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Oldsmobile Cutlass: Buying guide and review (1961-1963)

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The Oldsmobile Cutlass started life as the top trim level on Oldsmobile’s F85 compact line-up, which in European terms this made it a large sized family car. In US terms however, it was the smallest in the Oldsmobile range. It developed into a medium sized car from 1964 onwards, and the Cutlass name became synonymous with the smaller bodied top spec Oldsmobile range.
 
The first generation cars were well engineered with (relatively) advanced suspension and coil springs at each corner, while an all-aluminium 3.5-litre V8 was fitted as standard. This engine was then further developed into the Rover V8 which was to be used in a myriad of different vehicles in the UK. Straight line performance was praised, especially with the arrival of the first ever commercially available turbocharged 215bhp V8 in the form of the Jetfire model. 
 
The steering and suspension came in for some criticism as they did not match up to the dynamism of the rest of the car and driving a standard one today it becomes clear that the wallowy ride and loose steering feel were designed with motorway driving in mind.
 
As the forerunner of some impressive Oldsmobile models such as the performance spec 4-4-2, the F-85 and Cutlass cars are a great example of their breed. Well engineered for their time and offering some advanced technologies they remain a desirable classic today.
 
Which one to buy?
 
The first Oldsmobile F-85 cars were available in basic and deluxe trim and offered in sedan and station wagon body styles, but it was not until mid-1961 that the first Cutlass badged models appeared in two-door sedan and coupe shapes. Equipped with a more powerful 185bhp V8, a three or four-speed manual as well as a three-speed automatic could be optioned. 
 
The convertible and hardtop Cutlass models were introduced in 1962, with the hardtop replacing the previous year’s coupe body style. Marketed as a luxury compact, a number of desirable options were made available, including power steering, assisted brakes, air conditioning and deluxe radio. 
 
The top-of-the-range 215bhp Jetfire turbocharged V8s were only produced for the 1962 and ‘63 model years. Preceding the 2002 Turbo and 911 Turbo by over a decade, these engines were very advanced for their time. To prevent pre-ignition, owners had to keep their ‘Turbo Rocket Fluid’ containers topped up with what was essentially a mixture of distilled water, methanol and corrosion inhibitor and failure to do so resulted in the turbocharger being bypassed to prevent engine failure. Many owners didn’t bother with this and due to the complexity of the system and overheating issues there were many reliability problems. In 1965 Oldsmobile offered existing Jetfire owners the opportunity to revert to a standard setup and from 1963 on they switched to the tried and trusted large capacity V8’s for their performance models making the Jetfire cars extremely rare today.
 
While luxury and straight-line performance were above par, the handling and road holding were distinctly mediocre. One essential extra when new and a worthwhile upgrade to existing models were the heavy-duty rear springs, these along with uprated braking make a big difference in the overall driveability of the cars.
 
While the Jetfire models are highly prized, the more reliable naturally aspirated coupe and hardtop Cutlass models and especially the stylish convertibles are the more useable classics today, provided that the suspensions and steering has been uprated for modern day requirements.
 
1964 saw the Cutlass and F-85 range moved to a different ‘mid-sized’ chassis and these models were considerably changed in external styling to the first generation cars. 
 
Performance and specs
 
1961 Cutlass Coupe
Engine 3531cc, 16-valve OHV V8 
Power 185bhp @ 4800rpm 
Torque 230lb ft @ 3200rpm
Top speed 103mph 
0-60mph 10.0 seconds 
Fuel consumption 14mpg 
Gearbox Three-speed manual/four-speed manual/three-speed automatic
 
Dimensions and weight
 
Wheelbase 2845mm
Length 4780mm (1961-1962)
Width 1819mm
Height 1328mm
Curb weight 1585kg
 
Common problems
 
Parts are available from various suppliers mostly based in the US, it is generally worth purchasing a complete car as sourcing trim and various body panels can be problematic.

• Braking systems came in for criticism suffering from locking and fading. Many have been upgraded or converted to more substantial items over time

• Handbrakes were considered to be a weak point, being difficult to engage and the cable was prone to stretching

• Suspension systems were considered to be too softly sprung and many will have been modified from new, check that any changes that have been carried out have been professionally carried out.

• Rust can be an issue, especially with cars that have lived in the UK, all the usual problem areas should be checked such as the wheel arches, boot and passenger floors as well as around the door bottoms.

• Engines were relatively reliable when regularly serviced, however overheating issues especially in the turbocharged models became a recurring issue. A factory fitted auxiliary cooling fan was available but many owners may have installed aftermarket units.

• A number of cars will have undergone a restoration or two over the years, some will have been highly modified and as not all workmanship is equal getting a specialist to assess the vehicle is highly recommended.
 
Model history
 
1961

- Oldsmobile F-85 launched initially in sedan and station wagon body styles
- Base and Deluxe trim options were available
- Station Wagon could be had in either two or four-door options 
- 155bhp 3.5l V8 engines were standard
- A three or four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic were available 
- Two-door Cutlass sedan and coupe body styles introduced mid-year
- Cutlass models had four-barrel 185bhp engines

1962

- Convertible model added to range
- Cutlass becomes available as ‘hardtop’ model supplanting the coupe
- Jetfire turbocharged version introduced producing 215bhp

1963

- Small increase in overall length with minor external visual changes
- Dashboard was redesigned with central speedometer and warning lights replacing gauges 
- Final year of production for small sized Cutlass models
 
Clubs and websites
 
• www.oldsmobileclub.org - US Oldsmobile club
• www.usapartssupply.com - Oldsmobile parts
• www.yanktanks.co.uk - Oldsmobile resource page
• www.antiqueolds.org - US Based Oldsmobile club
 
Summary and prices
 
Early Oldsmobile Cutlass models are hard to come by, and they are a lot rarer than their second generation counterparts. Convertibles are the most valuable, with top cars commanding upwards of £25,000, although decent runners can be picked up in the US for around £10,000-£15,000. Well maintained examples of other styled trade for around the £13,000 mark. The main factors influencing pricing are overall condition and rarity. With an estimated 10 to 15 Jetfire turbocharged models rumoured to be in existence these models tend to change hands for a few thousand more.
 
Salvageable project cars can range from £5000 up, and restorations can range from totally original rebuilds to suspension bouncing 20-inch rimmed rides, depending on specifications these cars can vary greatly in price with some top rebuilds commanding up to £18,000.
 
Words: John Tallodi
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Last updated: 16th Feb 2016
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