The GM N-body cars of the ’80’s have been covered several times over the years here at Curbside Classic, usually when a tired, can’t-believe-this-is-still-on-the-road example pops up. Those have been occasions to reflect on GM’s troubled years and questionable choices. The Calais was even made #26 on the GM Deadly Sin list.
I believe all the sins have been forgiven for this remarkable example that I ran into recently. It seems to confirm the CC motto that every car has a story and goes one step further in proving that every car can be loved. So, click through for a positive take on this happy survivor.
I met this car and it’s owner at a local weekly cruise in, where they turned out for Buick-Olds-Pontiac Week. I noticed it right away because while Calais sightings are very rare these days, I certainly haven’t seen one in this condition in at least 20 years.
To refresh our memory, the Calais and its Buick Somerset Regal and Pontiac Grand Am siblings were introduced for 1985, originally planned as a downsized replacement for the mega-popular G special (formerly A) coupes. As market conditions changed, GM decided to keep the rear-drive Cutlass Supreme and siblings and just sell the new N cars as additional models. The Oldsmobile Calais fit in the showroom just above the Firenza and below the Cutlass Supreme. Or perhaps it was below the Cutlass Ciera. My they had a lot of car models back then! At least they dropped the Omega after 1984, so the Calais could probably be considered its replacement even though it was specifically marketed to a younger demographic and was initially only available as a coupe.
Much has been said about the N-body styling, most of it negative, but it is worthwhile to note that the owner of this Calais says he bought his car brand new in June 1985 and was mainly attracted to it because of its looks. While many Calais owners probably considered it a short term affair with a semi-disposable car, this has been an example of a loving 34-years-and-counting marriage.
No longer daily driven, it is still driven weekly and has logged 157k miles to date. It shares garage space with a 2001 Bullitt Mustang and a late model Corvette.
The interior is in excellent condition with original cloth upholstery. The thin rimmed steering wheel was shared with most other Olds models at the time, though the optional leather wrapped Sport wheel would have been more in keeping with the mildly sporty bucket seat interior’s theme. The owner compensated for this with a wheel wrap. Oldsmobile fitted full instrumentation on the car, a nice touch.
The car is equipped with the standard “Tech 4” 92hp 2.5L four cylinder with electronic fuel injection, a.k.a. the Iron Duke built by Pontiac. The owner states another reason he liked the Calais is that it was a practical smaller car that, unlike the Cutlass Supreme, was available with a manual transmission, which was a must have for him. The 5 speed stick wasn’t available with the 125hp 3.0 V6. He says the 4 cylinder engine has been fine and only noticeably lacks power on steep hills on the highway.
Scrupulously maintained, the car has not had any major problems. The only significant repair required so far has been a new valve cover gasket. He hoped it would be more reliable than the troublesome ’79 Mustang it replaced and it certainly has exceeded expectations.
The paint is original and the body is rust free. Having spent its whole life in the Houston area, the former is remarkable though the latter is to be expected even on a car that is known to be rust prone. The wheels are aftermarket, not because the owner really wanted to replace the original aluminum wheels but because he couldn’t find any tire stores that could sell him the P205/70R13 size tires. In 2019, 13 inch tires are as obsolete as brick-sized analog cellular phones or Atari video game consoles, but without the charm. Tough to find, and white wall versions like it originally came with would be pure unobtainium.
Divided grille; stand up hood ornament; formal roof; vertically split taillights. All the Cutlass Supreme styling cues are there, just in a compact ’80’s package. Perhaps GM hit a bullseye on a target that didn’t really exist: young buyers who wanted a traditional style Oldsmobile coupe in a smaller modern package. A baby Cutlass. Given the epic success the Cutlass had been over the previous 15 years and the fact that Oldsmobile had its highest sales year ever in 1985 (1.2 million, 2nd place in U.S.), you could maybe understand GM thinking they could repackage that same basic formula in perpetuity.
Though sales fell 35k short of Olds’ optimistic expectations the first year, it really wasn’t a terrible showroom performer. While handily outsold by the RWD Cutlass in ’85 and ’86, it sold over 100k yearly though 1989 and bested the new FWD Cutlass in ’88 and ’89. Sales dropped off for its final year in 1991 but even then it did better than its Achieva successor would throughout Oldsmobile’s sad decade of the ’90’s.
In any case, Oldsmobile definitely hit the target with the buyer of this Calais. He not only liked it when new, he has kept it and lovingly maintained it all the years since. Oldsmobile Division may have been shuttered in 2004 and struggling-to-this-day GM may have barely made it through its near death experience in 2009, but this remarkably happy baby Cutlass has survived, looking great and ready for a few more decades of faithful service.
Photographed in Houston, TX May 5, 2019