In the Oldsmobile Cutlass, Rocket-powered muscle collided with Malaise engineering
The early 1970s was a tough time for Detroit automakers. Amid the demise of the muscle car and the fuel crisis, glimmers of future brilliance shone through. There were major advancements in the areas of plastics engineering, computer-assisted design, and an increased usage of aluminum. Catalytic converters and other emission technology vastly improved urban air quality. Was 1973 the beginning of the end for American performance? Maybe, but the realities of the world forced car companies to think in new ways.
Emissions and safety ruled the roost in ’73, and we should be clear that the effects were disquieting. Bigger bumpers added weight in the wrong place (i.e. more mass at the end of the nose hurts handling), and emissions restrictions sapped engines of power output. It would take a decade for the benefits of new technology to enter the market (looking at you, 1982 Mustang GT) but there was a lot of simmering potential. Much of it appeared in the Oldsmobile Cutlass.
GM’s A-body platform and its various sedans, wagons, and “Colonnade” coupes (like the Cutlass) were extremely innovative. Colonnade is an architectural term referring to a series of pillars connecting a sleek roof, placed in harmony and providing a dramatic effect that couldn’t be replicated otherwise. General Motors had previously designed cars with A-, B-, and C-pillars (or sometimes a hardtop with no B-pillar), but the 1973 Colonnade cars employed just an A and a B. The big innovation was the revival of the classic Opera Window, albeit in newly radical form. The Colonnade cars were, after all, rather theatrical in the realm of hardtop styling.
The Cutlass’ styling creativity didn’t end there, as the mandated larger bumpers were cleverly finessed into the body. It was one of a few vehicles of the era with a spring-loaded grille, saving itself from a hydraulically-assisted front bumper, and for 1973 it boasted a pair of them. Note how designers wrapped them both down over the front fascia to continue the hood’s long lines. Details like this support the thesis that GM design superiority in this era remained in full force—all the more impressive given that it was the Feds dictating many of their changes.
If they had to be bigger and heavier, at least the styling could be bolder. GM designers got more comfortable with attention-seeking looks, leaning into the national discotheque that was the 1970s. Ford’s 1973 Torino/Montego twins would have killed for such an impressive upgrade, as their legally-mandated implementation was downright dowdy.
Changes under the skin make the Colonnade cars appealing, too. The most appealing of all 1973 Cutlass Colonnades was the Olds 4-4-2 and the Hurst/Olds. While more of a grand tourer compared to predecessor versions, these souped-up Cutlasses sported a handling package, unique trim, and a few engine choices: a 350-cu-in V-8 and a pair of 455-cu-in big blocks with either 250 or 270 (SAE net) horsepower. The latter was available with a four-speed manual, and it was the last year of a stick shift Hurst model. (The 4-4-2 came with downright revolutionary five-speed manual just four years later.)
Here’s where I’ll point out that the A-body benefitted from some serious Malaise-Era modernization. The implementation of steel-belted radial tires for higher-trim Colonnade coupes demanded significant refinements to the platform’s suspension design, which had long-reaching consequences in the GM lineup. Even better, all A-bodies for 1973 have suspension component interchangeability with the highly regarded B-body that came out in ’77, which makes them an underrated delight for modern hot-rodders. So yes, a ’73 Cutlass can take full advantage of the same aftermarket/OEM-plus upgrades available as the 9C1 Caprice and 1994–96 Impala SS.
One of the coolest tricks available for 1973 was the Hurst/Old’s optional digital tachometer. Unless you worked at NASA, computerized displays in your console were beyond rare in the early 1970s, not becoming an optional feature in Lincolns (Continental Mark V fuel computer) and Cadillacs (Seville trip computer) until the latter part of the decade. Hurst’s implementation measures engine revolutions in hundreds of rpm, providing granular data that will likely appeal to the most fanatical engine tuners of the time.
The W-30 model soldiered on for 1973, but thanks to ever-tightening emissions controls, it faded into more of a trim package. If the aesthetics still do it for you, then check out the W-30 1973 Olds 4-4-2 we found posted on Hagerty Marketplace. It’s finished in black and gold and sporting a Hurst automatic shifter to add more appeal to an already rare ride from GM’s rocket brand. (No, it isn’t a Hurst/Olds as it lacks those specific cosmetic upgrades.) The only thing more appealing would be an example with the 4-speed manual, but some of us prefer an automatic anyway.
This particular example comes with the cloth seats (which swivel for easier entry/exit), and looks to present the upgraded Cutlass “S” interior trim surrounding the Hurst-equipped goodness. The seller states this example has a pop-up roof, cold A/C, and it runs strong. The $21,500 asking price may raise some eyebrows, but that’s in line with our prices in our valuation tool for a similarly-equipped Cutlass Supreme in #2 (excellent) condition.
For anyone who enjoys a good Olds, an obscure example of the breed like this is pretty special. Hopefully, if you didn’t already, you have as much appreciation for the engineering and design efforts of this era as we do. With the 1973 Cutlass, 4-4-2 (and the Hurst/Olds), GM truly made a sweet, sweet lemonade from bitter lemons.