Malaise (def): a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.
Our task today is to determine the exact cause and sources of the malaise this Calais engenders. It shouldn’t be hard.
I experienced a distinct wave of malaise the first time I saw one of these. It must have been the summer of 1984, in Santa Monica. We were out for a walk, heading to the ocean; I was pushing our big twin stroller with our two little kids. I spotted two cars heading our way, almost identical stubby coupes with a weird chopped off roof that I did not immediately recognize, which was very odd for me. They had antennas on their roofs, and were obviously driving as a group. As they got close to us, they had to stop for a traffic light. There were two similar-looking guys in each one. I could see test equipment in front of the passenger. These were obviously GM pre-production cars in the process of testing or certification.
Wow, my first spy shot sighting of an unreleased car. How exciting!
As they were sitting there close to us, I could make out the badges on their sides: Calais and Somerset. Unmistakably GM, and now I remembered reading about their impending arrival in the magazines, as GM’s next wave assault on the Japanese, to finally do what the J-Cars failed to do: strike a mortal blow to the Honda Accord. Suddenly a vague but palpable feeling of malaise and impending doom arose in me. These are going to take on the Accord? Well, they better have something very new and competitive under the hood, and a really stylish interior, because in terms of their exterior styling, they already look dead on arrival. I never would have imagined feeling this way about a car I was spotting before its release. A turning point for me.
Of course they were going to have something very new and high tech under the hood! This was GM, after all, the world’s biggest (although rapidly shrinking) car maker. No more Mr. Nice Guy after the J-Car fiasco. This time GM was going to bring All-American steak knives to the fight.
When the light turned green, both coupes emitted the unmistakable and pathetic aural signature of what could only be an Iron Duke 2.5 L four, in the act of impersonating acceleration. Oh no!
Oh yes indeed. Sporting oxymoronic “Tech 4” badges and a whopping 92 hp, GM had once again utterly failed to recognize that a massaged (and massage inducing) Chevy II four (yes, that’s its origins, even if it was revised some) dating back to 1962 was the kiss of death in competing against Honda and all the other Japanese in 1985. But yes, GM did finally give it balance shafts…in 1988. Something to look forward to! The even More High Tech IV.
And what transmission was going to be multiplying the Iron Duke’s torque output in likely 90% of these? The three-speed THM-125 automatic.
Meanwhile, Honda Accords were sporting delightfully smooth OHC engines and four-speed automatics. Oh well…at least the venerable Buick V6, in one of its less-desirable 3.0 L editions, was optional.
The N-Body’s exterior design represented the nadir of GM’s design malaise during their decade from hell in the 80s. Who thought millions of stubby, boxy coupes and sedans in various sizes and price ranges with the endlessly repeated vertical backlight was a good idea? Irv Rybicki!
I was driving a 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe at the time, which was my frame of reference for domestic coupes. Here it was two years later, and GM drops these little turds on us?
This was bad enough in 1985, but it was way beyond malaise when the same look appeared a year later on the much more expensive E-Body coupes. It was the unmistakable feeling of impending death. That colossal blunder is what inspired me to start the GM DS series: #1 was for the 1986 Riviera; now it’s time to turn to its stylistic inspiration, although that’s abusing to that word.
The N-Body coupes looked dull, boring, cheap, predictable, and uninspired from day one. When Honda unveiled the new Accord Coupe a couple of years later, they looked like clown cars. For the sad clowns, that is.
The Calais’ interior further reinforced how completely bankrupt GM’s interior design was at the time. Klutzy, fussy, cheap and tasteless.
Sorry, but I’m going to have to show you the Accord interior, as painful as it is (for GM). Clean, tasteful, up-to-date, and dripping with quality materials.
This exercise of even trying to compare the superb gen3 Accord with the N-Body coupe is actually an exercise in absurdity. Every single detail and part, and most of importantly, the sum of all those details and parts created such a vast disparity in the feeling these cars engendered. The Accord showed that it was possible for the first time ever to infuse a popular-priced car with the qualities that had made certain expensive German imports so desirable. And even improve on a number of those qualities. It was a genuine revelation; qualities we take for granted now. But then it was new, unexpected, exciting, inspiring and lifted one’s spirits.
Here’s what the Calais engendered, once again. Its license plate speaks much more eloquently than I ever could.
As does its finely-crafted badges, evoking a different (Brougham) era at a time when something truly new and radical was needed.
The Calais and its N-Body siblings were the third deadly popular-priced new car by GM within five years: the 1980 X-Bodies, the 1982 J-Bodies, and then these. Each one utterly failed to grasp the rapid changes taking place in the market, a time when radical new standards of performance, design, quality, handling and durability were being established by the Japanese competition. It was a revolutionary period, and GM got its head cut off. Repeatedly.
Related: All the GM Deadly Sins Are Here
General Motors went from having General Eisenhower in charge of design to Colonel Klink.
Bingo! You win the internet for the day!
Well, I’m Sergeant Schultz. “I see NOTHING!
Comment of the day. Perfect.
Im guessing because these made production someone thought they were a good idea and that awfull preschool like styling would sell cars, Honda and others must have fallen about laughing, the Thunderbird looks ok in comparism,
Mopars K car coupes made these look like prom queens in comparison. To think it save Chrysler, Says it all about the aspirations of mid 80s American drivers. These , the K cars and the Yugo GV. Battle of the turds!.
I remember when both of those cars came out. I knew people who bought each and got a couple of rides in them. In my part of the country GM was still considered The Standard – what normal, respectable adults drove, in the way normal respectable adults drive Toyotas now. I remember that neither car did absolutely anything for me, but then GM cars had this effect on me for several years by then, so I figured maybe it was just me.
I cannot imagine settling for one of these now.
These will always hold a place in my history as my first brand new car was a 1990 Pontiac Grand Am SE sedan with the Quad 4 engine.
I don’t remember too much about driving it now, but it was a decent car save for the electrical gremlin in the engine which would drain the battery dead upon sitting for a few hours.
Irv Rybicki was chief of GM design at this point. He gets a lot of stick for the way GM´s cars looked at this time. But I think it is really the senior management who deserve the blame. They created a situation where cost accounting drove design. They forgot that cars are an emotional product for many buyers. From a styling point of view, I suspect Rybicki was going after a European-inspired rationalism. That made sense in Europe but less so in the US. Interestingly, the Japanese never served up gruel as thin as GM, Ford and Chrysler did in the 1980s.
Incidentally, the drawings for the Cutlass Calais from this period show a design that would have looked great if a) it wasn´t copied on so many other GM cars and b) was executed with more finesse. Engineers and accountants killed this styling theme.
I recall reading an article about the ’84 downsized Cadillac. There were real fears of even higher gas prices in the future and that engineers were even planning for a four cylinder engine. This was a confusing time for Cadillac as they struggled to find a new identity for their cars.
‘From a styling point of view, I suspect Rybicki was going after a European-inspired rationalism.’
Thanks for that insight. I’ve always wondered what kind of aesthetic drove his designs. Usually you can look at a car and have a pretty good idea of what the stylists were aiming for. Lower it, add bigger wheels and bingo, that’s pretty much what would have been on the drawing board. But not here. While those usual techniques would definitely help, it would still look odd. Misshapen. Deformed, even.
Unfortunately this looks like a cut-and-shut of previous model panels force-fit onto a smaller platform. It’s much better integrated than that Buick equivalent, but still rather homely. While it might appeal to dyed-in-the-wool earlier Olds buyers, it’s hard to imagine anyone else looking at it and deciding they had to have one. And that’s just looking at the outside…..
The Honda or this? No wonder Honda was so big in the US. No wonder GM was losing market share.
Well. Ma bought a 1985 accord hatchback in 1989 to replace her horrible hair shirt 1986 Sentra which hydroplaned and got totalled. She had heard all the stories about honda bliss.
The accord lunched its transmission 2 years later. We did not become true believers in the honda religion. It was replaced with . . . A 1991 calais. We REALLY liked the Calais. That formal backlight was very space efficient. You could fit adults in the back seat and the trunk had a generous opening instead of the mail slots today. 92 hp was probably more hp than the honda had as well as more torque. It was much more coordinated than a very nice 1989 Sundance we had at the same time. The interior materials were not cheap or klunky; they were quite high quality and I remember seeing the same vinyls used in a friend’s audi at the time. They were not cheap or tasteless and the seats were very comfortable. It got great mileage and handled well.
The oldsmobile was better than the accord but suffered the peculiar fate of being rear ended 3 times and finally it got t boned by a town car. I cannot say how reliable it would have been for a very long time but it was faultless for the 4 years we had it and all four of us went to the beach in it, took a number of trips in it, and it was always comfortable and refined.
That particular accord was not very durable but honda transmissions have not been as long lasting as gm or Chrysler torqueflite transmissions generally. The v6+ automatic transmission in Hondas was almost as bad for a while as the Chrysler ultra drive.
Plenty of people found these cars compelling and liked the little limousine styling of the buick and oldsmobile versions and the budget bmw styling of the grand am. Gm sold across all three marques a goodly number of these, and even people who preferred the accord or camry were put off by the Honda and toyota dealers attitudes. Back then, honda and Toyota dealers sold everything above list with $400 pinstripes and $300 wheel locks. Pontiac, buick, and oldsmobile tried to earn your business.
They don’t survive today because most of them ended up in the hands of young teenage drivers and led brief and exciting second lives. Apparently the kind of people who bought accords or camrys. . . Wait, I knew a couple at the time. . . Kept the accord or camry for themselves and got junior a used grand am.
I can also attest to the 1985 Honda Accord not being ‘all that’. Two areas that auto manufacturers traditionally scrimp to save money are the brakes and seats, and the former is exactly where Honda scrimped on my brand-new 1985 Accord sedan; the front brake rotors warped at 10,000 miles and the dealership said it wasn’t covered under warranty.
After I paid to have them fixed, I traded it the next day. It was the only Honda I ever owned and have never bought another. And, from the few things I’ve read, the brakes rotors on the latest Hondas are no different, with routine replacement the norm.
Now, Toyotas, that’s a different story. Sterile and boring, yes, but sterile, boring, and reliable wins the race.
My parents bought a 1986 Accord for a second car. They were always Toyota fans but decided to try Honda given their reputation. That car was constantly in the shop and had all sorts of gremlins from power steering, to electrical, to transmission. They dumped thousands of dollars into it hoping that the next repair would be the last one for a while, but it never was. They traded it on a new ’95 Escort wagon which soldered on for 260,000 miles until the dealer screwed something up repairing a timing belt. After that experience with the Accord, my parents would never consider another Honda product again.
As for the subject of this article, my friend had one of these while we were in high school. I don’t remember it being a horrible car, but it wasn’t great either. I do remember it being underpowered and the back seat lacking the space needed for my 6’4″ frame to comfortably fit back there.
One of my memories of the car was that one day my friend slammed the driver’s side door and a 8″ piece of bondo fell off of the front fender just behind the headlight, leaving a ugly scar on what was otherwise a really clean body. Not GM’s fault, but still funny nonetheless.
We went the other way. From Detroit’s products to a pair of Hondas. Two Accords. Last I saw the one Accord it had close to 300K on it with nary a bit of trouble outside of wear items. The other car was purchased new and rode off into the sunset with 150K and again, nary a problem.
I’ve long wondered how some people had endless trouble with a product while others had no problems at all. Variable quality? Quality of repairs? Environment? (Weather, salt, rain?) Or use profiles?
I have the same opinion as you do. I bought my daughter an 86 Accord coupe and remember being so impressed by the build quality (being used to Detroit stuff). I guess opinions are like belly buttons!
Brakes have never been a high point on Hondas. We have had a couple of Accords, a CRX, a CRV, and an MDX. And a couple of Honda motorcycles and lawn mowers.
I can usually get 50K out of the factory set of front rotors. Then I just replace them with quality aftermarket rotors and problem is solved. Factory pads might last me 80K or 90K on the front and 200K on the rear for a FWD Honda. I do buy factory pads and shoes. Thicker brake material so they last longer than most of the aftermarket parts I’ve looked at.
On our MDX I replaced the front rotors at 60K with good aftermarket rotors, re-using the original factory front pads. We’re at 105K or so and no problems. No rear brake problems. Brakes are silent.
Beware, lots of cheap aftermarket rotors out there for Hondas. Avoid white box import rotors made in far away factories by unfamiliar companies. Made that mistake a couple of times. I try not to let the brakes define my whole experience with a vehicle IF it is a one and done repair.
A friend with a recent Corvette just went through this. Light duty cruising and yet the brakes warped badly at 10K miles. Took a call to GM to get the brakes repaired under warranty. GM said – we’ll do it for free only once. I can see how that might sour me on a brand. If I spend $60K+ on a car and it has brake problems after using the car lightly and they tell me not our problem, I might be done with them too. A brake rotor for that car is $1800. A brake caliper is $750. brake pads are $550.
To be fair, rotor life depends on three things:
-Who is driving the car. I went 70,000 km on my Acura TL when I replaced the rear brakes. The fronts were fine. The average driver is not driving her/his car to minimise brake wear but I am. It also saves fuel.
-Where you live. Yesterday, I was going down the infamous “Cut” coming down from North Vancouver the Second Narrows Bridge. This is a long and steep grade. Ahead of me was a 2001 Dodge Caravan which hit the brakes at the top of the hill and kept them on until the bottom. I could smell them.
-The quality of the brake system to begin with. Brakes on Caravans of this generation are crap. In hilly West Vancouver, Caravan brakes rarely went more than 20,000 km. The rotors were so cheap and thin they had to be replaced every time. That said, in 2004 we were doing pads and rotors all in for $330.
The Caravan is just an example but it’s mostly up to the driver how long brakes last.
This would be a fair assessment if it weren’t for one thing: owning multiple, different makes and models of new vehicles (some substantially cheaper), all operated in the same locale in the same manner, and only having ‘one’ where the front rotors warped and required replacement within 10k miles in less than a year.
So, Honda didn’t pay for the warranty work and lost a customer for life.
There’s all three of ’80s GM’s killer problems bearing down on this one;
1. Irv Rybicki’s distaste of pushing the boundaries on styling. PN covered this well in the article, and the least broughamy of the triplets – the Pontiac Grand Am – outsold the Oldsmobuicks combined from Day One. Whether it always should’ve been only a Pontiac and B-O-P telescoped into one division is another topic…
2. Roger Smith’s back-of-the-house lavishness and unwillingness to put money where the customer could see it, combined with
3. A disastrous circa-1980 bet that gas would stay high.
That meant that these cars came out either late, rushed or both due to Smith’s big reorg and robotization project, looking too “mature” because they were originally planned to replace the RWD G-Special coupes, and cheapened-out to both make up for the cost of the former and compete at a lower price point than the latter.
Agreed on the “more appropriate” styling of the Pontiac. A Grand Am LE was the 3rd Pontiac it took to get me through college (there’s a lesson there, but mainly it resulted from my parents handing down whatever they no longer wanted right about the time interesting things started breaking). The interior wasn’t Honda-ideal but was a lot closer than the right-angle, stick-on chrome from the Calais.
This car wore out its welcome when paring it on any inclined surface during rain resulted in a pool of water in the front or read drivers-side footwell – depending on the angle. Only parking it dead-level would prevent the leaking. No obvious damage to the door seal. The final insult was the AC crapping out. Funny that the car was 6 years old with about 80K when that happened, and my first hint of AC issues on the current Mazda ride was as 14 years old with 112K miles.
This is yet another illustration of GM and Ford not really looking anywhere for inspiration than at each other. Their philosophy in both of the board rooms must have been : Brand X is doing it, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
Remember, at this point in time, Ford was offering the Tempo/Topaz with their 2/3s of a ancient, wheezy inline, OHV engine.
I almost bought an Accord 2 door, 1 of my many stupid, financial mistakes, I thought they were quite elegant looking. But when I look at the pictures of this Calais all I can think is that GM had a VERY low opinion of its potential customers.
About the nicest things you can say about the N-body are: you had a very wide choice of colors compared to a Honda Accord, and you could spec it the way you wanted, it wasn’t a case of its our way or the highway.
No argument about the four-cylinder engine used in the Tempo and Topaz, but at least the Fords offered interior and exterior design that was miles ahead of the GM trio. The impact of Ford’s “aero look” has been dulled over the years because virtually everyone has adopted some form of it. But the aero Fords were a breath of fresh air at the time. This Oldsmobile Calais and its corporate siblings looked stale from day one.
It always intrigues me how the ‘aero look’ is so identified with Ford. Really, it was more a matter of getting in step with what the rest of the free world was doing. Ford had their eyes on Europe and Japan. GM was pretending Europe and Japan didn’t exist, both stylistically and technically. Their management was living in the past, when GM were in their glory years, and seemingly hadn’t realized that imports were eating their lunch.
Europe yes(Audi, Mercedes, Ford Europe etc), but Japan was largely following the folded paper styling trend of 70s Europe through the rest of the 80s that aero replaced, even the Accord, while a great car wasn’t really that cutting edge in the styling department with its pop up headlights. Really what happened to American car design was they effectively skipped the globally cutting edge trends of roughly 1975-1982 and instead stuck with what was fashionable from 70-74ish (GM and Iacocca being the biggest knuckle draggers). Aero for Ford was really a comeback to contemporary for an American company.
What Japan showed was that a mainstream car company could build a high tech “exotic” small engine that performs as well as it saves on gas without having the quality and reliability of an Alfa Romeo. Ford fixed the looks part, but for as modern looking as the Tempo/Topaz were the effort to modernize underhood was nonexistent, pure 70s malaise engineering lopping off cylinders of already old engines.
I remember back in the late seventies a friend tried to tell me Toyota was going to popularize DOHC engines in mainstream family sedans. Told him he was dreaming.
Peter Wilding, I had the North American-centric view at the time. We knew about European design, but in those days (early 1980s), expensive European imports were a bridge too far for many North American buyers due to concerns about reliability and dealer service.
Many rural areas and small towns only had dealerships handling Big Three brands. It was thus a big deal when the modern aero-look debuted on a Ford sedan that everyone who could buy a new car could afford, and could be serviced at the local Ford dealer.
Ah! There’s the difference. Now I have more of an understanding. Thanks, Geeber!
Australians have always been much less inclined to buy one size/class of car. This has meant foreign cars have always comprised a greater market share. Not only the usual British Empire suspects, but Fiats, Renaults, Peugeots and Simcas (the latter sold by Chrysler) were common in the fifties. And the French marques had reasonable service backup. Peugeot’s success in various round-Australia trials in the fifties really made their reputation. Most small-town mechanics could cope – if they could get the parts.
Here in Australia we were exposed to Japanese cars from the early sixties, when they started driving the British and the Euros off the map with their build quality and reliability. And service back-up. By the seventies while you could still buy a family four of British origin from Ford, GM, or Chrysler, most folk went Japanese for the better quality. And all those options that came standard. Dynamics weren’t a concern for most. And in our climate, rust wasn’t an issue. The American Big Three would really rather sell you a family six. But they never really seemed to come to grips with the concept that some people didn’t want a car that big.
Nobody wanted to be left with an orphan car. Unlike the Europeans, the Japanese brands were represented in rural areas and small towns. While you might have copped a bit of flak from some of the older folks about buying Japanese (on the basis of the war), they would nod and agree they were of better quality than the Hillman or Morris they drove. And better value. Meanwhile Nissan had a stranglehold on the ‘sporty’ market with the 510, which carried over with the 610, and faded away with later models .
Then Chrysler started selling the Mitsubishi Sigma (in place of the Hillman Hunter), which rapidly became the default family four. They could only wish the Valiant had that degree of success in its class.
It’s no secret that, for far too long, Ford and GM just looked at each other as the competition. In that respect, the Calais was good enough for whatever Ford was building to counter it. Considering how difficult it would be to take on the Japanese, I guess it’s understandable. To get to where the Japanese were would have taken a seismic shift in domestic corporate culture, and I’m not sure that kind of a gamble would have worked, at least not in a palatable timeframe.
A case in point is the Saturn experiment. GM threw a lot of money at Saturn to have a Japanese, clean-sheet ethos from the ground up. But, in the end, the bean-counters had to step in and Saturn became just another, typical GM division, finally succumbing to US economic reality.
I bought a 1985 Calais in 1996 as a first car. V6 engine, had the upgraded suspension package. Steering wheel from a Toronado, wheels from a Grand Am. Was a fun car to drive, but the three speed automatic was a real weak spot. Kept it over 3000 RPM on the highway. Build quality wasn’t good, lots of little issues that a 10 year old Honda would never have. Also an interference type engine, which is what ended our relationship
I was 18 in 1985, and I must say that these were completely invisible to me. The only GM car I was drooling over was the 1967 Impala fastback I walked past every day on my way home from high school.
How they thought the Iron Duke was competitive at that point is beyond me. I later spent a lot of time behind the wheel of my Aunt’s Cutlass Ciera, and although it moved the car down the road it reminded me of a tractor engine or a paint shaker..
The 153 Chevy II engine was based on the new straight six, from the early ’60’s. The 151 Iron Duke, that came out in ’77, was entirely different. It was not “a revised” version of the 153.
The Iron Duke was derived from the GM do Brazil four-cylinder, which itself was derived from the Chevy II four, so the Duke does descend (somewhat indirectly) from the 153. Surprisingly few parts wound up being shared, but the engineering is very similar.
ADM, read some previous Curbside articles where Mr. Niedermeyer explains in detail how the 153 engine evolved into the Iron Duke.
Regardless of its origins, it was expedient rather than competitive.
The interior image of the Calais above, believe it or not, shows the Calais in the best possible light. That’s because the parking brake is not engaged. If it was, you’d see that GM forgot to leave space for the hand brake lever to be raised, and lifting it forced the armrest to be pushed up an inch or two.
What I recall after driving a 3rd-gen Accord was how Honda’s drivetrain was as smooth and powerful as the GM V6/3-speed automatic combination, yet had better fuel economy than GM’s Iron Duke/3 speed auto combo. Honda offered the best of both worlds in a single driveline.
Yes, I recall that faux pas regarding the parking brake. I believe the issue wasn’t rectified until the 2nd model year (1986).
I also couldn’t understand GM’s fascination with the near-vertical back windows in the 80s — I thought they looked terrible and was relieved that the 1986 H-body coupes finally had some slant to the back glass and C-pillars.
The H-body coupes demonstrate the problem with a sloped back window – it leads to less rear seat headroom and/or a smaller trunk opening, as well as a dirtier, harder-to-see-through rear window because (a) more grime will fall on a sloped rear window than a nearly-vertical rear window, and (b) the crud that collects on the slanted windows will be viewed by the driver at an angle, making it seem even more soiled than it is. This can be easily demonstrated by comparing the 1986 C body coupes (98/Electra) with the otherwise similar H body coupes (88/LeSabre). The C bodies are more practical, but they’re also boxy and un-coupe-like. The H bodies are less practical but look much better. (Unrelated, but why wasn’t there a Bonneville H body coupe? Wasn’t Pontiac supposed to be the sporty division? GM in the ’80s was so weird).
I took a lot of business trips to Colorado in 1985. The high altitude and twisty mountain roads above Boulder when we could get away from work were a good test of rental cars. The usual fare was Tempo’s, with the occasional GM A Body. I remember my boss – an Accord owner – getting a Somerset once. He wasn’t impressed.
I never understood how these were allowed to leave the design stage. That styling was utterly dated even in 1985 and the proportions were off. GM could and should have, at the very least, done a rash face-lift job on that C-pillar – surely this would not have been too much to ask for. Instead they kept unloading those dreadful things on the public. I mean, what were they expecting?
GM was undergoing a lot of corporate chaos due to Roger Smith’s infamous corporate-wide reorganization scheme. New vehicle programs were often pushed into the background, or delayed, as a result.
Plus, GM management was still operating under the assumption that GM was the style leader, and a large segment of the population only bought cars from the competition because GM hadn’t yet bothered to enter that segment. That may have been true in 1965, and perhaps in 1975, but not by 1985.
GM’s theme song?
Roger Smith must vie with Donald Stokes as probably the worst automotive CEO of all times, yes. But even that is no excuse given that by that time one had the Audi 100 and Ford’s various aero designs showing the way forward. The GM cars looked like something which might have been sort of right in 1976, but not 10 years later.
I’ve owned two of these. The first, a used ’91 with 8,000 miles, was acquired because of the need to have a reliable vehicle for a 30 mile each way commute to work that would replace my wrecked-and-repaired poorly’83 Subaru wagon with 170,000 miles. The wagon had eaten the auto transmission a year before. Calais 1.0 did yeoman service for almost two years until then-wife needed to replace her worn out on the same commute vehicle and was used as a trade-in on a very leftover new ’91 Subaru Loyale found on a dealer’s back lot in late ’92…which promptly lunched IT’S transmission six months later. It was reliable, rode well and quiet for something with the 2.5 Duke, but not anything I’d want to go corner carving with.
Considering the oft-heard tales of woe with clutchless transmissions from Honda (my roommates Honda Odyssey transmission cost her $5,000 to fix at 100,000) and Nissan, I’m avoiding anything Japanese that doesn’t have a clutch pedal now.
Calais 2.0 was found in 2000 when I needed a winter beater for my way out in the boonies job as my RWD Tracker wasn’t up to the 4 month ice and snow derby there and the soft top really let the cold in. Bought at a buy-here, pay here for $1,999 to avoid sales taxes, I used my credit card to pay for the thing and then paid it off using my mileage reimbursements from work. It was as good a road car as the other, the Quad-4 in this one had more power. The only issue was that it liked to eat the ignition coil packs on the engine. After the second replacement in 12 months ($400 and in the shop for a week each time) and salt-induced rust getting worse, it was traded for a sweet looking ’73 Galaxie with the 400M in summer 2001.
The Calais wasn’t a car for the enthusiast unless you got the 180 hp 442 W-40 with the 5 speed, but coil packs aside, they were decent cars for trips and commuting and I rather liked the styling. Tellingly, I haven’t seen any on the streets in the past 5 years. Not one.
On top of all the other bad things about this car, is that they stole the name for it from Cadillac. Which of course de-valued it for many generations to come now….
I’m sure there are probably lovely parts of Calais, but all I think of is a dreary ferry terminal area, usually at night, and having to wait in line to get on and then begin vomiting on board once underway to cross the channel. Not pleasant associations, but perhaps appropriate in this case.
Cadillac owners tour Europe, junior-Olds owners go to the Adirondacks and Northern New England. Cadillac Calais, Oldsmobile Cumberland Head.
This for nothing Jim! I read the post, read all the comments down to yours, no 35 year repressed memories of Calais resurfaced till the second-to-last sentence of your comment. Though for once, I wasn’t the one doing the vomiting. But hey, I think that my hotel room near the ferry terminal only cost $8 a night if I did the franc to dollar conversion right; and yes I arrived late at night after driving from Geneva in a much better eighties GM product, an Opel Corsa.
“a dreary ferry terminal area” is a very good description of that place… In my case I usually experienced it at some ungodly hour after having driven from Vienna on my way to the UK. A cup of dreadful machine coffee and then off to the ferry. Or on the way back, trying to get on the Autoroute asap so as to avoid the German traffic jams.
Oh: and it always seemed to rain when I was there.
An exquisite find with that license plate!
Is the plate worth more than the car?
This car has been featured here I think – I remember seeing photos of it and I believe the young owner got it from an older relative?
AH – it was caught by Paul in traffic last year and it’s owner, named Daniel, left this:
“That is actually me that got spotted. I absolutely love my Oldsmobile, I’ve never seen a Calais before and I had to have this one when I saw it. I bought it early last year with only 40,000 miles and now I’m already up to 70,000. It’s my daily driver and it has certainly been nothing but reliable to me. I only drive older vehicles and this is actually one of the newest cars I’ve owned. I actually recently just got a drawing done of it!”
The Iron Duke is one of the worst motors I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. By the time I got around to driving on, I was used Toyota, Honda and VW four cylinder motors. The Duke moaned, groaned, shook and sounded like ball bearings in a coffee can at anything over 3000 RPM. What were they thinking?
I don’t know what vehicle you had, but for myself the Iron Duke is one of the smoothest 4 banger’s of all time. GM spent much engineering to create a smooth 4 cylinder. Another site, “the truth about cars” found an iron duke in a wrecking yard that had 425,000 miles on the odometer, so they are durable.
Smoothest 4 banger of all time?
Then you have not experienced many four cylinder motors.
I’m comparing in the era of 1985, balance shafts make a difference, but the early Iron duke had no balance shafts and ran smoothly. Try some Volvo 4 cylinders, they rock and roll like a cement mixer. Yet there are many Volvo enthusiasts. Ford 2300 wasn’t smooth, the Renault engines buzz like a chainsaw. The Chrysler 4’s run rough, try a PT cruiser, it’s like a vibrator in the seat cushion. Saturn’s are particularly rough, in fact I’ve wondered why anyone would buy one when new. The Iron Duke was a simple, pushrod engine, nothing really to go wrong with it. There’s a road test of the new 151 in the 1977 Astre, they explain the engineering to smooth the engine.
Compared to a VW EA827, an Iron Duke is not smooth. Compared to a Toyota 2TC, too.
Those are fine engines, but remove the balance shafts and compare.
Neither the EA827 nor 2TC had a balance shaft.
Then why does the aftermarket sell new one’s for these engines? I looked it up, both use balance shafts.
I used Google to look up the balance shafts and that’s not reliable. I don’t see a shaft for the Toyota, the VW has intermediate shafts in some applications
The Fiat DOHC four of the 70s is smooth at any speed, with decent carbs and exhaust it is smooth 2000 rpm past when the Duke has blown itself to pieces. And that’s the BIG Fiat 4, the 1600. The 1300 SOHC will hold together on an accidental downshift from 5th to 2nd at speed (BTDT, saw the End of the 9000rpm tach)… the Duke is a tough motor, but smooth or willing to rev, it isn’t.
Well sure you can have a exotic engine that must cost double or triple perform better than a cheap workaday engine built for high volume. I’ve never even seen one of these Fiat 4’s, what did they import like 5 or 6 into the USA? Here’s a better example. I once viewed a Rolls Royce engine idling. You could see the fan turning, but there was complete silence and no motion at all. If the fan wasn’t turning anyone would swear it’s not running. You can’t compare this with other engines.
February 1977 Car and Driver road test of the Astre, explains in detail the measures taken by Pontiac to create a smooth running 4, even the bore and stroke was designed towards that end.
When I looked at that pic of The Iron duke, I felt like I had viewed Medusa.
Nobody questions the durability of the Iron Duke, if you saw only one 1980s car today it probably was a Iron Duke-powered postal LLV.
We got an 84 Accord hatchback in 87. on the positive side it was more refined than our 77 Accord and had air conditioning and a cassette. On the minus side the 5 speed had very tall gearing and softer supsension so it didn’t feel as eager and sharp handling as the 77 Accord or my Scirocco. I was spared any N body GM products and only drove J cars a few times.
When I first saw these, in Car and Driver, I just could not believe GM was serious. And that was just looking at the photos. It looked so gawky and uncoordinated. Those deep windows would be great for visibility, sure, but they made the centre body portion look like it was constricted to a different scale, cut out from a larger car.
There was no single front-to-rear line for the eye to follow; instead they eye followed the convex hoodline, made a disjointed drop of a few inches, then followed the concave window line, then stepped up bit for the short flat trunk. In contrast the Accord had an upper body crease which ran from front to rear, caught the light and integrated the whole. GM used to be leaders in that sort of thing, and now this was the best they could do? It looked like something a couple of good ol’ farm boys cobbled together, rather than something for people to aspire to.
And that’s without getting into the carryover tech. More farm boy junk pile stuff. GM made a four out of a cutdown 1960’s pushrod six here in Australia too, and it was a real horror; I sure hope your guys did a better job of that, though from what’s been said I have my doubts.
They just could not adapt to changed market conditions, but kept expecting a return to the old times. But did they really think a car like this would bring back the old market share?
A beautifully-kept piece of history from GM’s most muddle-headed era.
Where’s that edit function today?
For line 3 ‘constricted’ read ‘constructed’. 🙂
Wow, grandma’s favorite bowling alley back in the day. Anyway, I owned a 1990 Cutlass Calais for a few years. Thing with the N body cars was it was all about how they were optioned, and a ’85 coupe with the hoary old Iron Duke would certainly be most deserving of the ‘malaise’ title. My sedan was a different story. It was a lightly used well optioned example with the good suspension, alloy wheels, 3.3L V-6 and 3 speed Hydramatic transaxle. The car had gobs on low end torque, had a nice balance between ride and handling, and was very reliable the whole time I had it. If that 1990 Calais sedan had been the car GM introduced in 1985, they would have had something. Typical GM for the day, come out with a clunker and take too long to turn it into a good car.
We just lost ours a couple of months ago, but I can’t sat that I bowled there very recently.
One of my local bowling hangouts, Tuffy Leemans’ Duckpin Lanes in Glenmont, MD, closed in 2002, but nearly twenty years later they still haven’t taken the sign down. It was located in the back of Glenmont Arcade, and I now know that I’m one of thousands of ’70s or ’80s kids that got fooled by that big “Arcade” sign wondering where the video games and pinball machines were. “Arcade” is one of those words whose predominant meaning has changed over the years; in 1952 when it was built an “arcade” was a little enclave running through a larger building – in this case an otherwise ordinary strip mall with about 10 small business storefronts on each side of the ‘arcade’ tunnel. It still has the cool-looking original sign, and apparently is famous enough now to be the representative photo of Glenmont on Wikipedia.
In the 80’s we lived around the corner from the local Olds dealer in suburban Chicago – the 1985 Calais was the first new car the wife and I bought.
Believe it or not, of all the vehicles I’ve owned, it was the only one that more than a few passersby commented that it was a ‘very good looking car’. Ours was two-tone light blue on top, dark blue on the lower half with the aluminum rims as shown above and white letter tires.
Although the wife couldn’t drive a manual, we opted for the standard 4 cylinder with a 5 speed because our funds were rather limited. At the time we purchased, engine/trans options were limited. Standard was the 4 cylinder with a 5 speed, or if one wanted an automatic, one had to also order the V6. Over $1k additional for that option. I’m sure eventually the 4 banger was available with an auto.
The car was perfectly fine for mid twenty-somethings with no kids; our tastes in vehicles were not refined as they are now but I cannot remember anything glaringly annoying about it, and certainly no major repairs needed. I do recall when the car came in, we picked it up and within 48 hours drove to Daytona for a week. This car did very well for us, and the wife learned how to drive a manual surprisingly quick.
Well, upon further review, one annoying thing that I specifically remember – never have had a car that exhibited so much torque steer. From a stop light under moderate to heavy acceleration,the car made a serious right turn; a significant amount of left hand steering was necessary to keep headed in a straight line.
We kept the car only a few years – one of the first-off-the-line FWD 88 Pontiac Grand Prix’s caught our eye and we had to have it -a COAL story for the future, a great car that defied the once-common ‘wisdom’ to never buy a first edition vehicle.
Well at least this one has the super 80s looking brushed alloy wheels, that I can appreciate over the usual cone shaped wire wheels I remember on most non-Pontiac N bodies. Also gotta love the owner for truly owning it.
I actually found curbsideclassic trying to make heads and tails of the bewildering lineup of GM formal roof lookalikes, I can remember one of the articles or a comment delving into detail about Irv Rybicki. I think he was a competent designer but not a particular visionary and definitely a yes man to corporate. I don’t think these were particularly ugly or offensive designs(I’m quite familiar with 2021 model lineups)but there’s no identity to them, one brand looks like the next, one size looks like the next and worst of all at Oldsmobile they all seemed to be a Cutlass spin-off up to the full size 88/98s. I have a hard time reconciling these being in even the same league as the Tbird, both were 2 doors I guess, but these were like a cheap toy and the Thunderbird was a real car. The Cougar had a GM aping formal roofline but at least the car looked substantial(without actually being all that big itself).
The thing that really irks me with these and GM in general is how defeatist they were. I don’t know how much is hyperbole in GM wanting to push the “ills of regulation” in the customers faces, and I could believe that was a goal with battering Ram executions and a few heavy handed emissions control devices shoehorned into existing designs, but when they engineer a car to be this bad from a clean sheet, I can’t help but think it really was just incompetence. As we’ve found out with the gift of hindsight, with cutting edge powertrain engineering they could have very well improved the fuel efficiency of vehicles the size and weight of a Collonade Cutlass Supreme, but why pay for intelligent solutions when you can just take an axe to it and the engine block and tape it back together with less pieces? Japanese cars like the Accord by contrast started small and with each successive major update got larger and larger, the Japanese companies saw what American buyers inherently wanted, they weren’t trying to force customers to compromise into facsimiles of a model they used to like but couldn’t put up with the operating costs anymore.
“Japanese cars like the Accord by contrast started small and with each successive major update got larger and larger, the Japanese companies saw what American buyers inherently wanted, they weren’t trying to force customers to compromise into facsimiles of a model they used to like but couldn’t put up with the operating costs anymore.”
Exactly. Upsized Accord vs. downsized Cutlass. The upsized one will be subconsciously perceived as better value for money (‘Hey, they made it bigger!’) than the downsized one (‘Huh? You call this a Cutlass Supreme?’). Even if you weren’t into the technical stuff, by the time the buyer factored in appearance, how it feels to drive, and build quality versus the Japanese competition, the Olds (or Pontiac, or Buick) would surely have been a hard sell.
In San Francisco, in the 80s, a friend who I mostly knew from tennis and seeing at the bars, who had nice style, a sense of humor and seemed smart… bought a new, beige Calais.
It was so crazy of a choice I thought he might be “off.” N o b o d y, in their 20s or 30s, in SF bought Oldsmobiles. Maybe, if it was American, a Jeep Cherokee, definitely an Accord, Celica or Jetta. Besides being a notoriously bleh vehicle, it was actually a sort of social liability. NOW, it would be camp, which is laudable and interesting). Yes, I was a little bit of a snob to judge, but anyone who read knew that was a bizarre choice for a new car purchase when so many fine options were available.
I thought I’d check back here with this malaiscious Oldsmobile, after spending a few minutes looking at the Kia taxi on the more recent post.
Hearing all the badmouthing of the Olds, most of which I agree with, and then realizing the relative lack of bashing of the Kia, an UGLY SUM-B**CH if there ever was one, I felt an urge to ask:
What the F?
Who wouldn’t rather have a boring beige plainmoblie rather than an over-the-top, aggressively ugly, in-your face, poop-on-your-shoe, big red pimple-on-your-nose sad sorry pile of excrement-y and cruddy looking Weirdsmoble?
Its like making fun of someone in a beige t-shirt and jeans while being okay with wearing a crimson red, brown, turquiose and yellow-striped zoot suit with a lavender double-windsor-knotted tie while having Ziggy cartoons tattooed on your forehead and a green Mohawk with four or five hair-picks in it. And a Tom Cruise Pez dispenser glued to your chin. With the candy in it.
You would indeed not be boring but I don’t think you’d look better than t-shirt-and-jeans guy.
I’m forever waiting for the mass-rebellion against all these ugly modern cars. Don’t people have eyes that work anymore?
I believe I’ve made my argument in a fact-based, objective, rational and balanced manner.
I surrender the remainder of my time.
As a rebuttal in regard to the referenced Kia I proffer two points for your consideration:
1. It’s practical.
2. It has accumulated 434,319 miles and still appears to have value. Show me the same on a Calais…
In defense of the Olds: there was an awareness that the 1970s designs were excessive. The simple shapes of the Rybicki era were an attempt to provide a cleaner aesthetic. I could imagine if BMW had built that car it would have had a different character. I mean, on paper, the shape potentially could have been satisfyingly minimal. Against this was that GM had to apply the same simplicity to five lines of cars and did not have the money to make significant changes to sheet metal so all the cars had similar profiles. The front and rear ends and DLO had to carry too much design work and further, the bolt-on styling was sloppily executed.
There seems to be a preference among actual buyers to in fact blend in, hence the very diminished color palettes and realistically chosen colors – just because a red or blue is on the option list, doesn’t mean the dealers order them. There’s a distinct disconnect in the ugliness of modern cars and the necessary burden of the practical family car. Maybe its what you get when designers don’t have the segments they could be freer with expression, or maybe it’s moronic focus groups. Ether way, 3/4 of modern sedan/crossover designs look like the car equivalent of a middle aged accountant dressing like a 13 year old.
I do agree that Kia should be the definition of ugly in the Oxford but I still think these N-bodies were in the top 5. I thought they were ugly at the time and aging has not improved the wine…. As for bowling, this is my favorite alley.
Comparing a photo of a worn-out, dirty, littered Olds Calais and a factory publicity image of a Honda isn’t exactly fair. That comparison seems as contrived by the author as did the real interior of a real Buick Somerset when it was new and I first sat in one. At least it had satisfactory performance, being a V6. But all the gimmickry, oddball switch placement, weird columns of pushbuttons…it was too much.
I was about to call Paul out on the pictures of the two interiors, but you beat me to it.
The problem, for me, with these N bodies was that regardless of the merits or demerits of the cars themselves, they were indeed an indicator of the creeping malaise in American culture to me in those times.
The existence of these cars showed that America was no longer advancing boldly towards a better future: we were setting resigned to settling for less. Half the lights turned off in the office to save electricity; only cold water in the bathroom taps. Imitation Wood Brown was the color of the times. The economy was down and there were no wage increases; be glad you had a job. Inflation was high and so were interest rates so you were going to buy less car, like it or not. Payments were up! And cars in general were down, down down and not just in quality although that sucked too.
American cars of the 60’s were daringly and elegantly styled – they stole cues from Ferraris and Rolls, and most of rest of the world tried to emulate that cool Detroit style. American cars had huge V-8’s smoothly making ridiculous power, and the smoothest shifting automatics ever made: good enough for Rolls Royce. American cars had beautiful interiors and were big enough for six; you could usually fit two more
bodiesfriends in the trunk, sneaking them into the Drive In Theater for free. To use a cliche, when you drove a high-end Oldsmobile you didn’t just drive up: you arrived. And in the 60’s stuff just kept getting better! Power windows and AC in mid class cars, and FM stereo for everybody!
Now suddenly we had puny little cars that weren’t handsome, weren’t roomy, and had rough-as-a-cob four-cylinder engines that most people in the 60’s (except for for the Full-Bore penny-shaver Cheapskates) wouldn’t ever consider. Nobody was going to valet-park THIS Oldsmobile in the front row… no tip to the lot-boy would accomplish it no matter what you gave him.
Then, with the emission controls and no fuel injection, the damn things didn’t run right. Really cold day? Hope you planned enough time to get the engine started. Be careful not to pull out into traffic for the first five minutes in case it stalled. Was it ever really running right? Who could tell?
Finally, we were in the era of ever cheaper quality parts. These were the days when you had to be careful opening your car door on an icy day or the handle would break off in your hand. There were a lot of parts that you’d never dreamed could be made of plastic that were, and cheap plastic at that.
Yeah, it was the malaise era indeed.
It’s not about their respective conditions; it’s the design and materials. Look at the how the Honda front seats contours and bolsters are designed for maximum comfort and support. The same goes for the design of the dashboard, steering wheel console and switch gear.
I understand that one can say these are subjective issues, but very clearly the Honda’s design and approach reflected where things were going design-wise. Look at an Olds Alero interior; it looks a lot more like the Accord’s approach than the outdated design of the Calais.
If you can’t see that or or get that, it’s your issue, and not an issue of the picture.
Paul – your comment is weird over-reaction to a harmless post.
If you can’t see that or get that, maybe it’s time for you to retire before you go full TTAC. You are welcome to delete this, as is your privilege and your wont…. but you should really consider seeking some help if such a trivial comment enrages you so. It was just a comment.
No, I won’t be back…
Really? So who’s over-reacting?
Seriously, re-read my comment. What’s weird or where’s the rage and over-reaction? Please point it out to me.
Here’s the thing; I’ve been getting comments like this forever, since I started my GM DS series. Commenters will rag on how I picked the worst most-beat-up example I could find in order to make it look bad. That is of course absurd; I write up the cars I find, regardless of their condition.
The real truth is that G, Poon’s comment is tyical of GM apologists/fanbois, who can’t see past the dirty upholstery. I very clearly pointed out the difference in the design of the two cars, not the state of cleanliness of their upholstery. If he likes the Calais’ interior design better, that’s fine. But there’s no need to accuse me of being “unfair”.
I cannot believe we’re still having these petty comments about me casting these GM cars in a bad light by showing dirty upholstery. And you’re going to leave because I responded saying “it’s not about the respective conditions; it’s the design and materials”? If so, you haven’t learned one iota of anything I’ve been talking about here and and at ttac since 2006.
I will say that your departure is over the least controversial thing here yet. And I mean that quite sincerely and objectively.
What’s funny about Paul’s reply is my being identified as a GM apologist/fanboi!!!
I’m glad you’re finding the humor in this. Did you also feel assaulted by my “enraged” comment?
Its often hard to judge from text what the tone is intended to be.
I don’t think Paul meant it offensively at all.
He is sometimes sort of blunt, or he might say to the point.
If there was any passive-aggressiveness I didn’t see it.
I hope you stay. I enjoy your your comments.
Come on; I was clearly enraged! Don’t try to minimize it.
I’m still shaking my head over this one. I’ve re-read my comment several times, and I’m still trying to figure out what triggered Lokki. I wish someone would point it out to me, because I can’t see it.
The irony of course is that he’s the one that got enraged over an utterly innocuous comment.
Here’s a brochure shot of the Calais Interior, similar angle. I’d still have picked the Accord then. And certainly would as a used car today.
Adam Wadecki has one of the best automotive channels on YouTube. His analysis of the industry is informed and well presented (he has a Ph.D. in Finance from the University of Michigan). And the reviews of the collectible cars he owns are really fun. CCers should check out his channel – you won’t be disappointed.
What’s most interesting about this conversation is that the people here who’ve owned or are defending N’s were used to driving bargain basement cars merely as a means of getting around; so, to them, these cars were more than acceptable – even with the unmistakable drone of those gawdawful engines and whiny transmissions. They were also popular with the middle class old lady set who simply couldn’t know any better and thought that anything with a steering wheel was wonderful.
That’s fine – car makers make cars for every demographic. What’s NOT fine is everything GM did to destroy brands, reputation, market share, dominance, profitability, yada, yada, yada…at the end of the day, there’s simply no argument – these were awful cars in every way. Nobody with deeper pickets ever considered buying these turd burgers, but would gladly pay a steep premium for the Accords.
In the simplest of terms, GM aimed low while the Japanese aimed high, with the end result being GM’s primary customers inevitably became fleets and rental companies instead of the more lucrative civilian market.
It was a cynical business approach and GM would ultimately get what they deserved.
When GM cars got shrunk, then some went to trucks. Many former RWD Cutlass owners went to Blazers, Jimmys, and S-10 pickups.
Just wasn’t until lately that car production stopped altogether. Imagine if GM simply said “from now on we only sell trucks” in 1985-89?
If they had said they were only going to sell trucks back then, I would kind have missed seeing the IROC-Camaro.
That only goes for the trucks they sold then.
If they sold trucks that look like they do now, I wouldn’t miss them one bit.
But then I’d have missed the videos on YouTube made by “Mahk”. (They’re funny)
Wasn’t the iron duke based off the Pontiac 301?
Not according to any account I’ve seen, heard, or read.
They both shared exactly the same bore and stroke. The pistons have the same part numbers.
We can’t infer parentage from either of those two things.
As I understand it it’s pseudo derived off the GM Brazil version derived off the Chevy II I4 using some shared Pontiac parts where applicable. A real mutt
Correct. It’s a heavily revised Chevy II four.
What Pontiac did was to update it for a new era, and they used as many 301 parts as was practical, to make the project cheaper.
A key dimension is their bore centers: all Pontiac V8s inlcuding the 301 had 4.620″ bore centers. The Iron Duke had the same 4.400: bore centers as did all Chevy V8s, sixes and fours. That’s the key tell-tale that the Iron Duke block is just a somewhat modified Chevy 153 block with a new head and some moving parts it shares with the 301.
A Chevy 153 crankshaft can be used in the Iron Duke, as can some other key parts.
So call it whatever you want, but that’s what it is. A mutt.