Abandoned History: General Motors' High Technology Engine, and Other CAFE Foibles (Part IV)

abandoned history general motors high technology engine and other cafe foibles

We return to the saga of GM’s High Technology engine today, after taking a diesel detour in our last entry. Concurrent in the High Technology engine’s timeline, the Oldsmobile diesel’s failure was quick, but certainly not painless. It put the majority of American consumers off the idea of a passenger car equipped with a diesel engine. And by the time GM pulled the diesel from its various brand lineups, there was a strategy change over in HT4100 land: Not calling the engine HT anymore.

Though the engine was full of designed-in mechanical issues and failures, cars with the Cadillac-exclusive HT4100 sold well. It was the days when American buyers were loyal to domestic offerings, and usually loyal to one brand in particular. Even through a swap to front-wheel drive, downsizing, poor quality, and styling that was lacking in 1985 terms, Cadillac sales increased. The brand sold around 300,000 cars each year from 1983 through 1986, riding on a wave of consumer loyalty built in the Sixties and early Seventies. For a modern times sales reference, Cadillac sold 156,246 cars in the Most Recent Normal Year, 2019.

Even though buyers weren’t put off by the HT branding, Cadillac’s marketing people were eager to get away from it. Sales fell by around 14 percent in 1987, a drop to 261,284. Keep in mind, even with HT and diesel woes, Cadillac was still trouncing Lincoln’s 1987 sales figure of 166,037. HT4100 disappeared from all Cadillacs after 1987, save for the Allante with its special high-powered version which lasted through 1988. For all other cars, the ’88 model year introduced a new power plant for Cadillac Style, the 4.5.

The 4.5 was in fact an enlarged and improved version of the HT4100 but was never referred to as an HT4500. At 273 cubic inches, the “new” 4.5-liter offered a modest power increase over the 4.1, at 155 horsepower versus the 135 horses of its older sibling. More carefully engineered than before, Cadillac knew a rushed repeat of the HT4100 wouldn’t cut it. Compression on the 4.5 was higher than on the HT at 9:5:1, and premium fuel became a requirement.

Carried over from the 4100 were the throttle body fuel injection system, as well as the aluminum block and cast iron head combination. This meant that the cooling system still required regular and careful maintenance. Intake and head gasket failure were still factors in the 4.5, ideally mitigated through regular coolant changes and the addition of GM’s cooling system sealant tablets.

The tablets were (are) manufactured by AC Delco, and were meant to correct leaks that already occurred, and prevent leaks in the future. Said leaks were caused by the aluminum block and coolant components becoming porous over time, which isn’t the best outcome for critical car components.

Sales improved in 1988, up slightly to 266,548 cars. Cadillac sold the 4.5-liter engine for a shorter time than the HT4100, as it continued to develop the series after the 4.5 went on sale. DeVille, Seville, Eldorado, and Fleetwood models between 1988 and 1990 used the 4.5-liter. Sales in 1989 remained steady at 266,899 cars and dropped in 1990 to 213,238.

The Allante joined the 4.5 fold in 1989, and once again received its own special version of the engine. Called the LW2, the Allante’s 4.5 implemented the ever-important multiport fuel injection. The modern fuel system upped the power to 200 horses, but only for the LW2. Given the Allante’s flagship status and outlandish asking price ($57,183, or $132,757 adjusted), it was important that it received new technology first.

Multiport was added to the standard versions of the 4.5 for 1990, where it meant 180 horses and 245 lb-ft of torque. Huge “4.5 PORT FUEL INJECTION V8” badges were emblazoned on the back of every Cadillac on the lot. Unlike the HT4100, all applications of the 4.5 were front-drive as Cadillac shifted from its prior rear-drive identity, and chased after the “younger European car buyer” General Motors was so obsessed with between 1986 and about 1998.

Cadillac was ready with its final iteration of the HT for the 1991 model year. The 4.5 was upsized again and became the L26 of 4.9 liters. Horsepower and torque both increased with the 4.9, up to 200 horsepower, and 275 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. Never mind that this figure was attained earlier by the high-po LW2 4.5-liter, as the L26 was generously applied to the entire Cadillac lineup – apart from the Allante. Allante soldiered on with the 4.5 for 1992 and received the all-new (and not ready) 4.6-liter Northstar for its final outing in 1993.

Elsewhere in the lineup, the 4.9 remained in use through 1992 in the front-drive C-body Fleetwood, 1993 in the Eldorado, Seville and Sixty Special, and through 1995 in the DeVille. Notable in the Deville’s usage, the ’94 and ’95 models with the 4.9 were base versions, as upscale Concours used the Northstar. Guess which trims are still running today?

Despite how the 4.9 was the best engine Cadillac had used in some years, sales continued to decrease from their Eighties high. Seventeen percent fewer Cadillacs were sold in 1991 than 1990, 213,238. A slight increase in 1992 was followed by another drop in 1993 to 204,159. The HT series ushered in a damaged era at Cadillac, where the brand decided to pursue a different front-drive and Euro-centric imaginary customer that was much different from its traditionalist domestic rear-drive buyer. Cadillac lost over 100,000 annual sales from the time the HT was introduced to the time the 4.9 finished its run.

Through three generations and nine model years, the HT4100 was reworked, upsized, and generally improved to a decent reliability standard. Horror stories about the 4.9 are much scarcer than in the 4.5, and especially the 4100. The HT line would be the last engine exclusive to Cadillac for over 20 years, until the debut of the Blackwing V8 in 2018 (RIP 2020).

Unfortunately, the HT engine was a case of the fix-then-drop operating procedure that GM used so many times before. By the time the 4.9 arrived at dealers, Cadillac was already well into development of its next V8, the much-heralded Northstar 4.6. But that’s an Abandoned History for another day.

[Images: Cadillac]

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    • Jeff S Jeff S on Feb 23, 2022

      @sgeffe He does know his stuff. Look at his more recent purchase of a 70 Caprice Classic loaded with 454 V8 power everything but no ac custom ordered as a flower car by a funeral home in Ottawa. The car is black with a beautiful blue interior. He has some unique and interesting old cars and he tells you how he gets them.

  • Wjtinfwb Wjtinfwb on Feb 21, 2022

    I owned a '87 FWD Fleetwood d'Elegance for a couple years I bought from the leasing company that my dad got his cars from. Ran the 4100 up to 100k miles with no trouble and really don't recall servicing the cooling system, although that may have happened before I bought the cars. The 4100 was weak on power however and as a result didn't get great mileage as it was foot to the floor most of the time. A few years later I rented a brand-new DeVille sedan with the just introduced 4.9L and was astonished how much better that car drove than mine. The 4.9L was smooth, quiet and almost vibration-less. It also had plenty of torque and moved the big Caddy smartly. Finally, on a trip from Jacksonville to Virginia it got about 27 mpg at a steady 80mph. The 4.9L was the engine the car needed all along. GM Kept the 4.9L for 2 more years is all then dumped it for the Northstar, just to continue their vicious cycle of using the customer for R&D on their product.

    • Nick Nick on Feb 22, 2022

      I came hear to say the same thing about the 4.9. It was a good engine, GM finally had everything sorted out. So, wisely, they embarked on the Northstar fiasco.

  • MaintenanceCosts The sweet spot of this generation isn't made anymore: the SRT 392. The Scat Pack is more or less filling the same space but it lacks a lot of the goodies, including SRT suspension, brakes, and seats. The Hellcat is too much and isn't available with a manual anymore.
  • Arthur Dailey I am normally a fan of Exner's designs but by this time the front end on the Stutz like most of the rest of the vehicle is a laughable monstrosity of gauche. The interior finishes suit the rest of the vehicle. Corey please put this series out of its misery. This is one vehicle manufacturer best left on the scrap heap of history.
  • Art Vandelay I always thought what my Challenger really needed was a convertible top to make it heavier and make visability worse.
  • Dlc65688410 Please stop, we can't take anymore of this. Think about doing something on the Spanish Pegaso.
  • MaintenanceCosts A few bits of context largely missing from this article:(1) For complicated historical reasons, the feds already end up paying much of the cost of buying new transit buses of all types. It is easier legally and politically to put capital funds than operating funds into the federal budget, so the model that has developed in most US agencies is that operational costs are raised from a combination of local taxes and fares while the feds pick up much of the agencies' capital needs. So this is not really new spending but a new direction for spending that's been going on for a long time.(2) Current electric buses are range-challenged. Depending on type of service they can realistically do 100-150 miles on a charge. That's just fine for commuter service where the buses typically do one or two trips in the morning, park through the midday, and do one or two trips in the evening. It doesn't work well for all-day service. Instead of having one bus that can stay out from early in the morning until late at night (with a driver change or two) you need to bring the bus back to the garage once or twice during the day. That means you need quite a few more buses and also increases operating costs. Many agencies are saying for political reasons that they are going to go electric in this replacement cycle but the more realistic outcome is that half the buses can go electric while the other half need one more replacement cycle for battery density to improve. Once the buses can go 300 miles in all weather they will be fine for the vast majority of service.(3) With all that said, the transition to electric will be very good. Moving from straight diesel to hybrid already cut down substantially on emissions, but even reduced diesel emissions cause real public health damage in city settings. Transitioning both these buses and much of the urban truck fleet to electric will have measurable and meaningful impacts on public health.