Born as part of a design exercise in the late 1950s, as Detroit wrestled with its worst auto recession until recently, the Oldsmobile Cutlass – also known as an A-body – was actually part of the trial development that led to the release of the Chevrolet Corvair. Where Chevy chose to go its own way with the rear-engine/rear-drive, Oldsmobile took the chassis and developed a more standard vehicle around it, the F-85. It was to be the grandfather of the one of the best-selling nameplates of the entire 1970s decade.
Indeed, the same chassis was stretched and shrunk and used for various models but Oldsmobile stayed true to its roots and used the A-body as the basis of a line that, by 1972, had grown to seven body styles:
- The base F-85 two-door sedan
- The 2-door notchback Cutlass Supreme
- The fastback Cutlass S
- The famed 4-4-2
- The standard four-door hardtop
- A convertible
- The Olds Cutlass Vista Cruiser (perhaps the first vehicle that used an innovation that has grabbed the auto industry by the throat in the last two years, the panoramic window. The Vista Cruiser wagon offered a form of panoramic skylighting for the rear-seat passengers a full 30 years ago.
Although the mid-sized Cutlass Supreme was the top of the line, it was the 4-4-2 that attracted most of the interest from the performance crowd prior to 1972. By 1972, emissions laws and 5 mph bumpers added weight and cut the performance of the vaunted performance machine.
And to think that when Irv Rybicki saw the first test mules in the mid-1950s the only thing he could think of for the A-body was the compact F-85. It probably had to do with the Eisenhower recession that struck the auto industry particularly hard. People wanted cars that were inexpensive to buy and run and the A-body – Chevy’s infamous Corvair – and the Oldsmobile F-85 were two of the results.
Indeed, when it was released as the model year turned to 1960, the F-85 was to have some very innovative development such as a double front wishbone suspension, along with a live rear-axle that left a bit to be desired in the handling department. Oldsmobile went to with rear coil springs and a placement tube to keep the rear wheels in camber and all four wheels in generally the same plane.
The Cutlass’ predecessor also sported a small 8 instead of a 6. The 8 was only 3.5-liters and turned out 215-horsepower. It sported a deuce (two-barrel carburetor) and a choice of a three-speed automatic or manual. Mileage was reasonable, though.
This was pretty much the Oldsmobile mid-range through the 1960s. However, as the Pony Wars heated up Oldsmobile had to come up with something competitive so they borrowed the F-85 frame, stretched it a bit and dropped in a 400-horsepower engine. Longer than the F-85, Oldsmobile tried to move use the Cutlass name on a destroked Cutlass model based on the F-85 that met with little success.
Indeed, it’s ironic that by 1972, the Cutlass nameplate would bid farewell the its F-85-based model because there were few buyers interested, especially in the six-cylinder-powered version. The six was another victim of the times.. Instead, buyers were interested in the larger Hurst/Olds Cutlass 4-4-2 line that sported a notchback hardtop and a convertible models because in the 1969-71 period they were still competitive Pony Cars.
This was the era of the Rocket V8 small block that was available as a 350-cubic-inch mill hat could be bored out to 455 CID. Two- and four-barrel versions were available as were close-spaced and wide-spaced three- and four-speed Hurst shifter versions. They also sported tighter suspensions for better handling and while the brakes were still drums all around – one good hit and terminal fade set it – there were a number of fixes that were tried, including finned brake drums and aluminum brake shoes. Finally, the automaker broke down and offered a more expensive front-disc, rear-drum option that improved stopping power immensely. It was required on the Hurst Olds.
By 1972, though, the handwriting was on the wall as fuel economy limits and safety changes added weight to vehicles and the auto industry started to detune their engines in the hope they would gain significant mileage (they gained some, but not a whole lot, maybe 2 to 4 mpg).
It’s not that the 1972 Cutlass wasn’t a nice-looking vehicle, because it was. The front end featured quad headlights that were fared into the grille and were set back a bit as the fenders extended slightly beyond the headlights. The front end was broken into two distinct ovals by a large trim piece that carried the body color down to the bumper and which featured the Olds logo. The now-growing safety bumper became a design piece, serving both as the bumper and the lower valance and scuff guard. Two functional air scoops were also included in the front bumper.
The front end of the 72 Cutlass was rounded and the hood featured a small lip and two distinct panels and a center line that carried back to the raked windshield. The windshield then moved up to a roof that sloped back to the rear window and and sail panels. The sail panels picked up the downward sloping lines and sloping rear deck-lid.
The taillights were nicely integrated into the rear end that was finished off in the 1972 version of the 5 mph bumper.
The Oldsmobile Cutlass, as noted, by this time was down on the power curve as the Corporate Average Fleet Economy standards took hold so that while the 455 was technically still in the engine lineup, it wasn’t the same engine that did 5s and 6s in the late 1960s. Indeed, the “big” 8 of the early 1970s was the small-block 350 that was detuned so that it could not only run on regular but it could also meet the CAFE standards.
The interiors were reasonably designed and featured the choice of a front bench, split front seat or dual low-back buckets. The rear bench had plenty of headroom and legroom for the average passenger, but taller passengers did have some trouble with headroom in the fastback versions. The middle seating position was also very hard and did have the tranny tunnel in the way.
They key to the 1972 Oldsmobile was its birthright. It was part of GM’s original attempt to conquer the compact world of the 1950s and because it was a well-built chassis that could be stretched and changed easily, it wasn’t long before the F-85 took a back seat, so to speak the the Cutlass. The Cutlass was to lead Oldsmobile through the performance wars of the 1960s with its 442 and the Hurst/Olds. It was also the vehicle that became one of the all-time best-selling vehicles on the market during the 1970s because it could not only be changed to fit a specific market niche, people loved the lines. Yes, they still liked performance, but that wasn’t in the cards anymore so the design had to move to the forefront and the public loved it.