The French Connection

Calais is more than just a Town in France.

1966 Cadillac Calais: source
1966 Cadillac Calais: source

Very recently I mentioned the Calais cloth in a Buick Electra 225 . That reminded me that a long time ago I thought I would explore the world of GM name references to France. Today I will deal with one town in France. It turns out that GM has quite a thing for Calais, applying the appellation to trim, car lines and whole models. We chart the rise and fall of the Calais name today.

We have already covered the 1961 Buick Electra 225s, a stable mate of the Invicta and LeSabre, which had “Calais” cloth. A little research showed evidence that the Calais region in France has long been known for textiles. The industry is still associated with the region even though the volume of production has declined. My guess is that personnel in GM’s colour and trim department were well aware of Calais’ tradition of textiles and may either have sourced the material in France (not likely) or found a material redolent of a French product (more likely). Knoll make a fabric named after Calais even today. It’s a velour. Returning back to our story, it seems that someone in GM liked the name and it returned on a whole car line.

That would be the Cadillac Calais, which GM made from 1966 to 1976, over two series. The Calais served as the lowest model in the Cadillac hierarchy. Typical of the time it could be had as a 4-door hardtop, 4-door sedan and 2 door hardtop (we in Europe offered cars as hatches, coupes, saloons, and estates). As a poverty model, the Calais initially had no leather option, you had to trade up a notch for that, but instead it had vinyl and cloth (making it overlap somewhat with higher Olds and Buick cars). The 1971-1976 car came in the same formats as the first series. Interestingly, GM seemed to be besotted with the possibilities of the upholstery for the second run. The trim included tartans (a weave), velours (tufted cloth), knits (knitted, obviously) and 11 leathers (not cloth at all). That really is quite a huge range and even more bewildering if you add the possible paint and roof-coverings and engines. None of this looked especially French. However, Cadillac is named after a French aristocrat who founded Detroit. More however, names ending in -ac are more prevalent in the the southern half of France where the district of Cadillac is found.

1987 Oldsmobile Calais: source
1987 Oldsmobile Calais: source

The Calais name took a bit of a vacation and then reappeared in the ‘eighties in a car that had no French connections at all. As we know from previous posts Olds had a line of cars and then a sub-range named Cutlass (Ciera, Supreme and Calais). One of the smaller Cutlass variants gained the “Calais” suffix before a short period of independence ensued. The Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais ran 1984 to 1991, but was the plain Calais from 1985 to 1987 before regaining its full boot-lid-spanning badge. The Cutlass Calais N-body car was related to the Buick Somerset, Buick Skylark and Pontiac GrandAm. As a front-wheel drive compact car the Cutlass Calais replaced the unloved Omega, available as 2 door coupe or 4-door saloon. To this day I don´t think anyone knew what GM were doing with the Cutlass family of Olds.

It looks like a Signum but it´s rear-drive: source
It looks like a Signum but it´s rear-drive: source

The Calais name, still lives, just. Holden use the name as a variant of the Commodore series which is about to end production. From 1984 Holden has sold the top-trim level Commodore as the Calais (imagine the Vauxhall Omega sold as a Vauxhall Elite). The current generation is

Holde Calais badge
Holden Calais badge: source

the Holden Calais V. Caradvice describes it: “vast and well-equipped cabin, keen handling, willing V6 fantastic transmission calibration, affordable to run….street presence”. They also say this: “The VFII also handles like a proper rear-drive sports sedan should. The electric steering in FE1 Calais V form is a little wooly on-centre, but beyond this, the turn-in, body control and composure, and balance levels are well beyond most mid-sized price rivals — especially if you leave the confines of the city for something more remote”. A little bit of research reveals the Holden is a development of the 2006-2016 Zeta platform which Holden designed when Opel gave up rear-drive cars. That makes the acute similarity to the FWD Insignia rather puzzling. As puzzling as the oblique references to a rather drab French town. Where will the Calais name crop up next?

[Further to intelligent observations by Sam the Eagle and Sean, I have amended the text to note the long association between Calais and textile production. Nov 1, 2016]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “The French Connection”

    1. It looks too much like an Insignia. I suppose they took over the Insignia exterior/interior and reworked the floor pan to suit RWD. Why not sell it as an Opel “Senator”? That was based on a cheaper car.
      Like all moden cars, the rear seats look rubbish. Do they have to be so flat?

    2. Not quite, although an easy mistake to make. Every Commodore platform prior to this one (launched 2006) had its roots in the then-contemporary big Opel (Rekord/Senator/Omega), spliced-and-diced to include a bit more length, noticeably more width, and generally cheaper engineering, defended on the basis of suitability for “Australian conditions” – live axles and pushrod donks were the order of the day for many years. The 2006 VE (and this facelifted VF) are an all-new platform, engineered and built in Oz. It is a slightly, but noticeably, bigger car than the Insignia in the flesh, especially in width – it’s nearly as wide as a current Chrysler 300. The proportions, too, are quite different when you see it in the metal – it’s unmistakably a rear-drive car, which the Insignia does not present as.

      The Calais was traditionally the highest-spec luxury trim for the short-wheelbases Commodores (although always referred to as a ‘Holden Calais’, never a ‘Commodore Calais’) – Holden’s rival for Ford’s Fairmont Ghia (a gussied-up Falcon). The traditional market for these cars was strongest when Australia had relatively high import tariffs, front-wheel-drive was still regarded with suspicion (“No bloody good fer towin'”), and reasonably successful professionals wanted something to impress the neighbours without upsetting the balance of trade yet further. That market started to slip towards the end of the 1990s, as imports became more accepted, and tariffs fell. The numbers sold these days, especially as private sales, are pitiful, which is why local production ends next year.

      In any case, the styling is not why a car like this wouldn’t sell in Europe. The problem is, the market says there is no market for this in Europe. Phrase the question this way – is there a business case for a new Omega? If the answer is no (as it indeed is), then there is no business case for this car in Europe.

    3. It would seem that there’s no market for them even in their homeland.

      In 2015 the Commodore accounted for 27,770 sales in a record-breaking Australian sales total of 1,115,408 vehicles. It did achieve no 6 in the charts, beaten by the Corolla, Mazda 3, Hi-Lux, and Ford Ranger.

      The poor old Falcon did far worse – 5398 sold in Australia in 2015 – hard to believe it was still nominally in full production.

      The final Falcon rolled off the line at Campbellfield on 7 October, less than four weeks ago. The years pass, and take our loved ones from us…

  1. I was actually in Calais exactly a week ago to the hour. I’d take issue with calling it drab. Maybe it’s not Deauville or Biarritz, but I have a soft spot for Bleriot Plage. Also, as a Brit, I’d feel rather guilty at not springing to Calais’ defence at present, bearing in mind how put upon they’ve been over the past few years. There were once substantial cloth manufacturers in Calais, so I guess that might be a reason for the initial use of the name. Otherwise someone just looked at a map and though it sounded classy. Just like we were looking at Japanese hijacking of English names the other day, so the hijacking of French and Italian names by English speaking companies.

    1. One of the basic bits of research I did was to check the terms Calais and fabrics. I got a bad result but didn’t double check. Today the result links Calais to textiles shows textiles are still a significant industrial activity in Calais.
      I’ll revise the text shortly to reflect this new insight.

    2. Detroit was founded by a Frenchman (Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac) and is close to the Canadian border, so there could well be a persistence of French words in the local lingo and name of localities.

  2. GM are not alone in this fixation.

    Queen Mary I of England is said to have claimed “When I am dead and chested you will find ‘Calais’ written on my heart.”

    I can only marvel at the range of services provided by tattoo parlours in 16th Century Britain.

  3. Well you’ve got at least a dozen names to go with a French connection from GM. Then there’s Ford in Canada where the Frontenac was a Mercury version Ford Falcon, the Mercury Montcalm, Meteor Rideau, and GM’s Pontiac Astre (Vega), Beaumont (Malibu), Acadian (Chevy II), Pontiac Parisienne (ooh la la, hey baby!).

    LaSalle Motors was part of GM, and of course Louis Chevrolet was French himself. There are at least two towns in the US named Calais (pronounced Kaliss natch in the tone deaf American way).

    Here’s how GM got the names: two guys in Marketing (or Sales before Marketing was invented as a niche subset, turned the tables, and took over the boss role) sat down and came up with a list of all kinds of names. All of them were trademarked for possible future use. Design guys? Not trusted with anything beyond design unless they had a brainwave in which case it was stolen.

    Now Pontiac Bonneville, was that because of the French or because of the salt flats? Pontiac Grand Prix and LeMans. Dodge Monaco, Chrysler LeBaron. Chevrolet finally got around all this stuff by dubbing the slightly above tepid versions of their vehicles with the “Eurosport” moniker. Covered it all really until they started slapping it on panel vans with tractor 4.3l 90 deg V6 engines of great vibration, or was it just Sport? Highly inappropriate either way – thus normal Marketing at work with intent to deceive.

    1. Sorry, Louis Chevrolet wore a French sounding name, but he was Swiss.

  4. Simon: correct. And I’m embarassed I didn’t notice that sooner.
    There are lots of French names in GM history: I hoped to see a pattern. There probably isn’t one.

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