Curbside Classic: 1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme Coupe – GM’s Deadly Sin #35 – Peak GM Malaise

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!

Or not.

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.

Supremely Malaise.

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