The one vehicle that was introduced during my senior year in high school played a significant part in my life. It helped shape the first 11 years of my driving life. It's timing could not be any better.
Just like my first car – it was from General Motors.
While the clock continued to tick for the end of 1981, GM indicated that they weren't finished with their flood of new products. Their next step was to introduce a line of mid-sized sedans aimed to eventually replace its already-downsized rear-drive models. The old A-Bodies were GM's bread-and-butter. The Oldsmobile Cutlass lineup was the best selling passenger car in the USA. To replace it would affect sales of the entire company.
The plan was to retain the old rear-drive A-Bodies, but rename them as the G-Cars. That meant a consolidation of several lines across the board. The Buick Century sedan took the Regal name, while all rear-drive Cutlasses were known as Supremes. Pontiac was left without a full-sized car in the USA, so the former Grand LeMans became the Bonneville Model G.
The new A-Bodies rolled out on extended front-drive platforms that appeared to be better executed than the X-Cars. Buick's Century name appeared on their new front-drive mid-sizer, while Oldsmobile adopted the Cutlass name by adding Ciera at the end. Chevrolet introduced their A-Body as the Celebrity, while Pontiac simply used a numeric nomenclature on theirs: The 6000.
Under the hood of the A-Body was a version of Pontiac's Iron Duke 2.5-liter four-banger, joined by either Chevrolet's 2.8-liter V6 or Buick's 3.0-liter V6. Oldsmobile's 4.3-liter V6 diesel showed up under the hood, as well. Though similar to the X-Car's offerings, they somehow seemed happier under the hoods of the larger A-Bodies. Interior-wise, four adults would find plenty of space to settle in for a long drive. Wagons had a cavernous cargo hold shaped by a slant at the rear that provided either access through the glass or a full liftgate opening. These were made for families first and foremost.
Being this is the third attempt at a production transverse-mounted front-drive system, it ended being the charm. If you looked at what GM accomplished with the front-drive A-body, it created a new wave of sedans and wagons of its size to become the core of the North American automotive industry. Chrysler extended the K-Car platform by late 1982 with a set of roomy larger sedans – the Dodge 600, Chrysler E-Class, and New Yorker. Ford eventually countered by Boxing Day in 1985 by raising the bar another foot – the Taurus and Mercury Sable.
Until my first drive of the Taurus, the Cutlass Ciera became my benchmark car. In terms of driving, I had not had the opportunities to drive a diversity of machinery as I do today. My primary vehicles of the mid-1980s were Thunderbirds, Tempos, Centurys and Cutlass Cieras.
The Cutlass Ciera was quite simple and straightforward. It caught my eye when it first debuted for 1982 right off the bat – above all of the A-Bodies introduced alongside it. I was familiar with Oldsmobile enough to know how to drive it without double-checking the owner's manual. It also had a bit of class, just like my first car – the enormous 1972 Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan.
It may not look like much compared to today's mid-sized sedans, but there was something a little bit special about the Cutlass Ciera. It had all of the Oldsmobile design traits: Dual grille, wide center divide up front with the Rocket emblem in the middle, twin tail lamps at the corners and a few embellishments distinguishing itself as an Olds. Even as the model was revised, the elements continued to take shape through the years. One cannot ignore what it is – even if one saw it as anonymous.
Inside was one of the better cabins amongst the A-Bodies. The instrument panel exemplified the Oldsmobile brand: A right-sized instrument binnacle, high audio system position, HVAC, and other controls within reach, and nicer upholstery. In the past, I would have to apologize for the comfort of Ciera's bland bench seating. They were simply fine for my needs back then. In the latter years, the original feeling of comfort turned to discomfort. My back no longer was satisfied with blandly designed bench seating – even if they were split to accommodate a center console.
Before the last revision of the rear, I found trunk space and access reasonable. Supposedly, for 1989, the trunk lid changed and I felt that the lip was higher than before, accommodating the move of the rear license plate from the bumper to the rear deck. When I was tasked to carry my mother on board, wheelchair access to the trunk became a bigger challenge than before.
As with the revisions of 1989, there were two stories about rear seat room. Rarely did I have anyone sit in the back of any of the Cutlass Cieras I drove through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Up until 1988, rear seat passengers enjoyed the upright roofline that gave them some room for their head to breathe. When the roofline changed for 1989 to more of a coupe-like appearance, tall people would have to meet the upper apex of the rear glass to get comfortable.
Over the same course of time, the driveline changed for the better. The 2.5-liter four was a constant – the Tech IV as it was known by the late 1980s. It was decent, but not exactly my engine of choice. It was the V6 that won me over. At first, the 3.0-liter version was sufficient. Buick's 3.3-liter V6 actually worked better – even in the middle of the Ciera's lifespan. Both engines did the job, but not as well as the optional Buick 3.8-liter V6. The big six changed the way the A-Body drove. The difference was in the chassis and suspension. If you drove a similarly equipped Buick Century next to a Ciera, you felt the Olds chassis was tuned tighter than the Buick's. That made a difference with the 3.8-liter under the hood as it had more than enough horsepower and torque to propel the Ciera like a full-sized sedan.
Even after being won over by the first Tauruses, I continued driving Cutlass Cieras. They were never the same afterwards. GM soldiered on with the primary details, despite revisions in design and upgrades in engines. My last one came on Thanksgiving of 1991 – a white rented Ciera carrying my mother and I to my brother and his wife's place for dinner. I probably told this story before, but it just seemed almost appropriate that it would be my last ride in an A-Body.
By that time, my automotive world has completely changed. Owning the Acura Integra moved my center of vehicular reference towards a global perspective away from mundane American automobiles – such as the A-Body. The Ford Taurus was my preferred sedan after I ended up parting ways with the Integra. When the Taurus began to get weird in certain design elements around 1992, I switched back to Oldsmobile – the Cutlass Supreme sedan, in particular. The last Supreme sedans embodied generations of Cutlasses by being outward sporty and somewhat outlandish in details. Then again, everyone wanted to have a vision of the future that almost detracted everyone away from American family sedans in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The last Oldsmobile I cared about was the Intrigue, the eventual replacement for the Cutlass Ciera and Supreme. An attempt to revive the Cutlass name was affixed to the 1998 Chevrolet Malibu, but it simply did not feel the same as any Oldsmobile before it. The Intrigue felt different – more European and Asian flair with a dash of the groundbreaking Aurora flagship for taste. In all, it satisfied the former Oldsmobile owner in me.
The story of the Cutlass Ciera was not just about the front drive A-Bodies that debuted for 1982. It was about extending the legacy of the Rocket brand that began from my mother’s side of the family. A legacy that, per my mother's recollection, began with a 1940 70-Series my grandfather Bloom owned in Cincinnati. It continued with the 1955 Ninety-Eight Starfire convertible I came home from the hospital in right through the night my 1972 Ninety-Eight died in 1983. It continued well into the 1990s through its successors. It all ended in 2000 with an Intrigue somewhere in the Washington, DC area.
The Ciera revived my love for Oldsmobile at a time when I needed it. It regained my faith in the brand even through its troubles in maintaining their place within the GM family. Its demise was something of an event. My youth was gone with the Rocket.
The spirit of the old Rocket somehow exists at Renaissance Center. Though its legacy has been cataloged at the Heritage Center, there is still that spark only a Rocket emblem can induce. It somehow appeared when I drove the 2011 Buick Regal Turbo last year en route to its Vehicle of the Year accolade. The badge may be the venerable tri-shield, but Buick’s reinvention spawned a spirit if captured for our time of what Oldsmobile would have turned out if the brand was actually spared.
Before its demise, Oldsmobile had a customer in mind: Younger, energetic, upwardly mobile and cared about high quality of design and materials. Sounds familiar? That’s the demographic Buick is seeking today.
Would it be far fetched to say that the Regal could possibly be a reincarnation of all of the mid-sized Oldsmobiles I’ve driven through the 1980s and 1990s? If you consider how much thought the design teams have to create a premium-level mid-sized sports sedan, you might think it is a stretch to include the Regal in the same lineage as the old A-Bodies and its subsequent models. Only the soul knows.
The Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was indeed a glimmer of my eye in the final months of secondary education. It represented a sparkling new interpretation of a family sedan that captured my imagination as to the future of the automobile. The Ciera restored my faith in Oldsmobile as my familiar brand of automobile, despite the wavering eye towards other eye-catching products. Yet, I drove it. I drove dozens! The GM A-Body – in particular, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera – provided the basis of what I do today as an automotive writer.
Without the Ciera, who knows what kind of writer I would become?
All photos by Randy Stern