In Motion Classic: 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais – And The Survivor’s Prize Goes To…

If there were a prize for cars that have gone from Being Everywhere to Being Nearly Extinct, GM’s N body may win first place.  Not long ago, N-bodies seemingly resided in every parking lot… but now?  I see a handful per year, and most are abandoned, slowly biodegrading into dust.  Then a few months ago, I found this 1990 Olds Calais, which was not only roadworthy, but actually on a road, and carrying three people, no less.  At last, with these pictures we can journey back to the early 1990s and imagine life when N-bodies roamed the earth.

Few people got genuinely excited about the N-cars, which included the Calais, Pontiac Grand Am and Buick Somerset/Skylark.  Introduced for 1985, these mid-priced cars sold by the zillions, and while some of the later performance-oriented versions piqued some interest, the vast majority of N-cars were run-of-the-mill… as plain as a saltine cracker.  Our featured Olds is no exception, being a base model Cutlass Calais bereft of even bodyside moldings.

If these cars were celebrated at all, it was because they replaced the little-lamented X-body cars (Citation, Omega, etc.).  Judged by that standard there was ample room for celebration because the Calais and its cohorts were reasonably well-built cars with no major shortcomings – exactly what GM wished could have been said about the trouble-prone X-bodies.  The target Calais audience occupied a lower-middle rung of the economic ladder – think of a 28-year old paraprofessional buying her first new car.  Towards that end, Calais delivered a bit more style, comfort and quasi-luxury than did the cheaper J-cars, while still offering a compact size and low price (starting well under $10,000 when first introduced).

Although folks bemoan General Motors’ cookie-cutter 1980s designs, Calais’ rear-end treatment was distinctive, with its slightly convex, vertical tail lights and full-length faux light bar.  Though somewhat bland, Calais’ overall design worked well, and these were contemporary-looking cars when introduced for 1985.

By 1990, though, when our featured car was produced, the package had surpassed its Best-By Date.  Even with some minor styling tweaks (and adding “Cutlass” to the model name) this was clearly a 1980s car trying hard to stay relevant in the 1990s.  Olds attempted to maintain interest in the Cutlass Calais range by offering Quad4 performance models on the upper part of the lineup… as well as bargain-basement prices on the lower end.  Entry-level models held appeal for budget-conscious buyers, particularly those who didn’t mind a dated appearance, or details such as hubcaps that looked like they were designed in the 1970s.  But by any measurement, these cars were considerably less refined than their imported competition, which of course became the kiss of death for GM.  Cutlass Calais remained in production through 1991, when it was replaced by the equally bland Achieva.

The International Harvester front license plate is a nice touch.

The 1990 Cutlass Calais range was rather complex, featuring two body styles (2- & 4-door), four trim levels (base, S, SL & International Series) and four engines (three 4-cyl’s & a V-6).  Of these innumerable variations, our featured car was the very bottom-of-the-line model: A base 2-door with the 2.5L “Iron Duke” engine, which was meaninglessly called the Tech IV in GM parlance.  Notoriously loud and underpowered, the 100-hp Iron Duke was not the best match for a 2,500-lb. car with a 3-speed automatic transmission (as most were equipped).  Chances are that this example left the factory with few options, as even bodyside moldings are missing, which came with a frequently-ordered $265 option package.

With three passengers on board, this car was going nowhere in a hurry.  But it was still going somewhere after nearly 30 years on the road, which is more than can be said of most N-cars.  Oldsmobile’s Calais would qualify for a prize for the most quickly disappearing once-common vehicle.  But at the same time, should prizes also be given to faithful N-bodies still hard at work, our featured Calais would certainly deserve one.


Photographed in Paragould, Arkansas in July 2019.


Related Reading:

The General Motors N-Body: How Quickly We Forget   Jason Shafer

Vintage Review: 1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme   GN

1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme: A Happy Baby   Jon Stephenson