Benchmarks come and then they go. Personal luxury coupes (PLC) occupied the hottest sector of the American car market in the late 70s and early 80s. What were they?
A personal luxury coupe is understood as a two door, four seat car with at least a V6 or ideally a V8. Whilst the advertising for these may have suggested sporting capability, the body-on-frame and bench seat reality spoke of cars whose main talent lay in getting quickly up to 65 mph and staying there from Baker, Ca. to Frederick, Md.
The image above is my idea of the archetype of this car. I don´t think European had equivalents of the PLC. Two-door Ford Granadas (such as the 1975 example owned by our stalwart contributor Myles Gorfe) don´t strike the same note. Whether with two doors or four they retain their Granada-ness (the Ghia fastback came a bit closer to the concept). The Opel Monza offered a sporty experience and isn’t formal enough. BMW´s 1976 635 also promised and provided athletic capabilities. Perhaps Mercedes 450 SLC came closest of all as it was certainly luxurious, it had a V8 and the back seats were cramped, for occasional use, despite the car´s length.
In the US, Oldsmobile´s Cutlass came to be a benchmark in this class of cars before the world changed and people discovered SUVs. Typical features were upright C-pillars, thickly upholstered interiors and badging to suggest the car led a fantastic secret life in Europe: the international flag badging, for example, or the use of Detroit French. “Salon” was thought to be French for “saloon” and “saloon” is a British (and posh) way to say sedan. Another pseudo-French reference was the Calais name. There´s a whole other article on cod-foreign names used in Detroit waiting to be done, isn´t there?
But back to the main thread. The coupe faded away. Instead of a car making a statement by only serving two people, having more room than you needed became the means of expressing your status.
The Olds Cutlass came in a dizzying variety of versions, with trim variants becoming model lines and model lines becoming trim variants as time passed. The Cutlass began life as the top trim variant of a monococque car, the F-85, but as the years went by Cutlass became a successful sub-brand. GM attached the Cutlass name to several vehicle lines: Cutlass Calais compact, the Cutlass Ciera (a medium-sized car), an estate, and the rather fancy Cutlass Supreme.
We need to understand how the Cutlass gained its place in the sales charts. A gap emerged that allowed the Cutlass in the direction of its success, the downsizing phase of the mid-70s. As other marques switched to shorter wheelbase cars and front-wheel drive, GM put the Cutlass on a body-on-frame chassis with rear wheel drive. At the time monococque vehicles could not match the refinement of body-on-frame cars, not at the prices the US market would withstand. Many buyers flocked to the Cutlass as a result. Around 1975 the Cutlass Supreme coupe became Olds´ best-selling car and took the place of the Delta 88 at the top of their model hierarchy. The car struck a chord with buyers and outsold the Ford Torino and Chevrolet´s Chevelle and was the second best-selling car in 1975. In 1976 it became the US´s best-seller, pushing the Chevrolet Caprice off its podium. It remained a strong seller until the middle of the 80s, and could be seen as an American Golf in that it was the median car, providing more people with most of what they wanted than other cars.
But which of all these cars was the real Cutlass? Olds´money spinner could be seen more as a set of benchmarks: marketing, pricing, packaging, performance, styling all blurred together. Unlike other notable cars such as the 1962 Alfa Giulia (the first true sports saloon), the Porsche 911, the 1974 VV Golf, the 1968 Jaguar XJ, the 1980 Morris Ital and any Mercedes S-class, there is no essence of Cutlass. It could be anything the customer wanted though they seemed to want the personal coupe version most of all.
Oldsmobile´s fall from top seller to extinction took 20 years. The last ones rolled off the lines in 2004. One might think that if Oldsmobile was so malleable a brand it could have morphed to suit the times. It seems in retrospect that the success of the Cutlass as a personal luxury coupe had more to do with a particular alignment of factors. First, it was able to vacuum up conservative buyers fleeing the horrors of the monococque driving experience. Second, the Japanese makers had not figured out how to best sell their superior vehicles. Third, GM´s marketing talent was on top form and their planners had a knack for providing what customers wanted. However, since the Cutlass Supreme idea was so nebulous all it took was for someone else to find something, anything, more appealing for customers to take their money elsewhere. The USP of the Cutlass coupe, its body-on-frame design and large engine, did not have a future. The cars´appearance down the years lacked a distinctive element for people to latch on to. GM´s policy of frequent re-styling and the fact the cars shared large elements of their architecture meant the Cutlass lacked a visible identity even if in some years it represented plausible and attractive expressions of the American car ideal. The underlying engineering remained ordinary. The one characteristic element, the Rocket V8, was eventually dropped. Has any car line ever survived on the strength of a particular engine?
Once the Cutlass migrated back into the monococque A-body in 1978 and then to the G-body, the ending began. Under Irv Rybicki, GM´s chief designer, the mid-size cars became troublingly uniform. Cutlass customers still bought the cars but in ever decreasing numbers. The brand didn´t stand for anything and Oldsmobile could not distinguish itself, let alone its once high-flying nameplate. Even if the aero-styled Cutlass Supreme coupe of the 90s looked rather good, people had begun moving away from two-door, four-seat cars. And the Cutlass name remained attached at the same time to the epicentre of ordinariness, the Cutlass Ciera, an archetypically plain four door saloon of considerable practical merit but of zero visual distinction. Think of it as the US version of the Passat but without the apparent design integrity.
The Cutlass name died in 1999, attached to a car of even less styling appeal than the Cutlass Ciera. Ironically, this happened despite GM´s discovery of “brandscape”, little more than a modern version of Billy Durant´s “a car for every purse” philosophy. The last Cutlass, a front drive V6 saloon, resembled a bad imitation of Japanese cars which by this stage had a loyal audience and incredibly reliable and smooth engineering to compensate for the sometimes bland style. Thus the Cutlass had the worst of GM´s indifferent engineering and the worst of Japan´s diluted styling. And so the benchmark was erased as the century closed.