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How Oldsmobile Cars Work

Oldsmobile in the 1970s: Oldsmobile Cutlass, Oldsmobile Omega, Oldsmobile Starfire
Oldsmobile turned a profit with the mid-size A-body Cutlass models. Oldsmobile's 1981 Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupe is shown here.

Like sister GM divisions, Oldsmobile's responses to the tumultuous events of the 1970s were quick and usually correct. The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo and the resulting energy crisis dramatically highlighted the need for smaller, thriftier cars in every size and price range, and Olds needed them as much as any medium-price make. At the start of the decade, its smallest models were two-door intermediates.

Yet by 1980, it was offering no fewer than three model lines on wheelbases of less than 110 inches, plus more sensibly sized full-size cars and the trim­mest Toronado yet. Still, GM's decision to downsize its entire fleet came well in advance of the fuel shortage. That the first of the new breed appeared barely two years after the crisis had passed was merely happy coincidence.

Oldsmobile's great sales success in the '70s was not a coincidence but the result of canny, calculated marketing. In fact, Olds usually ranked third behind Ford and Chevrolet -- remarkable considering its products were basically corporate designs available under other nameplates for the same or less money.

What undoubtedly attracted buyers was the extra prestige of the Olds badge on more nicely trimmed cars priced only a little above comparable Chevys and Pontiacs and slightly below equivalent Buicks. The full-size B-body Delta 88 and the mid-size A-body Cutlass were far and away the division's biggest money spinners in these years.

Cutlass firmly established itself in the 1970s as one of America's favorites, often topping the individual model-line sales charts. Although it remained essentially an upmarket Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu, Cutlass always offered a broad range of model and trim choices at competitively attractive prices. Another plus was more august Oldsmobile styling.

Among the most popular of this popular line was the posh range-topping Cutlass Supreme, which debuted as a single 1966 hardtop sedan, then became a separate full-range series (bolstered by a convertible for 1970-72).

By 1973, the two-door alone accounted for nearly 220,000 sales, greater than the combined total for all other Cutlasses. Most buyers specified V-8s, especially early in the decade, though sixes were available beginning with the '75s. Coupes far outsold sedans and wagons in most years.

Given this popularity, the downsized 108.1-inch-wheelbase Cutlass/Cutlass Supreme of 1978 seemed very brave at the time, but buyers took to it with no less enthusiasm. The sole exception was the 1978-80 "aeroback" two- and four-door sedans, which were too dumpy-looking even for Oldsmobile's mostly conservative clientele. Conventional notchback styling was thus applied to the four-door after '79, and was greeted with immediate acceptance.

The enthusiast's Cutlass fell on hard times in the '70s, as did every other Detroit muscle car. The last of the traditional high-power 4-4-2s appeared for 1971, a convertible and Holiday hardtop coupe packing the division's big 455 V-8. Sales dropped fast: from 19,000 for 1970 to less than 7600.

After this, the 4-4-2 was reduced to a mere option package and a shadow of its original performance self. With GM's redesigned "Colonnade" intermediates of 1973, Olds tried a new approach in the Cutlass Salon, an American-style sporty sedan series somewhat akin to Pontiac's Grand Am.

Though it failed to catch on, the name kept popping up on later midsize and compact models. As for the 4-4-2, you could still get a car so badged in 1979, but it was far more show than go.

Olds followed Buick back to compacts in 1973 -- and with the same basic car. Omega was Lansing's version, one of three badge-engineered derivatives of the 111-inch-wheelbase X-body platform introduced with the 1968 Chevy Nova.

Though it managed a respectable 60,000 first-season sales, Omega was never a big winner. Sales actually fell for 1975 despite a handsome new outer skin and an improved chassis. When the X-body was shrunk around more space-efficient front-wheel-drive mechanicals for 1980, Omega vied with Pontiac's counterpart Phoenix for low spot on the sales totem pole, though an avalanche of highly publicized reliability and safety problems severely hurt all of these corporate cousins.

A similar fate befell another "company car," the subcompact Starfire. Introduced for 1975, this was Oldsmobile's edition of the Vega-based Chevrolet Monza 2+2, with the same hatchback coupe body and the 231-cid V-6 used in Buick's near-identical Skyhawk.

Though the name once attached to Lansing's largest and most opulent cars, this 97-inch-wheelbase Starfire was the smallest Olds ever, and thus should have done well in the post-energy crisis market. But big cars were on the rise again, and Starfire captured a mere six percent of division sales in its first year. It wouldn't do much better through the final 1980 models.

For more on defunct American cars, see: