Although the mythical “California car” has become a staple in almost every old car scene, the retirees of suburban Phoenix, Arizona, have done more than their fair share to keep the workhorses of the 80s on the road. Sure, no car stereotype is entirely true–I’m sure people from many different walks of life were stumbling into Oldsmobile dealerships in 1987–but we have the elderly to thank for many of the old survivors still on the road.
And although Oldsmobile’s brand image hadn’t quite fallen into joke territory when this Calais Supreme was new, there was still a growing disconnect between what the upwardly mobile shoppers of the late-eighties were looking for and what General Motors’ innovation division had to offer. This wasn’t an old person’s car at all, just a bargain hunter’s–or anyone else willing to overlook the quickly peeling facade. The flaws of the new-for-1985 N-Body have been well documented, both on CC and elsewhere, so suffice it to say that the circumstances were all rather unfortunate.
A compact, upscale coupe with sporting pretensions and front-wheel drive. Wasn’t that the winning formula for so many darlings of the decade? General Motors certainly thought so, going as far as to develop the N-Body as a replacement for the mid-size, rear-drive G-Body. Of course, that never came to pass, as falling gas prices meant the platform’s raison d’etre had to be switched around. Thankfully, some brilliant market analysts thought to use these shrunken compacts to replace the disastrous, yet groundbreaking, X-Bodies. At least that hints to why the sedans bowed a year late and looked even more ill-proportioned than their stubby coupe counterparts: it was a rush job, of course. At least General Motors is still keeping us busy thinking of all the alternate paths the company could take, even decades after the fact. “But what if” has become a common thread in my musings about both this car and its siblings, the Pontiac Grand Am and Buick Somerset Regal. All were perfectly capable cars up to a point, but their design and execution leaves lots of room for rhetorical questions–namely, what if they were better?
This poor car has certainly avoided many of the common N-Body woes, with its normally brittle plastic lower body cladding holding up quite nicely against the desert sun. And, of course, whatever mill is resting under the weathered hood has likely been treated well–or is that more had at this point? It’s been hypothesized here before that the yuppies on a budget who bought these cars new didn’t exactly give them the same love and care that their parents would bestow upon A-Bodies of a similar age, making survivor N-Bodies like this one scarce on the ground indeed. But, then again, I’ve seen my fair share of octogenarians puttering down the street in an N-Body of this vintage–in fact, I think one was a Calais sedan in the same paint color. You can certainly sell a young(er) person’s car to an old person, and I’ll hazard a guess that that’s what kept many local Phoenix Oldsmobile dealers in business. I know it’s a fool’s errand to make guesses about the original owner of any car, much less one that tried to appeal to so many different people at once. I would have loved to stick around to meet this car’s current caretaker (along with taking the time to get better pictures), but I had a restless brother waiting who didn’t share my shock and awe at seeing a Calais Supreme on the road.
Likewise, I didn’t quite feel comfortable putting my camera up against the window to take a picture of the interior in the middle of a crowded parking lot, but it looked nicely preserved in a deep, rich blue: much more durable than the rapidly fading paint. How could the fragile interior and brittle body cladding both stay fairly intact while the finish disintegrated? Was it a bad batch of clear coat? One of GM’s paint robots having a conniption fit? Wildcat strike? Alien abduction?
I am not ashamed of the fact that I love Oldsmobiles. In fact, I try my best to document every Olds still on the road: like recording the last known examples of a species on the verge of extinction. So, when I saw this 1987 Calais Supreme sitting among the F-150 Platinums and Camry XLEs at my local LA Fitness, I had to stop and take a closer look. But as I circled around and saw the missing paint and the spots of rust, all I could muster up was pity for this tired old machine. The Calais, like its N-Body siblings, had so much potential. The success of other premium compacts at the time makes it clear that these cars’ poor performance, on both the road and the sales charts, was not a forgone conclusion by any means.
The success of the Acura Integra shows that there was a market for exactly this type of vehicle. Could you imagine a world where, spotting a niche to be filled in the FWD premium compact market, General Motors designed the N-Cars to appeal to the type of buyer that Acura–and, to a lesser extent, Audi–so successfully wooed? And what on Earth were they planning as replacements for the G-Body sedans that were still soldiering on? I’m sure the engineering department at GM could have started out with similar goals if they were prescient enough to notice the gap–but here I go again with the what-ifs and the guessing games. Of course, nothing was quite this straightforward when the N platform was being developed, and I’m sure every choice GM made was justified by mountains of memos and research. Or am I giving them too much credit?
Poor General Motors, still being torn apart for the N-Bodies thirty years later. Of course, their underpinnings, despite being born out of desperation, soldiered on until 2005. Now that’s unfortunate. But I was feeling fairly torn apart myself at the time, trying to figure out what on Earth to write up as a first submission. Should I keep it simple and write a “My Curbside Classic” piece? I certainly couldn’t take the easy way out; that’s what got the half-baked coupes out the door in the first place. And then I laid eyes on this mini-me Calais–a Supreme, no less–and the tragic story of the N-Body played out in front of me. It looks like these cars were good for something after all.
Either way, I didn’t feel like sticking around for the owner, especially not when I heard the owner of the Mercedes parked right next to this Olds walking over. There’s no way I’d be able to talk my way out of that situation. “You’re scoping out that heap and not my car? Likely story.” I’m sure whoever took this car out to the gym today is quite the character: certainly not your usual suburban LA Fitness fare. Was this Calais the Audi Q3 of its day, bought new with the hopes of impressing local gym buddies or fellow PTA members? Is there any modern comparison to the N-Body out there at all?
Maybe I’m not giving this car enough credit. You can’t choose your parents, after all. And this Olds seems to be doing quite nicely; despite its unfortunate circumstances, it still looks right at home in a suburban parking lot. I hope whoever owns this car today doesn’t let it succumb to the same maladies that sent its platform mates to their early graves. What does it feel like to soldier on as so many of your siblings drop like flies? Quite the tortured soul indeed.