Beginning in the mid-1950s ,GM had all divisions working on a compact model to meet the rising demand for more practical and inexpensive basic transportation. The Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile divisions had slightly larger “senior compacts,” while Chevrolet had a slightly shorter frame to work with. All were unibody designs, rather than the more traditional “body on frame” construction of the day. The Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest, and the Oldsmobile F-85, are on the same “Y-body” platform as the revolutionary 1960 Chevy Corvair.
The Cutlass F-85 was a ’61 model late in the 1960 model year and was the least expensive Oldsmobile available. The total length of the new compact was 188.2 inches (4780 mm) and had a curb weight of 2800 pounds (1300 kg). Under the hood was a lightweight 215-cubic-inch (3.52L) V8, which it also shared with the other GM senior compacts. A two-barrel carburetor that produced 155 bhp (115.6 kW) and delivered 210 lbs.-ft.(280 N-m) of torque mounted the engine. The power plant could couple to either a three-speed manual or the new three-speed Roto Hydramatic transmission as the initial offering. The F-85 had a double wishbone suspension in front with four-link live axle to the rear and coil springs all around, with 91/2-inch drum brakes for stopping power.
The first F-85 was available as a four-door sedan or a four-door station wagon. The wagon could have seating for two or four passengers. The trim levels offered were the base or the deluxe version, but consumers didn’t receive the model as well as expected. In May, Oldsmobile added a two-door sedan and the Cutlass sports coupe to the roster, which helped pick up the lagging sales, but there were only 80,347 units produced in ’61.
The Cutlass power option had the same 215 engine, but with the four-barrel carburetor, it rated at 185hp (138 kW) but didn’t include other goodies. The Cutlass F-85 had an uptown exterior trim with bucket seats, and a center console was also available as a further option. The four-barrel could also be ordered on the lesser F-85 units, and a four-speed manual transmission was on the table by mid-’61. Car Life magazine tested the ’61 Cutlass at 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 14.5 seconds and managed to reach a top speed in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h). The test results stated the construction was superb, but the steering was slow to respond and the suspension too soft for aggressive driving.
For 1962, Olds added a convertible as a choice for any F-85, and the Cutlass sport coupe evolved into a pillarless hard-top. This model lacked the “B” pillar and the side windows were in a frame, and the Cutlass became the bestselling model. Sales were up, and there was a total of 97,382 units of the F-85 to leave the assembly room floor in ‘62. The best news for ’62 was the availability of the Jetfire Cutlass hard-top as a turbocharged version of the 215, which rated at 215 bhp (160.3 kW). The Garrett turbocharger allowed the engine to develop 301 lbs.-ft. (301 N-m) of torque and cuts the 0-60 time down to 9.2 seconds. With this setup, the Cutlass had a top speed of 110 mph (176 km/h).
The Jetfire cost only around $300 more than the Cutlass coupe. The testing that year, now from Car and Driver, still cited the same soft suspension but added that both the automatic and the four-speed transmissions had poor shift quality. The critics also noted there was no tachometer available, and the turbo system was unreliable.
At the end of the day, the Jetfire engine was far ahead of its time with the forced induction system and high compression, so it was prone to engine knock since modern engine management methods weren’t yet in place.