You’ll no doubt recall that 1977 wasn’t a banner year for American performance vehicles. Two hundred net horsepower seemed unobtainable in those emissions-choked, fuel-starved years, and what was the point of a dual exhaust when it had to blow through a single catalytic converter
?Most of GM’s A-bodies had given up any sporting pretension. Chevrolet quit slapping the SS name on its Chevelle/Malibu, and even the shovel-nose, aero-slick Laguna was gone by 1977. Pontiac outsourced the LeMans-based Can Am until the mold for the rear spoiler broke, and the original GTO was just a distant memory by then. Buick’s GS program had quietly fizzled out as well.
What was left in GM’s midsize A-body lineup that had an eye toward performance? The Oldsmobile 442.
Like many of GM’s muscle car names from the past (see Z28 as an example), by the mid-to-late ’70s the “442” moniker referred to a handling-and-trim bundle. Available on the Cutlass S hardtop coupe, 442 (option code W29) consisted of the FE2 handling package (stiffer springs and shocks, 1-inch front and 0.812-inch rear anti-sway bars, and steel-belted radials on 7-inch wheels; FE2 was also available separately on other higher-end Cutlass models), some additional rocker and wheelwell trim, bold graphics, and little else. With FE2, a keen mid-’70s owner could break out of the personal-luxury, sensory-deprivation-tank mold and achieve respectable handling without resorting to something as obvious as, say, a Trans Am. The 442 added a reasonable $134 to the bottom line for the Cutlass S in 1976.
The standard engine was Buick’s 105-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, with a choice of three-speed manual, three-speed automatic, or (intriguingly) five-speed manual transmissions. Step up to the 110-hp, 260 cu.in. V-8, and transmission choices dropped to the tried-and-true Turbo 350 and the five-speed. Other engine options more appropriate to something with the 442’s image and chassis capabilities were the 170-hp four-barrel 350 V-8 (mated to a Turbo 350 automatic), and the 185-horse Olds 403 backed by a Turbo 400. Olds’ 455 disappeared after 1976, so the 403 was as good as it got in ’77. Gear ratios varied between 2.41:1 and 3.08:1, depending on powertrain and what box you checked on the dealer’s order form. Car and Driver tested a 350-powered, 2.41-geared Cutlass in 1977 (a powertrain installed in about 85 percent of all Cutlasses for the year) and found an 11.9-second 0-60, an 18.4-second quarter-mile at 75.7 mph, and a 109-mph top speed. Sleepy, maybe, but stir in the standard FE2 suspension, and you get what Car and Driver called “something altogether different from the rubber-stamp supermarket car it might otherwise be taken for.” Well, maybe not with those stripes.