70’s. Easier to deal with and park in my limited space.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      The feeling youthful George experienced with his girl in the GP with t -tops is just not one that could be matched in a borrowed Accord or pickup that others suggest as worthy substitutes. No wonder many of our children don’t get what we are talking about. America and the big three used to know how to teach the American dream to the young.

      Reply

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