Yes, yes, I know… it’s supposed to be the age of the Aerostar! Don’t be such a historical literalist! Go back to Curbside Classics, why don’t you?
No, seriously, stay here. Please. We’ll have snacks later. Possibly.
Right now, on eBay, an Aeroback of eye-watering rarity is being auctioned. It’s a 1978 Cutlass Salon. That’s not rare: the Cutlass was often the best-selling A-body. It’s a Cutlass Salon Brougham. That’s not rare: the economy wasn’t great back then and a lot of people downsized from Cadillacs into Cutlasses. However, according to the owner, who would have no possible reason to lie, “There were only 6558 of these cars built with the 260 V8 and only 170 of these had the T50 Borg Warner 5 speed transmission.”
Now we’re talking. But the question now becomes: Why was there ever an Aeroback in the first place?
The 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in America, which no doubt left GM feeling a little worried about the fact that a significant downsize was right around the corner. When the new A-body arrived in 1978, dealers had no trouble at all clearing their old inventory. (One of the late buyers of the ’77 Supreme, incidentally, was my mother, who saw the ’78 and promptly bought a ’77 Supreme Coupe with the 403.)
The 1978 A-body coupe was a tidy affair that would spawn such legends as the Regal Turbo Coupe and, after a facelift, the 442/Monte Carlo SS/Grand Prix 2+2 NASCAR specials. But the sedan got off to a much rockier start. Chevrolet and Pontiac got conventional upright-pillar cars that echoed the look of the successful 1977 B-body full-sizers, but Oldsmobile and Buick got Aerobacks in two-and-four-door form.
Why? Seriously. Why? I believe that the answer taps into one of my favorite topics in this world: the difference between signified and signifier. For decades, General Motors masterfully manipulated the image of the automobile, often creating vast gaps between the reality of a particular product and the impression it was meant to convey. The laser-perfect impression of the Sloan Plan held in the minds of most adults born before, say, 1980 is proof of that. Everybody knew what it meant to own a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile, concepts that lost their value as the imports ascended to power.
I will go to my grave believing that most GM employees of the Seventies honestly believed their products were as good as the new Japanese arrivals. It must have seemed like another stupid California fad, like surfboards or Pet Rocks(tm). Therefore, they gave the new A-body a look that was intended to convey an import “feel”. The GM forum guys always wonder why the Aerobacks were Buick and Olds products, not Chevy and Pontiac products, because hatchbacks were “cheap”. They’re not thinking it all the way through. The GM product planners knew what was happening in the Europe. They knew there was an age of large hatchbacks and fastbacks coming (cf. Ford Granada/Scorpio and the 1981 Mercedes “2000″) and they believed in a fastback future. Chevy wasn’t the first car to get the tailfin, why would it be first to get the fastback?
As it happened, however, the market didn’t want the “style” of the fastback. They wanted the reliability and fuel economy of an actual Accord. So GM walked it back in a hurry and brought out the upright sedan for both Buick and Oldsmobile. The X-Body team was slightly better-informed and they did it the right way in 1980: sedans for the prestige brands, hatches for the cheap seats.
The Cutlass aeroback in the auction is, therefore, a failure. But what a glorious failure it is! V-8, rear-wheel-drive, five-speed manual in a fastback two-door body style. It’s an E90 M3 coupe twenty-seven years in advance. You just know that with some tuning it would make a hell of a track rat with which to surprise people. I wish I’d had a chance to know the person who specced it out. “Give me all the luxury, but no fancy-pants Turbo-Hydramatic.” My kind of fellow. (Yes, I know it could have been a lady buyer… ooh.)
The story of GM in the thirty-four years since the Aeroback and now has, in a way, been a story of a journey from style to substance. From flash to engineering. From signifier to signified. To put it bluntly, from fake to real. They haven’t reached the end of that road yet — but can any of us say that we have?