Classic Car Buyer's Guide: 1968-1972 Olds Cutlass & 442
By Patrick Smith
Oldsmobile knew the time was right to field a high performance intermediate after the runaway success of Pontiac's Tempest option called GTO. By adding a parts bin special cobbled from the Police Apprehender's package, the Lansing boys made their F85 and Cutlass a performance car. Over the years, the package grew more powerful with tricarbs, trunk mounted battery, ram induction systems and bigger engines. By 1968, the Cutlass gained more respect from buyers. Tie ins with Hurst using the Dual Gate shifter and H/O model helped initiate the supercar concept in 1968. By 1970, the cubic displacement rule was shattered as the 455 V8 became the standard 442 engine. Today they're among the most desirable and popular Cutlasses made. We'll guide you on how to buy a good Rocket instead of a dud Scud.
Solid, handsome and fast, the Cutlass and 442 have been favorites for decades. This 72 Cutlass Supreme in Flame Orange sports SS2 wheels and sports mirrors.
Year by Year Identification Guide: Due to the popularity of the 442 option and the wide variety of Cutlass models, this guide focuses primarily on the Supreme and 442 models. The Cutlass range included hardtop, convertible, two and four door sedans and even station wagons. Of interest to some buyers is the Vista Cruiser wagon option which supplied a glass rear roof section for viewing. These are collectible now. The 1968 Cutlass has a central grille and four headlights divided by parking lamps in between. The 442 grille is a blacked out egg crate with the 442 emblem in the center.
A 1968 442 convertible is a rare sight and has blacked out grille with 442 badge and die cast vents on hood.
All 1968 Cutlasses used single, rectangular flat tail lamp. The 1969 Cutlass grille has vertical fins, a center metal divider and four headlamp arrangement in pairs with the parking lamps moved to the front bumper.
The 1969 Cutlass has vertical grille columns while the 442 has die cast numbers in center of hood.
The 442 model grilles are blacked out with egg crate grilles and the hood divider has die cast 442 numbers instead of the Rocket emblem. All 1969 Cutlasses used a single, square tail lamp. In 1970, the Cutlass had a moderate restyle of front and rear ends and improved interiors. The 1970 Cutlass grille has a fine egg crate design with Cutlass script on the driver side while the 442 model has bold vertical columns with die cast 442 letters in the hood divider.
1970 442s have bold vertical column grilles and if W30 equipped the hood has twin scoops with hood locks.
All 1970 Cutlasses used rectangular tail lamps divided by two horizontal bars. For 1971, the Cutlass S had horizontal bars breaking up the grille while the 442 used a fine screen grille in black with die cast '442' letters installed on the driver side panel.
The 1971 Cutlasses and 442 featured blacked out grilles. Cutlasses will have some horizontal lines while the 442 is fine mesh with die cast emblems on driver side grille.
All 1971 Cutlasses used square tail lamps divided by a horizontal center bar. For 1972, the Cutlass went with a couple of grilles, a coarse checkerboard and a chromed horizontal bar style.
In 1972, the Cutlass Supreme used a coarse checkerboard grille while the 442 model used last year's grille only painted in silver instead of black.
The 442 model used last year's grilles with silver paint instead of black. All 1972 Cutlasses used six window tail lamps.
All 1972 Cutlasses had six window tail lamps.
Drivetrains: The engine line up used a small block and a big block. The 350 Rocket four barrel, the 400 Rocket four barrel and the 455 Rocket four barrel. The 400 was dropped in 1970 in favor of the 455 Rocket which came in two forms, a base 455 and the high performance W30 version. The Rocket 350 wasn't used in the 442 until 1972. Usually, it was a Cutlass, Cutlass S or Cutlass Supreme engine.
The Rocket 350 was painted metallic gold and has its own casting number.
We should mention that a high performance 350 four barrel was marketed called Ram Rod 350 in 1968. It became the W31 option in 1969 and 1970. A special Sebring Yellow promo model called Rally 350 was issued in 1970 only. The W31option disappeared afterwards.
The Ramrod 350 Cutlass appeared in 1968 and became the W31 in 1969. The option disappeared after 1970. The Rallye 350 was an insurance beater promo model in Sebring Yellow and was one year only.
There was also a two barrel Turnpike Cruiser engine option offered in 1968 and even a 442 could get this engine. The 442 engines were 400 and 455 blocks. A quick visual identification if the car is original is metallic gold for the 350 V8, bronze for the 400, and metallic blue for the 455 V8.
The 455 engine was painted metallic blue and has its own casting number.
Checking the engine codes is essential for proper ID as many cars have been restored or hot rodded several times by now. Transmissions were available in automatic, three or four speed manuals. The Turbohydramatic 400 was the most common automatic in performance Cutlasses while Muncie units were most common as manual gearboxes.
Popular Options: Besides the 442 performance package, there are many highly desirable options buyers seek when looking for these cars. The performance features are usually coded as "W" options. The Hurst Dual Gate shifter with separate ratchet shifting gate was coded W26.
Other W options include, the fiberglass force air hood W25. This was available on Cutlass S four barrel cars as well as 442s and W30 cars. The rear deck spoiler W35 was offered only from 1970 442s and Rally 350 models but it's so popular you'll find them installed on later examples. Other favorites include Super Stock wheels. SS1 wheels weren't body color, starting in 1972, a wheel option was available called SS2 which gave you wheel inserts painted body color. The body color sports mirrors were D35. The Sports Steering wheel N34 is another solid favorite. The muscle car hardware options everyone wants include W30 high performance 455 Rocket with 370 horsepower. It included the Outside Air Induction hood and air cleaner, an aluminum intake manifold, body stripes, sport mirrors and lightweight body insulation. The W32 was a Cutlass Supreme performance package which supplied a 365 horsepower 455. By far, the most popular performance options are W30 and M22, the heavy duty four speed shifter. You'll see cars with W27, an aluminum differential cover. Originally, this was a complete aluminum rear differential carrier but it was only offered in 1970. Production was very low. By 1971 it was only available as a cover. The four speed equipped cars easily destroyed the actual carrier and it was dropped as an option. Reproductions of this cover are gaining popularity.
What to watch For: Unfortunately one of the things you need to watch for are clones. The 442 and W30 option in particular are wildly popular and from 1970 onwards, it's relatively easy to make a Cutlass look like a full house W30 optioned 442. The dangerous year is 1972 because 442 became an optional handling and trim package and no longer coded as part of the VIN number. We'll cover specific details to look for in a later section. Aside from replicas, you should watch for rust. The rear quarter panels, lower door frames, trunk floors and frame rails are prone to corrosion. Poor window seals are to blame for the trunk floor rust outs. It's common for inner wheel well housings and even package trays to vanish once they've been acid dipped or sand blasted. This is most often the case with vinyl roof cars. You should be spending sixty percent of your time looking over the body of the car when considering a purchase because if things are amiss there, it will cost a lot to make it right.
Other signs of abuse and possible expensive repairs include, twisted, damaged control arm to rear axle bushings. This is worth checking on manual transmission cars as they led a harder life than the automatics. The last three feet of frame rails tell stories too. A bent, torn or misaligned rear cross member under the bumper could be from collision damage or a tow hitch that wasn't installed correctly. Look at the last three feet of rail for misshapen metal, weld marks, extra holes or stretched ones courtesy of porta-jack frame straightening. A newer gas tank and rear bumper may be your only clues.
Frame damage from accidents is common with older cars. Check the front frame horns just before the engine cradle. Look for hammer marks, misshapen metal, putty skimmed over stretched metal from a porta-jack and elongated holes. This could be old damage. When the cars weren't worth much thirty years ago, it was common to stretch out the frame, slap some filler over the wrinkled area and hang replacement sheet metal on it. If owning a show car is your aim, a frame in good shape cuts down your restoration cost significantly. We'll cover the drive line examination next as part of the verification process.
Documenting and Verification: How far you wish to go with this depends on your end use. Let's start with identifying the 442 option. From 1968 to 1971 the VIN will identify if the car is a factory 442. You're looking for a 344 in the start of the VIN on dash or door decal. This signifies an Olds 442 model. The next two numbers afterwards should decode to either a hardtop, pillar coupe or convertible. Starting in 1972, the VIN changes in a couple of ways. The engine is now included as the fifth digit and the 442 model status is gone. The only way to confirm if it's a 442 by VIN that year is if the engine code is X. That meant it was a 455 W30 engine which was a 442 exclusive. The Hurst/Olds were the only formal hardtops to get W30 engines. Otherwise any engine from a 350 two barrel upwards could be ordered in a 442. This is why a bill of sale or build sheet is important for 1972 models.
The build sheet is valuable when documenting a 442 especially in 1972 models. This sheet confirms W29 option status making it a 442.
If you're buying a car to restore as a concours show winner, the car has to be good to start with. A numbers matching drive train is essential and a car with most of its factory hardware intact is preferred. If it's a car for cruising and personal enjoyment, you can relax about a non numbers matching engine or transmission. These are the two items that most frequently have been changed over the life of a car. By 'numbers matching,' we're talking about the original engine, transmission and body the car was born with. The first two are verified by partial VIN number stampings on the block and transmission. The body has a partial VIN stamp as well beside he complete one on the driver side dashboard and door. Very serious restorers go all the way and document virtually every mechanical part including the distributor, carburetor, heads, rear axle and interior by means of date codes and plenty of forum discussions.
For most enthusiasts, the big three are what matters. An original engine, transmission and body satisfies most buyers. Starting in 1968, the engine and transmissions received partial VINs to aid police in recovering stolen vehicles. The partial VIN on the Olds engine block is found on the driver's side front of engine just beneath the cylinder head on a machined pad. The casting number for the 455 block should be 396021 and can be either F or Fa letter code.
All engine casting numbers are found above the water pump housing in front of block. This one confirms a 455 V8 engine. Special aluminum intake manifold above is a W455 casting as well.
The early 'stick' type font F is found on 1969 and early 1970 455s while later 1970 to 1971 units used a Serif F font. For 1972, the 455 engine letter code was Fa. Although lower case, the A is also quite large.
The 400 engine from the 1968-69 era was a G code engine and casting number is 396026. The partial engine VIN stamping by the way, also contains year of manufacture and assembly plant.
You should also check the transmission for partial VINs. On the TH400, you'll find the VIN stamped on the driver side of the oil pan rail. On dual exhaust cars, you might need a mini mirror to get a good look at it. The manual transmissions have a partial VIN stamped vertically on the gear case on the right side of transmission. Sometimes it is found on the gear case along the parting edge between rear driveshaft housing and the gear case. The rare three speed manual transmissions are harder to check as the partial VIN is stamped on top of the case.
When it comes to differentials, the best you can do is confirm a build date before the assembly of car that's within a reasonable amount of time, say between 6 weeks to three months. On Canadian built Cutlasses a Chevrolet 12 bolt was used. The specific gear ratio and axle codes are stamped on the passenger side tube facing upwards and the date code for carrier is stamped just under the differential cover area. Finally, a few details to help determine if the car is a 442. Every 442 came with front and rear sway bars. The lower control arms are boxed. The rear bumper will have exhaust cut outs and the fender liners for the front will be red plastic from 1970-1971. Very early 1972 cars might have red plastic fender liner but most were black. The convertible 1972 442 glove box door used a Cutlass Supreme badge instead of 442 as the Supreme model was the only trim level available. The hardtops still used 442 emblems on the glove box doors. With these details in mind, you should be able to find a Rocket of your own.