Curbside Classics: The General Motors N-Body – How Quickly We Forget

(first posted 6/6/2012)    There are some things you just tend to forget about.  Appointments to the dentist.  Needing to tuck-point the brick on your house.  What your wife wore on your last anniversary.

There are other things in which a lack of comment or activity indicates a degree of success.  For instance, this past winter were you more likely to telephone your local highway department on snowy days when the road was covered or when the road was clear?

So what explains GM’s N-body?  Introduced in 1985 as the Pontiac Grand Am, Buick Somerset, and Oldsmobile Calais, these cars replaced the unfortunate X-bodies that are still discussed today.

The N-bodies are rarely seen anymore, particularly the Oldsmobile and Buick versions which are illustrated here. Production of these cars ceased in 1991.  For perspective, that has been enough time for someone born on the last day of Oldsmobile Calais production in April 1991 to now legally purchase alcohol in all fifty states.  Thus, rational deduction would conclude the simple passage of time and usage would have eliminated most of these cars.  However, as evidenced by the number of similarly aged GM A-body Buick’s and Oldsmobile’s still on the road, might age be an inferior determining factor?

Perhaps it was the audience of these machines.  As evidenced by the commercial above, these cars were aimed at the young and upwardly mobile.  Or, in ’80’s parlance, yuppies on a budget.  A much different demographic than the A-body audience, this would give credence to the idea they were bought, got stale for the owner, and were resold.  Many times.

Perhaps another reason is the model names of these cars.  When introduced in 1985, the Buick version was the “Regal Somerset”.  In then evolved to “Somerset” and then to “Skylark”.  The Oldsmobile was initially the “Calais” but was soon re-christened “Cutlass Calais”.  Renaming a car every year or two does not assist in name recognition or name retention, thus it being less memorable to people.

It should be noted that GM and Oldsmobile were shamelessly trying to milk the Cutlass name, as in 1988, they had the “Cutlass Supreme”, “Cutlass Calais”, and the “Cutlass Ciera”.  Pontiac was at least consistent in calling the “Grand Am” by the same name for its entire production run.

Yet the question remains:  Why are they such seemingly forgotten automobiles?

More evidence is needed.

Never having driven, or even ridden in, an N-body GM, your author did some research on these cars.  Being as obscure as they now are, a google search revealed little.  However, a car owner survey website did give a little insight into these cars.

It was found that these cars were, and can be, highly durable in the mechanical department.  The 2.5 liter Iron Duke engine earned many fans for its ruggedness and frugality.  The assorted sizes of V6’s were well respected, also.

However, it seems that these cars were prone to rust and paint loss, as evidenced by the Buick seen here.  They were also prone to various electrical gremlins at times as well as possessing brittle trim and hardware.  Such does not bode well for longevity.

Then there are also the driving patterns and styles.  Many of the owner reviews seemed to be written by males between the ages of 16 and 18.  That generally does not bode well for longevity.

So what conclusions can be reached about these cars?  The two examples here both present evidence toward a hybrid of the theories presented:  these vehicles did a good job for their owners despite their often being subjected to less than favorable treatment.

The Buick, due to it being a Skylark, was built toward the end of the 1985 to 1991 production run [ED: It’s an ’88-’91 model as it has the composite headlights].  The paint is retiring and the tin worm has taken hold.  Found in Fulton, Missouri, I did a double take upon seeing this car as I had simply forgotten they existed.  After snapping a few pictures, and going about my business, I saw it parked elsewhere about 30 minutes later.

The Oldsmobile was found a few days later on a used car lot in Lebanon, Missouri, about 120 miles south of Fulton.  When I introduced myself to the lady on the lot, she told me the Calais has only 58,000 miles on it and was either an ’86 or ’87 model.  Despite the obvious misalignment of the body panels up front, this car was fairly sound with a great looking interior.

General Motors did not hit a home run with these cars, however, they at least got a base hit.  A strike out would still be remembered.