1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser: Tell ’em Jerry Lundegaard sent you!

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1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser station wagon front three-quarter
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As a child of the 1980s, I am very familiar with the GM A-bodies and, in particular, Cutlass Cieras. Our neighbor’s daughter, Jeannie, had a cream colored 1984 Cutlass Cruiser, no woodgrain, with dark brown interior. My grade school friend’s mom had a burgundy ’85 Century Limited sedan. With burgundy velour. Glen and Teresa Perkins, longtime friends of my parents, bought a brand new ’85 Pontiac 6000 STE. When I was taking driving lessons from AADTA in 1997, the car I drove was a Medium Blue Metallic ’96 Ciera sedan with navy interior.

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These midsize GM cars were everywhere back then, and there were at least two of them on my block. They were as common on the streets as Camrys and Accords are today. Arguably, the most famous Cutlass Ciera was the tan 1988 Cutlass Ciera that Jerry Lundegaard gave the hit men as partial payment in the classic 1996 film Fargo. Unlike Jerry Lundegaard, the Ciera was a solid success.

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The Cutlass Ciera was introduced in the fall of 1981 as an ’82 model. It had some very big shoes to fill. The Cutlass nameplate was Oldsmobile’s most successful in the 1970s, and the Cutlass Supreme in particular was the undisputed best selling model in the lineup. The first downsizing came in 1978, followed by a more aerodynamic restyling in 1981. Building on that success came the Ciera, the first time the Cutlass nameplate was applied to more than one car line. And the first time any Cutlass was front-wheel drive.

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The 1982 Cutlass Ciera was a response to the recent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. As a result of this legislation, vehicle lineups had to be more fuel efficient. You could still build full-size cars like the Delta 88 and Ninety Eight Regency with rampant Broughamage, but it had to be balanced by the addition of smaller, lighter and more efficient vehicles to the lineup. As a result, the Ciera had front-wheel drive, unit construction, and no V-8 option.

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The standard engine was a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder, with a 2.8L V-6, 3.0L V-6, and 4.3L diesel V-6 engines standard or optional, depending on the model. It was initially offered as a two-door or four-door sedan in base, LS, and top-of-the line Brougham models. For 1983, Olds added an ES option with blacked out trim, sporty wheel covers, a console, and full instrumentation.

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The rear-wheel-drive Cutlass Supreme remained in production, so the Cutlass Cruiser station wagon remained on the Supreme platform for 1982 and ’83. Finally, in 1984, the front-wheel-drive Cruiser was introduced. It was immediately popular with first year production of 41,816, nearly double that of the 1983 rear-drive version.

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It certainly didn’t hurt that the Cutlass name still had quite a bit of cachet with buyers. Ultimately, the Cutlass Ciera was a great success and wound up being the most popular Oldsmobile of the 1980s. The choice of a Cutlass Ciera as the car the hit men drive in Fargo was perfect. If you wanted to blend into the background in Minnesota in the late ’80s, this was the car to drive.

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These cars were extremely popular in my part of the country. They were so common that they were, for all intents and purposes, invisible. One of our neighbors across the street, a very kind older lady, who was very tolerant of myself and my brother visiting her when were were around 8 and 5, respectively, had a copper colored Brougham sedan, probably a 1982 or 1983. The color was very sharp, and just now, looking online at a 1982 Oldsmobile color chart, it apparently was Light Redwood Metallic.

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One of our grade school teachers had a burgundy 1985 or ’86 Ciera sedan that was a little worse for the wear by the time he was driving it in the early ’90s. My driver’s ed car, as previously mentioned, was a navy blue ’96 Ciera with a blue cloth interior. When I started working part-time at an insurance company during high school and college, the underwriting manager had a gunmetal gray ’91 or ’92 sedan. Northwestern Illinois and southeast Iowa really liked their Oldsmobiles, the Ciera in particular. You betcha!

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However, with success can perhaps come complacency. The Ciera was a very comfortable, efficient, state of the art car – in 1982. The problem was, there were no significant updates to the car, save a redesigned roofline for the coupe in mid-1986 and the sedan in 1989. Some slight changes were made to the grille and taillights, usually every couple of years, and a driver’s side airbag was added. Yet despite the lack of changes they kept selling. As the years went by, the most desirable options such as full gauges, super stock wheels and leather upholstery went away. On the plus side, the longer they were made, the better they were built. By the early 1990s these cars and their A-body cousins were some of the most trouble-free cars available.

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But eventually, it was finally time to retire them, and along with its remaining A-body cousin, the Buick Century, they were put out to pasture in 1996. The coupe had been discontinued after the 1991 model year, but the sedan and wagon made it all the way to the end. At the time, I recall reading an article where Oldsmobile made 1982 and 1996 model Cieras available to the press to commemorate all the years of production. One wag claimed he couldn’t tell which was which. And so ended 15 years of production.

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A “new” Cutlass came out in 1997, but it was clearly a badge-engineered version of the 1997 Chevy Malibu, and it tanked. Oldsmobile never really got a replacement that was a volume seller, and Oldsmobile Division came to the end of the road after a very short run of 2004 models.

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This gorgeous pastel yellow example came to my attention on one of my preferred Facebook groups, Finding Future Classic Cars. It was in Kansas City Craigslist back in April. Finished in Yellow Beige, an appropriate pastel hue for its time. It has the Brougham package as well, with those oh so cushy floating pillow seats up front.Of course, the listing has long since disappeared but I had to save the photos. Hope she went to a good home. It appeared to be a real time capsule.

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These cars were as common during my childhood as Chevrolet Equinoxes are today. I feel that oh so common pang of nostalgia whenever I see one. Suddenly I’m back in third grade and we’re going on a school field trip to a museum or park or something, and all the school moms are driving us in their various woodgrained station wagons. I went to a small Lutheran school, so that was feasible.

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Even in my rust-prone region of the country, these cars were a common sight until about 2013–14. And even today I still see them a few times per month, varying in conditions from ragged to showroom new. A testament to their popularity and durability.

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And now Oldsmobile has been gone for 17 years. I still miss them. They were SO common in my Midwestern city. They were the cars for folks who wanted something nice, something that said you have good taste, but good sense too. Nothing so gauche or flashy as a Cadillac or Lincoln. And now Pontiac is gone. Mercury too. Those domestic middle class cars and coupes and wagons were so popular “not that long ago,” though it’s in actuality been 25 years or more. Grand Ams, Cutlass Cieras, Sables. There were so many of them back when I was growing up. And now they’re gone.

Seeing nice survivors takes me back. Perhaps not to a better time, but a time that I was comfortable in. A time when I was happy, rode my bike, fought with my brother and sister, went on family vacations, and took everything for granted. You know the feeling.

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