By on February 7, 2022

In today’s edition of Abandoned History, we return once more to the late Seventies engines of General Motors. After the disaster which was the V8-6-4 and the subsequent release of the quite flawed HT4100 V8, we take a sidestep today into diesel. Time for a turn with the cost-cut cast iron Oldsmobile oil burner that accompanied the troubled gasoline engines at GM dealerships across the country.

Unlike the prior two engines covered in this miniseries, the Oldsmobile diesel was not a Cadillac exclusive. Rather it was shared across the General Motors passenger car line in the late Seventies and existed in three different displacements with two cylinder counts. It even found its way into front- and rear-drive cars.

The diesel’s story begins like the others, with federal legislation. Emissions needed to fall, miles per gallon needed to increase, and diesel seemed a sensible solution. Though nearing an end, GM’s divisions were still allocated funds to develop their own engines in the late Seventies. Economical diesel duty fell to the good engineers at Oldsmobile, as closely supervised by a team of accountants who were eager and empowered to implement money-saving tactics.

When Olds designed the 350 (5.7-liter) diesel, someone decided the best and cheapest way forward was to do some parts sharing with the gasoline 350 already in production. So they used the same head bolts. Bolt design and pattern were left unchanged from the gasoline engine, which meant no new tooling was required. That was a problematic decision when it came to diesel engines, as diesels run at much higher compression than gasoline engines (22:5:1 here). The pressure in an oil burner can be three times greater than in a similar gasoline engine.

That wasn’t the only thing GM neglected to consider, however, as they also left out a water separator. In diesel engines, the water separator is a part of the fuel filter and is hydrophobic. Water in the diesel fuel can’t pass through the filter and is collected at the base of the filter where it drains outside. The drainage prevents corrosion inside the engine.

The General decided the engine didn’t need a water separator, since those cost money. It might not have been a huge problem if the U.S. was supplied with quality diesel free of contaminants in 1978. But it wasn’t. Like the quality of everything around that time, the quality of diesel fuel was lacking. Fuel-adjacent issues included the timing chain that ran the fuel injector pump. Simple usage caused the chain to stretch. That meant the pump was a bit lackadaisical about delivering fuel and did so too late.

All these components made for a perfect storm within the new Oldsmobile diesel engine; developed hastily and on the aforementioned tight budget. An engineer on the diesel project warned management the engine was not ready for primetime and had issues. But General Motors was more concerned with the big bad monster looming that was CAFE. They sent the engineer to collect his things and take an early retirement.

The completed engine was coded the LF9 and was spread to most of GM’s passenger line. Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and GMC all implemented the LF9 350 V8 in 1978. From its 5.7 liters displacement, the engine managed 120 raucous horsepower and 22o lb-ft of torque. The diesel went over well in none of those vehicles. Keep in mind the problems in its design were often compounded by GM dealership mechanics who knew next to nothing about diesel engines and were not used to wrenching on them.

The terrible decision to use gasoline-spec head bolts lead to general overheating, head gasket failures, and head bolts that sometimes gave up the ghost. The V8s lack of water separator meant water hung around in the fuel system. A lot of said fuel system was steel, so it rusted from the inside out.

Enterprising owners had a fix for the diesel water issue and decided to add anhydrous alcohol (or “drygas”) to their fuel tanks. While that did absorb the water, the alcohol reacted badly with the insides of the (already rusting) injection pump. Pieces of the governor rings in the pump broke apart and blocked the fuel lines. Whoops. Said owners made another mistake when they failed to consider their Cadillac or similar diesel took a different engine oil than the gasoline one with which it shared a garage. With the wrong oil, the engine’s crank bearings weren’t long for the world.

General Motors recognized (internally) the problems with the 5.7, and updated it from 1981 onward with a revised run of engine blocks. That version included a water separator and a revised cam, but there was a cost to the changes: Less power. After revisions, the engine made just 105 horses and 205 lb-ft of torque.

The changes to the 350 didn’t stop the wide variety of class-action lawsuits filed against GM for their defective diesel engines. Parties involved wanted GM to recognize publicly that its diesels had problems. CARB didn’t certify the V8 for sale in California in 1979 or 1980: The examples shipped to sunny California for testing broke down before the tests were finished. GM sent nine cars to the west coast, all of which had major engine problems. Seven of the nine had transmission failures, as the THM200 they used called it quits.

Oldsmobile developed another version of the V8 for 1979, in the LF7. A 260 cubic-inch (4.3L) engine, it was down on power considerably over its larger brother. It coaxed just 90 horses from its displacement, and 160 torques. The 4.3 was available for a single model year and was sold only in two Oldsmobile Cutlass models, the Salon and Supreme.

Issues were prevalent enough to catch the attention of the FTC in 1980, as it filed a three-part complaint against GM. The FTC cited GM’s diesel engines, present transmission issues, and some cam issues in other gasoline V8s. Unfortunately, the FTC bit off more than it could chew with the diesel issue. As the considerable administration involved with citing 12,000,000 GM vehicles came to bear like a ton of bricks. In a first-ever, the FTC recommended the issue be handed off to volunteers at the Better Business Bureau for arbitration.

Big-name FTC interference didn’t deter GM from offering the diesel, where it was particularly prevalent at Oldsmobile lots. The 350(D) was offered in 19 of 23 Olds models in 1981. That year was the last good one for GM diesels; in 1982 the option was selected by 43 percent fewer customers. In addition to the widely publicized horrible reliability, fuel prices fell in ’82 and made the diesel even less of a draw.

Still, diesel development continued at Oldsmobile. In 1982 the LT6 debuted – the first diesel V6 in the program. With 4.3 liters displacement, it was nearly as powerful as the V8 LF7. LT6 made 85 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque and was very slow. Available mostly in 1982 and 1983, It was offered in mid-sizers like the Buick Regal, the Monte Carlo, and Malibu from Chevrolet. It was also offered from ’82-’84 in the Cutlass Supreme.

Around the same time as LT6, the fourth Oldsmobile diesel appeared. GM had spread its diesel infection into front-drive vehicles. A transverse version of the LT6, the LT7 diesel was offered in the introductory A-bodies: Pontiac 6000, Olds Cutlass Ciera, Chevy Celebrity, and Buick Century. Available from 1982 to 1985, LT7 had 4.3 liters displacement and offered the same 85 horsepower and 165 torques as LT6.

LT7 was notable in a few ways, mostly for its innovative design. It was the first V6 diesel designed entirely with passenger cars in mind. It was also a very early example of a diesel with an aluminum head. Volkswagen used the aluminum methodology first, and Mercedes-Benz followed GM with its aluminum head diesel in 1986. The LT7 would prove largely reliable, though head failures were not unheard of given the aluminum construction.

In general, the diesel V6 engines were not designed with the same issues as the V8 versions. Engineers had a longer timeline to prepare and test the engine, and they even used a more dense bolt pattern. By the time the more reliable V6 versions arrived, however, the reputational damage was long done.

Still, diesel was worth one more attempt, surely. For 1985, a new version of the 4.3-liter V6 appeared. It was limited in scope to the new C-bodies at Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile. The downsized and sad cars used the LS2. Both LS2 and LT7 faded away in 1985, as General Motors stepped away from passenger car diesels for quite some time. The company briefly used Isuzu’s 1.8 diesel in the Chevette and Pontiac 1000 for the truly economically minded consumer. They sold 588 of those and dropped the engine option.

Through its three displacements, GM sold hundreds of thousands of diesel-equipped cars, and almost none of them worked properly. The debacle did major damage to the image of diesel engines in the United States, a reputation which arguably never recovered. In the end, GM paid $62 million to 194,000 customers. That figure is according to what was released by the Federal Trade Commission, which wasn’t up to dealing with the problem. We’ll return to Cadillac V8s in Part IV.

[Images: GM]

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83 Comments on “Abandoned History: General Motors’ High Technology Engine, and Other CAFE Foibles (Part III)...”


  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    The real issue here is that diesel is for heavy-duty applications and doesn’t always work well in light-duty situations. Cars that weigh less than 3 tons simply don’t need diesel, and neither do small boats, say under 30 feet.
    Of course, heavy trucks and large boats (yachts) do benefit from a diesel’s heavy-duty torque curve. And in other regulatory environments, like Europe, diesel cars might work well.
    But here in America, a diesel-powered car has really never made any sense.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      These engines from GM are a big reason why small personal use diesel powered vehicles did not catch on. Add to that we’ve had cheap gasoline.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Diesel’s trump card is low-end torque, which—in applications that feature steady low-speed, high-load operation, like big trucks—multiplies its efficiency advantage. That’s just not the way car engines are run for the most part; either they are at higher speed or lower load.

      But diesel is expensive and difficult to clean up from an emissions perspective. The last generation of diesels dealt with that mostly through fraud. The current generation is losing its fuel economy advantage. It’s moot, anyway, as the Europeans are souring on diesel for emissions reasons and no one else liked it in cars to begin with. Diesel power plants will be dead in anything that’s not a commercial truck inside of a decade.

      • 0 avatar
        kurkosdr

        Diesel engines might not be suited to the way car engines are run for the most part, but they are well-suited to the way the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) is run, which is important because the NEDC is used to estimate official fuel economy figures in the EU (which in turn are used to calculate CO2 taxes).

        To give you a sense of how the NEDC is run, its urban cycle involves taking half a minute (26s) to go from 0 to 30mph, and taking 12 seconds to go from 0 to 20mph.

        And when it comes to turbocharged diesels, theie turbos can be tuned during the design phase so that a skilled driver can do the whole test without the turbo ever engaging.

        Long story short, nobody expects to achieve NEDC figures even with careful driving, but the lower CO2 taxes afforded by diesel engines are much-appreciated, especially considering how high CO2 taxes are in most EU countries.

        • 0 avatar
          kurkosdr

          Now that new vehicles aren’t rated according to the NEDC but a more realistic cycle (WLTP), diesel isn’t that much of a tax saving tbh. It’s only good if you do lots of expressway kms (miles).

      • 0 avatar
        kurkosdr

        “But diesel is expensive and difficult to clean up from an emissions perspective. The last generation of diesels dealt with that mostly through fraud.”

        A small correction here. Selective Catalytic Reduction (aka AdBlue) vehicles had no problem achieving emissions targets. LNT vehicles (such as from VAG) had.

        Any fraud on SCR vehicles was automakers aggressively tuning for fuel economy. For example, BMW’s engines were fully compliant (though they did use the “thermal windows” loophole, they are compliant to the specs).

        On the other hand, as I said above, official fuel economy figures is the main reason people buy diesels in the EU.

    • 0 avatar
      diesel84

      I think with the Old diesel there was a lot a blame to share and go around.
      I presently have 3 Riviera’s with the LF9 V8 350 5.7L diesel and a 1984 Ciera with the LT7 V6 260 4.3L diesel.
      The Original “D” block (1987-1980) 5.7 had a slue of issues, flat tappet lifters, premature wear of cam, crankshaft bolts too short( they would break out), blocks that were still green, oil pump drive rods that would sheer off, bad governor rings in IP, no water warning system or separator, head bolts that were weak and fracture under normal conditions and weak transmissions.
      1981 the “DX” block came out, the crankshaft bolts were tapped longer and bottom end issues were corrected, roller cam lifters corrected the premature wear issues, “water in fuels” warning lights(separators in 1984), they updated the head bolts from TTY to a harder ( higher tensile strength) bolts they were torqued to specific ft lbs (water could still cause head gaskets leaks with the 4 bolt pattern), governor rings updated,
      I would agree a 2 stroke diesel isn’t for light duty cars/trucks, 4 stroke however strand can last for years with proper maintenance and driving.
      Car owners of the time bare some responsibility as well, they didn’t bother to read owners manuals, follow oil change intervals, oil spec(gas engine oil was used too often to grave consequences), proper diesel fuel D2 ( some would add gas to keep it from gelling in the winter), and drive it as a diesel not a corvette.
      I only studded the engines(with the exception of the LT7 V6), with ARP stud/head bolts, my 1982 Toronado diesel had 489,000 miles on it when I traded it in.
      I’ve never had head gasket issues, typical parts replaced alternators, water pumps, A/C compressor, radiators.
      Even when the cost of diesel went up to meet gas prices in the 80’s I was still getting double the mileage and it made it worth it. The front wheel drives were great in the snow , I never got stuck.
      I still drive the Oldsmobile today and get 42 mpg on Hwy and 33 mpg in the city.
      I have followed a strict 3000 mile oil changes, Kendal D3 30 (10W-30 in the winter) no blow by in the engine, Amoco Premier diesel fuel and the lasted.
      The definitely drive differently, yes the are slower(naturally aspirated non turbo) but as long as you drove them that way I never had an issue .
      And I never had an issue driving up hills either, they had the power for that.
      GM should have trained their mechanics and that was definitely a fatal decision to repair issues and the death of the LF9 diesel, that and allowing accountants to have any power in decision making when it came to design issues.
      But we can thank GM for the lemon law because the Olds 350 diesel spawned that law.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfwagen

      VW (Pre Dieselgate) and Mercedes Benz would disagree

  • avatar
    spamvw

    410k total miles. 2k miles this weekend. 42 Winter MPG. My 02 TDI would disagree on the small diesel arguement.

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      Yep. VW has always been a leader in small diesels. Well…until the US federal government meddles with them and takes them down.

      I have relatives who had a 1981 VW Rabbit diesel. It was as reliable as the sunrise and returned 40+ mpg. Great little car.

      Diesel has its place, especially today. But it’s a shame these sub human political “leaders” vilified diesel abs imposed ridiculous emission standards on them. Modern diesels are a mess and not worth it in any consumer application.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        VW did in their engines themselves – they lied and got caught…just as they should have.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          USG et al decided to phase out the technology by increasing production costs on a niche item. There was never a basis for this decision in actual data (for the US), in fact I once found an EPA document dated 2009 which stated 95% of all NOx emissions came from coal fired plants. Cars, trucks, trains, huge container ships, military equipment, U-boats and whatever else = 5%, coal plants = 95%. But yes the cars/trucks must conform… cui bono?

        • 0 avatar
          EBFlex

          “VW did in their engines themselves – they lied and got caught…just as they should have.”

          It was a witch hunt and nothing more. A complete non-issue that had drastic consequences. Diesel is a wonderfully efficient fuel. The fact the US Government chose to vilify diesel and VW in that way was abhorrent.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            they cheated and got caught $#!+bird

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            So did Brandon, but laws are for the little people.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            There was one calculation that said cheating TDIs were responsible for close to half of all excess NOx emissions in the LA basin during some period or other in the early 2000s. Given how crap LA air quality is, even today, that’s hardly a nonissue.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            At least “Brandon” didn’t take official documents and shred them or take them to his residence…but oh, those Hillary emails. The hypocrisy is staggering.

          • 0 avatar
            EBFlex

            “So did Brandon, but laws are for the little people.”

            There is that. But the result of VWs brilliance was *slightly* higher emissions from a fuel that is many more times efficient than gasoline. According to the hacks at the EPA burning 3 gallons of gasoline is better than one gallon of diesel to accomplish the same task.

            Or, in today’s case, burning a massive amount of coal to send a garbage EV a pitiful 150 miles is somehow “zero emissions” and “green”.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I remember when the VWgate was happening I found that EPA whitepaper which cited those figures. I think what happened is they looked at the facts and realized the odds of putting a dent in the real problem (coal plants) were nil. They then looked at marine and train diesel usage and knew that was going nowhere too. So then it became the low hanging fruit, we’ll up regulate cars and trucks and those without economic use cases (such as tractor trailers) will simply fade away. I think this is lazy and I also think they *had* to come down hard on VW et al because anyone dare cheat their diktat. If they did not, then it encourages others in the future to skirt their edicts and that was the real issue, not the offenses themselves which had near zero impact.

            I think the whole thing would have become moot on its own since the chief attraction to diesel is low end torque and EV provides it along with other benefits. I realize they could not see that in the mid 00s when the diesel laws changed but I wish Doc Brown could have returned from the future to bring them up to speed (maybe drop off the Mr. Fusion schematics as well).

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    “the problems in its design were often compounded by GM dealership mechanics who knew next to nothing about diesel engines and were not used to wrenching on them.”

    Gee. Sounds familiar, like for hybrid cars, electric cars, autonomous cars, cars with excessive chips and electronic gimmicks, cars with GM gimmicks to con the customer with snake oil …

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      “ Gee. Sounds familiar, like for hybrid cars, electric cars, autonomous cars, cars with excessive chips and electronic gimmicks, cars with GM gimmicks to con the customer with snake oil …”

      That’s literally every manufacturer today. Pushing all that unwanted crap and not focusing on building reliable vehicles.

      I will cut them a little slack though because the sub humans in the federal government mandate a lot of crap just to push the cost of automobile ownership higher.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Oh, Lord, I forgot about the Chevette diesel (probably the same way I forgot about my first bout with food poisoning and getting my wisdom teeth out). Check this ad out:

    https://www.xr793.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/1982-Chevrolet-Chevette.pdf

    Why, that diesel was a “small powerhouse”! The good news is that the owner had plenty of time to reflect on the powerhouse nature of his / her Chevette diesel during its’ ***20-second*** trip to 60 mph. Golf clap to this writer for making this rolling dog turd sound appealing.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      My dad bought a 81 Chevette diesel 2 door 5 speed as a commuter. He liked it since it got over 50 mpg highway, at the time the highest EPA rating of any car along with the Rabbit diesel and was quite reliable. It also had dealer installed air conditioning since the factory wasn’t offering it as an option on the diesel. The only issue was the rear wheel drive wasn’t so grippy in the winter but a set of Opel rims with snows helped to rectify it.
      He also purchased a Isuzu I Mark diesel with automatic and ac for my mom that ran well for a number of years.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Having grown up in a gas Chevette, I can’t imagine making it slower. The gas version could not maintain anything close to speed on ordinary uphill freeways.

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      Chevette Diesel done properly – shoehorn in that 4.3l V8!!!

  • avatar
    ajla

    These engines must have been unfathomably bad. They went out of production before I was born (and I’m not that young these days) but I still see references to them all the time.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Friend of mine’s dad had an Olds 88 with the diesel. The horror stories are very, very real.

      (BTW, you should check out C/D – the IS500 made a Lightning Lap appearance.)

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      I don’t know of a single example that still exists. Fortunately for screwed owners, the small block Chevy was plentiful and an easy swap.

    • 0 avatar
      kurkosdr

      It makes you wonder if GM could have saved lots of reputational damage if they had hired some kids to spray-paint “piece of junk design to meet CAFE requirements, don’t buy” to the side of every diesel on the lot with the dealership owners being told to look away, and then silently bought back the vehicles from the dealerships.

      In fact, they can do the same with the Chevrolet Spark (a CAFE special together with the Aveo).

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Just another in a very long line of GM blunders. Introduce a flawed half baked product with bean counters holding out on critical parts that would have made these things more reliable. And when they eventually get it right years later pull the plug rinse and repeat.

    Currently it is the AFM and Dynamic fuel management V8’s and the 8 speed transmission that was never designed right from the start plaguing much of their truck lineup. Apparently GM itself is admitting that the 8 speed transmission’s design was at fault and flawed not materials or parts used so they are assuming no responsibility to lawsuites. And what does GM do? Continue offering this piece of crap on the new updated 2022 trucks and on 2 liter turbo equipped Camaro’s and V6 Colorado’s and Canyons. Unbelievable!

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    By the way, in case anyone wants to hear a good GM engine this morning, I submit this piece of first-class car porn for your consideration (skip to the video):

    https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a38966108/2022-cadillac-ct5-v-blackwing-lightning-lap/

    That engine note is absolutely wonderful.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I have a friend who had a diesel Olds and claims to have never had a single issue with it. He is however a highly skilled mechanic, with experience on diesel engines, and performed all the maintenance on the vehicle himself.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      He probably swapped out the head bolts.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Weren’t the head bolts a larger diameter than the gas ones? The pattern was the same (inadequate) layout but I thought they were beefier. Friend’s family bought a diesel wagon – engine made it about 50K. The wagon itself was pretty nice otherwise – loaded with evry option. A lot of great memories in that machine. They did have a water separator – I believe the car was a 79…on the dash was a sticker that said “Racor water/fuel separator. An add-on?

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    For 1979 only, you could buy a brown Diesel Cutlass with a manual transmission. Sadly, that combination was not available for the station wagon.

    https://www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/the-brown-rwd-manual-transmission-diesel-station-wagon-a-comprehensive-guide-to-that-mythical-beast-of-the-internet/

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    Additional interesting reading (the source of the source):
    https://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/27/business/the-saga-of-the-gm-diesel-lemons-lawsuits-and-soon-an-ftc-decision.html

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Back in 1988 I purchased a 1980 Oldsmobile Toronado diesel in gray with the maroon velour interior for $500. It was clean with most options including the steel power sunroof, however no fiber optics, tilt wheel or vinyl top.
    The owner had a new Goodwrench motor installed plus it had the aftermarket water separator. I got a couple of years out of it with the only maintenance being changing the factory fuel filter, glow plugs and glow plug controller as well as an axle shaft. Getting 28-30 mpg highway from a nice luxobarge wasn’t bad.
    What did it in was the engine was starting making ungodly noises as if a piston broke. I thought of doing a Rocket 307 or 350 V8 conversion but decided to sell it to someone who was parting it out.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    I didn’t know the LF7 260 V8 diesel existed until last summer, when an LF7-powered ’79 Cutlass Supreme with 60K miles turned up on FB Marketplace for $5500. Must be a typo, I thought, until I Googled it.

    I seriously considered buying it, as it was the cheapest rust-free G-body I’d seen in years. I could take it to car shows with a sign “SLOWEST G-BODY EVER MADE” until the diesel blew up, then swap it for an iron 4.8 or 5.3 LS. My wife told me I am not allowed to bring home any more motorcycles or homeless hound dogs, but she said nothing about oil-burning malaise-era personal luxury coupes.

    Luckily for me, it sold to someone else. Probably dodged a bullet there.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “My wife told me I am not allowed to bring home any more motorcycles or homeless hound dogs, but she said nothing about oil-burning malaise-era personal luxury coupes.”

      I like how you think.

      There is a rare BMW diesel Fox body Mark VII, it pretty much does not exist but should one come my way I may have to scoop it up somehow.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I thought that the 350 went into all the G-Bodies as the Diesel option after 1979; I don’t recall the V6, except in the Ciera/Century/6000/Celebrity.

      Someplace on YouTube there’s a guy who has a nice collection of various GM Diesels in survivor condition, including a Celebrity of maybe 1983 vintage. They all start on the first try, even when the temperature is in the low single-digits Fahrenheit.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    I knew about the Isuzu Chevette diesel, as there was a solid daily driven one for several years about a decade ago across the street from my parents, but I thought it was far more common than 588 examples.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    One day many moons ago I heard a legend about the diesel LS2, something about where one wholesaler in the South put 200K on an FWD Coupe de Ville equipped with it. Typical old GM, fix it and then discontinue it.

  • avatar
    The Snu

    1980 Olds Custom Cruiser Diesel was my first car as a 16 year old. We got 30 mpg once on a trip to Florida. The car was really well built save for the engine.

    The engine was a disaster. Dangerously slow. You could not merge into traffic.
    You had to plug it in in the winter. It was loud and smoked terribly. By the time I got it, diesel was more expensive than gas.

    The kicker was my buddy and I was driving back from his parent’s cabin. We were about 17 at the time. I heard a huge metallic “Clang”, and suddenly lost all power. These two girls drove up next to us, and we thought they were flirting with us (as if girls would flirt with two guys in an Olds wagon with the fake wood trim). The driver held her nose, and was pointing to the rear of the car. We were billowing smoke, like we were laying out a smoke screen for battle.

    Limped it home, and it was so bad that our other friend beat me in a foot race vs. diesel for about two blocks, before I got up enough steam to pass him.

    Block had cracked, and I think it was the second or third time that it did it…

  • avatar
    johnnyz

    The other fuel saving option was the v6. I had a 79 Cutlass with the 3.8. it was way underpowered, fairly reliable but it shook like a paint shaker.

    I guess later they revised the crankshaft – it was out of balance from the factory. GM excellence!

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      The even-fire V6 with the revised crankshaft came out in 1977.
      There were no substantial updates to the naturally-aspirated longitudinal 3.8L V6 after 1977. So either yours was broken or the changes didn’t do much for you.

      • 0 avatar
        johnnyz

        Maybe it needed motor mounts.

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          Interesting..my folks had two cars with that motor, a 1980 Cutlass Sedan and a 1983 Regal Custom Sedan. Aside from the stumble on the first takeoff from an intersection when cold in the Computer Command Control carb-equipped Buick, the only major complaint about those engines was that they sounded kind of agricultural, and sometimes made a bunch of noise without much forward motion if you caught it unawares on a kickdown attempt. But they were usually smooth-running. Kept my 16-YOA self out of trouble, and they could get out of their own way well enough.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            “and they could get out of their own way well enough.”

            I think gearing can account for some of the different recollections.
            From what I can tell the 3.8L for the Olds and Buick in ’79-’83 came standard with a 2.41 rear end but in ’80 and ’83 was also available with a 3.08 or 3.23 (in ’79 a 2.73 or 3.08 were optional). So if yours had one of the shorter ratios and johnnyz’s was a 2.41 that would feel different, especially around town.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    These vehicles spawned a small industry of converting them to gas engines with salvage engines. It was mostly bolt-in as the electronics was minimal. I remember newspaper adverts for this in the sports section.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The Olds diesel richly deserved its abominable reputation, but a world of grief could have been avoided if the engineers had driven down to Pontiac and asked some old GMC heads about the Toro-flow. (Or maybe they did, and the accountants made them do a half-assed job anyway?)

  • avatar
    MitchConner

    Working at GM in the late 70’s / early 80’s must’ve been like working at Sears a few years ago. The captain of the ship is a complete idiot. The butt kissers act as if nothing’s wrong to save their paychecks. The sane buy Tums by the gross as they try their best to save the place — swimming upstream against the tide of corporate weaselry. Then there’s the silent majority who realize the plane they’re on is going to fly into a mountain anyway — so they give up and don’t care because since their dreams of a high powered career died years ago.

    In addition to these garbage engines — GM was cranking out stellar product designs like the Aeroback — which instantly killed sales volumes by 40-50%. Designs that anybody with a brain in their head or any style or taste would’ve said no to — but we’re talking GM here — so approved for production it is.

    What’s sad is the culture within GM really isn’t that much different today. Not as blatantly awful as it used to be — just a different color of incompetence as the big whale swims along.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Not buying the Sears/GM comparison. Like GM or loathe it, but they’re actually trying to make a profit, and they’re succeeding.

      Eddie Lampert has been intentionally running Sears into the ground for years now.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      I remember reading an article before the Aerobacks were released that GM thought about adding tail fins to them which would have even been worse. I am not kidding and maybe the bean counters decided it was too expensive to add tail fins which would have been one of the few times the bean counters made the right decision.

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        What was really odd was including Buick in the Aeroback mix! I would have thought that given the sportier nature of Pontiac, the coupe would have been right up the Poncho alley, along with Oldsmobile’s “latest tech” rep, while the Century would have been better suited to the more formal look of the LeMans/Malibu.

        As bizarre as the coupes were, the way they did the Cutlass and Century sedans in 1978 and 1979 was worse. I’ve seen some pictures of clay models of something similar to the Malibu/LeMans sedans, but with a slightly steeper rake in the backlight and a trunk, which may have worked better instead of what they ended up producing, which was something that was begging for a liftgate and looked the part, but instead got the oddly-shaped trunk.

  • avatar
    DungBeetle62

    When Dad bought a new 1978 Delta 88, he did it right and got the 350 gas V8 and no vinyl top nonsense. Fuel economy? We’ll find other ways to save.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      My father bought a 77 Impala wagon with the 350 4 barrel which was a great running car. He did have to replace the camshaft because GM used soft metal on that year.

  • avatar
    Funky D

    “… closely supervised by a team of accountants …”

    MANY stories of failure begin with this phrase.

  • avatar
    roadscholar

    On my 2014 3-series wagon I could turn on my heated steering wheel if I were wearing mittens and blind. A beautifully physical button on the left side of the steering column made it possible. Ahh the good old days.

  • avatar
    maestromario

    The THM200 was an awful transmission. If a whimpy 305 was able to destroy it after 60K miles, I can easily imagine what happened with the 220 lb-ft of torque of the Diesel 350!

  • avatar
    CDMJR

    Hey TTAC, thanks for creating and sharing this content. We all know these vehicles weren’t exactly superstars in terms of quality, engineering and performance, and while the styling in many cases is grotesque, one has to admire the character, boldness, and larger than life appearance of some of these cars. The Olds Toronado is a pretty clean design.

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