Oldsmobile Cutlass Generation 1
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3
General Motors began developing its first compact cars in 1956, beginning with the Chevrolet Corvair. The following year a second series of somewhat larger cars was planned for Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, what would be termed "senior compacts." They would share the same body shell and lightweight engine. Oldsmobile designer Irving Rybicki began work on the Olds model in 1957
. It finally went on sale in 1960
as a 1961
The Oldsmobile, dubbed F-85, shared a new A-body platform, using a 112-inch (2845 mm) wheelbase and still-novel unibody construction, with the Buick Special and Pontiac Tempest. It was Oldsmobile's smallest, cheapest model – some two feet (60 cm) shorter and $451 cheaper than the next-smallest Olds. The F-85 had double wishbone front suspension and a four-link live axle in the rear, suspended with coil springs all around. Standard engine was the new small V8, all aluminum, displacing 215ci/3.5 litres, which later became famous as the Rover V8.
With a two-barrel carburetor, it was rated 155 bhp (115.6 kW) and 210 pound force-feet (280 N·m). Transmission options were initially three-speed manual or the newly introduced three-speed Roto Hydramatic. The F-85 had drum brakes
of 9.5 inches (240 mm) diameter. Overall length was initially 188.2 inches (4,780 mm), and curb weight was around 2,800 pounds (1,300 kg).
The first-year F-85 was offered as a four-door sedan in base or Deluxe trim, or a four-door station wagon with either two or four seats, in base or Deluxe form. Initial sales were somewhat disappointing, but were soon picked up by the May introduction of a two-door sedan and the Cutlass sports coupe (a pillared two-door for 1961
, which became a pillarless "hardtop" for 1962
) sporting unique trim, an interior with bucket seats and optional center console, and a four-barrel version of the V8 engine, rated at 185 horsepower (138 kW).
This engine was optional on other F-85s, as was a four-speed manual transmission. 80,347 F-85s were built in total. It used a full perimeter frame. Car Life magazine tested an F-85 with the standard engine and automatic transmission, and recorded a 0-60 (0–96 km/h) time of 14.5 seconds, with a top speed just over 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). They praised its construction, but found its steering
too slow and its suspension
too soft for enthusiastic driving.
The Jetfire and Garrett Turbo
The existing F-85 models returned, and a convertible was added to the line-up in September, available in both standard and Cutlass versions. The Cutlass was now a "hardtop" model, without a center post and door window frames, the previous year it had been a "coupe" with a "B" pillar and door window frames. Overall F-85 sales rose to 97,382, with the Cutlass displacing the four-door Deluxe sedan as the top-selling model. Bigger news was the arrival of the Jetfire model, a Cutlass hardtop with a Garrett turbocharged version of the 215 V8 rated at 215 bhp (160.3 kW) and 301 lbf·ft (408 N·m), bucket seats and console, unique trim, and a vacuum gauge mounted in the console (where it was almost invisible).
Although much faster than a standard F-85, the Jetfire was criticized for having the same soft suspension as its less-powerful brothers, for its lack of a tachometer and other instruments, and for the poor shift quality of both the automatic transmission and the optional four-speed. Car and Driver tested an automatic Jetfire and obtained a 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds, with a top speed of 110 mph (176 km/h). The Jetfire's high cost (nearly $300 over a standard Cutlass coupe) and reliability problems with its turbocharged engines limited sales to 3,765. Ultimately the Jetfire engine was far ahead of its time. Instead of seeking more power by simply making a bigger engine, GM tried to perfect their novel small-block V8, which was already as such a big engine.
With forced induction and an already high compression ratio the JetFire was capable of producing more torque than a conventional naturally aspirated engine that was twice its size, hence significantly improving the engines efficiency and usability in real-life driving conditions, turbo lag not being an issue at motorway speeds. But since turbo and/or supercharging the engine essentially means forcing the compression in the combustion chamber even higher, the JetFire was prone to 'spark-knock' and with out modern engine management systems the only way to mitigate this was to use a 50/50 mixture of methanol and distilled water.
A modest restyle for the 1963
model year added four inches (101.6 mm) to the F-85's overall length, increasing it to 192.2 inches (4,880 mm). The Jetfire and its turbocharged V8 returned, for what would be its final year. But ever since Oldsmobile announced the turbocharged F-85 Jetfire hardtop, the rest of the line seemed to get lost in its shadow. Just one slot down from the blown number was the very handsome five-passenger coupe with an aluminium V8 and a four-barrel carburettor that outperformed the 1962
Jetfire. And it wasn't far behind the turbo model. The 1963
Cutlass came in coupe and convertible versions (three-seat station wagons were dropped), with 195 willing horses, a luxury interior, and road manners that made it an easy car for anyone in the family to drive.
The coupe came could be optioned with the Hydra-Matic transmission and came standard with a 3.36-to-1 rear axle. Performance wise, leaving the Hydra-Matic in drive gave best times for acceleration runs, with 0-30, 0-45. and 0-60 mph taking 3.6, 7.0, and 10.9 seconds respectively. Both shifts came at 4500 rpm (the first at 28 mph and the second 61 mph). The Hydra-Matic would always seem to slip a little, seemingly taking forever to get a good, firm lockup into the next gear, and the engine would lose 2000 rpm on each shift. At the end of the quarter it would be running at around 76 mph, with the clocks stopped at 18.4 seconds, the Cutlass running on to a top speed of 104 mph at 4700 rpm.
Standard-shift models offered a three-speed or the new four-speed, floor-mounted manual gearbox (the three-speed lever is still on the steering post). With the 185-hp engine, either standard-shift car could beat the Hydra-Matic in acceleration, because both used the 3.36 rear axle, and the automatic took its time during shifts. Clutch facings varied on standard-shift F-85s, with the three-speed unit using a moulded material and the four-speed box a woven facing. Three-speeds were standard - the four-speed cost US$199.50, and the Hydra-Matic US$189 according to the 1963 Oldsmobile price list.
All F-85s shared the 215.5-cubic-inch aluminium V8. It used cast-iron sleeves and had a 3.5-inch bore and a stroke of 2.8 inches. The standard line included a coupe, a four-door sedan, and a station wagon - all equipped with the 155-hp, two-throat-carburettor version of this engine with 8.75-to-1 compression and the ability to burn regular petrol. Standard-shift cars came with a 3.08 axle, while automatics used the 3.23 ratio in this series. Next up the line was the 185-hp engine in the Cutlass coupe, convertible, and the deluxe sedan and wagon. It had a four-barrel carb, 10.25-to-1 compression ratio, and came with standard shift. Upper-line automatic-equipped cars boasted 195 hp and a 10.75 compression ratio.
The turbocharged Jetfire pumped out 215 hp with a 10.25 compression ratio and gave 300 pounds-feet of torque at 4600 rpm. Other engines gave their peak horses at 4800 rpm and their best torque at 3200 rpm. Torque figures were 210 for the 155-hp engine, 230 for the 185-hp unit, and 235 for the 195-hp powerplant. The 185 and 195-hp engines were optional on the standard F-85, but the Jetfire hardtop was the only turbocharged car in the 1963 Olds line-up. All but the standard models used the 3.36 rear axle, but you could order 3.23 on a car at no extra charge. The Jetfire used twin exhausts, while all others had a single system with a crossover pipe.
Base price on a F-85 five-window coupe was, again according to the 1963 Oldsmobile price list, US$2694.Options included tinted glass, seat belts, outside mirror, front console, power brakes
and steering, wheel discs, Hydra-Matic, reversing lights, electric clock, and deluxe radio. With all these options included, along with air-conditioning
($378), the price would jump to US$3627.75 – which was not all that cheap for the time. But the Oldsmobile Cutlass was never meant to be an economy car – rather it was a genuine luxury compact.
Behind the Wheel
The Cutlass’ seat and door panels were covered in leather-like moroceen material. The floor was thickly carpeted, and the headliner was both durable and easy to keep clean. Front buckets gave good leg and back support, but the bench back seat left something to be desired in the leg-room department. Drivers could see all four guards, which helped parking and manoeuvring in close quarters. Placed low and fairly close to the dash, the steering wheel was located at a comfortable angle, giving the driver plenty of elbow room for wheel spinning. Quite a bit of it was necessary with the 4.1 turns lock to lock of the integral power steering, but this was still better than the 5.2 turns of the manual steering box.
The redesigned dash for 1963 featured a wide, horizontal speedometer as the centre attraction. The clock and a fuel gauge were the only other instruments - warning lights showed oil pressure, water temperature, and generator malfunctions. Just under the dash and to the right of the steering post is the pull-out hand brake. It did its job, but many owners claimed it was one of the cars weaker points. Although aimed at the buyer who liked a sporty flavour with their transportation, our Cutlass did not really lend itself to fast driving. Its suspension setup was designed to provide a soft and comfortable ride – which invariably meant it would not corner as well as you would have liked.
It would stick well in a mildly fast corner up to a certain limit. When it reached this limit, it would jounce up and down on its front springs and begin ploughing. The rear end stuck to the road well – provided it was dry - but it tended to break loose fairly quickly on wet roads or on loose dirt surfaces. There was plenty of power on tap to bring it back into line, but the fact remained that it was not the kind of car you would punt hard through the twisty stuff. Of course stiffer springs and shocks were the answer – and they could be optioned. Heavy-duty rear springs came under option Y-71, for a surprisingly low US$3.77. A bargain and, to our mind, a mandatory fitment.
The Suspension Setup
The F-85 used coil springs on each corner. Double-acting tubular shocks were mounted inside the independent front coils and were located outside and behind the rear ones. Torque was taken through control links. In addition to lean on corners, the Cutlass showed lots of nose dive on hard braking and some rear-end squat on fast acceleration. With the stiffer springs and shocks this was far less pronounced. But there are always two sides to the story, and the one good thing about the soft suspension was that it soaks up bumps and ruts with ease, without loss of directional stability. We can only speculate that the Americans enjoyed this type of ride over the more sporting setup. Once you were travelling at highway speeds you would soon appreciate just how quiet the Cutlass was, with no wind whistle at 65 mph when the windows were rolled up.
Fuel consumption wise, the F-85 Cutlass obtained figures of around 14 mpg on the mixed cycle, while hard driving would see this drop to as low as 10 mpg. Out on the highway, the aluminium V8 was happy to loaf along at legal speeds and consumption would be a much better 17 mpg. But, whether it was hard acceleration or open-highway cruising, the Cutlass was a real goer. Unfortunately when it came to stopping, it was found to be lacking. Since it's designed with a sporty flair and had performance to spare, it should have been fitted with brakes
to match. Instead the Cutlass was fitted with brakes
best described as “adequate”, but under testing many motoring journals noted that the 9.5-inch brakes
faded badly. From 30 mph, the F-85 came to a halt in 36 feet.
This wasn't bad. But it took 178 feet to stop from 60 mph and the brakes
would be starting to show plenty of fade – to the point that many would allow them to cool down before undertaking any further rigorous driving. But as fade prone as they were, they did at least pull the car up in a straight-line, with a minimum of swerving. Wheel lock was a problem fast which pumping couldn't prevent. Excessive nose dive and front-end weight transfer kept the rear tyres
from getting a good grip, such that they would simply skate along and wouldn’t help much with the braking effort.
Looking down the F-85 option list proved interesting. An Anti-spin differential (option G-80) sold for US $43.04; heavy-duty Delcotron (K-82) for just US $6.46; 14-inch wheels with 6.50 x 14 black-walls cost US$13.45 extra and was useful for towing or frequent country/dirt road travel. Option V-01 was the engine-cooling option for towing. A clutch-operated fan engaged when the engine reached a certain temperature, providing extra cooling under heavy loads.
The F-85 Cutlass was an easy car to live – it was comfortable for long or short hauls, was well built and continued to demonstrate the Oldsmobile standards of reliability and quality. It should be looked back on as a luxury compact rather than a sports tourer. That’s not to say there was a lack of performance – particularly when fitted with the Jetfire and four-speed floor-shift. The problem was really with the soggy suspension. But at least you could option this to a more sporty tune. Overall sales climbed again to 121,639, of which 53,492 were Cutlasses.