The 1973-1977 Oldsmobile Intermediates were a successful piece of Oldsmobile's strong company.
Several factors paved the way for the 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass. At the close of the 1972 model year, Oldsmobile stood rock solid in the U.S. auto industry. On the strength of 758,711 cars built that season -- an all-time high for the division -- it shot up to third in sales behind only Chevrolet and Ford.
In the process, Olds picked up the slack from a faltering Pontiac, which had held the third spot during much of the Sixties. Oldsmobile possessed the longest-serving nameplate on America's roads, but even at 75 years old, it was enjoying new vitality. Indeed, its best days were still to come.
The solid fuel for this rocket-like ascension -- Olds had vaulted from sixth in the industry -- was the family of Cutlass intermediates. The Cutlass name, first used on a 1954 show car, entered showrooms in 1961 on a deluxe bucket-seat coupe in the brand-new F-85 "senior compact" range.
The 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass featured a new styling theme GM
called "Colonnade." See more pictures of classic cars.
For '64, the F-85/Cutlass group joined the growing ranks of the intermediates via a full redesign and a three-inch wheelbase stretch to 115 inches. Still, the Cutlass would remain the preserve of sporty coupes, hardtops, and convertibles until 1967, when practical four-door sedans and a station wagon were added, and the series split into base and Supreme branches.
From then on, Cutlass would begin eclipsing F-85 as the marquee name of Oldsmobile's midsized cars. (The last Cutlass-based F-85 was made in 1972, but the name would return on a stripped-down Omega compact.)
By 1970, the Cutlass was succeeding on several levels: Sedans and wagons delivered ample family car room and comfort; the Supreme hardtop coupe, with its new formal roof styling, promised affordable elegance; and the 4-4-2 tempted muscle car buyers.
General Motors had looked to 1972 as the year for a corporation-wide remake of its midsized car brands, but the new intermediates wouldn't be ready until the '73 season.
A United Auto Workers strike in 1970 played a hand in the delay of the cars' development. So did the the corporation's switch in 1971 to engines designed to run on low-lead fuels, and the need to incorporate safety equipment to meet impending federal standards.
In their book Oldsmobile: The Postwar Years, Jan Norbye and Jim Dunne wrote that the division's contribution to the new corporate design amounted to the steering gear and linkage, through Saginaw and Delco. "The brake system was developed by Buick and Delco-Moraine, and was noted for using front discs as standard, without power assist. ... A new perimeter frame was designed by the GM Engineering Staff and developed by Chevrolet, while the body design and engineering were done by the Styling Staff in liaison with Fisher Body. Pontiac was involved with the body-mounting system and designed the coil-spring rear suspension, while Chevrolet developed the front suspension (based on Buick's Accu-Drive geometry)," they wrote.
All featured a new styling theme GM called "Colonnade." Convertibles and true hardtops were gone. Door windows on all models used frameless glass, but B-pillars were fixed and the rear-quarter windows on two-door cars did not roll down. Corner vent windows were eliminated in all models, offering better side visibility. Station wagons adopted a top-hinged one-piece rear liftgate.
"It was the A-body, which we shared with the Buick Regal [and Century], and Pontiac LeMans, and a Chevrolet," remembered Len Casillo, who was in charge of Oldsmobile styling at the time. "Some parts were shared -- the windshield, cowl, etc. -- but as far as the overall design, we had complete autonomy."
All-new sheetmetal gave the Cutlass a more "Euro" look. Bodysides sprouted low-lying "skegs" that suddenly turned up and faded at midbody. Up front, new seven-inch-diameter dual headlamps (another touch common to all A-body cars) flanked a split grille. These "Power Beam" headlamps mustered as much candlepower on low beam as the quad headlights used on the 1972 models. Energy-absorbing "five-mph" bumpers, backed by hydraulic shock absorbers, fronted a "swingaway" grille that was hinged at the bottom to retract with the receding bumper if there was a mild front-end collision.
The base-series cars and Cutlass S coupe sported grille sections with a pattern of horizontal rectangles, while the fancier Supremes and Vista-Cruiser wagon wore vertical bars. Vertical taillamps sunk into the fender ends of coupes and sedans highlighted an all-new rear-end design. (Wagon taillamps sat low in the bumper.) Rear bumpers met the government's 2.5-mph barrier-impact requirements.
"We always had the grille and taillights tagged. You knew you were approaching an Oldsmobile from the front or rear," said Casillo. "I think that was the key to our success. We touched a nerve in the American people. We had a clear idea of Oldsmobile's brand character long before it became a corporate idea. We intuitively knew what was Olds."
The base Cutlass series consisted of a four-door sedan and coupe. The Cutlass S was a slightly better-equipped alternative to the base coupe. Next up was the Cutlass Supreme in two- and four-door versions. Cutlass and S coupes featured a semifastback roofline with large triangular quarter windows, but the two-door Supreme had a more upright roof. A crisp crease ran down the center of its v'eed rear window and narrow "opera windows" at the sides lent rear-seat passengers a mere peek at the outside world.
The Supreme four-door sedan could be done up as a Cutlass Salon thanks to an option group intended to make it "a lot like an expensive imported touring sedan" inside and out, Olds claimed.
Finally, there was also a Vista-Cruiser wagon. Unlike previous Vista-Cruisers, this one no longer had a stretched wheelbase or raised roof section with inset windows. It did, however, sport simulated woodgrain trim on its sides and a "Vista Vent" pop-up glass sunroof. Two- and three-seat versions were offered.
Inside, conventional front bench seats were standard on the Cutlass and S with a choice of cloth or perforated vinyl "Morocceen" upholstery. Swiveling high-back front bucket seats done up in "wet-look" Morocceen were optional on the Cutlass S. An ornately patterned notchback bench seat with center armrest was standard in Supremes and Vista-Cruisers, but Cutlass Supreme coupes could be had with vinyl buckets (nonswiveling in this case) at no extra charge. Along with its chassis enhancements and radial tires, the Salon package also featured specially contoured fully reclining front buckets.
The instrument panel was completely redesigned. Two round gauges highlighted the center of the instrument panel, with audio and climate controls to the right. Controls were floodlit for nighttime visibility. On the right half of the dashboard, two circular vents flanked the upper edge of the glovebox lid. This basic design held up until 1977, when the vents became horizontal slots within an artificial woodgrain panel.
"We usually changed the interiors with the exteriors," remembered Paul Tatseos, who was chief designer of the interior studio for Oldsmobile. "The exterior could get a facelift, a new front end or rear end. They were relatively easy to change. All we could change was the fabric in the seats or the seat design."
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