COAL: 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Diesel – Smoke ’em If You Got ’em

Not the actual car, but close.

Not the actual car, but close.

 

One of my earliest childhood memories is of cutting out pictures of cars from magazines and “collecting” them. My parents sacrificed many an issue of Time and Newsweek to my scissors, sometimes before they have even had a chance to read them. The clippings were always best in the Fall, as the magazines were loaded with ads for the new models, often two page spreads (that I had to carefully tape back together after clipping out). Summer, by comparison, were lean times, when there may only be one or two car ads per magazine.

One day Mom took me to the library and said she had a big surprise for me. There, in the middle of the periodical section, were stacks of magazines bearing titles like Motor Trend, Road & Track, and Car and Driver. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven! Here were magazines with not just some car ads, but chock full of car pictures! I could even borrow them and bring them home, for a short time at least. The only downside was that I couldn’t cut out any pictures to play with, since the magazines belonged to the library. That was tough to deal with at first, but the greatly increased supply and quality of pictures made it a fair bargain.

This is how I got by for a number of years, gawking at library magazines (luckily the library was just a few blocks away, well within walking distance for my pre-teen self). Once I got old enough to read the articles and not just look at the photos, my fascination deepened even more. Here were magazines not just full of ads about cars, but articles, letters and editorials too! Names like Don Sherman, Brock Yates, Patrick Bedard and Jean Lindamood became like best friends to me.

Then on Christmas 1980, at the age of 11, came another huge surprise. My very own personal subscription to Motor Trend! It would now show up every month with MY name printed on the label. I would carry the magazine around at school making sure everyone could see the label and see that it was mine. I still remember the cover of the first one that showed up in the mail with my name on it: It was the April 1980 issue, with a picture of a Chrysler K-Car on the cover. Little did I realize at that time that my mom (and eventually me) would soon be driving one, but this is not that COAL.

April 1980 Motor Trend

April 1980 Motor Trend

 

Entrepreneurialism (thank you, spell-check) also runs deep in my family. In 1975, my Dad had ditched the corporate culture of Aeroquip, and purchased a small roofing business from his father located in Delaware, Ohio. After a few years of struggling, he grew a company with only a handful of employees to a company with a payroll of close to 100 and a fleet of trucks. After 5 or 6 years, the 71 Ford was pretty much used up (that was about all you could expect out of a car back then), and Dad rewarded his increasing success with a succession of ever more luxurious cars.

Dad leased long before leasing was popular (for tax reasons, being a business owner), typically for 24 or 36 months. The upshot of this (for me, anyways) was a steady stream of new cars. Dad always took me along to the dealership, and I was enthralled by the entire process: The window shopping, the showrooms, the brochures, scouring the lots, the test drives, the haggling, and ultimately, the drive home. I always knew when the lease was up on my Mom’s or Dad’s latest car, and started dropping hints to go car shopping months before.

It is now 1980. Dad would get not one, but two new cars this year, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, a 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Diesel, is the subject of this COAL. It is also the first COAL with which I have personal driving experience with (as this would eventually be the car I would learn to drive on). While not a true Brougham model, Dad always bought well equipped cars, and this was no different. Two-tone (burgundy over red), with a padded landau roof, ersatz wire wheel covers and a padded red velour interior (again, I didn’t know about leather), it was the height of 80’s “elegance.”

80's Elegance

80’s Elegance

 

The story of the LF9 5.7 liter V8 diesel has been well documented on this site and elsewhere, but a quick recap – In response to concerns over rising gas prices and fuel economy standards, in 1977 Oldsmobile started with their 350 gasoline V8, reinforced it to run at higher compression ratios, added a fuel injection system and called it a Diesel. Originally exclusive to Oldsmobile, it quickly spread to all the other GM divisions in response to increasing market demand for diesels. While I was aware of all of this at the time, I was unaware of the problems that owners were already experiencing with this engine. 1981, after all, was the peak of diesel mania, and would turn out to be the sales high water mark for this powertrain.

At the time, it all seemed very exotic. Two batteries! Glow Plugs! The loud clattering and smoke! To me, these weren’t inconveniences, but rather part of the charm. The starting ritual (turning the key to on, waiting for the glow plug light to go out, and then starting the engine) was like a secret handshake that only those in the club knew. Indeed, I was still performing this motion by muscle memory for several years after this car was gone, stopping in “On” for a few seconds before turning the key to “Start.”

At first, the car lived up to its promise, and then some. The Bonneville was an effortless highway cruiser. Inside, it was relatively quiet, and at highway speeds it was no louder than a gasoline engine. It was well equipped with AM/FM/8-Track, so there was always lots of entertainment. I remember an early family road trip to Springfield, Illinois where we clocked an astonishing 30 MPG (a feat that it somehow seemed incapable of repeating a year or two later).

Again, not the exact car, but very close.

Again, not the exact car, but very close.

 

It didn’t take long before real inconveniences (not so charming) began to show up. Fuel line freeze-ups were a common occurrence in winter. Dad had an engine block heater installed which solved the overnight fuel freezing problems (and as an added bonus provided instant heat), but it was still prone to fuel line freezing while driving, and stranded us on more than one occasion as a result. Automotive diesel fuel was still uncommon, so at unfamiliar gas stations we never knew whether we would be filling up at the auto pumps in front, or the dirty truck stop pumps in the back.

While the loud racket from under the hood promised oodles of torque and power, it was all show and no go. While the 220 ft-lbs. of torque wasn’t too shabby by the standards of the day, the 105 hp definitely was inadequate. While the ample torque was good for a snappy launch to about 15 mph, freeway acceleration was leisurely, and any kind of two-lane road passing was absolutely out of the question.

Our family took the Bonneville on several cross-country road trips. I recall passing over the Continental Divide and watching the speedometer creep down as we attempted to traverse the grade. …55…50… “Are you sure you have it floored, Mom?” “Yes, I do” …45…40… I looked out the rear window at the angry line of cars accumulating behind us, and noticed the Bonneville was belching out copious amounts of smoke and soot on them, as if to add insult to their injury.  …35…30… We even tried switching off the A/C to get a little more power from the engine, but that just seemed to make us more uncomfortable without actually going any faster. I vowed to myself at that point that I would never own a car that couldn’t get out of its own way climbing up a grade.

The final indignity came around 60,000 miles, when it blew a head gasket. Dad decided at that time that he was done with this car, and done with GM. He never bought another GM for the rest of his life, and it would be decades before I would give them a chance. Rumor has it that the next owner of our Bonneville swapped the diesel engine for a gasoline engine, as many owners of these cars did at that time.

What can I say now with the perspective of history? Our experience was kind of a microcosm of the US as a whole. Dad, like many LF9 buyers, wanted nothing to do with diesels or GM after this experience. How can any company treat its customers with such contempt by foisting such garbage on them? Don’t they realize that they are losing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of potential future buyers as a result? Doesn’t GM care? Dad had no interest in ever buying another diesel, and neither did I, for that matter. GM really did kill diesels in the US for generations, and plant the seeds for their own downfall.