VINTAGE CARS: The Cutlass “Colonnade” was a sales phenomenon

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Oldsmobile was arguably the biggest beneficiary 50 years ago when GM introduced its new “Colonnade” cars for the 1973 model year.

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So named because the cars architecture emphasized its B- and C-pillars, particularly on four-door sedans, the Colonnades were built on GM’s new A-body frame and spanned the entire lineup. of the company’s popular mid- to mid-size automobiles. .

There were at least nine different models available. They included the Chevrolet Chevelle, the Malibu, the very rare Laguna and the Monte Carlo; Pontiac LeMans, Grand Am and Grand Prix; the Buick Century and Regal; and the Oldsmobile Cutlass, of which there were many different variants and models.

Hugely popular was Monte Carlo, which became a bestseller for GM.

But the Colonnade sleeper was Cutlass, still a reliable seller for Oldsmobile but whose sales began to take on a life of their own starting with the 1973 model year.

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The 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass looked sporty 50 years ago.  Photo by Peter Epp
The 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass looked sporty 50 years ago. Photo by Peter Epp

The new Cutlass was remarkably handsome, and its rugged good looks obviously resonated with new-car buyers. Oldsmobile sold a phenomenal 405,519 Cutlass models for 1973. Of these, 219,857 were the two-door Cutlass Supreme, while 185,662 were either the Cutlass S Coupe, four-door sedan, or station wagon.

The numbers were staggering to GM executives. They had comfortably sold around 250,000 Cutlass models for 1972 but didn’t know what to expect for 1973. The Cutlass nameplate was already 10 years old and had a solid reputation, but its reincarnation as a Colonnade model shattered all expectations.

As with all Colonnade cars, Cutlass sat on a 112-inch wheelbase. And depending on whether it was a two-door coupe, four-door sedan or four-door station wagon, its overall length was around 204 inches.

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All 1973 Cutlass models were equipped with a V8. The standard engine was the Oldsmobile Rocket 350 V8 which developed 180 horsepower. A more powerful 350 V8 was available for 200 horsepower. Also available, but rare, was a 455 Rocket V8 for 250 horsepower.

Cutlass was offered with a standard column-shifted three-speed manual, three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic, or floor-mounted optional four-speed manual transmission.

While the roofline of all Colonnade cars was shared among the four GM divisions, Cutlass models had two Oldsmobile-specific convex folds. One of them started behind the front wheel and ran for the door, bending upwards. The other curved just in front of the rear wheel and continued through the quarter panel crease line behind the rear wheel. The pleats were important because they helped distinguish the Cutlass from other Colonnades.

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Part of the secret to Oldsmobile’s sales success with its 1973 Cutlass was the variety of models available. The lineup included the base Cutlass, Cutlass S, Cutlass Supreme, Cutlass Salon, Vista Cruiser station wagon, and 442.

Cutlass was available as a two-door couple, four-door sedan, and station wagon. There was no convertible; the ragtop had been discontinued in 1972.

The Salon model was particularly noteworthy. Even as a four-door, it featured an automatic transmission that was relocated from a floor console. Pontiac did the same with its all-new Colonnade Grand Am for 1973.

No other American car offered such functionality in a four-door, although Mercedes Benz and BMW did. And that was the point; both German luxury brands were gaining a reputation among American drivers for their quality, performance, and handling, but the Cutlass Salon tackled that market directly and did reasonably well. Oldsmobile sold 26,099 Cutlass Salon cars. This represented perhaps eight percent of the total Cutlass production, but an indication that buyers were interested in an American-built car that offered the same attributes as German luxury car makers.

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Planning for the Colonnade cars had begun several years earlier after the US federal government announced that new rollover regulations were coming. But in the meantime, restrictions were introduced for emissions, requiring an expensive catalytic converter, and new regulations for front bumpers that could withstand a modest collision, and possibly rear bumpers that could do the same. .

The Colonnades were to be introduced for 1972, but an extensive strike at GM hampered those plans and the project was pushed back to 1973.

It was important to GM that its Colonnade cars—which represented its entire mid-to-midsize fleet—do well. The middle segment was growing, and by the early 1970s was attracting the attention of older baby boomers who were looking for something bigger than a pony or muscle car, but with some of the same attributes.

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With its handsome yet sporty look, Cutlass caught the wave at just the right time.

The car’s broad appeal continued in 1974, then exploded in 1975. By this time, Cutlass was not only the best-selling model in the Oldsmobile division, but the second most popular car in the United States , after the ever-popular Chevrolet Impala/Caprice. . Cutlass had not only overtaken the full-size Delta 88 as the best-selling Oldsmobile, but had also overtaken the Chevrolet Chevelle and Ford’s Torino as the best-selling midsize car.

Oldsmobile offered an attractive dash and instrumentation for its all-new Cutlass in 1973. General Motors' new Colonnade cars were introduced 50 years ago.  Photo by Peter Epp
Oldsmobile offered an attractive dash and instrumentation for its all-new Cutlass in 1973. General Motors’ new Colonnade cars were introduced 50 years ago. Photo by Peter Epp jpeg, California

And in 1976, Cutlass was the nation’s top seller. It featured a restyled front end with a waterfall-like split grille. New rectangular headlights were introduced. The car’s flanks were reshaped for a less streamlined look and the rear lights were revised.

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In a report published on January 2, 1977, The Washington Post took note of the success of Cutlass. Oldsmobile had sold 495,976 Cutlass cars in the 1976 calendar year. The Post called Cutlass a “phenomenon”.

“The fundamental reason why the Cutlass is considered a phenomenon is simple: it differs only marginally from the Chevrolet Chevelle, Buick Century and Pontiac LeMans, but it has consistently and significantly outperformed them,” reported the log.

“Late last month, John M. Fleming, assistant general manager of sales for Oldsmobile, said, ‘It’s going to end the year as the number one nameplate in the industry.’ This will be a first for a mid-size car.

The Post continued, “With the exception of a hiccup in the desperate year of 1974, Cutlass sales rose steadily for more than five years. At the same time, the car’s share of total new midsize car sales in the United States rose from 13.9% in 1971 to nearly 18% of a much larger number of midsizes sold today. today. »

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Cutlass popularity would continue for the rest of the decade, although the model was downsized for 1978. For 1977, Oldsmobile sold 632,742 Cutlass cars. And even though the car was downsized, for 1980, 472,808 Cutlass cars were sold.

In 1983, the Cutlass reigned again as the top-selling car model in the United States – the last rear-wheel-drive vehicle to hold this distinction.

At the recent Old Autos Motor Show in Bothwell, a gorgeous 1973 model year two-door Cutlass Supreme was on display, courtesy of owner Brian Tolton. His Cutlass is an important car, as it was the mid-size Oldsmobile Colonnade that started the Cutlass sales phenomenon.

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