The modified '72 Cutlass Supreme 4-4-2

Life & times with a built Cutlass Supreme ‘4-4-2’
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By Mike Rowda

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When I bought this 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in 2012, it was advertised as a “tribute car.” However, I feel it is best labeled as a modified Cutlass Supreme. It is titled as a ’72 but has a 1970 front clip, 4-4-2 badging, W-30 striping and Chevelle seat covers. The engine is a 350-cid V-8 (I wanted this engine versus the 455 so I could get 14 mpg versus 7 to 9 with a 455).

The car was found online and located in the Columbus, Ohio, area. I talked to the owner several times and decided to see the car. We live in central Indiana, so it was a four-hour drive to examine the car. My son and grandson went with me to see the car and my son said before we left that everything we knew seemed to indicate this was the car for me. He said to get the cash necessary to buy the car and we would take the trailer. If all checked out, I would make the final decision. If we wanted the car, we could take it back home with us. As a good father, I listened to my son and it worked out!

The previous owner was a used car dealer and he had owned the car for a year. He drove it a little, but he mainly took it to his car lot on Fridays and Saturdays in nice weather to attract potential buyers of his other cars. This car was not for sale for most of the year that he owned it. When I saw the ad and called the owner, he said he was selling the car so he could buy a real Olds 4-4-2 convertible, which he had wanted for several years. The sale of this car would allow him to display a new car at his car lot on Friday and Saturday. He had reduced the price of this 1972 Cutlass Supreme twice and said he would not reduce it anymore. He wanted cash for the car. I decided the price was fair if all checked out.

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My brother-in-law has redone many old cars and I felt he could be very valuable checking over the car. He lived an hour from where the car was located. We met on a Sunday morning at the home of the seller and my son and brother-in-law checked it out. My brother-in-law said the car was worth the money being asked, but it was by no means a perfect car. It was going to take a few thousand dollars to make it a good driver and something I could drive with confidence. I felt the same way, but I liked the appearance of the car. The only issue is the amount of money to make it a good driver has turned out to be much higher than I expected. Sound familiar?

After the car was home and I started looking at the paperwork, I could see the car had been purchased from a classic car dealer in Columbus the previous year. I wanted to try to get some history on the car, so I contacted this dealer. He said he remembered the car very well because of its appearance. It had only been at the dealership a couple of days when the fellow I bought it from had bought the car. This classic car dealer had not had a chance to do much in the way of inspection on the car and the person who sold the car to the dealer did not disclose any information on the car. The classic car dealer would not give me the name of the previous owner to protect his privacy. I understood. Therefore, I have no information about the restoration or reason for all the changes to the car. It appears the car was built from 2007 to 2010.

The Cutlass Supreme sports bucket seats and a four-speed manual transmission.

The Cutlass Supreme sports bucket seats and a four-speed manual transmission.

I researched the VIN and found the car was originally painted Covert Beige and had an automatic transmission. When it was restored, it was converted to a four-speed car. From the numbers on the transmission, it is a Saginaw unit and we think it came from a Camaro.

The car had air conditioning and disc brakes along with the four-speed. Along with some good eye appeal, these were features I wanted on a car. This Cutlass Supreme met all these requirements. The car is painted GM Hugger Orange with a black vinyl top and a black interior. The black top and black stripping really offset the bright orange. Without some contrast, the orange might be overbearing.

My ability to repair cars is very minimal. I usually know what the problem may be, but I do not how to fix it nor do I possess the skill to fix it. However, from my previous ownership of a 1941 Plymouth coupe, I had developed relationships with a couple of folks who can repair old cars.

Owner Mike Rowda preferred a car with the Oldsmobile 350-cid V-8 for its better gas mileage over the 455.

Owner Mike Rowda preferred a car with the Oldsmobile 350-cid V-8 for its better gas mileage over the 455.

Within a few days of buying the Cutlass Supreme, I took the car to one of the mechanics for him to drive and then access for a few days. I knew the air conditioning did not work and there were a few other minor repairs on my list. He replaced the shocks and fixed some of the wiring issues and some of the other issues he found during the inspection. The air conditioning was going to take some time. It was late September, so we decided that I would drive the car for a couple of months to see what else was needed. He would keep the car for the winter and get the air conditioning working and do whatever else was found to be wrong.

I had fun driving the car for the next 60 days before giving the car to him for the winter. Since the mechanic’s garage is only five miles from my house, we set up an arrangement where I would come to the garage every Friday morning to check the progress on the repairs and discuss what direction any repairs would take. I also paid him for the work he had done that week and advanced him money for any big items he would be buying in the next week or two. This arrangement worked well for both of us.

Over the winter, the air conditioning was completely redone. The mechanic recommended replacing these parts in kind. In retrospect, I should have gone with a more modern and efficient system. The system works well, but not great. Other electrical and mechanical problems were addressed by the mechanic during this time.

When I bought the car, the seat covers were in very good shape. However, the seat foam and headliner were not good. I took the car to an upholstery shop in November 2012 and had new foam put in the seats and a new headliner installed. Original Parts Group had everything needed for the job and the upholstery shop said the parts fit correctly.

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In October 2012, I had the front end aligned at a shop that had done work on my modern cars. I had them look over all the suspension and they felt it was in good shape.

I had fun driving the car during the summer of 2013. Some minor repairs were necessary, but the car was never tied up for more than a few days. At that time, I had the compression checked. The GM specifications say there should be 100 pounds or more of compression in each cylinder. Two cylinders were in the low 90s. I knew the 350 was burning a little oil, but the car seemed to run well.

My wife and I wanted to take the car on some car tours to surrounding states in 2014, so I decided to have the engine rebuilt over the winter of 2013 and early 2014. The car came with loud mufflers. My wife said she had no problems with having the motor rebuilt as long as I replaced the mufflers with ones that were not as loud. Considering the money that would be spent, I decided this was something I could live with.

The machine shop bored the cylinders .040 over. They said the top end of the engine had been done in the last several years and just needed cleaning. I had the clutch and transmission repaired as necessary. Also, the mechanic suggested many of the other components be replaced such as the starter and alternator. I agreed. I received the car back in April 2014 and the mechanic said to watch the oil until the engine was broken in. That was good advice. I think I burned a couple of quarts of oil in the first 800 miles. If I had not been told about that, I may have caused some big problems.

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The car ran well and I was glad I had the engine done. The next issue I addressed was the speedometer. With the oversize tires on the back, the car was running anywhere from 5-15 mph faster than the speedometer read. The delta varied depending on the speed. I found a guy near our house who did nothing but speedometer repairs for many years. He had all the gears necessary. He had me run measured miles and record the odometer and speedometer reading. I had a portable GPS that gave the correct speed. With the data, he supplied new gears. It helped, but did not solve the problem. After three tries, the mechanic said we needed to change the gear inside the transmission. It turned out it was worn. With this change and one more run down the measured mile, the speedometer is now dialed in correctly.

When the engine was rebuilt, a new Rochester carburetor was installed as was a new electronic ignition system. In 2017, the car was not running well. After some good detective work, the mechanic determined that a module in the electronic ignition was bad and there was a crack in the carburetor casting. Since Rochester no longer makes a carburetor for this engine, the units it sells are rebuilt. Again, in hindsight, I should have replaced the intake and put newer-style carburetor on the car.

In the Spring of 2019, I had some body work done to address paint bubbling where the vinyl top meets the rear quarter panel. There was some rust but mainly just the paint bubbling. The body shop felt water was being held in this area and caused the problem. Finding someone to address rust is hard. I usually wash the car every couple of weeks and I had been washing the top. The body shop said to stop washing the top and just wipe it down with a damp rag. My family has had fun with the idea that my compulsive washing was an expensive lesson.

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Every spring, I have the oil and filter changed and chassis greased. There are usually a couple of other things that need attention. I ask the mechanic to look the car over carefully and see if his trained eye finds anything else that needs work.

I have spent a lot of money getting and keeping this car in good condition, but I think it is worth the money. My family and I get a lot of pleasure from driving the car and it makes it worth it to me. Spending money to keep an old car up is just something you need to decide to do if you want a reliable car.

We usually drive the car about 2500 miles per year. We go on one or two car tours per year where we drive 500-700 miles in two or three days. We take Sunday drives around central Indiana. I am not big on car shows as I do not like sitting all day. I enjoy talking to folks at car shows about their cars and answering questions about mine, but there is usually a lot of down time. Trophies mean nothing to me. I know my car is nice but not perfect and I do not need judges to tell me the pluses and minuses. I belong to a car club and we go to assisted living places several times per year. We show our cars for a couple of hours and get to talk to the residents. This is really fun and rewarding. You can see the pleasure they get looking at our cars and asking questions.

At the end of the summer of 2019, the air conditioning was still just running OK. On days above 90 degrees, the air conditioning really did not do the job and I was done trying to make the original system work. I told my wife we were either going to have a very good air conditioning system in the car or we were going to sell it. My wife asked if I still liked the car and I said yes. She said, “That answers the question and now you need to get about finding and installing a new system.” I found Vintage Air had systems and kits designed for most cars. They were able to give me several shops that know the Vintage Air System and are trained to install them. I picked one about 60 miles from my house and had it installed in October 2019. We are very happy with the result. We have had many 90 degree days to test the system.

In the Spring of 2020, the clutch developed a chatter. I felt the clutch needed to be replaced, but there was only 8000 miles on the rebuilt clutch. I had the repair shop pull the clutch and check it out. They said the clutch was in good shape, but the clutch push rod was badly worn and caused the chatter. They were able to repair the clutch push rod and I decided to spend the money to put in a new clutch. It took a couple of hundred miles before the clutch seated properly and it now works great. It’s a never-ending story with old cars!

The proud owner with his 1972 Cutlass Supreme/4-4-2 hybrid.

The proud owner with his 1972 Cutlass Supreme/4-4-2 hybrid.

I have had an old car since the mid-’90s and have found it to be a rewarding hobby. You meet some great folks that buy and sell cars by attending swap meets and car shows. Getting your car repaired is costly, but you meet some good folks who know how to work on cars and I like helping to source parts. I want a car that is mechanically sound and looks nice. It does not have to be a number 1 or 2 car — I just want a good driver. I know I have a lot more money in the car than it is worth, but my family and I enjoy the car and that makes it all worthwhile.

A highlight for me has been letting my grandson drive the car to his high school prom the last two years. He liked driving it and getting all the positive comments from his teachers and friends.

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