The “Calais” name had ultimately been used by General Motors on three different occasions, spanning from the mid-1960s through the early ’90s. It began life affixed to an entry-level Cadillac and ended up on a compact, front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile. In between those two extremes, “Calais” had been attached to what ended up being, by 1980, the most expensive (base price) model of the wildly popular A-Body notchback Cutlass coupe. For 1980, the Calais cost $25 more in base form than even the luxurious Supreme Brougham coupe.
Norma Jean Wright had been one of the original vocalists with the the hugely successful and influential band Chic, singing on both their eponymous, ’77 debut album and their “C’Est Chic” LP the following year. Their song “Le Freak”, which hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for six non-consecutive weeks from late 1978 through early-’79, remains the biggest-selling single for Atlantic Records over forty years after its release, with sales of over 7 million.
Ms. Wright went solo in ’78, eventually enjoying two Top-20 singles on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart: “Saturday” from 1978, and the song after which I’ve titled this piece, “High Society”, from 1980. The timeline of Chic’s initial, multi-format popularity concurred with the successful run of the downsized, A-Body Cutlasses, as the band charted eight songs on the Billboard Hot 100 (four of which made the Top-10, two of which were Number Ones) from late-’77 through the end of 1980.
When listening to the lyrics of “High Society”, they seem to mirror the ascent of the Cutlass to the top of the sales heap, from its somewhat humble beginnings in its F-85 forbear through the pinnacle of its popularity in the mid-/late-1970s. “You weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth.” The original, compact F-85 which was introduced for 1961 (from which the Cutlass would morph) got off to an inauspicious sales start, with about 76,400 sold for the the model year (against about 282,000 Chevrolet Corvairs, admittedly most of which were Monzas; 100,800 Pontiac Tempests; and 86,900 Buick Specials). By the time the formal-roofed Cutlass Supreme notchback was introduced for 1970, the Cutlass line was well on its way to becoming one of America’s favorite car lines, with 244,700 sold that year (not including 11,100 F-85s, 19,300 4-4-2s, or 34,000 long-wheelbase Vista Cruiser wagons).
“I’ve watched you climb every rung of that social ladder.” By the time the “Colonnade” models were introduced for model year ’73, sales had continued their meteoric rise, with 381,100 sold that year (plus another 24,400 Vista Cruisers). At the end of that generation for ’77, Olds Division had smashed through the One Million mark in annual sales (with roughly 1,136,000 sold), with the non-Brougham Supreme coupe alone accounting for 243,000 sales (over one-fifth of total divisional output). “Now you’re a big celebrity, VIP…”
Part of the beauty of the Cutlass line in the ’70s was that it could be tailored to many tastes and configurations – from the base model “S” for those who just wanted a Cutlass, to the high-performance “Hurst/Olds”, the increasingly tame 442, the luxurious Supreme, the even flossier Supreme Brougham, and the “Euro”-flavored Salon. “And you have taught me how to be anything that I truly, truly want to be.” Since the “Salon” name had then become attached to the base-model Cutlass for ’78, the ’78 Calais could be considered the spiritual successor to the prior year’s Salon. The ’78 Calais offered some sporty accoutrements, like bucket seats with a center console, a sports steering wheel, and a few other minor mods to its suspension and trim, including a split, chrome eggcrate grille instead of the traditional “waterfall” featured on the other notchback coupes.
“I’d like to go from poor to rich… make a switch… I’ve changed for the better.” Though Cutlass sales dipped by 14% in 1980 from the prior year in the face of the economic recession, the Cutlass line was still riding high as one of America’s favorite cars, with 485,000 Cutlasses sold that year out of about 910,300 Oldsmobiles (third among U.S. makes that year). Clearly by this point, the Cutlass had arrived – having started inconspicuously enough as a low-volume compact, and ending up a huge “celebrity” within Olds showrooms and dealers’ lots by the end of the 1970s. Our featured car is one of 26,300 Calais coupes produced for the model year.
Coincidentally, neither Chic nor Norma Jean Wright would again enjoy the same level of commercial success with their music as during their heyday in the late ’70s. However, Ms. Wright would continue to work, both writing material recorded by other artists and also singing backup for Aretha Franklin, Madonna, C+C Music Factory, and others. Nile Rodgers, the legendary guitarist, producer and co-founding member of Chic, has never stopped working, being involved in many high-profile projects, the most recent and memorable of which was a turn in Daft Punk’s 2013 album “Random Access Memories” and the worldwide smash hit single “Get Lucky”. Just as these artists have continued to make their respective marks on the music world, the A- (and G-) Body Oldsmobile Cutlass remains beloved by many, “Living in high society” in the garages and hearts of many.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, April 6 & 7, 2013.