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This Or That: 1980 Oldsmobile 442 vs. 1989 BMW 635CSi [w/poll]

Thu, 09 Oct 2014 12:45:00 EST


The last time I roped a coworker into an automotive debate, I lost. Resoundingly, I might add. Still, 2,385 voters chose to cast their lots for the Fiat 500 Abarth, as opposed to 5,273 choosing the Ford Fiesta ST, and so I can rest easy in the knowledge that at least 30 percent of you, dear readers, see things my way. I still like to think we have more fun, too.

My loss in the first round of our This or That series, in which two Autoblog editors pick sides on any given topic and then attempt to explain why the other is completely wrong, didn't stop me from picking another good-natured fight, this time with Senior Editor Seyth Miersma. Last time, our chosen sides were eerily similar in design, albeit quite different in actual execution. This time, our vehicular peculiarities couldn't seemingly fall any further from one another: A 1980 Oldsmobile 442 wouldn't seem to match up in comparison to a 1989 BMW 635CSi.

How did we come up with such disparate contenders? Simple, really. Seyth and I mutually agreed to choose a car that's currently for sale online. It had to be built and sold in the 1980s, and it had to be a coupe. The price cap was set at $10,000. The fruits of our searching labors will henceforth be disputed, with Seyth on the side of the Germans, and myself arguing in favor of the Rocket Olds. Am I setting myself up for another lopsided loss?

Let the games begin.


Could They Be Any More Different?

Well, yes. They could be more different. Both have two doors, both were made in the 1980s and both are rear-wheel drive. After that, though, things get drastically more divergent.

The Oldsmobile 442 – which originally stood for four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission and dual exhausts – first hit the scene in 1964 as a hasty response to the Pontiac GTO, which kicked off the muscle car era in the United States. Our example from 1980 is admittedly a far cry from what was available from Olds in its muscular heyday, but it still started life with a 350 cubic-inch V8 engine breathing through a four-barrel carb and exhaling through dual exhausts. When the car was restored, the owner says the engine was replaced with a 455 from 1973, which means it's probably sending about 500 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels through its four-speed 700R4 transmission.

It's black and gold, looked like a throwback even when brand new in 1980 and is surely capable of rumbling deep enough to set off car alarms and torquey enough to melt the tread right off its raise-white-letter tires. Besides the similarly black and gold Pontiac Trans Am and its oversize Screaming Chicken hood applique, this 442 was one of the least subtle vehicles you could bring home in the year 1980.




In the other corner sits something much, much more refined. First introduced in the US in 1985 (though preceded by the lower-displacement 630CSi and 633CSi models), this is a BMW with the brand's classic inline-six-cylinder engine configuration sitting under the hood, sending 208 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels.

BMW's six-cylinder engines are notoriously smooth performers, and we're sure the fuel-injected, 3.4-liter example in this 1989 635CSi is as silky as ever. While Seyth is quick to point out that he'd prefer the available five-speed manual, the car he settled on, like the 442, is equipped with an automatic. The seller claims that the original engine is running well, and boasts many new parts to keep it that way... though we're not exactly smitten with its two-tone leather interior, everything looks to be in pretty good shape.




In the interest of full disclosure, while Seyth and I went in dramatically different directions using the same criteria, we both admire the selections made by our opponents.

The Best Year Ever?

I decided to kick things off on a somewhat personal note, pointing out that I was born on this very day (October 9th) in the year 1980. Which means my chosen Oldsmobile 442 and I were both born in the Best Year Ever.

Seyth, naturally, counters. After, of course, acknowledging the day of my birth and wishing me "another year of you enjoying all the motoring joy that the planet Earth has to offer (and tacos, make sure you get plenty of tacos)..."

Miersma: Are you out of your mind?

Not only do I have a car that is cooler, classier and quicker from point to point (you know, it steers and stuff), but it also happens to have one of the sweetest sounding engines of all time. Not simply the best-looking 6 Series ever made (by a long shot), but to my eyes one of the most gentlemanly coupes of the era. And, though I'm not entirely sold on the gold basket-weave BBS wheels on this particular example, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that my choice isn't painted like a soft pack of Benson and Hedges. Are you sure you weren't born in the '70s, cause that car is pure disco, dude.

Unlike the spin-the-wheel-and-hope-for-the-best handling traits of your tire-smoker, my 6er can actually change direction. – SM

Starting with a personal attack? For shame. But not as shameful as Seyth's choice in tobacco-company livery.

Korzeniewski: If I'm out of my mind, it's only because the noxious vapors of burnt rubber, courtesy of those 455 cubic inches, are meandering through my 442's open windows and therefore affecting my brain. I do wish this particular 442 had T-tops like they did a bit later in the '80s, but yes, this is most definitely a classic from the year 1980.

You're making fun of the black and gold paint on this Cutlass cruiser? Please. Benson and Hedges? If you're bent on overlooking the fact that black and gold American cars are completely awesome, and you want to instead focus on British tobacco, I think the label you're looking for is John Player Special. I suppose you hate the color scheme of the current Lotus F1 team?

Immediately realizing his mistake, Seyth points his argument in a new direction by pointing out how much better his choice would be at directional changes of its own.

Miersma: Man, I walked right into that JPS bit, didn't I? That's ok, though, because unlike the spin-the-wheel-and-hope-for-the-best handling traits of your tire-smoker, my 6er can actually change direction.

At least here in the US, BMW built its reputation for some of the finest handling cars in the world on the backs of models like the E30 3 Series and these E24 6 Series. Perfect weight distribution, confident, feeling-rich steering and a rear suspension that could actually keep the tires in almost constant contact with the ground (a shocking concept, I know), meant that the 635CSi was and is a car that makes a good road feel great. My example might be a quarter century old, but it'll still be a riot to drive hard and drive well.

Perhaps something to think about once you've tired of imagining ways to make going in a straight line – no matter how smoky – more interesting?

Will the 442 turn? Of course. Haven't you ever seen a Dirty Harry movie? Oversteer, my friend. – JK

Ouch. That hurts. I know there's simply no way on planet Earth that the 1980 Oldsmobile 442 is going to keep up with the BMW 635CSi on a windy road. And I love windy roads. But do you know what else I love? Classic movie car chases, which, as you can likely surmise, always feature plenty of classic cars, just like the 442.

Korzeniewski: Here's what the 442 will offer, Seyth: Laid-back vintage-style cruising. You know, the kind you yourself see each and every year at the Woodward Dream Cruise. To quote Sir Will, "Two miles an hour, so everybody sees you." And hears you, courtesy of those booming dual exhausts. And feels you, thanks to that rumbling, burbling V8 engine.

And will it turn? Of course. Haven't you ever seen a Dirty Harry movie? Oversteer, my friend. Smoky, excellent and ridiculously fun power-slides through the bends exist at the mere dip of your right foot.

Don't worry about me and having fun in the 1980 Oldsmobile 442. That much is a given.

It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times



Knowing that I need more than smoky burnouts to plead my case, I turn to the issue of rarity. After all, while a car – especially one that can be purchased at such a low price point – is first and foremost meant to be driven, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't be pleased as pie if his automotive investment didn't slowly gain value. I conveniently left out the detail that its non-stock drivetrain means it will never be a Barrett-Jackson powerhouse... the point remains that there are a lot more 635CSi coupes floating around out there than 1980 442s.

Korzeniewski: Let me point out one more interesting tidbit about the Olds. It's rare. Like, so rare the steak is still mooing rare. Just 886 total examples of this limited edition muscle machine were made, 540 of those in this black and gold paint scheme. It's not such a desirable beast that I'd be worried about keeping it pristine, but it's definitely not something I'd see very often in person, and it's not something I'd get tired of showing off to those wondering just what in the world they're looking at.

Seyth had no choice but to accept defeat in the rarity department, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a clever retort.

Miersma: There's no question that the 1980 442 is a unique and hard to find machine, nor that you won't be missed when driving down the strip in one. Hey I'll even grant you that, insofar as Americans are generally willing to pay for treasured Americana, the Olds is probably a good investment at ten grand or less.

But look at it this way, Jeremy: the 635CSi is a reminder of the very best era of BMW automobiles. It's a small part of the equation that turned the automaker from a quirky European afterthought, to one of the most respected makers of luxury performance cars in the world. The E24 was a bellwether car; a design and an execution that pointed the way forward for techy (check out that interior!), subtle and refined performance coupes.



And here's where Seyth's argument really hits home.

Miersma: The 1980 version of the Olds 442, on the other hand, and kitschy-cool though it may be, really marks out the end of golden age of General Motors and the start of the Bad Old Days for the company. Unlike the glorious muscle cars of the '60s and '70s, which represent the time periods both collectors and designers remember most fondly, your 1980 car speaks to the shredding of market share and overall decline in quality that plagued GM through much of the '80s and '90s.

Of course, and as much as I hate to admit it, Seyth's right on that point. Sort of. I'm sure that anything from Oldsmobile – one of GM's most recently and regrettably orphaned automakers – will remind buyers of a certain age of the downward spiral that led the massive corporation into bankruptcy.

On the other hand, I don't agree with Seyth that the 1980 Olds 442 "marks out the end of the golden age" for the automaker. Far from it, in fact.

Korzeniewski: In fact, Oldsmobile was right in the middle of its heyday in the year of my birth – it's sales peak of 1,066,122 vehicles was hit in 1985. And the Cutlass nameplate, on which the 442 was based, was the best-selling in all of the United States. The gradual downward spiral at Olds didn't really happen until its much-loved rear-wheel-drive coupes (Monte Carlo, Grand Prix and Regal, in addition to the Cutlass) were replaced and moved to shared front-drive architecture.

The retort was quick and concise.

Miersma: Both cars are charming in their own right, sure. But do you want to drive an automotive high-water mark, or one that marks out two decades of malaise?

As a matter of fact, Seyth, I'll choose the latter. As I see it, the 1980 Oldsmobile 442 harkens back, not to two decades of malaise, as you put it, but to the end of a muscular era. I love the BMW 635CSi, and, if Seyth did indeed own one, I'd love to borrow its keys from time to time. But my sincere hope is that the current and future generations of automotive enthusiasts can look back, pick out their own so-called winners and losers, and end up with something they are proud to park in the garages, take out to the Woodward Dream Cruise or to the closest set of well-paved twisty roads.



In the end, can there really be a winner or a loser when choosing collectible coupes from the 1980s? Why yes, at least for the purposes of this little back-and-forth experiment. Let us know what you think by voting down below.


Which collectible coupe from the 1980s do you prefer?


By Jeremy Korzeniewski


See also: BMW hires Ferrari chief engineer Fedeli, 2015 BMW X6 keeps it weird, 2015 BMW 2 Series Cabriolet flips its lid [w/video].