Vintage Review: 1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme – GM Deadly Sin #26 – Car And Driver Predicts Death

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The introduction of an all-new car typically elicits a reasonable degree of praise from the press.  Even if reviews aren’t completely glowing, writers usually try to serve up at least a small dose of compliments, simply to keep advertisers happy if nothing else.  But a GM Deadly Sin rightfully earns a deadly write-up, as was the case with the 1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme.  In the November 1984 issue of Car and Driver, Jean Lindamood ended her Calais review as follows: “…won’t it be embarrassing if, twenty years hence, the division goes under because all its customers have died?”  Little did Lindamood know how prophetic her words would turn out to be, or how much damage the Calais would do to the Oldsmobile brand.

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Of course, when Car and Driver published the review, no one would have dreamed that Oldsmobile was actually already in deep trouble.  For starters, the division typically earned the number three spot for U.S. car sales just behind Chevrolet and Ford, and had been routinely selling 1 million+ units most years since the late-1970s.  The Cutlass Supreme in particular was America’s sweetheart, happily residing in the top-ten sellers annually.  Olds models also sold at a premium price relative to Chevrolets, so the high volume had the added advantage of spinning lots of cash for General Motors.  Surely the corporation would invest to keep that Cutlass cash cow going strong…

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After all, Oldsmobile had perfected the formula to appeal to aspirational Americans seeking a solid all-around performer with upscale flair.  While the Supreme name had first graced the Cutlass/F-85 mid-size line in 1966 as a top trim level, it wasn’t until the introduction of the Cutlass Supreme hardtop coupe with the new, more formal roofline that the magic Cutlass spell was cast on countless Americans.

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The 1970 Cutlass Supreme hardtop coupe married the roofline from the GM G-Body (Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo) with the regular Cutlass A-Body front- and rear-ends.  The resulting car was a “just right” blend of attributes: the handsome styling was slightly sporty and slightly formal, the interior and ride were very comfortable, the standard Olds-built 350 V8 was smooth and powerful.  The Cutlass Supreme was pitched to upwardly-mobile Americans seeking an “Escape Machine.”  These buyers took the bait in droves: the two-door Supreme sold hundreds of thousands of units annually throughout the 1970s.

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In fact, after the Arab Oil Embargo sales for the Cutlass Supreme climbed higher than ever, as buyers found the comfort of a full-size Oldsmobile in a more convenient, mid-size package.  For 1976, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best selling car in America.  For 1977, 424,343 Cutlass Supreme Coupes were sold, quite a feat given that the newly downsized full-sized B-Body Delta 88 models matched the Cutlass on exterior dimensions while being substantially roomier inside.  But of course the Delta 88 was just a “nice” big car, while the Cutlass Supreme was a “looker” by the standards of the 1970s—perfect for image conscious buyers seeking to make a bit of a style statement.

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Typically, Olds fashioned one of the best looking packages on the market for its mid-sized personal luxury coupes.  For the 1978 downsized A-Special coupes, Oldsmobile offered a handsome “waterfall” grille, nicely contoured flanks and a rakish rear-end.  Styling continuity was good, as looks were always fresh but still recognizably Oldsmobile.  Resulting resale values were also strong, as used car buyers happily snapped up attractive late model Cutlass Supremes.

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The GM A-Specials got an “aerodynamic” freshening for 1981, making the cars a bit sleeker and smoother with a slightly improved coefficient-of-drag.  Per usual, Olds made the most of the new design direction, with a well-designed “shovel nose” that looked contemporary but still very Oldsmobile.  Per the typical GM schedule of the day, this refresh was expected to be good for 2 to 3 years until an all-new successor could appear.  Buff books and car preview guides were anticipating new front-wheel-drive replacements for the A-Specials would arrive for 1984.

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And that all-new Cutlass Supreme was originally going to have been this car, part of the GM20 N-Body program.

That’s right, when conceived in the late 1970s, the N-body was envisioned to be the replacement for the A-Special personal luxury coupes.  Given the mandates for higher fuel efficiency dictated by the U.S. government’s CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, the N-Bodies would be FWD compacts.  Dropping down a size class and targeting buyers seeking stylish, efficient coupes was actually a smart move, given that younger buyers were flocking to the compact size segment in droves.  A big key to success for these image-conscious small car buyers was contemporary style.  Surely GM’s industry leading Design Studios would crank out a masterpiece for the new N-Bodies…

For decades, much of GM’s success could be attributed to excellent styling.  While all talented designers have their highs and lows, legendary design bosses Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell were masters of automotive sculpture and most of the work they oversaw was good to great.  Both men also had the bravado to fight hard for strong designs, aggressively pushing back against timid divisional bosses, grumpy manufacturing chiefs and flinty finance executives in order to sell their vision.

That design leadership came to a screeching halt when Mitchell retired in 1977.  His legitimate successor, in both taste and temperament, should have been Chuck Jordan.  But GM, seeking manufacturing efficiency and perpetual cost cutting, decreed that design no longer mattered.  Thus Jordan was passed over for Irv Rybicki, a “go-along to get-along” studio head whose main qualification was that he wouldn’t make waves in the GM executive suite.   Rybicki kept the manufacturing and finance teams happy with uninspired, easy-to-build, low cost designs.  Who cared if they were ugly and undifferentiated?  It was GM, after all, the world’s automotive leader.  They could sell anything to anyone, right?  You, know, with that famous “Mark of Excellence.”

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Rybicki’s ascension ushered in a disastrous era for GM design, as the once-wondrous styling studios were only permitted to send forth boxy, cookie-cutter cars.  The J-cars were bland and undifferentiated.  The front-wheel-drive A-Bodies were sleep-inducing, with rigidly square greenhouses and minimal divisional identities.  Awkward proportions were the hallmark of the front-wheel-drive C-Bodies, making the GM flagships look small and cheap.  But the winner of the ugly pageant for GM’s 1985 line-up was the stumpy N-Body.

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Looking as though they were drawn by a five-year-old, the N-bodies featured “old-school” formal styling cues forced onto a small platform.  The resulting malformed runts were sexy and stylish to basically no one.  Arguably, the ugliest of the bunch was from Oldsmobile, the former leader of GM’s mid-sized glamour coupes.

Such a styling disaster would have been bad for any car targeting any segment, but the frumpy Calais was particularly lethal since it was aimed at the enormous Baby Boomer market.  Prime years for consumers to buy new cars—and more expensive cars—are when the buyers reach their 30s and 40s.  Earlier generations of buyers in this age range had gleefully snapped-up Cutlass Supremes, since they were stylish and functional for the times.  But now things were different.

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The 1980s were the decade when the leading-edge of the Baby Boom Generation, with people born in 1946 through the 1950s, were “growing up.”  Jobs, families and responsibilities took center stage, and Baby Boomers—like every generation of car buyers before (and after)—were looking for relevant, up-to-date products that reflected their style and values.

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Detroit lore has it that Baby Boomers rejected American cars to “rebel” against their parent’s choices, deliberately picking imports just to spite patriotic older generations.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, domestics also made the list, if they were innovative and well designed.  Boomers happily bought anything that represented a smart solution to meet their needs—for example, the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager were enormously popular with young families, as the Chrysler minivans were a great combination of efficiency and practicality that were far more useful for many buyers than full-size wagons.

The Jeep Cherokee was another example of an innovative domestic that had huge appeal to boomers, and largely paved the way for the SUV boom to fallow.

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For rolling image statements in the 1980s, however, many of the best choices did in fact come from overseas.  Well-packaged compact cars with refined, fuel-efficient engines and tasteful, subdued international styling were all the rage.  The BMW 3 Series was the favorite of “Yuppies” (young, upwardly mobile professionals) who had the means to indulge in a more expensive car.

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Japanese sports coupes and compact sedans were also very popular with Baby Boomers. And these cars hit the demographic sweet spot for a huge cohort of buyers: the average age of a BMW 3 Series buyers was 38, a Toyota Supra buyer was 35.  GM was swimming into some fiercely competitive waters in the quest for the Boomer buyers.  Or any buyers, for that matter—most Cutlass Supreme buyers, regardless of their generation, would have been turned off by a new car that looked like an unattractive, shrunken version of an 8-year-old design…

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Perhaps sensing that the GM20 N-Bodies might be a styling bust, GM got cold feet and decided not to make the new N-bodies the replacements for the still strong selling G-Special (né A-Special) coupes.  So in a marketing twist that would do Houdini proud, the N-bodies were squeezed in between the compact FWD J-Body and midsize FWD A-Body, roughly in the market segment previously occupied by the much maligned FWD X-Body cars.  So the N-Bodies that were meant to be the Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix needed new names, since their RWD G-Special forbears would remain on the market a bit longer.  (Note: Chevrolet opted out of the GM20 N-Body program, which was a smart move–the idea of shrunken Monte Carlo styling cues on an N-Body is nightmare-inducing.  However, Chevrolet did ultimately offer an N-Body derived car: the L-Body Beretta/Corsica (aka GM25) that arrived in 1987 was basically a better looking GM20 with a far more attractive roofline.)

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What to call the cars, then, since the originally planned names couldn’t be used?  Well, Buick simply grabbed the “Somerset” moniker from an old Regal trim package and slapped that in front of the Regal name to create the “new” Somerset Regal.

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Over at Pontiac, the division scrambled to replace the name Grand Prix with Grand “something.”  How about Grand 3000?  Grand Ventura?  No, no… got it! Grand Am!  Cars with that name had only failed miserably twice, maybe the third time would be the charm (actually, it was—the Grand Am soon became the best selling Pontiac model and the best selling N-body by far).

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Olds clearly wanted the linkage with the best selling Cutlass name.  For 1982, the division had modified the Cutlass name by adding the nonsensical “Ciera” tag (did they mean Sierra as in the mountains, just with an alliterative twist?) to the FWD A-Body.  For the 1985 N-Body, Olds adopted the Calais name from the “sporty” G-Special Cutlass coupe (which once again became the Cutlass Salon for 1985).  The Calais was also offered with the more upscale Supreme trim, once again furthering the Cutlass connection.  Note: in later years, when it was clear that the N-Body Calais was a bust, Oldsmobile became more overt with the Cutlass name in the hopes of rekindling some magic—the Calais became the Cutlass Calais from 1988 through 1991.

But no matter the name, there was nothing magical about the car.  It was the same tired Olds formula made smaller and less appealing.  The style, engineering competence and thoughtful features needed to endear the Calais to new generations of buyers were botched.  The Car and Driver road test in November 1984 laid out the extent of the damage.

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For a car targeting younger Baby Boomer buyers who were increasingly shopping imports, getting the little details right was critically important—but Olds flubbed the assignment.  An old-school Detroit strip-style speedometer with blue backlighting was standard (more complete instrumentation or digital instruments were optional at extra cost).  The steering wheel spokes, even on the optional “sport” wheel, were mounted at 4 and 8 o’clock, a suboptimal placement for gripping the wheel.  The center console storage bin/armrest sat on top of the center mounted parking brake handle, so when the brake was engaged, the console armrest tipped awkwardly back.  Embarrassingly sloppy.

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Ergonomic flaws paled in comparison to the pathetic powertrains.  Here was an all-new design running the same tired engines that had been rattling around in GM’s arsenal for decades.  Base power came from the Pontiac Iron Duke 2.5 L four, and provided gruff, uninspiring power to countless GM cars including the X-Body, FWD A-Body, P-Body (Pontiac Fiero) and F-Body. It was essentially one half of a Pontiac 301 V8, an engine that had its roots in the first Pontiac V8 of 1955.

Ironically, GM had to spend money re-engineering the 4-cylinder in order to wedge the engine into the smaller J-Car-based N-Body.  Per Car and Driver in July 1984: “it was necessary to trim this four-cylinder engine’s length to fit the available space.  A total of 3.7 inches was eliminated by narrowing the front and rear main bearings, moving the end cylinders’ crankshaft counterweights inboard, minimizing the block overhang beyond the end cylinder bores, and sinking the water pump and the cam drive farther into the block.”  Leave it to GM to extensively rework a very low-tech engine in order to “make it fit” rather than to design a proper, competitive four, something GM seemed incapable of doing for decades. Surely Boomers would love to rock (literally) an Iron Duke in their new sporty coupe!

The better engine choice for the Calais was the Buick-built 3.0 Liter OHV V6.  Yet another “heritage” engine, this mill started life 24 years before the Calais was launched, back when many of the Baby Boomer target audience were little kids.  At least the pushrod V6 provided respectable power, though fuel economy was not great at all for a compact.  The only transmission choice was a 3-speed automatic—at a time when most key imported competitors were offering 4-speed automatics.  As for drivers who preferred to shift for themselves, the 5-speed manual was only available on the 4-cylinder.

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Let’s see, horrible styling, dated powertrains, bad seats, ergonomic flubs—why wouldn’t buyers come running?  Naturally they didn’t, and Oldsmobile only managed to unload 106,240 Calais for 1985, 24% short of the 140,000 target GM had set for the car.  Nor were these units incremental business for Olds, since Firenza sales tumbled 40% for 1985 and the compact Omega was gone, meaning that 86,821 of the Calais sales were really just filling in for the lost volume from 1984 for those models.  As for the Cutlass Supreme, that 8-year-old design trounced the Calais: 151,926 of the RWD coupes were sold for 1985.  But probably not to a lot of Baby Boomers…

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C&D estimated that the Calais V6 as tested price was $12,500, which would equate to $29,082 in today’s dollars—pretty pricey for such an ugly, incompetent car.  Plus, let’s think about the competitive set for those Baby Boomer shoppers: an all-new front-wheel-drive Nissan Maxima GL with the impressive 3.0 Liter SOHC V6 and 4-speed automatic would have cost only $1,000 more ($2,327 adjusted).  Comparing a Calais Supreme with the Tech IV and 5-speed manual to a 1985 Accord LX 5-speed, adjusted for equipment, and the Calais MSRP was actually $344 ($800 adjusted) more than the Honda.  Granted, these imports were selling at or above sticker, while the Calais was surely heavily discounted.  But still, the Calais had an eye-popping high price for a car that was so uncompetitive and needed so many options to match the standard equipment on the imports.

If the appallingly bad Car and Driver review wasn’t bad enough to turn off potential customers, then Oldsmobile’s own marketing surely did.  Here was a dumpy little car served up with underwhelming, dated engines.  So how do you show it off?

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That’s right, a modified Calais (convertible conversion) paced the 69th running of the Indianapolis 500.  Just imagine watching this dorky little thing make its way around the track ahead of the race cars….

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But wait, there’s more: Olds also offered a “limited” production Calais 500 so that buyers could park a piece of Indy history in their driveway.  With a standard Tech IV!

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And look inside!  An interior sure to impress Baby Boomers from coast to coast.  Talk about a date magnet!

Did the embarrassing Pace Car marketing really make a difference?  Was the enthusiast-oriented Car and Driver’s assessment too harsh?  After all, most car buyers weren’t car buffs in 1985, so maybe the mini-me Cutlass Supreme would suffice for some.  Then again, maybe not.  Consumer Guide 1985 Auto Test provided reviews for both the Calais Supreme and Cutlass Supreme, and once again the new car came up short.

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The Consumer Guide test Calais had the optional V6 and sport suspension, which helped elevate the score in several areas.  In the same issue, CG tested a Somerset Regal with the 4-cylinder and 3-speed automatic and found it sorely lacking.  Their verdict on performance: “GM announces improvements to the 2.5 “Iron Duke” every year, yet it never seems to be enough.  With automatic it’s sluggish, plus the transmission is slow to respond to the throttle for downshifts and it will quickly change to a higher gear unless you keep the pedal to the floor.”

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The old-fashioned Cutlass Supreme was the preferred choice by Consumer Guide’s testers.  Tried and true in every way, it was a comforting throwback for buyers still interested in a large, body-on-frame Detroit icon.  However, the classic design did nothing to lower the average age of Oldsmobile buyers.

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Having given up on the Calais as a Cutlass Supreme replacement, Olds added a 4-door sedan to the Calais model mix for 1986.  At least that way the Calais line could be a more comprehensive replacement for the late, unlamented Omega X-Body.  The move did add some incremental volume, as combined Calais coupe and sedan sales hit 151,307 units for 1986 (which would be the high water mark for Calais sales).  However, the good ol’ Cutlass Supreme Coupe and Sedan retailed 211,156 units that same year.

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Olds could not have been happy with the Calais sales performance.  So what did they do?  How about an ultra-bland minor facelift to make an already boring front-end even more generic?  Hey, at least the car finally got flush, aerodynamic headlights.

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What the Calais really needed, aside from a complete reskin, was help under the hood.  By the early 1980s, it was clear that multi-valve OHC engines were the wave of the future, given the performance and efficiency advantages of that design configuration.  Except General Motors had zero interest.  In the book Setting The Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years, Engine Engineer Tom Leonard noted that “Management didn’t want four valves because…they cost twice as much.”  Assistant Comptroller Jim Rucker recounted “We had a devil of a time trying to explain to the corporation that we needed another four-cylinder engine, because at that point we had a J-car engine, a T-car engine (for the Chevy Chevette/Pontiac T1000), and we had the Iron Duke.  You add all those up, that is 7000 a day or more—a lot of four-cylinder capacity.  What we had to do was prove to the Corporation that (the Quad-4) wasn’t just another engine.”  Rucker and the Olds team actually had to buy a Mercedes 190, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry for a management roadshow to demonstrate that “the engines we [GM] had wouldn’t make it into the Nineties and weren’t what we had in mind for the N-Car (Cutlass Calais).”  Though The General would ultimately market the Quad-4 as a leading-edge “clean sheet” design, the reality was that they had no desire to produce the engine at all.

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This level of ignorance and complacency was shocking, but sadly it represented just another day at GM.  Imagine being a talented GM employee suffocating under these clods.  To make matters worse, Roger Smith’s disastrous reorganization was put into place during 1984, effectively eliminating independent divisions and consolidating massive North American GM into two gigantic bureaucracies: Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac (BOC) and Chevrolet Pontiac Canada (CPC).  Imagine being a loyal Oldsmobile employee now having to tell people you worked for BOC.  No wonder nothing got done right, if at all.

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The Quad-4 was not done right.  When the engine finally debuted for 1988, it did make an impression: a loud one.  Corners were cut and the engine was noisy and unrefined.  Consumer Guide Auto ’91 dryly noted that the Quad-4s were “the noisiest Calais engines, producing a grating, raspy growl…”  Plus, CG pointed out that the Quad-4s developed “their power at much higher engine speeds, so you have to work them hard for brisk acceleration.”  Flogging a gruff engine for speed is hardly the dream of any driver, particularly ones tempted by smooth imported 4-cylinders.

Even with the 1988 model year arrival of the Quad-4 and the new FWD W-Body Cutlass Supreme (yet another attempt to replace the old RWD G-Special, which ironically was still being sold as the Cutlass Supreme Classic), Oldsmobile sales continued the slide that had started after 1984—1988’s sales total was 36% lower than 1984 despite a slew of new models.  The root cause of the problem was that the new front-wheel-drive Oldsmobiles were subpar, generic GM cookie cutter cars, both in looks and driving dynamics.  The old Cutlass Supreme magic was destroyed, with neither the Calais nor the W-Body Cutlass Supreme able to take over for the successful older car and reinvent the brand for a new generation of buyers.  Apparently, making great cars to attract Baby Boomers (and their parents) was too hard and too expensive.  Surely there was an easier way to lure those pesky Boomers.  Perhaps all that was needed was a new advertising campaign….

This infamous “New Generation of Olds” brand campaign debuted for the 1989 model year, and introduced the punchline “not your father’s Oldsmobile” replete with young “hip” people doing cartwheels on Oldsmobiles.  In this case, there was truth in advertising: these cars were definitely not my father’s Oldsmobiles (actually my mother’s): our Olds were smooth, powerful, good looking, reliable, comfortable cars with good resale values.  These chintzy, ugly, unrefined front drive Oldsmobiles?  Not so much.  Plus, by insulting previous Oldsmobile customers, GM managed to further offend the dwindling brand loyalists.

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Thirtysomething buyers must have thought the advertising was hysterically bad.  They happily continued buying Hondas, and the Accord became the best selling car in the U.S. for 1989.  Close behind in the sales race were successful American designs like the well-executed Ford Taurus.

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At Oldsmobile, the hemorrhaging continued.  Brand sales continued to drop year-over-year.  By 1991, the stale Cutlass Calais was still on the market with the same awful styling that had seemed out-of-date when the car had appeared 7 years before.  During this same time span, Honda had served up 3 generations of the Accord, while the Toyota Camry and Nissan Maxima had seen two design generations.  Olds had simply offered the “Quad-Roar” engine, flush headlamps and passive seat-belts.  1991 Calais sales bottomed out at a miserable 75,414 units for the year.  Nothing Supreme about that.  Total Oldsmobile sales for 1991 were down 62% from 1985 when the Calais was first introduced.

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The crown jewel at Oldsmobile for the 1970s and early 1980s had been the Cutlass Supreme, but GM couldn’t figure out how to reinvent the gravy train in a downsized world.  Olds failed spectacularly in keeping the Cutlass relevant for new buyers, with the Calais being the poster child for how bad design, dated and/or half-baked engineering, wretched marketing and a complete lack of understanding of target customers could conspire to create an unmitigated disaster.

So Jean Lindamood was correct with her prediction of doom: in December 2000 GM announced that Oldsmobile would be closing.  The last Oldsmobile—an Alero, the successor to the Calais/Achieva–was produced in April 2004, almost 20 years from the date when Lindamood penned the 1985 Calais review predicting the Olds division’s death two decades hence.  Sins don’t get much deadlier than that!

 

Related:  Curbside Classic’s Complete Cutlass Chronicles Central