By on March 26, 2009

You knew this would happen.  Whenever things go wrong or come to an end we can’t help but look back and try to figure out why. To look for that one pivotal event that changed the course of events forever. So what did it for GM? When did it happen? After careful analysis I pinpoint their demise to the 3.8L V6 (a.k.a the 231) of the 1970s.

First, the runners up and why they didn’t make the final cut.  The Corvair certainly garnered a lot of bad press for being “Unsafe At Any Speed.” For all of its bad points, including the gas fired heater, it just wasn’t that bad of a car. Furthermore, it was a niche vehicle and never sold in enough numbers to really cause any permanent damage to the then-mighty GM.  Remember, in the 1960s GM was responsible for selling over 50% of the vehicles in the US.  Many look back at the Corvair as nothing more than an experiment that didn’t work.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. GM introduces the Vega, its response to the fuel efficient imports, just in time for the oil embargo of 1973. To say the Chevy Vega was ill-conceived is an understatement. First, the GM hierarchy dismissed the warnings of their engineers that an aluminum engine block needs cast iron liners. Then they outsourced cheap Japanese steel that turned to aluminum foil after just a few winters. It was clearly a losing situation for GM as they got bogged down spending millions sidelining cars to replace engines and recalling others to replace fenders.

So why didn’t the Vega make the final cut? Truth be told it just wasn’t the meat of the market for GM then. Furthermore, the public was just starting to accept little cars that ran on four cylinders and many didn’t believe a four cylinder could be durable enough to hold up in the long run anyway.

Which brings us to our winner: the 3.8-liter V6. Or the 231, as it was more commonly known back then (it was more common to refer to engine size in cubic inches not liters). It quietly appeared on the scene then gained wide spread use in 1978. That year saw a major redux across the A-body line: Oldsmobile Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Regal. These were General Motors’ bread and butter products and they were wildly successful. And it is here that GM makes its final, fatal collision; the corporate Titanic hitting the metaphorical iceberg.

GM sent these cars out of the factory with a multitude of quality glitches of which 231 engine issues were no small part. The oil pump was poorly designed, causing the oil pressure to sink dangerously low. By the time the consumer figured out something untoward was happening, the engine was apt to have blown a bearing or, worse, seized up. Game over. If your 231 engine didn’t throw a bearing, there were transmission “issues.” Cracked springs in the suspension. Rear wheel cylinders that fell off of their backing plates. All of this pushed many in the public towards their GM repair shop, and then, imports. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, GM should have jumped in and cleaned up this multifarious mechanical disaster with honor and swiftness. At the time, they had enough cash to make all their customers whole. It would have been an extremely expensive PR disaster, but pretending there wasn’t a problem sealed their fate with hundreds of thousands of former loyalists.

GM tried to run from the warranty claims. Worse, they continued producing the 231 well into the 1980s. In the years that followed, it was mostly more of the same. GM sent out V8s with soft camshafts, torque steering X-cars and Fieros a quart low on oil. As the quality issues stacked up, GM’s market share deteriorated.

In the 1990s, they had one last chance. Cash rich from the SUV craze, GM could have re-invested the profits into their cars to make them mechanically-bulletproof world-beaters. Sadly, they squandered on brands and products and deals they didn’t need. And so here we sit in 2009, trying to bail them out, trying to figure out how to turnaround a submerged leviathan.

The astute reader will have noticed that I’ve left out the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the other model built off the A-body and a major player in 1978. The Monte Carlo also had a 3.8-liter V6. But that engine was derived from a Chevrolet design: it had 229 cubic inches, not 231. Those two cubic inches helped make the 229 much more sprightly. And durable. If GM had used the 229 in the rest of their divisions . . .

Imagine that: two measly cubic inches could have changed the course of GM forever. Then again, I doubt it. When a company can’t recognize, admit and correct its mistakes, it’s a rudderless ship bound to hit something, eventually.

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107 Comments on “General Motors Death Watch 238: No, No, Nadir...”

  • avatar

    Good discussion point, but I can hardly make the connection as I see it today. For me the main issue with all three US auto makers is one that you touched on briefly. When they had the cash during the SUV boom, they squandered it away on buying other auto companies like Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Saab. Instead of investing in product, they went shopping. Imagine if they would have used that cash to obtain talent, tackle fuel economy, and invest in their manufacturing plants for flexibility.

  • avatar

    This article is so true it makes me sad. I fondly remember 65 Nova’s with V8s that would roar beautifully. A ’70 454 Malibu that a friend owned gave me shivers. I still think the original Sting Ray coupe (63 – 67) is the most beautiful car ever designed.

    I have tried repeatedly over the past four decades (I have been driving for 39 years) to buy and enjoy North American cars. Had two Corvettes (loved them but they were more crappy than I wanted to admit at the time), a bunch of other stuff too. My worst cars of all time (out of 32 so far) are all but one North American and most are GM. My ’82 Chevrolet Celebrity had brakes that failed unexpectedly. Not a good thing with a baby in the car going down a hill – fortunately we avoided a calamity or worse. The car was gone the next day. This was a known and documented problem that GM would not acknowledge at the time!

    My mother had a mid 80s Buick 3.8 – while that engine was bulletproof, the car always had other issues that were annoying and hard to fix. She now drives a Toyota Corolla – never had a problem.

    My last, a 2003 Montana had the infamous leaky intake manifold gasket that GM tried to avoid but got caught.

    I have given up. I have four cars now, none are Big 3. I say let ’em die!

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    Two cubic inches…and 60 degree banking, which self-cancelled vibrations and kept it from rattling itself to death internally like the unnatural 90 degree V-6 does. And there was an even smaller 192 CID (3.2 litre) V-6 available in the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo, too. GM was and is just plum ignorant not to have done this substitution. Have you heard their latest radio spot with the nice young lady talking about how good their cars are down the road and how good their quality is? Oh, my. So believable. Please go bankrupt.

  • avatar


    Or they were bought by someone else, who squandered their cash for them (as Dumbler did to Chrysler).

  • avatar

    They invested money (sort of) into what people were buying. While I do fault them for not taking a big-picture view of the automotive landscape, in the end, they were doing exactly what they needed to do to make money…build and sell the type of vehicle that Americans were willing to buy (big ol’ honkin’ SUVs). Market share was a slow, steady decline because of the very real quality gap between them and the Japanese. Because they were bent on producing the landbarges that we so loved until recently, the fatal flaw was that there was nothing in the product stream that was a proper competitor to the likes of the Accord and Camry.

    It’s rather difficult to point to one point in time that permanently turned the tide for the worse. Rather, it was a continued (almost calculated) slide into mediocrity that did them in. Short-sighted financial gain during the SUV craze helped ease the pain, but blinded them to the eventual downfall that was to come.

  • avatar

    Since the 3.8 became so bullet proof it would seem that your editotial should be about the cars, not the engine. Also wasn’t GM’s max mkt share 48% and that was only for a couple of years? Does anyone know?

    Also, what about GM’s delay in their redesigned Regal, GP, Monte, Cutlass four doors (the two doors were introduced first)? Was this just ineptness on their part or was it due to Roger Smith’s mass company reorgs?

  • avatar

    Charles Dagastino: “Worse, they continued producing the 231 well into the 1980s.”

    I don’t think it was the engine itself but the fact that they kept putting it into cars after they knew it was trouble. Fast-forward 10 years and you’re looking at the same issue with Dexcool, gaskets and intake manifolds. Like the 231, once these problems were known, nothing was done.

    If they had internally acknowledged the problem and done something about it by the third or fourth model year, they could have cut the number of alienated customers in half.

    Maybe the 231 situation IS worse because they had a compatible engine ready right off the shelf.

    They were building crap, they knew they were building crap and they kept, resolutely, building crap.

    What did they think would happen?

  • avatar

    Correct me if I’m wrong here.Both the Chev 3.8 and the Buick 3.8 are 90% not 60%.Having owned both of them,the Buick is a far superior engine IMHO.There is actually two Buick 3.8 the FWD model
    is slightly different.

    Properly mantained the 3800 will run for a long long time.

  • avatar

    The 3.8 is ranked as one the top 10 Engines of the 20th Century by Ward’s. The iteration you are discussing used the same bore as Buick’s 350 so they could be machined on the same line. Same theory as the original V6 which dates back to 1962.

    That particular version may have been bad, but don’t let unhinged hatred of GM lead to mis-characterizing all 3.8 as a leading reason for their current demise.

    The tooling was purchased back from AMC who had inherited it from Kaiser/Jeep which had purchased the tooling when Buick abandoned the V6 for Chevy’s 250 C.I.D.

    Chevy’s 2.8 from the X Cars was GM’s first 60 degree V6.

    The Xs would have to be their nadir. They had millions of people wanting to downsize to them and screwed them. In the Citation’s 1st year there were 800,000 of them sold not counting the #s of the other X’s. Those cars burned an awful lot of people.And their follow up Js and As and Ns didn’t help.

    No,these were just yet another reason for GM’s demise, not the point at which the entire thing imploded.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    This is like “Which lost battle was the turning point in the lost war?”

    I think locating tipping point in terms of product is a fine question, and an interesting challenge with countless possible right answers, one for each blatant failure, one for each person who will forevermore react negatively to idea of GM when pondering transport choices.

    To get at root of the problem, look deeper, look at their attitude, their world view.

    I read headlines, but don’t believe, that they recently turned around their mgt culture. I should buy that book. I can’t square this mgt. change with their PR which is clearly designed to appeal to people who do not look closely at them. Their public face is cellophane thin.

    They were fat and happy when VW first showed up. They did not react with the appropriate alarm and failed to change. This is a tipping point, where their attitude, already wrong, caused them inarguable damage.

    They could have zoomed far out in front, and stayed there, for quality and innovation, but seemed happy to treat their market share as an annuity. They should already have been far out in front, with quality and innovation.

    They will say they were far out in front, offering public what they wanted. They offered restyles annually to make previous year cars undesirable, proving my point.

    They have been spending their interest plus digging into their principle ever since.

  • avatar

    Did anyone here got the Dexcool settlement money from GM? They were distributing earlier this year.

  • avatar

    Why would anybody believe GM cream of the crap management is concerned with market share or customer satisfaction?

  • avatar

    I had a 1992 Buick LeSabre with the 3.8L V6. With the 4T65 Trans, that was a bulletproof Powertrain. Also, wasn’t the 3.8L the basis for the Turbo Unit in the GN/GNX?

    GM’s problem is launching half-developed garbage (disgraceful enough, considering the resources available to them). After the first million or so units, though, they usually iron out the bugs.

  • avatar

    …many didn’t believe a four cylinder could be durable enough to hold up in the long run anyway.

    That’s so true, I’d forgotten, but lots of my elders thought a four was only good for a second car, or entry level commuter. I do still remember the day when I was a kid working at a gas station, and more FWDs came through than RWDs. That was a real sea change.

    Strangely, in its turbo form, the 231/Fireball/Dauntless/3.8 Buick V6 went on to become one of the most revered of GMs powerplants.

    The only other V6 engine (I think) that went through that much evolutionary development is Ford’s 60º Cologne V6 finally ending up as a 4.0 SOHC. Its still used in the ‘Stang and Ranger.

  • avatar

    I dont agree that the 231 had anything to do with the fall of GM.

    Back then GM had plenty of cash. I think you need to look closer to the present to figure out why they’ve burned through so much cash since 2004.

    I’m not entirely convinced by the quality arguement because of the fact of all those people who bought domestic SUV’s in the 90’s, if the product was right the quality problems were not large enought to keep the buyers away.

    My nominees: Grand Am / Alero, Grand Prix, gen1 malibu. gen1 CTS, Cavelier.

    All these cars have a common thread of crappy precieved quality (interior fits, overwrought styling) that made them far less valuable to the consumer than more sophisticated (but often more expensive) Japanes / German competition. GM only became serious about improving these factors once they realized they couldn’t compete with the Koreans (and soon the Chinese) on price.

    Even looking at the trucks they were so dominant in you could see they were starting to worry about competition, thats why the interiors on 40k SUV’s no longer look alarmingly similar to the interiors on 18k work trucks.

  • avatar

    I think some of you are missing the point. This isn’t about the multitude of things GM did wrong. This is about the pivotal point. The opinion of the writer here is that this engine and the surrounding issues are what really establish the moment.

    Now there were many points when they could have changed things, in theory. The SUV craze did not stop them from investing money in R/D on cars. It should have. They didn’t have to go buy other brands and then lose interest. But that is all beside the point. This moment is where GM showed how systemic the problems had become.

  • avatar

    I don’t think that it was one engine or one car that started the downturn, I think it was an attitude that developed then that started the decline.

    The attitude was “let the customer fix it”. GM did not make good with the customer when they made mistakes.

    (Sadly today that attitude is at it’s zenith – broke, they are squeezing dealers on warranty, pissing off their remaining customers. I know, I am a 2005 Saturn Vue Red Line owner with a corroding hood and hatch – so called railway dust.)

  • avatar

    Paris-dakar: “After the first million or so units, though, they usually iron out the bugs.” That’s a hilarious statement, and sadly true.

    I’ve had great luck with both the 2.8L (240k miles and it still ran great when the car wore out) and 3.8L GM V6s, but they were made after the first million.

  • avatar

    “In the 1990s, they had one last chance. Cash rich from the SUV craze, GM could have re-invested the profits into their cars to make them mechanically-bulletproof world-beaters. Sadly, they squandered on brands and products and deals they didn’t need. And so here we sit in 2009, trying to bail them out, trying to figure out how to turnaround a submerged leviathan.”

    I was a teenager in the 1990’s. It was a glorious, amazing decade – even for GM. It seemed like everybody was making money and culture was in the midst of what seemed like a renaissance (this is before the horror of the Aughts really got going). During this time, GM made TONS OF MONEY off the SUV thing.

    This is absolutely where GM could have changed everything. Tons of money, available technology and a strong, willing workforce. Instead, they completely wasted all of it on pointless **** that didn’t make ANY MONEY in the long run. That, is pretty much that.

  • avatar

    So what did it for GM? When did it happen?

    In my eyes the pivotal point was the replacement of the very popular RWD G body cars (Cutlass, Monte Carlo, Regal) with the GM10 cars, which had none of the ‘plushness’ of the G’s and were obviously inferior to the FWD cars from Japan Inc. Game over.

    As far as the 231 of that era. One word…SLOW.

  • avatar

    I had a 1978 Cutlass Supreme Brougham. It had the (Olds) 260 V8 instead of the 231 V6. The last V8 I have owned and the last good GM – followed by a whole string of GM losers for me. It is my understanding that the 260 V8 was the standard Olds V8 with a smaller bore. Never had a problem with it – it wasn’t very powerful but worked smoothly. Maybe I avoided the (in)famous tranny problems by not having much power on tap.

  • avatar

    My first cars were all used — in order — AMC, Dodge, Ford, Dodge. I changed the oil, brakes, coolant, plugs, etc etc on these cars — they were simple to a fault.

    Then I bought my first new car (had just gotten married) — a Chevy Citation. Everything on that car had problems — engine, transmission, a/c, major water leaks, etc. Getting the dealer to fix things was like pulling teeth. The car was actually roomy, comfortable, reasonably fun to drive. But we owned it for less than 2 years.

    Traded it on a new Nissan — and now 25+ years later — I have never gone back to a US brand car. I did own one Nissan that was a clunk — but Nissan stood behind it way past the warranty.

    I might actually be interested in some of the new GM vehicles — but I’d never take the gamble to buy one, only lease. But then, GM isn’t leasing are they?!

  • avatar

    I’d put this article firmly in the old wives’ tales category! Cheap Japanese steel? Same mindset as those folks who didn’t like them little four cylinder foreign cars! So GM made crap four cylinder cars on purpose to meet the expectations of the public. They were awful, “so you cheapies, buy a real GM car with a V8”. That’s my cynical outlook on GM marketing of the time.

    The original V6 was made from a Buick V8, hence the 90 degree vee angle. It was made to replace the disastrous aluminum V8 of 215 cubic inches, which Buick then sold off to Rover for $22 million. The Olds version of the 215 V8 had slightly different heads and block, including 5 studs per cylinder for the head. The Buick had only four, and wasn’t that great, as Rover proved for decades. The Olds version was stronger to allow the use of turbocharging in the Jetaway F-85 for 1962. GM didn’t sell that tooling…..

    So the 231 arrived with an irregular firing order, and was rough. Some years later, GM made a new crank so that the firing order became regular– quite a clever idea, subsequently copied by Audi for their V6s to this day.

    Some years ago, I read an article by a GM powertrain engineer, who said this 3.8l was the most friction-free engine GM made by about 1998. Also about the most reliable. Don’t think this engine had anything to do with GM’s demise.

    So, if you want to drive a rough GM V6, strap yourself in an 8 year old AstroVan with the Chev 4.3 liter. Now that’s a dog of an engine to live with, but still seemed to last well.

  • avatar


    GM’s maximum market share was 52% in 1962, and that might have been the only year it was ever over 50%. They’ve been in a slide, with a few brief interruptions, ever since.

    Some people will tell you that GM at one time had over 60% of the market. I’ve even had an extended email exchange with one prominent curmudgeon on this point. The source of the 60% number: until a point in the 1980s GM’s market share was often calculated as its share of domestic car sales, not of all vehicle sales.

    The last time GM was poised to dominate the market was in the early 1980s. If they had not blown the X- and J-cars, they’d be in much better shape today. There’s a great chapter about the J-Cars in a book by either Brock Yates or Maryann Keller. GM execs convinced themselves it was great, even though it wasn’t.

    In general, GM has been a failure of organization, together with a failure of culture. They could not have kept operating as 5+ separate divisions. But they have been reorganizing over and over in search of a single, streamlined, centralized organization, and none of the organizations along the way have operated well. The cars reflected this.

  • avatar

    The early 3.8 engine problems were but one symptom of a long history of GM’s abuse of customers. It is hard to pin down one point in history when that abuse became overwhelming.

    VW of America, BTW, has the same disease today.

  • avatar

    Picking a minor point in the article, I miss referring to engines by their cubic inches. Two-thirty-one. Three-fifty-one. Four-twenty-seven. It rolls off the tongue like poetry.

    I had the 196 (3.2) in my 1979 Monza Spyder. It was dreadfully weak, but fiercely indestructable.

  • avatar

    So the world’s largest auto company (at the time) lopped two cylinders off a V8 to give a V6 with the wrong angle between the cylinders and a weird firing order?

    That pretty much says it all.

  • avatar

    This story is misleading to put it mildly. While it is true that there were issues with the Buick V6 early on, especially in its earlier “odd fire” form, the engine developed into a reliable (some have said bulletproof) engine that in 3800 Series I and II form, lasted into the 2000’s. It was the basis of everything from the turbocharged Buick Grand National/T-Type to stock block Indycar engines and NASCAR BGN engines of the time.

    The article conveniently points out the early issues with this engine then goes off on some tangent about SUVs, ignoring the fact that this motor was developed and refined over the years and became a good engine for GM.

  • avatar

    You forgot the notorious head gasket failures of the 231 as well.

    While the 231 was part of it the very idea that they were facing off against Honda, Toyota and Nissan with the line up they had was ridiculous.

    This is what happens when you are a large company with huge market share. You get soft and forget where your root are and no longer appreciate the customer.

  • avatar

    Jimal, you are partly correct. Having been a buick mechanic in the 70’s I could write more than 800 words about the 231. The 3800 series was vastly improved, but you should expect that after 20 years. The early 231’s offered dismal mileage, weak power( the first turbo in ’79 had only 145 hp)and a rough agricultural sound no matter how well they were tuned. Remember, the older hondas and hyundais sure werent perfect either, but they were relentless in improving every chance they got. Unlike GM who only got drunk on SUV profits and dividends.

  • avatar

    The Corvair certainly garnered a lot of bad press for being “Unsafe At Any Speed.”

    The truly sad thing about the Corvair was that the 1965 model fixed most of the issues that earned the [email protected] label. I had a ’65 Monza that I raced with the OSU Sports Car Club. The car was sweet with a predictable power-induceable oversteer that really helped get the car through the tight gates.

    I replaced my Monza with a pony car in 1969 that was a nicer and a lot faster but never as much fun to drive.

  • avatar

    WMBA Right on with the engine specs. I also agree the 231 engine was not the problem with these cars. This engine was a Buick V-8 with 2 cyl chopped off which made it an odd fire sequence. The new crankshaft had offset rod journals to make it an even fire sequence, much smoother. Then a counter balance shaft was added to make it smother yet. One of these crankshafts came into my shop to be reground because a rod bearing failed, the oil passage from the main journal to the rod was never completed from the factory( I suppose the drill bit broke during that maching opperation) yet it ran thousands of miles just getting lubricated from splash. I finished drilling the hole and reground the shaft.

  • avatar

    BTW: 1 Liter = 61 cubic inches. A 229 cubic inch engine is 3.754xxxxx liters.Or 3.8.

    Cubic inches are derived from bore x stroke IIRC.A measure of capacity,a description, not a fundamental factor in the quality or reliability of something.

    Like the Buick 3.8 [originally a 2 cylinder chop of the aluminum 215 C.i.d. v8 using a cast iron block] I believe the 229 Chevy was taken from it’s V8 brother, the 307. A relative of the Chevy small block.Quick and easy way to get a v6 and be able to use many of the same parts and tooling : lop two cylinders off a v8.
    Same way Pontiac came up with the Tempest 4 : 1/2 of their 389 V8.

  • avatar

    The current 3.8 V6 engine played a key role in Buick scoring first place in the latest JD Powers survey. This relatively simple engine maybe the most reliable engine on the market.

    Of course GM finds ways even to destroy success. The entire Buick carline that scored so well in this survey will be gone, soon replaced by vehicles built on the unreliable Epsilon platform. The failure of the Aura will be brought to Buick.

    I still cannot believe the Lacrosse and Lucerne are among the most dependable cars in the world!
    Buick is now the kind of reliability, and the aging 3.8 played a role in this!!

  • avatar

    Mikey is right, the 3.8 was a 90 degree engine as were its 3.0 and 3.3 variants. The 60 degree V6 came in sizes of 2.8, 3.1, 3.4 (with a dual OHC option for a few years) and now two versions of the 3.5. The Buick 3.8 was later revised as the 3800-II and it is a fine engine. There are millions of them in existence and they are stout motors; they are just dated in their design (pushrods).

    I believe GM’s big problems occurred years earlier. They stopped caring about workmanship and quality of materials in about 1969 or 1970. They felt like they didn’t need to because of their indomitable market share. They had pesky Plymouth nipping at their heels with low cost cars and Ford constantly trying to out do them model for model. They wanted to stay competitive, allow UAW wage increases and they took the low-road on cost savings. As an example just look at the 1965-1970 Chevrolet engine mount fiasco. They did an ostrich on that one and didn’t effect warranty repairs until they were forced to by NHTSA in December 1971; six long years after the first Chevies started driving off on their own with stuck throttles due to broken (cheaply bonded)mounts.

    I worked for a Chevrolet dealer in 1973 & 1974 and was responsible for warranty repairs. I believed back then that they weren’t going to make the end of the decade with the crap that they were producing; some of the warranty work that came through the door was atrocious. I guess they didn’t believe it either because their powertrain warranties were reduced to 12 months or 12,000 miles in about 1971 from the previous 5 year, 50,000 miles.

    Regarding the Vega, I believe it was in fact, a signal of GM’s impending problems; their inability to get it right the first time and the subsequent dithering about how to resolve the problem.

    GM is a typical American business (Greek?) tragedy that has befallen many large U.S. corporations; they always seem to kill the golden goose.

  • avatar

    I think GM’s biggest issue was ignoring the small cars, because they couldn’t make money on them. The problem is, that the teenagers and twenty somethings that had the craptastic offerings of the late 80s and 90s, alienated them from GM. When their Cavalier or Grand Am gave out, they bought a Honda or Toyota. Now in their late 30s and 40s, these people won’t look at GM. This is why Toyota does Scion. It may not be highly profitable, but it gets people into the Toyota stable early, and keeps them their. Then as they make more money, they can move on to Camry’s, and when they make even more, they can move on to a Lexus. This lack of forsight is what hurts GM. GM lives in the know.

    I have a friend that has an ’84 Regal. That 231 has no power what so ever, and the car is boaty. It really has no major differnces in than a 60s or 70s car. What I don’t get is why if the Grand National could have fuel injection in 84, why couldn’t the other 231s? He is throwing a 383 into it, and turning it into a hot rod, but I can’t see how this version could sell as a family car in ’84.

  • avatar

    In my eyes the pivotal point was the replacement of the very popular RWD G body cars (Cutlass, Monte Carlo, Regal) with the GM10 cars

    I agree…I see this as the tipping point in their market share decline. The sales of these brand names plummeted after the conversion. The fact that they, as another poster mentioned, launched them all as two doors and waited a couple of model years to launch a four-door was a huge problem. At about the same time, Ford swung for the fences with the new Taurus (which they never even launched in a two door format).

    I believe a book was written about the whole GM10 fiasco, but a quick internet search didn’t reveal anything.

  • avatar

    “When a company can’t recognize, admit and correct its mistakes, it’s a rudderless ship bound to hit something, eventually.”

    The crux of the matter.

  • avatar

    In my eyes the pivotal point was the replacement of the very popular RWD G body cars (Cutlass, Monte Carlo, Regal) with the GM10 cars, which had none of the ‘plushness’ of the G’s and were obviously inferior to the FWD cars from Japan Inc. Game over.

    I’m not so sure about this. I have not-at-all fond recollections of the domestics’ big rear-drivers: they were slow, sloppy, not all that roomy, and the trim, electrical and powertrain trouble was all still there.

    About the only advantage they had was that the they were marginally cheaper to repair. Cold comfort that was, to anyone except your mechanic.

  • avatar

    Just today it was confirmed the Dutch importer (Kroymans) of GM USA products went bankrupt after GM Europe refused to take over the import rights.

    GM USA products officially imported here were Corvette, Cadillac (some models) and Hummer. There are also 3000 unsold cars of these brands on a lot right here apparently, which is quite a lot considering there are about 500.000 new cars sold in the Netherlands (population = 16mm) yearly and the three brands mentioned have a negligible market share.

    Kroymans was also the importer of these brands in Germany by the way, but the German subsidiary is now trying to find external funds to move on as a seperate entity.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    I have a number of quibbles with this article. The Vega sold very well, and it was more powerful than pretty much all its competition. It also had excellent handling. It wasn’t that Americans weren’t ready for four cylinder cars. They just wanted them to last.

    As pointed out by several others, the 231 was already an older design that originated in the Special in 1961. I’m not aware that this engine had any specific weaknesses (other than the later cured roughness), as it was 3/4 of a Buick V8. I suspect that any problems that did occur were poor workmanship or cheap parts (head gasket). It was intrinsically a rugged design from the very beginning.

    The Chevy 229 was built alongside the Buick 231 for very obvious reasons: both these engines were made on the same transfer lines as their V8 brothers; hence the 90 degree design. Capacity constraints limited the volume of the 231/3.8, and when Chevy needed a V6, the cut off two cylinders of their V8.

    GM’s problems of the seventies and eighties with quality were rampant across the board; and there were so many more extreme examples, like the Olds Diesel, the Caddy V4-6-8, etc. etc. I’m surprised to see the 231/3.8 be picked as the nadir of GM; and I don’t agree.

  • avatar

    @MBella..Your friend has a 1984 Buick Regal.That makes it 25 years old!So the old Buick is kinda slow.So now after 25 years,its intact enough to hot rod it.

    Only 25 years and its ready for the junk yard.There is just no excuse for lousy quality like that.

  • avatar

    The 231 c.i. v6 was only a small part of the problem; the heart of the problem goes back to that famous statement by Alfred Sloan to the effect: “We’re not in the business of making cars, we’re in the business of making money.” Throughout its history GM has viewed small cars as simply something to keep the natives happy, while management went about their grandiose plans of putting a Cadillac or SUV in every garage. GM’s record of small cars is one of mediocrity and failure: The Corvair, Vega, Chevette, X-cars and J-cars. In the 70’s I drove a Vega, an Opel and finally a 1980 Skylark, to say they spent more time in the shop than on the road is not much of an exaggeration. The 231 v6 may have been a piece of crap, but in the 70’s the quality of GM products collapsed across the board. The management at General Motors simply pretended the problem did not exist, even while customers (like myself) fled GM and never returned. General Motors real problem is stupid, inept management.

  • avatar

    I can’t pin all of GM’s problems on this engine. Not even close.

    GM’s problems can be summed up by looking at what happened to Oldsmobile from 1970 to 1980.

    In 1970, Oldsmobile offered four basic car lines – Cutlass, Delta 88, Ninety-Eight and Toronado. The Ninety-Eight was basically a stretched Delta 88 with a different grille, roofline, decklid and quarter panels.

    All of those cars came with an Oldsmobile-built V-8. Every engine in the lineup was tough, fast, inexpensive to repair and very durable. The Turbo-Hydramatic transmission was a corporate transmission, but it was a gem – probably the best automatic transmission in the world at that time.

    What these Oldsmobiles weren’t was economical, but most Olds buyers didn’t particularly care. If you were worried about gas mileage or low price, you bought a Chevy Nova with a six and a stickshift.

    The quality control on those cars was usually good, because Olds had a fair amount of control over what it built and shipped.

    The Oldsmobile nameplate stood for something; thus buyers could be reasonably confident of the quality and performance of the cars that wore the rocket badge.

    Fast forward to 1980.

    Oldsmobile is now offering the small Starfire coupe, which is a rebadged Chevrolet Monza, and the front-wheel-drive Omega compact, in addition to the Cutlass, Delta 88, Ninety-Eight and Toronado.

    The Starfire is just as unreliable, cramped and slow as its Chevy counterpart. The X-car Omega? We don’t have to rehash that sorry story.

    Even the bigger cars were equipped with engines from the various divisions, some more reliable than others. And the biggest stinker in the lot – the Diesel V-8 – was developed by Oldsmobile!

    So Oldsmobile could be a cheap car, or a slow car, or a plush car…but it wasn’t necessarily a reliable car, unless you were savvy enough to know which drivetrain combination to order in your new car. And it wasn’t necessarily a fast car, either. The days of the glorious Rocket V-8 were long gone. Oldsmobile no longer stood for anything.

    The same thing happened to Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac during the decade…with equally disastrous results.

    Ironically, in his book, On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors, DeLorean noted that one problem GM had was that Chevrolet was too big to run effectively. It survived on inertia and the belief that people would buy new Chevrolets because….they had always bought new Chevrolets.

    It was easier to run the other divisions, because they were smaller and more responsive to decisive leadership.

    So what did GM do? Strip the divisions of their autonomy and turn the corporation into one big Chevrolet Division!

    During the 1970s, when the competition was weak, GM could get away with this sort of arrogance and myopia.

    But by the early 1980s, when Ford got its act together, Chrysler offered the minivan at the same time, and the Japanese and the Germans continued attacking the low and high ends of the market, respectively, GM was in serious trouble.

  • avatar

    If you google W body instead of GM10, it will pop up on Wikipedia, there is also mention of it on Roger Bonham’s site.

  • avatar

    johnny ro nailed it with: “They were fat and happy when VW first showed up. They did not react with the appropriate alarm and failed to change. This is a tipping point, where their attitude, already wrong, caused them inarguable damage.”

    The reality is that Detroit has turned out steaming piles of crap whenever they try anything beyond the V-8 Barge or Pickup truck categories. Since Day One.

    The have never been able to build a reasonably priced, reliable economy car, EVER. Nor car they build sports cars, small family sedans, attractive coupes, hell, *anything* beyond vague floaty barges with V-8s or pickups and pickup derivative (SUVs). I’ll give them Muscle Cars, but those are just floaty V-8 barges with attitude.

    Once the rest of the industrial world got up off the ground and got to work again after being carpet bombed in WW2 Detroit’s days were numbered. Only decades of peace and prosperity kept them afloat. Their market shares have been shrinking steadily since the early 60s, and will have diminished to single digits or zero by the end of the next decade.


  • avatar

    Bang on:
    I came home from the hospital in a 1960 Pontiac, and as a kid we had a string of boring but anvil reliable GM products. We even had a Vega which lasted through 8 years of Canadian salt. But Dad’s last, and the worst by far was the 1983 Regal with the 3.8 V6. It ran rough and burned oil. The wheel cylinders tore out of the backing plates. Best of all the frame rotted out behind the back wheels and fell off with the bumper. The Vega was more fun to drive and lasted longer.

    The drag race between our Regal and my friend’s ‘79 Turbo Regal was the stuff of legend. The impossibly high axle ratios made for bog-slow acceleration, and over 50mph we were still in first gear. The Turbo was only incrementally faster, the boost only served to overcome the inefficiencies of it’s afterthought turbo plumbing.

    That was it for GM. Dad drives a Kia Rondo now.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Every time I take a leak in a public restroom, and read “3.8 liters per flush” on the urinal, I think of GM. Seriously.

    I don’t think one can lay the blame of all GM’s failures on this engine. It’s really the whole shebang. GM has had its successes in the market place, but they’re greatly outnumbered by their failures. Therein lies the rub.

  • avatar

    chuckgoolsbee: The have never been able to build a reasonably priced, reliable economy car, EVER.

    The Focus is reliable, reasonably priced and an all-around good car. It isn’t beautiful, but neither are the Corolla or Sentra. It’s just about 25 years too late.

    chuckgoolsbee: Nor car they build sports cars, small family sedans, attractive coupes, hell, *anything* beyond vague floaty barges with V-8s or pickups and pickup derivative (SUVs).

    Can’t buy it. The Corvette was a world-class sports car in the early and mid-1960s and is one today; the original Mustang was a milestone car that was quite attractive and was ahead of any comparable import competition (please consider price – most European cars were considerably more expensive while offering much poorer reliability); and the post-1962 Valiants and Darts were quite good small family sedans, as was a 1960s Chevy II.

  • avatar


    I believe that the RWD Olds Cutlass was the #1 car in terms of sales for several years in the 80’s. I don’t have the data in front of me but I’m quite sure this was the case. It is easy to look back at these cars out of context, but at the time they were popular. The GM-10 thing was a big deal (and a big letdown) at the time.

  • avatar

    Ahhhh…the 231. My first car (1980 Buick Century) was “powered” by one of those turd motors. Never had any issues with the motor’s reliability, but its appetite for oil meant that true oil changes were unnecessary…just top it off every couple of weeks.

    That 3.8 coupled to a 2.41 rear end was the slowest thing on the road….offering diesel like acceleration with V8 like fuel economy.

    But give GM credit…over the years, improvement in oiling, cyl head design and manifolding, EFI, balance shafts, and forced induction morphed the old 231 into one of the most competitive, fuel efficient motors in its class.

  • avatar
    Old Guy Ben

    Having owned one, I would agree that the X-Cars were horrid. They certainly turned me away from anything GM, except for the occasional rental (when I can’t avoid it).

    Mine had a long, long list of issues. The engine was actually fairly OK on mine, go figure.

  • avatar

    My last, a 2003 Montana had the infamous leaky intake manifold gasket that GM tried to avoid but got caught.

    Yup, same here with my wife’s POS Buick. For me, that was the end of GM.


  • avatar

    GM has made numerous errors that have contributed to its demise. It isn’t about a single motor or vehicle, but about a broken culture that refuses to acknowledge its weaknesses, respect the competition or consumer, and address its problems.

    A well run business would learn from its mistakes. GM not only refuses to learn from the errors of its ways, but also doesn’t even recognize that it made any mistakes in the first place (or pretends that the mistakes were made a long time ago.) And if that wasn’t enough, it takes it another step further by blaming the customer for not wanting to pay them for those mistakes.

    GM would have failed decades ago if it wasn’t so large. Most companies that behave like this fail within years, not decades.

  • avatar

    I used to have an ’89 Buick with the 3800 series V6. That engine was smooth as silk and – from my ownership period at least – bulletproof. If the 231s were as bad as advertised (never driven one), then I guess I have to give GM some props for making such an obvious improvement with the release of the successor 3800.

  • avatar

    Here’s my perspective having watched GM’s decline over my lifetime.

    As a child in the 60’s we thought GM cars were ‘the best in the world’ except for those rare and wierd exceptions like my dad’s Dentist friend’s Mercedes. The Corvair incident shook our faith mildly.. GM wasn’t the great and wise engineering company we’d thought. They were now, say, an automotive engineering gods with toes of clay.

    Then came the Vega debacle. Small cars were becoming popular and the Vega was GM’s widely advertised (think Volt) response. It’s true that the sales weren’t that high, but Vega was the face of the ‘new’ GM – the Import competitor- the proof the GM could design a car as sophisticated as the foreigners (which meant German, English or French more than Japanese in those days). When they failed it was big news… we cared. Now the engineering feet of clay were obviously visible.

    Next came the entire 70’s fleet with their slap-dash approach to the mandatory bumpers and pollution controls. GM cars were ugly cars that got lousy gas mileage and didn’t run very well. The buzzword was the not only were GM engineers bad engineers, but lazy too….

    But GM and the press swore that the X cars of the 80’s were the new, new GM. Brilliantly engineered cars with a radical new FWD design to give you the space of a traditional American car with the gas mileage of a foreign (read Japanese by now). Disaster raises its ugly head again in the x-body brake scandal where the Justice Department had to sue GM to force them to recall a million X-body (mostly named ‘Citation’ ironically enough) to get them to fix the brakes despite GM’s knowledge how dangerous the cars were. Now it was obvious that GM’s engineers had hearts of stone…. or at least didn’t give a damn about you or your wife or children.

    The 231 engine problems took years for people to figure out. In the days before the internet, there wasn’t any quick exchange of information about individual car problems AND the engine problems took a long time to show up. (Some family friends had one in a Buick that failed, but the wife got the blame for driving around with the oil light on – she swore she didn’t remember that, but all the men knew it MUST have been on and she just didn’t notice it).

    However the 1985 downsized Caddy’s, Toronados, and Electra with their FWD designs – stupid looking things with long hoods, and roof lines and trunks that looked shrunken were obvious. Until that point, GM big cars still sold because they were classic AMERICAN cars – despite the pollution woes, you still couldn’t kill a GM car with a V8, automatic transmission and RWD. Somewhere around that time I first heard the expression “GM cars run bad longer than most cars run at all”. But the FWD mini’s were a stupid move. Until then FWD meant ‘Cheap’ and usually foreign. I remember the bitter disappointment of first seeing these bastardized designs. The 1985 Cadillac De Ville and 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood were two feet shorter than their rear-drive predecessors. It was obvious that the GM engineers were blockheads, although whether blocks of stone or clay was unclear).

    In the 1990’s GM got a reprieve for a while because they went back to building what they were good at: Cars SUV’s with a V8, automatic transmission and RWD. New designs? Ha! It became obvious that GM’s engineers had all retired and were now under tombstones.

    And today we celebrate the death of GM.

  • avatar


    “I agree…I see this as the tipping point in their market share decline. The sales of these brand names plummeted after the conversion. The fact that they, as another poster mentioned,
    launched them all as two doors and waited a couple of model years to launch a four-door was a huge problem.”

    That was me. What I don’t know is, did they delay them because of their ineptness at getting a new product out the door, or was it because of Roger Smith’s constantly reshuffling the deck organization wise?

  • avatar

    a car review, this is not.

    Can you REALLY say the 231ci V6 was a bad engine? I’d say ANY new engine is going to be garbage mechanically, and yes they should have stepped up a little quicker. But what was under the hood of the Gran National? a SMPFI 231ci V6 with a big old’ turbo. Why were the Grand Prix GTP’s so awesome? blown 231ci V6. What gets 31mpg with four passengers, luggage, AC on at 80mph? An olds LSS with a 231 V6 (personal experience.) modern 231’s run forever if you can dodge the EGR bullet. I think GM has greater sins than the 231.

  • avatar

    geeber, the Corvette is the exception to the rule. The broken clock is GM. Sure, it is right twice a day, but look over here at this one exception: The Corvette. As Lokki so eloquently said, it fits their (V-8, RWD) modus operandi so it gets a pass. Imagine if ALL OF GM were run as well as Bowling Green. If the exception were the rule rather than the oddball. They would not be begging for taxpayer bailouts. They wouldn’t be the subject of a deathwatch. We wouldn’t be collectively tallying epic failures through the decades.


  • avatar

    I have my concerns with this article, but it does shine a light on something that is truly the downfall of GM: the proliferation turned overabundance of V6 engines in their lineup.

    The 3.8 isn’t the best engine in the world, and its only part of the problem. All those new FWD cars (which were supposed to show GM’s technological superiority) in the 1980s with the coolant leaking 2.8L engines? And how many versions of the 2.8L were made in the past 20 years?

    Now GM sells the 3.8, many variants of the 2.8L, two different 3.6Ls, and the production/support mechanisms for all of them.

    How many V6 engines are available in the Chevy Impala for the past 2-5 years? Folks, even Chrysler isn’t this stupid.

  • avatar

    Jimal: “I believe that the RWD Olds Cutlass was the #1 car in terms of sales for several years in the 80’s.”Yeah, and because of that, GM stupidly decided to slap a ‘Cutlass’ badge on virtually every crap vehicle that GM gave to Oldsmobile. Soon enough, with all the ‘Cutlasses’ being built, it didn’t take long to dilute the brand to the point where it was irrelevant and eventually (and sadly) folded.

    It’s ironic in that the success of the Olds Cutlass contributed not only to the demise of the division, but of the entire corporation.

  • avatar

    Your main point, ie, that GM produced some shoddy products and then “ran from the warranty claims” is, undoubtedly, correct. However, singling out the Buick 3.8 V6 as somehow emblematic of GM’s 80s quality nadir, is a poorly chosen symbol. That V6 (still in production today) became the proverbial silk purse after many years of steady development.
    It is a pretty bullet-proof engine, quiet, reasonably powerful, and it’s a fuel sipper. (Buick Lucernes and Chevy Impalas with this engine easily get 30 highway mpg.)
    Like the venerable Chevy small-block V8, the sum is greater than the parts.

  • avatar

    There is no “tipping point”. Fact is, GM never changed anything. It’s just that the rest of the world pulled ahead. The oil embargo of ’73 didn’t make GM cars any worse; it just proved to many Americans that other countries had pulled ahead of GM, while GM just rested on it’s laurels.

  • avatar

    Geeber, I think you’re on the right track and I am glad you mentioned DeLorean’s book. In my humble opinion if I had to pick just one thing that destroyed GM it would have to be the U.S. Justice Department threatening to use Anti-Trust to break up GM by spinning off Chevrolet in the 1960’s. Nothing else comes close to doing the damage that did or it can be traced as a direct result from that threat and GM’s reaction to it.

    Up until that time GM was staff and line with back-office doing centralized accounting, planning, purchasing. Each division had quite a bit of autonomy and were in effect in competion. Each had their own engines and such. To fight off Anti-trust the simple corporate set-up was muddled and tied together in a knot that could not be broken up. Hence Chevrolet engines in Cadillacs, Pontiacs become Chevrolets with different grills, Buicks and Oldmobiles become interchangable, etc.

    Retrofitting pollution controls onto the cars in the 1970’s has to get an honorable mention as does outright hubris from the executives. Too many models for each division I think is a direct result of the Anti-Trust debacle.

    Forced downsizing due to CAFE standards also helped to kill off the cars that GM did so well: Riveria, Toronado, Eldorado, Ninety-Eight, Eighty-Eight, Park Avenue, LeSabre, Electra, DeVille, Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass, Regal, and all of the rest that had different styles, personalities, engines. Homogenized, front-wheel-drived(I know Toronado and Eldorado already were fwd), downsized, and finally destroyed.

    I had a 231 V6 and it was bulletproof. Still ran like a top at 175,000 miles. I think the X-cars were far more of a problem to GM than the 231.

  • avatar

    eggsalad: The oil embargo of ‘73 didn’t make GM cars any worse; it just proved to many Americans that other countries had pulled ahead of GM, while GM just rested on it’s laurels.

    I would disagree. Park virtually any 1973 GM car next to its 1968 counterpart. The difference in build quality is immediately apparent. And that’s before the test drive…

    The only area I’d rate the 1973s as consistently better is braking ability (because of increased use of disc brakes).

  • avatar

    The Focus is reliable, reasonably priced and an all-around good car.

    After 2004 or so. Prior to that it had teething problems exceeded only by the X5 and ML-Class. Ford had a good car, but badly cheapened the implementation. I remember because I almost bought one in 2003 but was scared off by the forum chatter and the recall count (some fourteen or so) in the first year. I bought a Protege at the time, instead.

    The Focus could have been a game-changer for the domestics specifically because it beat the Asians—badly—on their own turf. I don’t think people appreciate just how much better the Focus was than, say the Civic of the time. Or the Civic that came after it, for that matter.

    But Ford flubbed it utterly

  • avatar

    Windswords, it was an accumulation of faulures really, starting with completely misjudging the market.

    As an aside, yes, I agree the Focus is a good small car, but for the first couple of years it as infamous. At one point, it threatened to overtake Volare/Aspen duo for number of recalls.

    Yech, this thread reminds me of some of the downsized GMs. I remember a friend’s mom buying a Buick Somerset Regal. Cheeseyyyyyyyy.

  • avatar

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for recognizing the single worst engine I have ever driven.

    We had a small body Olds Cutlass Supreme, which we renamed the Supremely Gutless. Vibration, poor fuel use and driveability, and just enough power to run the power accessories. Possibly the only rear drive car I ever owned that you couldn’t hoon no matter how hard you tried or abused. This was the rear drive version, not the X. The company was too cheap to install a proper crank, so we got the “chopped off v8” crank which was inherently unstable.

    Even my mom used to say “it makes my ankle hurt” from keeping the “accelerator” to the floor.

    There were times we COULDN’T pin the 85 mph dildo-speedo. The car also “went in ” for engine and trans issues (unrelated to hoonage attempts)

    What a piece of….junk. Luckily it was a company car and went back to wherever it came from. We counted down and celebrated when it disappeared.

    Our next car was a square box Volvo Turbo and then a 328is. We never went back to GM. Mom now drives a TL, barely broken in at 56k and with zero issues.

  • avatar

    I’m not completely sure that GM cars were ever quite as good as they’re being made out to be, or that the rear-drivers, trucks and certain powertrains were ever that solid, especially into the 1970s and onward.

    In short, it seems like there’s an awful lot of nostalgia for the good old days that perhaps weren’t that good. Picking up an old Lemon-Aid or Consumer Reports seems to indicate across-the-board problems with electrical systems, power accessories, pumps, brakes, controls, gaskets, body hardware, trim and more.

    It’s not that GM (and Ford, and Chrysler) couldn’t or wouldn’t make a reliable small car, or a reliable front-drive car. Those are just excuses, much like how VW fans finger Mexican assembly, when glitch-ridden Passats and Audis were rolling off production lines in the Fatherland. The problem with the domestics is that they stopped giving a damn about making any reliable cars. For a long time. They also didn’t care to help their customers when they did get burned by poor-quality stuff.

    All this stuff about powertrains and drive wheels and such is just window dressing. Detroit products, statistically speaking, were unreliable, and they (the automakers) didn’t really care.

    The response, when there was one, was nonsense advertising about “Quality being Job 1”, being “Like a Rock” or how “If you can find a better car, buy it”.

  • avatar

    I’d put the tipping point even earlier, in the mid-60s. It’s not a single engine or vehicle, it’s a change in culture: Accountants replaced car guys in charge. Accountants decided R&D costs money without immediate payoff, so they would do as little as they could get away with. Ditto quality manufacturing, ditto warranty payoffs and willingness to recall broken designs.

    The disaster took a long time to hit. The R&D cuts really started to hurt in the early 70s, when demand for fuel-efficient, small cars changed the game. They no longer had a R&D organization that could make a good, small car in time to do any good.

    If you don’t listen to your accountants you will probably be broke within a year. But you also have to have passion for the product. If you don’t have that, you’ll also go broke. In GM’s case, it just took 40 years.

  • avatar

    The Focus is reliable, reasonably priced and an all-around good car.

    After 2004 or so. Prior to that it had teething problems exceeded only by the X5 and ML-Class. Ford had a good car, but badly cheapened the implementation.

    A friend of mine had a 2001. He called it his “rolling caca.” Terrible. He just dumped it for…a Hyundai. He says “never again” on Ford.


  • avatar

    psharjinian: After 2004 or so. Prior to that it had teething problems exceeded only by the X5 and ML-Class. Ford had a good car, but badly cheapened the implementation.

    I agree. When my wife was looking at new cars in late 2004, even the Ford salesmen told her to avoid any Focus built before 2003. (She ended up buying a brand-new 2005 SE sedan.)

    But let’s at least give Ford credit for improving the reliability of the car (if not the styling). It’s still a pretty good car. Ford could have let it die on the vine.

    psharjinian: I’m not completely sure that GM cars were ever quite as good as they’re being made out to be, or that the rear-drivers, trucks and certain powertrains were ever that solid, especially into the 1970s and onward.

    During the 1960s, they were good – especially the Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. They really were more reliable and better built than the domestic competition (with few exceptions – the 1960s Lincolns were pretty well built).

    The imports were unreliable, complicated and didn’t offer effective air conditioning or reliable automatic transmissions (most European cars) or rust-prone and not well suited to American driving conditions (Japanese cars).

    In the 1970s, GM got arrogant. The result was a deadly combination of faulty engineering crippling many components and drivetrains, and poor quality control hampering many of the more reliable ones. Meanwhile, the Germans and Japanese got better, while the British, Italians and French became increasingly marginalized (which meant fewer people would be exposed to a really awful imported car).

  • avatar

    Lots of great posts here.

    I can really relate to the discussion about the GM-10/W bodies and Olds in general.

    I live in Lansing, MI. The old RWD Cutlasses were everywhere in the 1980’s. Lots of guys my age had a Cutlass Supreme as their first car.

    Olds was (next to Chevy) GM’s most important car line. I believe Olds was even # 3 in sales in 1986. It was a quick trip downhill, however.

    First came the brand dilution – Cutlass Ciera, Cruiser, Calais, etc. Cutlass now meant a small “sporty” FWD car, or a midsize family car, or a station wagon, or…

    Then of course, came the GM-10 Cutlass Supreme, which was full of gross body cladding, and was basically a mediocre car. Follow that up with the infamous “Not your father’s Olds” ad campaign, and any value the Olds name had was gone.

    Basically the same thing happened to Pontiac. Muddled brand image, poor/derivative styling, and bad marketing.

    So I live in a GM town but they don’t make much that interests me. I’m not a truck guy, I’m not a Chevy guy, I’m too young to drive a Buick, and I don’t want to spend the money for a Cadillac, so I end up going elsewhere.

  • avatar
    Old Guy Ben

    When I was a kid, we seemed to almost always have a full size Buick as our family mobile.

    (Dad had a bunch of different vehicles because he put so many miles on them and some of them were craptastic. I’m looking at you, Ford Pinto)

    Anyway, we had a 72 LeSabre and a 78 Buick Estate Wagon (I think that’s what it was). Both full size, V-8, loaded with “stuff.” The ’78 was clearly inferior, as we found out when parts (door handles, etc) started falling off within a week of buying the thing. It was apples and oranges. Was it the oil shocks of the 70’s that changed how they built things? Can’t say for sure.

  • avatar

    Dagastino, you’re wrong to pick on the 231 V6. It was and is a durable engine, and it had decent mid-range power. My old man’s ’78 Buick Century was one hell of a stout car.

    I urged him to buy it because it looked like the Rover SD1 3500 I read about it in Car & Driver. And yes, people thought it was ugly as sin; I still don’t think so to this day, but realize that’s a matter of taste.

    It lasted almost 12 years until it was stolen off a Brooklyn street with 138K on the odometer and still running strong, despite the outrageous abuse I heaped on it as a teenager. With that car, I ran over a fence, broke a rear axle attempting a hand-brake turn, and got pegged by the state troopers several times for doing 75 or more. That Buick with the V6 was great for what it was — stable, comfortable tracked well and was generally reliable. It even had enough grunt for the A/C. Sure stuff broke but both engine and trans were tough. Maybe we were lucky, but the old man said that as long as you put a little money into it once in awhile, nothing could kill that car.

    My parents were Buick people from the early Sixties and kept the faith until ’99. When it was time to get rid of the ’92 Regal they had — now THAT was a real POS — they looked at a 2000 LeSabre. No sale. They chose a Maxima instead and never looked back for the rest of their lives. Same thing with their contemporaries, who were mainly GM, but often Ford & Chrysler loyalists. At a certain point, these “greatest generation” folks all went Japanese.

    Yes, GM owned the mid-sized market with 4 divisions, and completely blew it. That’s the problem right there. But blaming the 231 V6 is wrongheaded.

  • avatar

    speedlaw ‘There were times we COULDN’T pin the 85 mph dildo-speedo.‘

    I can do you one better! :) In 1982 the company car was a Malibu Wagon with a 267 V8. I remember going on a camping trip with two other people, just for a weekend. And yes, there was a canoe on top. So, I guess it was a relatively cumbersome load, I will grant you.

    This was in Manitoba where there a lots of long straight roads that are inexplicably limited to 90km/h. I came across someone doddling at 85km/h and ‘mashed’ the gas…there was an almost imperceptible increase in forward thrust. I pressed harder, only to realize that’s all there was. Slooooowly the car got up to 90km/h (that’s 55mph folks) and I pulled out to pass. It took so long to get past that other damn car my passenger and the driver of the other car could have evenly shared a ‘large fries’.

    I guess I could have just fallen back behind but I couldn’t stand the indignity.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    Okay, time to correct a few facts here.

    The Buick 231 / 3.8 has been well documented here by other posters.

    The Chevrolet 90 degree V6 has not been.

    Appearing in the 1978 and ’79 model years, Chevrolet produced a 200 / 3.3 V6 that was a 267 / 4.4 small block with two cylinders removed. It was a rough idleing, tough, although not powerful, engine. I drove one for eight years so I know.

    Then from the 1980-84 model years, Chevrolet produced a 229 / 3.8 V6 that was a 305 / 5.0 small block with two cylinders removed. They did so because CAFE required better mileage and Chevrolet wanted to put the engine in it’s B Body Impala / Caprice.

    For the 1985 model year to the present day, Chevrolet has produced a 265 / 4.3 V6 that is a 350 / 5.7 with two cylinders removed. It may not be refined, but it is strong.

    I drove many 1978 to 1988 A / G Body cars. This is the car that I learned to drive on. They were all well balanced and particularly fast with the LG3 305 / 5.0 V8. They had full perimeter frames and were easy to service and modify.

  • avatar

    A friend who bought a brand spanking new Chebby Vega drove her out to BC from Ont. And that was all the mileage the little car could handled. When the engine died GM kind of politely told him to F off.
    So does it help the customer relationship?
    As told by their GM men Joe Girard who sells GM cars like hot cakes and by the truck load.
    Namely the 250 rule, everytime a good or bad reputation it affects 250 people.So if u have a few thousands of bad cars can u figure out how many negative advertisement will it propagate?

  • avatar

    I just want to chime in for the purposes of supporting the A-body “Aeroback”. Love that car.

  • avatar

    I just want to chime in for the purposes of supporting the A-body “Aeroback”. Love that car.

    Jack, it’s always a pleasure to run into a fellow traveler.

  • avatar

    Michael Karesch said, “GM execs convinced themselves it was great, even though it wasn’t.”

    That in a nutshell is the downfall of GM. For 5 decades GM, from the VP level up had way too many execs who were; inept, shortsighted, good-old-boy network fat cats living the high life. And from that level down to management far too many, brown nose, cover-your-ass yes men to survive long term

    Can’t say I feel sorry for them.

    The Vega and Citation were certainly very damaging to GM as was not reacting to and challenging the Japanese steady market growth of the 80s and 90s.

  • avatar

    rpol35 :

    they are just dated in their design (pushrods).

    Why are pushrods dated? It’s not as though overhead cams are some sort of “new fangled” technology, they’ve been in use since 1912. Pushrod engines are arguably the newer technology as they really didn’t become commonplace until the launch of the Olds “Rocket V-8” in 1949. Up until that time most engine were flat-head designs with both the cam and valves in the cylinder block.

    Pushrods are simply an alternative method for actuating valves. They have advantages and disadvantages, just as OHC engines do. It all depends on the application the engine is intended for and the available space to package the engine in.

  • avatar

    For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
    for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
    and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
    being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
    all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
    -Benjamin Franklin
    Poor Richard’s Almanac

  • avatar

    The beginning of the end as far as I was concerned had nothing to do with engines or hubris or bean counters or X-cars or the Vega or the GM-10’s. In 1975, I drove the two-hour drive out to visit my grandparents in the California high desert. Grandpa Sharp was a Chevy man, had been since he bought his first car in 1934. That started an unbroken string of mostly brand new bow-tie models. I was just a kid but I remember the ’56 Belair coupe, the ’59 Impala coupe, ’63 Impala, ’67 Caprice. But what I found sitting on his driveway that spring day shocked me to my very core. A metallic copper colored 1975 Toyota Celica GT coupe with a white vinyl top. I figured if Chevy couldn’t sell a car to John T. Sharp that it was just a matter of time until their company would be toast.

  • avatar

    rpol35 :

    they are just dated in their design (pushrods).

    They may actually make a sort of comeback. A pushrod engine is lower then an OHC engine, other things being equal. With the need for sleeker more aerodynamic cars to meet new CAFE regs, this could become very significant.

  • avatar

    Something that bothers me is the constant claims of the auto makers that they’re “just making what the market wants.”

    That’s a load of bull. The “market” is stuck choosing from a selection of what the automakers want to sell us. Just because they sold more of one model than their competition doesn’t mean it’s anything special – it could have just been the least bad of a bunch of bad choices.

    One of the biggest factors that caused our auto industry to start failing was the wholesale move to front drive vehicles. That’s not the answer to every motoring problem – but they gave up on all of their well proven rear drive designs and tried to duplicate the Rabbit in a much larger size.

    I was just recently thinking about another vehicle and after surveying the “me too” offerings at the dealers (Not just GM, even the foreign makes are headed down the same road) I decided to buy a classic and rebuild / restore it to be a daily driver. This will cost some money to do – but it’s not as expensive as a new car and the end result will be something that looks and drives much better than the stuff they’re selling today.

    So while I’m cruising around in my V8 powered rear drive convertible and enjoying every minute of it, look at that Camry in your driveway and ask yourself if that was really what you wanted – or was it what you settled for?

  • avatar

    At the root of all GM’s problems is their toxic, incredibly shallow and shortsighted management culture. GM ignores reliability and warranty problems (until they become the business-impact equivalent of a crowbar to the face) because a finance-dominated management culture has contempt for engineering issues and the product.

    In the warped world of GM management, what gets you noticed is sexy, big-splash projects like new product launches and, most of all, ‘deals’. Finance MBAs love ‘deals’ – it’s what their investment banker peers are doing on Wall Street, and they don’t want to miss out on the glory. This is how you get compulsive takeover-itis whenever there’s some free cash lying around. Improving product quality and reliability is, like, sooooo booooring (whiny teenager voice) and the finance guys can’t understand the details of it which threatens their power vis a vis the engineering guys, so they’d rather bulldoze cash into disastrous deals like Fiat, which cost them a couple billion to extricate from.

    And when they are so disinterested in their own product, you can imagine the contempt they feel for the proles who actually buy them when it comes to warranty claims and customer satisfaction. It’s all about rewarding the manager who can find the loopholes to squeeze customers out of getting warranty work. What management can measure is all that matters, and saving a few pennies is the only ‘metric’ that counts, shafted customers be damned.

    The end result is the kind of mediocre vehicles and service you’d expect from MBAs whose attitude is “We don’t make cars, we make profits” – they end up making neither.

    I figured if Chevy couldn’t sell a car to John T. Sharp that it was just a matter of time until their company would be toast.

    I knew GM was on the decline in the mid-1980s when my grandparents, after half a century of buying Chevys, brought home a brand new Camry.

  • avatar

    First, the GM hierarchy dismissed the warnings of their engineers that an aluminum engine block needs cast iron liners.

    I don’t think that’s factual. The Vega engines were a case of GM embracing a new technology (something I think is a good thing) but not developing it properly. The problem was that they used nikasil coatings and hardeners embedded in the aluminum, but it took Porsche to get that technology right. The concept was sound (just like the V8-6-4) but executed poorly. Nowadays there are plenty of aluminum blocks without steel or iron liners.

  • avatar

    So the world’s largest auto company (at the time) lopped two cylinders off a V8 to give a V6 with the wrong angle between the cylinders and a weird firing order?

    Even for the world’s largest auto company, engine transfer lines, the machinery that takes raw blocks and machines them into finished components still costs many millions of dollars, one of the most expensive things there are in building a car. That’s the concept behind Ford’s “modular” V8, which is really a family of very different engines that can still be produced on the same machinery.

    That’s why you see companies try to design engines using the same bore to bore dimensions and such.

    Yes, lopping off 2 cylinders is the quick and dirty way to make a V6. Most manufacturers have probably done it at one time or another. That means you have a 90 deg V6 which is not ideal.

    On the other hand, GM’s split journal crankshaft is an amazingly elegant way to make a 90 deg V6 fire like a balanced 60 deg V6, and the plain fact is that in time the 3800 has become one of the most reliable engines ever. So I’d give the 90 deg GM V6 (aka Buick Fireball) a solid B.

    The X cars, I’ll agree, wounded GM, perhaps mortally. Another case of a good idea, poorly executed.

    BTW, if Hyundai sold as many cars when they came here in the 1980s as GM sold X cars, they never could have recovered, warranty or not.

  • avatar

    With all the ridicule and derision aimed at the 231 V6 simply because it was a modified version of an existing V8, it’s worth remembering that this wasn’t GM’s first foray into such engineering.

    Pontiac, way back in 1961, released the new Tempest with its ‘Trophy 4’ (or ‘Hay Baler’ as some mechanics called it for the rough way it ran when out of tune). The 195CI (3.2L) inline four cylinder was nothing more than the right bank of the 389 V8. I guess the ‘half-a-V8’ design was overshadowed by the much more infamous ‘Rope Drive’ rear transaxle that the engine was used with.

  • avatar

    I just want to chime in for the purposes of supporting the A-body “Aeroback”. Love that car.

    I liked the one that was mid-engined, with a 455 Olds big block.

  • avatar

    The X cars, I’ll agree, wounded GM, perhaps mortally. Another case of a good idea, poorly executed.

    BTW, if Hyundai sold as many cars when they came here in the 1980s as GM sold X cars, they never could have recovered, warranty or not.

    The X-Car is another example of GM launching something half finished and getting it right after a million units. The A-Car was really a product improved X-Car and the A-Car had a 12-14 year production run. A-Cars were solid reliable cars, not very glamorous, but cheap to buy and run with decent performance, mileage and space.

    If I had to pick, I would say either the A-Car or the H-Car were the last great cars GM built. ‘Great’ for GM cars – cheap to run vehicles with good interior space. I really miss my 92 LeSabre – room for 6, big trunk and with the 3.8L/4T65, I got 24mpg in mixed cycle driving. 30mpg on the highway.

  • avatar

    You’ve got to be kidding?? The 3.8L is hardly responsible for GM’s current problems. If I were to point out one car to be the GM poster child, its gotta the Cadillac Cimeron in the mid 80s. Does anyone remember how terrifically awful this car was?? If not, it was essentially a barely modified Cavalier; same engine, softer suspension, and slab-box styling with some gold/chrome bling slapped on. Cadillac had the nerve to charge $2K more for this horror show AND charged you extra for the 3 spd Automatic, something the company had never done. This car single-handed destoyed the storied Cadillac name, which it has been desparately trying to regain since.

  • avatar

    I still cannot believe the Lacrosse and Lucerne are among the most dependable cars in the world!
    Buick is now the kind of reliability, and the aging 3.8 played a role in this!!

    So true… but remember the LaCrosse is actually a derivative of the GM10 platform that was introduced in 1989.. they’ve had quite a bit of time to make the platform and engine reliable.

    My mom had a 1998 Olds Intrigue with the 3800. Decent engine, mileage, etc… but by 50K the water pump had failed, the power-steering pump had failed, various interior parts were falling off, and finally an engine mount failed… that was the end. She bought a Mazda which never went back to the dealer in the 8 years she owned it.

  • avatar

    My own slant on the reason for GM’s slide into oblivion is that they saw no reason why their buyers should not be used as beta-testers for new technology. Look at the Corvair, the Vega, and the Fiero as the main examples of this. Each of these cars was well-sorted and a decent piece of equipment by the time GM quit making them.

    Rudiger, you mentioned the 4-cylinder Pontiac Tempest engine that was one bank of a V8. International used the same trick to make a 152-cubic-inch 4 for Scouts, and also for the 1964 900 pickup. I drove one of the latter for a few months, and couldn’t help thinking how much better it would have performed with all of the V8 under the hood. It was a typical Cornbinder though – too heavy and slow to hurt itself much – and my old man drove it well over 150,000 miles with minimal maintenance, then bought a 1970 Scout with the same motor.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The beginning of the end for GM was in fact the Corvair. Not the car itself, but that fateful day in 1959 (or 1958?) when the beancounters nixed the ten-cent rear swaybar after the engineers had demonstrated its need by flipping some test cars. Meanwhile, down the road in Pontiac, the GMC guys were putting the finishing touches on the company’s (and continent’s) first V6, which at this point looks to be the best V6 GM will ever make.

    It was all downhill from there. Chop-block engines for the senior compacts, GM Assembly Division, sleeveless Vega engine, buying back the 225, Roger Smith’s robots, Dexcool, plastic 3800 intakes, everything that came later was an attempt to cut costs rather than grow the business. GM died when it turned penny wise-pound foolish, but it took 50 years for the corpse to finish mortifying.

  • avatar

    Wheeljack :

    Anyway you look at it pushrods are more parasitic in their horsepower consumption. Believe me, I understand the difference, I’ve never built an engine that didn’t have pushrods but the numbers don’t lie, OHC is a more efficient design and I’m not trying to take anything away from GM’s LS series of V8’s.

  • avatar

    After several friends who’ve had GM cars spanning the ’70s and well into the ’80s along with family members who still buy GM, I can offer my two cents.

    Driving a 1971 model Chevelle/Malibu reveals it’s cramped, the driving postion is awkward and visibility is horrible if you are over 6 feet tall. The steering wheel blocks most of the warning lights, the heater controls are a stretch, and despite it’s size, it’s not roomy.

    My 1976 Chevelle/Malibu , was a vast improvement over the ’71 model in every respect save styling. Even build quality was actually better in it. It was easier to service and rode better than the earlier model. Mine never had a squeak or rattle in 200,000 and 24 years of service. Rust finally killed it in 2001. It was far from perfect though, they had to take it back the day after they bought it (brand new) to get the A/C fixed, but that was it’s only warranty work ever done on it. It went 100,000 miles before the first year 305 had to be overhauled with broken piston rings, which plauged that engine for the rest of 200,000 miles. I put new cylinder heads on the tired short block and not only gained a substantial amount of power, gas mileage went up (from 12mpg in town to an honest 16) emissions were reduced, though it had never had a problem passing a sniff test before despite it’s primitive pollution controls.

    my friends 1979 El Camino (based off the A/G platform with the Monte Carlo and Malibu) is/was a cheaply made car. It’s a flexy flyer, almost as much as the ’71 Convertible is, handling is mediocre even for it’s day, ergonomics is a joke in that car, it seems they just haphazardly tossed controls around. I’ve driven a mint condition 1979 Malibu sedan with the 229 and I’m not sure that engine would have the effect you state. It too was a rough running engine compared to it’s 305 V8 cousin. It had adequate pickup, but it wasn’t as powerful as the even-fire 231, the odd-fire 231s were crap..

    Same friend with the El Camino now has an 84 Monte Carlo SS, and all the exact same faults that the El Camino had in the late ’70s still had in the mid ’80s.

    I’d say the turning point was when they did the downsizing in the late ’70s.

    Mom and Dad bought an ’84 Olds Delta 88 brand new, even bought the extended warranty. Nary a problem while it had a warranty, but after it ran out at 70,000 miles, the wonderful TH-200 blew up, then blew up again 40,000 miles later, then again after it overheated for the 3rd time. It also broke a valve tip, the electronic Quadrajet was never right after the TPS sensor replaced. It did get marginally better mileage than the 76 on the highway, (24 vs, 21) but it’s 2.41 axle ratio was a joke. It might have had more power out of the Olds 307 (150hp) over the Chevy 305 in the ’76 (140hp at the time) but the ’76 could leave it in the dust due to the 3.08 rear end. Neither car would be what I call quick though. We sold it to a guy for $100 just to get rid of it. It did look great thought, it was perfect inside and out, where the ’76 needed a full cosmetic restoration.

    We kept the Olds for 12 years, actually suffered with it for 12 years. Mom got a ’92 LeSabre which while under warranty was a utter pile of crap. It had strut issues, brake issues, electrical glitches, paint failures. Once all that was taken care of, it was the picture of reliablitly. Ergonomically it was a nightmare, who puts the radio out of reach of the driver? Buick did. The 3800 in it for me, made up a lot of the cars shortcomings. It was a fairly fast car, handling was decent even with the base Dyna-mush suspension, could cruise at 100mph and not break a sweat, and get high twenties for gas mileage at that speed, driven sanely it could do 20mpg in town and 31 on the highway.

    I had for a brief time an ’86 Pontiac 6000-STE, it was a 90,000 mile car when I bought it so I’ll chalk a lot of it’s problems due to age/neglect. It was a fun car, it was the car that GM should have made across the board rather than just a specific trim package. Dad even liked driving it. The 2.8 had decent power, it was reasonably roomy, and despite the 3 speed automatic, got decent gas mileage (compared the ’76) and i didn’t have to fool with setting the choke on the carb all the time thanks to EFI.

    I got rid of it after I bought my current 1995 Explorer. I like the Explorer like I liked that ’76 Chevelle, except for the Explorers appetitie for heater cores and radiators and it’s trucky ride.

    Now Mom’s got a 2004 Buick Rendezvous and it’s got some minor issues with it that GM never could figure out, like the defective steering rack that binds up at random times. When it warms up, I’ll crawl under it and replace the rack and pinion, which is utterly asinine on a 50,000 mile car.

  • avatar

    I have to agree with you on the Pontiac 6000. I bought a used ’89 SE with the 2.8L V6 to use as a snow car (My 95 Mustang Cobra being horribly inadequate for the task). Despite having over 200K on the odo and some obviously age to the exterior, the car itself was fantastic. With its stout 4 spd automatic, engine block heater, and factory fog lamps (nearly unheard of in an ’89 GM sedan), it cruised through snow, sleet, and ice better than any SUV I’ve ever driven. Always started and always ran. The “Ponticrap” as my wife called it, also managed 30 mpg on the highway, where the cruise control kept a steady 80 mph all the way to Denver from Kansas City. Great car.

    However, the interior was designed bizarrely. My Ponticrap 6000 SE had one of the last sweep needle speedometers with the tachometer strangely located in the middle of the dash, also in a sweep needle. There was a whistling sound that manifested itself around 35 mph that had nothing to do with the weathersealing. Try as I might, I couldn’t find it.

    Ergonomics seemed to be a common plague of most GM cars, with strange locations for the HVAC and radio, not to mention you had to reach every time to use them. My defense of this seemingly bad engineering is the front bench seat that all GM cars came with standard made these interiors work very well. Its only when you add the bucket seats that it becomes a problem. Case in point, the late 60s Camaroes and Corvettes all had much better ergonomic space utilization because these were not family cars, hench no front bench seat.

  • avatar

    One thing I pick up from this discussion is that GM has lived off of “do overs” for most of its post-war existance.

    “Rough 90 degree V6 with bad firing order? Don’t worry, in a few years we’ll have a cool new crank for ya.”

    “Quad-4 too rough? Don’t worry, in ten years we’ll be adding balance shafts”

    This scenario seems to be repeated over and over.

    Next time you fly I hope the pilot doesn’t say “Hey, if I screw up this landing we’ll just try another!”

    Or your heart surgeon, “If we screw up your by-pass surgery we’ll cut you open and try again!”

    Sometimes things need to be done right the first time.

  • avatar

    Wagoner has aboarded the wagontrain already.

    I guess it got to be very stressful these days, and not going to see the light in the tunnel or confirming that is being a headlight from another on coming train.
    Hope someone will be able to do better.
    God bless all of us.

  • avatar

    Kevin Kluttz :
    March 26th, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Two cubic inches…and 60 degree banking, which self-cancelled vibrations and kept it from rattling itself to death internally like the unnatural 90 degree V-6 does. And there was an even smaller 192 CID (3.2 litre) V-6 available in the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo, too. GM was and is just plum ignorant not to have done this substitution. Have you heard their latest radio spot with the nice young lady talking about how good their cars are down the road and how good their quality is? Oh, my. So believable. Please go bankrupt.

    Actually the Chevy 229 V6, which was introduced in 1980, as a replacement for the 78-79 3.3 liter 200 V6 was a 90 degree V6 based on the traditional small block Chevy V8. Both the Buick 231 and Chevy 229 V6 were 90 degree engines. Buick also made a 3.2 liter 196 CID version of this engine in 78 and 79 model years for better mileage in the then new downsized Buick Regal/Century G-body cars. Neither the Chevy 3.3 liter or Buick 3.2 liter V6 were ever offered in the Grand Prix. GM cars of the past 10 years or so are much better than these cars of the 70’s with the V6 engines and undersized 200 metric trannys. All of my 99 and up GM cars have been quite good actually and several have had the Buick 231 V6 which was renamed 3800 series II in 1995 and considered one of the most durable V6 engines ever offered by the big 3. Wards auto actually named it best V6 of the last 100 years in 2005.

  • avatar

    As other posters have mentioned, I wouldn’t lay the turning point of GM all on the 231’s shoulders. In fact if you look back to the 70’s all of the big 3 produced a lot of crap after the early 70’s. Lets take a look at why GM bought back the design of this engine from Jeep in 1973. The oil Embargo! Yes in 1973 shortages of gas caused a huge panic from the buying public. Folks couldn’t trade there full size cars in fast enough for small 4 cylinder fuel efficient models of which the Big 3 were pretty deficient. Lines formed at gas stations as fuel was short and in high demand. The then president Nixon, came up with a partial solution by forcing the public to buy gas on odd or even days according to there license plate numbers. Many buyers turned to Honda, Toyota, Volvo, Saab etc for there small more efficient small cars with better reliability and driveability. So GM in it’s infinate wisdom bought back the plans for the original 1961 Fireball 198 Cid 90 degree V6 engine design from AMC in 1974. The only other small economical smaller engines they offered in the early 70’s was the disasterous 140 CID aluminum Vega 4 or the old stand by 250 CID Chevy straight 6 which dated back to the old 1962 Nova II’s. Buick engineers where romoured to have pulled an old Fireball 225 CID V6 from the wrecking yard and install it in a 1974 Apollo and the results were impressive for the time. Impressive enough where GM quickly went back to Flint where the original tooling existed for the Fireball V6, fitting it with the Buick built 350 pistons and installed the resulting 231 CID engine in many 1975 compact and mid size offerings, Chevrolet excluded. Soon after engineers realized just how rough this engine was and in 1977 designed a new split pin crankshaft creating the new even fire V6 which was introduced in 1978 on GM’s downsized B and H-body full size cars and the new A-body Specials later to be renamed G-bodies. The biggest problem was that GM quickly spread this basic engine design to most everything they made during the late 70’s and 80’s. Yes you could even get an enlarged 4.1 liter version in a full sized 4000 LB Cadillac Deville with a measly 125 HP! With proper service the 78-87 version of the 196/231/252 V6 carbed engine was a pretty durable engine other than a few teething problems and I suspect many examples either had iffy quality control or neglect over the years. I have personally seen loads of 80’s Buick Regals and Cutlass Supremes with the 231 with well over 100K miles still running quite well albeit slow as hell with little in the way of passing punch, especially when they were fitted to the full sized cars. I owned a 1981 Cutlass sedan and my folks had a 1982 coupe, both with the 231 V6. The oil was always changed at 3K miles and the engines were kept in tune and both ran well and lasted well over 150K when we sold the cars. Today I would call them enemic but at the time most all cars were slow but the 231 offered more torque on hand compared to Chryslers slant 6 or Fords 200 straight 6 and had enough punch to safely pass other cars. Looking back today, I should have chose one of the Oldsmobile V8’s like the 307 which would have been smoother, much quicker and offered similar gas mileage. Yes, ordering up your big 3 cars back in the day was vital. Options were everything. I always tried to get cars with heavy duty suspensions and cooling systems and the larger engine when possible.
    Personally I would lay more blame on other GM follies of the time, 1977 Olds diesel, 1980 X-cars, Cadillac 8-6-4 engine and then the HT 4100 powerplant, the undersized 200 Metric tranny, silly engineering ideas like making an economy engine like the Pontiac 301 or the Buick 231 into a turbo performance engine and the mis-timing of the 1988 W-body cars by only offering coupes when the Ford Taurus sedan was a hot seller two years before in 1986. The 90’s of course brought head gasket popping Quad 4’s, intake leaking 3100/3400 V6’s, cheap interiors and bucket loads of varying quality control standards. Yes in the 1975-1996 time frame you really had to pick your Detroit 3 car well and hope for the best. But I would lay some of the blame on our interfering government, OPEC, the 1973 Oil Embargo and later the 1980 shortage, CAFE standards and tree huggers. And the Asian car makers at the time had there issues too. I almost never see a 70’s or 80’s Honda or Toyota on the road in the salt belt. They rotted away years ago or popped a head gasket or bent there valves because the timing belt snapped in two ruining the engine in the process. Not a day goes by when I don’t see an 80’s Cutlass Supreme or Ciera or Monte Carlo still being driven and in decent shape.

  • avatar

    Great discussion. Here’s my take. I remember when our family bought a 4 door Honda Accord. My mom and step-dad cross shopped a Cavalier as well as a few others. I took a ride in that Cavalier when they test drove it. Now, pardon me if I’m wrong, but at the time, they were in the same class size wise. I remember when I got to the park and saw that they bought the Accord and wanted a ride in it. That was it for me and American cars(okay not ALL) that day. The year? 1984.

  • avatar

    Consider that many of these “American” car buyer families bought their son/daughter a Cavalier as their first car. Not only was it a horrible car dynamically, it had piss poor reliability and felt cheap through and through. These young buyers watched their friends’ Hondas go with minimal fuss while their POS spent plenty of time in the shop. That miserable experience set up an entire generation of buyers to ignore GM. That, in my opinion, caused more long term damage than any early 231 issues. Yeah, early emission and safety standards did present a challenge, but they did so equally for all makers. But, at least they paid dividends in the cars we buy today. The j body albatross still inflicts damage to this very day.

  • avatar

    The j body albatross still inflicts damage to this very day.

    Golden2husky has it right. Those were GM’s “starter” cars. A lot of my friends had Cavaliers, Sunbirds, etc. because their families always bought GM. Horrible, horrible cars. There was no excuse for it. GM had the resources to make a competitive compact but cheaped out when it counted the most.

    When those J-cars crapped out, there was no way those owners would ever upgrade to a mid-sized GM car, much less the increasingly irrelevant bigger stuff. Honda, Toyota, and the upscale makes like BMW reaped the benefits and loyalty of those buyers.

    It’s sad because it didn’t have to happen. GM virtually created and then owned the mid-sized market from ’64 until the Eighties with 4 divisions. Then they blew it. Now you and I, the American tax payer, have to reap what GM sowed.

  • avatar


    My sister bought an ’84 Sunbird (J body)in ’89 for going off to school. It had 50,000 miles on it at the time. I think it went through 6 alternators in the next 5 years and 60,000 miles. It got to the point that she could replace the alternator faster than I could on that car.

    It would also blow head gaskets if you probed it’s top speed which was well north of 90mph.

    My twin sister then inherited it. It actually became more reliable with her than my older sister. I seem to only remember doing routine maintenance on it.

    Once it got away from my big sis and into my other sister’s hands, it actually was a decent car if you kept it within it’s limits.

    She then traded up to a ’99 Maxima, and then later on a BMW.

    The ‘Turd died an untimely death at the hands of a young driver. not long after we sold it. Which was good, as I don’t think the 1.8 would have lasted too much longer, the cam bearings (or lack of) were shot and the bottom end was getting noisy.

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