1986 Oldsmobile 442 Review: End of the Line

Prowling the streets of small-town Braselton, Georgia, low, burbling exhaust notes are heard resonating off of buildings and passing cars. With the windows down and the glass T-tops removed, I get a sense of open top motoring and freedom. Freedom from distractions, blinking lights and buzzers. Just a steering wheel, a couple of pedals and an engine as reliable as the Rock of Gibraltar. Idling at a street light, the punky V8 gently rocks the car, eager to get this show on the road. My left arm is casually, comfortably hanging out and over the door of the 1986 Oldsmobile 442.

Watching the opposing street lamps go from green to yellow to red, I ready my right foot for my own green light.  The light gleams and I nonchalantly bury the accelerator, chirping the rear wheels as the BFGoodrich tires find traction and we take off. First gear winds out quickly, second hits firmly and keeps the 307 cubic inch V8 in its power band. The tight ‘Positraction’ differential helps this normally anemic engine pull hard for Daddy. Letting off the throttle, the 442 settles briefly into third before finding its home in Overdrive.

What would be considered a slow car by modern-day standards was actually… still a slow car in its time. When Oldsmobile created the ‘442’ moniker back in the early 1960s, horsepower was the first and last word of its purpose. “Let’s stuff a big-block V8 into a midsized car to make a proper muscle car,” mused Dr. Olds. Through the decades, however, the 442 name changed its meaning and purpose to the point where it was no more than a glorified emissions-choked sticker package.

This G-bodied 1986 Oldsmobile 442 is almost the same case, making an unimpressive 180 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque from a 5.0 liter V8. However, GM turned some new tricks with a drag-racing-inspired 3.73 ratio rear end and a quick-shifting 4-speed automatic. Sure, it was the equivalent of stuffing a pair of socks in the front of your tight-fitting jeans, but the illusion worked.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, the American car market had changed drastically. Gone were the days of high-powered land barges. Insurance companies, gas crunches, and safety regulations sucked away the ecstasy of the American muscle car as it was. Rear-wheel-drive mid-sized cars were beginning to be phased out for more compact, efficient, and “European-inspired” offerings. Left at the end of the road were cars like this 1986 Oldsmobile 442, Chevrolet’s Monte Carlo SS, and Buick’s Grand National GNX. Each a swan song from its engineers and final goodbye to the world where dinosaurs once roamed the Earth.

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Every 70s and 80s era GM had ill-fitting plastic body gap panels.

Many of the world’s cars, both new and old, are about as passion-filled as an old lady licking a stamp. As a result, marketing departments trying to create an image of a “lifestyle” for each model they sell. And to their credit, Oldsmobile hit the nail on the head with the image created for this 1986 Oldsmobile 442. If you weren’t wearing denim, a trucker cap, brown leather cowboy boots, and sunshades the likes of Burt Reynolds “The Bandit,” then you weren’t right for this car. I honestly get the feeling that this car is a bit… lecherous. It’s a smooth talker with only one thing in mind, and that’s to get you inside.

Aside from something as audacious as a holographic bird screaming atop the hood, this black and silver coupe is about as shouty as it can be. The paintwork is separated by a thin gold pinstripe that circles around the car. Its Oldsmobile ‘Rallye’ wheels are inlaid with gold paint and even the beauty rings have a gold pinstripe. Its “442” badging is also bright gold. If a miner from 1864 saw this car, he’d go nuts over the amount of gold accents slathered across this car. Despite the tri-tone exterior, the 1986 Oldsmobile 442 remains an extraordinarily handsome car, with modest chrome trim and color matched sport mirrors.

Moving inside, the interior of this 442 is very plush by 1980s standards. Upholstered in a dark burgundy red with imitation wood trim adorning every panel, it feels exceptionally parlor-like. Full mechanical instrumentation is placed directly in front of the driver, keeping vital signs within easy glance. Four-way electrical adjustable seats allow for most anyone to find a position comfortable and the console-mounted gear selector falls right into hand. The two-spoke steering wheel is adjustable as well, leaving no excuse to not find the best driving position. My favorite feature, without a shadow of a doubt, is the HVAC vent layout. General Motors placed one vent directly under the steering wheel, quickly given the nickname “the ball chiller.” Equipped with a factory cassette player and AM/FM radio, the Olds 442 makes for a great boom box as well.

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The last of its kind. Straddled to death with emissions equipment.

The floaty suspension of the 1986 Oldsmobile 442 wafts lazily down the road but holds decent composure in the turns. Sure, you wouldn’t want to take any of them fast – it’s no canyon carver – but it is far better than its predecessors. The brakes are discs up front and drums in the rear, with just enough bite to not make you leave a tire track in your Fruit of the Looms. Fuel economy is around 11-15 miles per gallon. Ultimately, the 442 is a terrible performance car. With a 0-60 mph time around 9 seconds, you won’t be winning any races, short of a runaway shopping cart or lady with a stroller.

But that’s really not the point of this mighty mouse muscle machine. The 1986 Oldsmobile 442 is a lifestyle automobile. It’s a swinger. A bar-hopper. It’s a T-top toting, cat-calling, rubber-smoking dinosaur. It’s a beer-gutted bar brawler, smoking Pall Malls and putting back rye whiskey. This Oldsmobile 442 was the last of its kind and in the end, captured the spirit of what the General Motors G-Body was all about. Rebellious fun. Now go put on a Miller High Life trucker cap and punch a guy over a billiard game.

7 thoughts on “1986 Oldsmobile 442 Review: End of the Line”

  1. and yet these square front behemoths have such a strange allure… with all the tiny rounded foreign cars darting around… the ones that survived the demolition derbies that is.

    Great article….

  2. Mom’s 1994 Camry that I drove for a couple years also had that ball-chiller vent under the steering column. I never knew it was there until one day I felt a cold draft aimed at the taint. I do not need my taint chilled, Toyota, thx.

  3. As a writer myself born and raised in the heyday of the muscle car era and in the late stages of my puberty witnessing it’s steady decline, my compliments to you. An Oldsmobile fan of old, I got to watch as they smiled like snake oil salesmen to conceal their nefarious replacement of the big block Rocket 350 with the small block Chevy 350 imposter engine. And this they did during the year they dominated the US auto market with record sales. Who could have known it was the beginning of a long drawn out death of the company that originally killed it with that first Rocket 88 that rolled off the assembly line decades before? Your piece flooded my mind with bitter sweet memories of my best friend Tom and I busted out the miles cruising late on many a Saturday night in our Cutlasses. So perfectly accurate, yet so poetic, you’ve revealed that sometimes there is no justice. Not even the poetic kind.

    • I love Oldsmobiles I love cutlasses I’ve had a few myself at a 78 Cutlass and a 84 Cutlass and I had a Delta 88 84 Oldsmobile Delta 38 to be exact then I had another 84 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 307 in both of them have 307s in them one of my cutlasses to 78 had a Oldsmobile 350 rocket with a 400 turbo you talk about nice ride power love those cars and there’s nothing like riding in a Cutlass or should I say Oldsmobile

  4. My first car was a 1970 Old’s Cutlass. Had a 350 until I stuffed a 455 out of a 68′ Delta 88 and rebuilt it. Went 30 over and 10k under on the crank with a sigerson RV cam. Turbo 400 with a 2500 stall and all Kevlar clutches. That car got with the program!

  5. The 1986 442 was rated at 170 hp and 250 ft pounds of torque. The stats mentioned are for the 1985 442 which was a flat tappet ho 307 and 5A cylinder heads. 1986 and 87 442’s came with roller cam and lifters w/ 7A heads. They had smaller swirl ports which was for fuel economy and reduced hp by 10 but raised torque by 25 ft pounds.


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