Olds engineer Benner said they put together what seemed to be a proper diesel V8 and said “Let’s run it and see what falls apart first. That engine lasted about 30 minutes. So we built another, correcting the faults of the first, and ran that to see what would fall apart second, and on and on”.
That’s all good and well, if you’re going to start from scratch to reinvent the diesel. But the deadly problem is that development and durability testing was cut short, to satisfy the sales and marketing guys, as well as the bean counters. From a 1983 New York Times article:
Darrel R. Sand, a former G.M. engineer who helped design the Oldsmobile V-8 diesel engine, is not surprised. He said last week that he had strongly advised his superiors at the company against putting the engine into production back in 1977 and 1978, but he said that his objections were ignored because the company needed the fuel-efficient diesel in order to meet fuel economy standards for its fleet.
”In test after test, we had broken crank shafts, broken blocks, leaking head gaskets and fuel pump problems,” Mr. Sand said. ”The diesel couldn’t hold up, it was a hastily converted gasoline engine with a fuel pump designed for heavy trucks.”
In 1980, Mr. Sand said he was forced to retire for causing such a fuss about the diesel. G.M., however, would not comment on Mr. Sand’s charges.
But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story either.
Although the Olds 350 block was modified for diesel use, with larger bearing areas and such, and its internal components were strengthened, the critical issue was in the cylinder head studs. In order to maximize production efficiency and have the diesel block run down the same transfer line (milling, machining, drilling), the number of cylinder head studs was not increased from the 10 per side as can be seen on this gas 350 block. Diesel engines have compression ratios up to 3x that of gas engines, thus the forces acting on the heads wanting to separate them from the block are much greater. The resultant stretched head bolts caused leaking head gaskets, which allowed coolant into the combustion chamber, causing hydrolock and other severe maladies.
The failure to increase the number of studs was a deadly mistake, and one that wouldn’t have been properly fixed without quite considerable investment in new production equipment. GM did make a number of “fixes” to mitigate this issue, with modified heads, stronger bolts and different head gasket material, all of which helped to one degree or another, but by that time, the diesel’s reputation had already caught up to it. The improved DX block version that arrived in 1982 was beefed up in a number of ways, and was essentially what it should have been in the first place.
The 4.3 L V6 that came out in 1982 did have a denser head bolt arrangement, and did not suffer the catastrophic head sealing failures of the V8.
The second deadly sin was that Olds omitted a fuel/water separator, purely for penny-pinching purposes. This was a standard item on essentially all other diesel engines. Water in diesel fuel was more common then, and removing water in diesel fuel is critical, as water corrodes the delicate high pressure diesel fuel pumps, injectors and other components of the system. Owners made the innocent mistake of adding anhydrous alcohol (dry gas) that is commonly used with gas engines to remove water from fuel, but in a diesel it dissolved fuel pump and other component seals.
Another weak spot was a stretchy timing chain; after 30-50K miles or so, the timing chain slack that would cause the injection pump to gradually fire later and later causing the pinging and detonation problems that exacerbated the “lifting” of the head and the gasket separation.
Another area that was a major concern were the glow plugs. The original pencil injectors were prone to failure and would leak sometimes contaminating the tips of the plugs. Also, when one or more glow plugs failed, owners would ruin starters and even engines with continual starting and/or lack of proper warm up. The original Stanadyne injection pumps were fitted with a plastic collar that was problem to failure. It was later retrofitted with a steel collar.
The initial version had flat tappets. These wore excessively quickly, as did the camshaft lobes. That required going to roller lifters and properly hardened cams. Crankshaft and connecting rod failures were not uncommon, quite likely as a consequence of water getting into the fuel raising combustion pressure drastically.
Compounding its woes, the diesel V8 was teamed with the new and notoriously weak THM-200 automatic transmission. The diesel 5.7 was the largest engine used with this unit, and failures were rampant. The combination of the two created huge failure rates, and even kept the diesel from being certified in California for some time. From that same NYT article:
In 1979 and early 1980, G.M. couldn’t sell its new diesels in California because test cars kept breaking down during state-run emissions tests. Thomas C. Austin, who directed the state’s Air Resources Board at the time, said that seven of G.M.’s nine test vehicles had transmission failures and all nine had engine problems. Mr. Austin, now a consultant to Consumers Against G.M., said the number of problems were ”extraordinary.”
And of course GM dealers had no experience with diesels, and were overwhelmed by angry customers. A number of customers were offered the option of swapping in a gas 350, and it was not uncommon to see an Olds with the Diesel badge on the road without the tell-tale noise and sooty exhaust.
Meanwhile, use of the Olds diesel engine soon spread across the whole GM family, starting in 1979 with Cadillac. It even became the standard engine on the new 1980 Seville, GM’s most expensive passenger car. So much for “The Standard of the World”.
Apart from all of the Olds diesel’s obvious reliability shortcomings, there’s also some questions that haven’t been asked about its performance, efficiency and actual impact to GM’s CAFE numbers.
A 1978 Olds 88 with the 5.7 diesel showed the following percentage improvement over the various gas engine versions:
3.8L V6: 20% 260 V8: 14% 350 V8: 26% 403 V8: 50%
Given that the diesel’s performance and 15 second 0-60 time was roughly comparable to the V6 and 260 V8, improvements of 20% and 14% seem pretty small, considering its higher noise, odors and soot, and most of all its extra cost of some $700-$800, which amounted to more than 10% of an 88’s purchase price.
In 1985, using the EPA’s adjusted numbers for an 88 (18 city/27 highway/21 combined), the 5.7 L diesel had only a 17% improved combined number than the Olds 307 V8 (15/22/18), which also had considerably better performance than the 5.7 L diesel.
As a point of comparison, the VW diesel Rabbit’s EPA numbers were 41% higher than the same size gas engine, and the Mercedes’ 300SD’s numbers were 47% higher than the 380SE.
Not only does it appear that the Olds diesel was not as efficient as the other diesels on the market, it also lagged in power output. The 120hp version of the 5.7 V8 made .34 hp/ci; the 1980-up 105hp version made .30 hp/ci. The 4,3 V6 made .33 hp/ci. Yet the Mercedes non-turbo 4 and 5 cylinders made .48 hp/ci, and the Peugeot .49, and the VW even made .50.
Not only was the Olds diesel underdeveloped in terms of reliability, but also in terms of performance and efficiency.
The 5.7 V8 also made its way under the hood of Chevy and GMC 1/2 ton pickups, with a 125 hp rating. The tow ratings were reduced, which strongly suggests that GM was not very confident about its abilities to handle a heavy load.
In 1979, the very short-lived LF7 260 cubic inch (4.3 L) V8 diesel joined the party. It was essentially the same as the 5.7, but with smaller bores, and made a paltry 90 hp. It was gone after its introductory year. (Note: the EPA numbers on these ads are the old unadjusted numbers, significantly higher than those used in more recent years)
Then in 1982, after the 5.7 V8 was already becoming well known for its deadly ways, Olds released the new 4.3 L V6 diesel. Essentially a 5.7 minus two cylinders, its head bolt count was increased to avoid the V8’s issues. In fact, it seems to have been a mostly satisfactory engine; it just took Olds a couple of more years to get there. The V6 was made in both RWD and transverse FWD applications, and made 85 hp, due to tightening emission standards. The 5.7 LF9 also had its power reduced from 120 to 105 hp in its later years.
Similarly to the 5.7 diesel V8, comparing the 4.3 V6 diesels EPA numbers shows only a very modest 8% improvement over the 2.5 L “Iron Duke” gas four, which had comparable output, but was of course significantly cheaper to buy.
Much like when GM wouldn’t kill the Corvair in its last years to spite its critics, Olds kept making its diesels long after the bloom had turned to a nasty stink. The LS2 version of the 4.3 V6 came out in 1985, with aluminum heads, specifically for the new FWD C platform cars (Olds 98, Buick Electra, and Cadillac DeVille and Fleetwood). How many were actually sold is another question. It was another one-year only engine, and undoubtedly finding one now, or then, would be a genuine unicorn.
Even a V5 version was contemplated, as confirmed by this prototype at the R.E. Olds Museum, and written up here. It was presumably intended for the N-Body cars. A four cylinder is also mentioned in some articles from the time.
At the end of the 1985 MY, the glow plugs on the Olds diesels were pulled, ending not only one of the worst chapters of GM’s deadly decade of the 1980’s, but also playing a huge role in killing the diesel boom that had infected America. That had resulted in diesels showing up in all sorts of cars, including a BMW diesel engine in Lincolns. Compounding this rapid death was the fact that diesel fuel had become more expensive than gasoline, and meanwhile gas engines were improving their efficiency.
No need to beat a dead horse any longer. Let’s just say that class action lawsuits of such epic proportions forced the FTC to step in and broker an arbitration deal through the Better Business Bureau, which resulted in payments up to 80% of the cost of a replacement engine, presumably a gas one if the customer wisely demanded that. But buyers still mostly got stung, as resale values plummeted, and nobody had any interest in keeping them going, except for a few die-hard fans.
There is a lingering question that might be worth pondering: what if the Olds diesel had turned out to be a great engine? What if it had been turbocharged, and put out a healthy 200+ hp along with massive torque? The EPA numbers wouldn’t have changed, but it could have been sold as a performance engine, a viable replacement for the big blocks of yore. Would it have ushered in a golden era of big American diesels? A counterpart to the performance era of the late ’60s?
On second thought, never mind. Even my imagination has limits.
All of GM’s Deadly Sins are accessible here
Pages: 1 2
Maybe your imagination has limits, but your reporting skills don’t seem to suffer that, Prof N. A fascinating piece, showing both the emblematically and pragmatically the inadequacies of thought that ultimately sank great ship GM.
You’d have to wonder if (petrol) fuel injection was given serious attention, as a decent system fitted to the V8’s would surely have achieved most of the gains sought. Yet they faffed about with electronic carbs and air pumps and vacuum doo-dads for years and years in what seems to have been every attempt to avoid biting the cost bullet of the practical answer.
A query, what do you mean when you say “25-40% more efficient” for a diesel? I know from direct experience that in a largish 4WD, the economy improvement was all-but double that of the same-size petrol, yet as an old-school non-turbo, the power felt almost proportionately less, so what does the term “efficiency” really mean in this context?
“You’d have to wonder if (petrol) fuel injection was given serious attention, as a decent system fitted to the V8’s would surely have achieved most of the gains sought. Yet they faffed about with electronic carbs and air pumps and vacuum doo-dads for years and years in what seems to have been every attempt to avoid biting the cost bullet of the practical answer.”
They actually had fuel Injection on the Olds 350, with the Cadillac Seville introduced in 1975. This was a very early analog electronic system, and while it had a marginally higher hp rating than the carburetor version Olds 350, fuel economy wasn’t improved to any real degree. The Q-jet carb was a very fuel efficient carb, the downfall came in meeting the stricter emission standards, which lead to the half-assed electronically metered E4ME electronic Q-jet.
I agree though that had GM should invested in a proper digital fuel injection system with a 4-speed overdrive transmissions. This would have been a better venture than the diesel and their half-assed solutions. GM did have their basic TBI system introduced with Cadillac for 1980, and this eventually made it’s way to other GM engines, including the Chevrolet V8s (but not until the late 80s). Had this fuel injection introduced earlier across the board along with a decent OD transmission, it would have made a big difference. GM wouldn’t have had any issue meeting CAFE standards and wouldn’t have had to use its cheap solutions like super steep final drives, and the overly weak TH200 transmission to meet the standards. They had the money, knowledge and ability to improved their products to meet the fuel economy standards, but chose to do the bare minimum.
Agree 100%. I should point out, though, that our neighbors back in the early ’80s had a very nice diesel 98 and I never heard any complaints regarding it. It may, however, been due the fact they had previous diesel experience (they owned a fleet of trucks for their business) so their maintenance practices were likely better informed than the general Olds diesel buyer’s.
You don’t fully understand the desperation that CAFE caused for US automakers. Their business was large and mid-size cars and people did want them. GM couldn’t afford to put all of their eggs in one basket, so they launched an multi pronged attack. Diesel was just one of the solutions. As mentioned in the article in the same era they also built new smaller V-8s and reintroduced new and repurchased V-6s. As Vince mentioned they also did fuel injection and were serious about it too. In addition to an EFI version of the Olds 350 for the Seville they had an optional port EFI system for the 500 in the Eldorado.
That port EFI set up was in counter to the NIH syndrome often cited as GM deadly sin, as it used fuel injectors based on a design licensed from Bosch. Built at a Rochester Products plant with increased flow to meet the needs supplying of a 62 cu in (1.0l) cylinder.
From there they went on to be a leader in EFI with many firsts.
People today take for granted that if there is a problem with the computer it will turn on a check engine or other light and set a code that can be used to aid in diagnosis. You can also look at what the computer is reading from its sensors and what it’s out puts are in response to those inputs.
Cadillac “Digital Fuel Injection” was the first with those types of features. Push the right buttons on the DIC (Driver Information Center) or Climate control depending on model and you are retrieving and clearing engine codes or body control module codes. Then with another button sequence you are scrolling through what we now call PIDs, Some of the capabilities included the ability to look at coolant temp, supply voltage, throttle position, or whether the computer was commanding the torque converter to lock up.
The fact that cars now have a common computer that is flashed with the proper calibration for an individual application (or a performance tune) also goes back to GM and their “chip” where the calibration resided that allowed them to use the same computer whether it was running the 4.3 V6, 5.0, 5.7 or 7.4 V8.
So yeah GM did give serious attention to fuel injection and it did turn out to be the biggest winner of all of the technologies pursued to meet CAFE.
” what do you mean when you say “25-40% more efficient” for a diesel?” ”
To start with diesel fuel contains about 15% more energy per gallon due to higher average molecular carbon number and density. Even more important is the inherent otto cycle efficiency as compression ratio goes up, about 25% in a non-turbo automotive diesel vs unleaded gasoline engines back then. 40% theoretical increase in total.
That “25-40% more efficient” was a historical average, but in recent years the difference has narrowed significantly, as gas engines have improved their efficiency much more than diesels, due to new technological advances. There’s been less opportunity to improve the diesel’s efficiency, and current emission systems actually have set back its efficiency (a la VW Dieselgate).
I’d peg the current efficiency advantage of the diesel today at more like 20-30%; certainly not 40%.
Combined with even mild hybrid and such, the gas engine can now get almost as good as an (honest) EPA as a diesel.
My comment was purely based on theory and the compression ratios at the time only. Things like EGR and turbocharging muddy the waters. Gasoline engine compression ratios have also increased significantly, while turbo diesels are lower, making it much less of a difference, even in theory. The 15% in per gallon energy density advantage (in mpg) is about all that is left. The only other factors are in single digits, such as leaner burning at low power settings and no throttle, increasing volumetric efficiency.
You have to understand the many reasons why diesel engines are better and will always be better than gasoline. Not only because of better fuel consumption, but also because of better longevity, and more power, ( torque is almost double on a diesel compared to gasoline). Except if you wanna race and that increase in velocity, which is higher in gasoline engines is very important to you. The usage of DPF(diesel particulate filter) and DEF( diesel exhaust fluid) has proven that diesel engines can run very clean. Surely, mentioning VW saga still doesn’t change the facts and reality. Ask yourself this question: Why in North America does NOT exist any gasoline powered transport trucks? ( I’m referring to 18+ wheelers)
There’s some 18+ wheelers running on CNG, as well as buses.
But yes, the diesel still is the most obvious solution for large trucks and such, but I’m convinced its days are numbered, when EV trucks become viable, like the Tesla semi. You can’t beat an EV for efficiency as well as cleanliness. And torque. 🙂
As to passenger cars, the advantages are becoming slimmer as gas engines become more efficient, and the disadvantages are becoming greater. Surely you’re aware that diesel sales have plummeted in Europe, never mind in the US where they’re almost non-existent.
Your graph only applies to gasoline engines. The diesel cycle is different. A diesel engine with a 15:1 compression ratio has an efficiency rating of 63% (for adiabatic combustion chamber). At 21:1 this increases to about 68%. Keep in mind that the cooling systems take away about 1/3 of the heat as real engines are not adiabatic processes.
Does the graph show only about .005 difference in thermal efficiency between the low and high of real-world achievable compression ratios? If so, that seems negligible.
Not quite sure what your question is about. The Olds diesel had a 21 to 1 compression ratio. So for an adiabatic combustion chamber (pure fiction) the efficiency is 68% while a gasoline engine at best would be around 60%. Today direct injection gas engine will run on regular (87 octane) gasoline with 11.5 or so to one compression ratios. GM 3.6 is 11.5:1.
The 1978 Olds 98 with the diesel had an EPA rating of 21/28/24 while the 350 gas engine (standard) was rated 15/22/17. The last number is the combined rating. The diesel seems to get about 6 more miles per gallon than the gas engine. For the combined rating the diesel is about 40% better. The diesel might be expected to use 4200 gallons in 100,000 miles of driving. My 1978 diesel made it to 75,000 miles and was still running OK when I traded it in. The 350 gas engine would be expected to burn 5900 gallons. At fuel prices of more than $1 per gallon there should be a savings at the end of 100,000 miles.
Posted May 12, 2020 at 1:28 PM
“There’s some 18+ wheelers running on CNG, as well as buses.”
What’s maddening about this limited use is that at times there are huge gluts of gaseous fuels -such as right now- hunting for markets. At times producers are even seeking permits to simply burn off huge surplus quantities into the atmosphere.
My point was more of an observation of nikita’s chart.
For an example I’ll choose points on the graph that are approximate and round numbers and so easy to word.
As CR rises from 10 to 20, TE climbs from 0.5 to 0.7. That seems miniscule, negligible.
“there are no textbooks or papers that explain how to build a diesel”
This is going into my “this has to be real because nobody can make this shit up” collection.
Rare on the streets eh well thats hardy a surprise but somebody in New Zealand was selling a reliable diesel Oldsmobile recently on facebook, how many are here I have no idea but there is one and it seems it was the good one, GM reallt dropped the ball with this diesel effort whe elsewhere in the world diesels were getting a new lease on life Toyota in Japan made excellent diesel engines for its Land cruiser range as did Nissan and of course Isuzu, Toyota for its small diesel car engines the 1800 installed in Corollas and Coronas licenced fuel injection technology from Bosch in Germany and by the time the 2c 2.0 engine appeared in their cars had cloned it and it worked just fine I had one in a 90 Toyota Corona wagon noist smelly incredibly smokey and gutless it had however worn the car out around the engine, Peugeot PSA still make diesels they never gave up and supply Ford with them Ford had the smarts to go into a joint venture to get Peugeot’s common rail technology and still use those engines in its cars worldwide. I have an early pre Ford version in my daily drive and its excellent, Opel used both its own diesels and Isuzu engines early on the Isuzu ones are the version to get you cant kill them.
As someone getting in and out from all of Detroit big three, such group thinking and utterly stupid decision making is all too typical. Olds diesel, 9 speed, dual clutch, Northstar, it all happened this way.
It can’t be more obvious to an outsider engineer but with their info priming, ridiculous group thinking, they have no clue what a giant train wreck it is going to be.
Now I hear Detroit executives are sincerely confident COVID-19 is over, and they can’t wait coming back to their office to get everything running again. ( plus, they realized they can’t sell enough ventilators )
Great article as always Paul. The Oldsmobile diesel debacle was one of GMs biggest deadly sins, and undoubtedly greatly reduced any interest in diesel passengers cars for the North American market. At the time of the engine development, GM had a huge percentage of the market share, was making money hand over fist, yet they still didn’t develop a proper engine. While Detroit Diesel may not have had an appropriate engine to drop in, surely GM could have employed the division, or at least consult it’s expertise, to develop a clean slate design. Then again, Detroit Diesel helped out with the 6.2L engine, and it was mediocre at best. So, GM decides to start with a gasoline V8, and chooses the Olds division, which has a pretty good V8. Now I know a lot of people say the Olds diesel engine isn’t a gasoline engine conversion, but it is clearly a design based on the 2nd generation Oldsmobile V8. The fact that you can build a gasoline engine out of the diesel block just goes to show how close they are in design.
There was potential that the Olds diesel could had been okay, but of course as was the flavor of Detroit at the time, do the bare minimum to maximize profit. The block was beefed up, but not enough. The main bearing supports were beefed up, but not bolts holes which weren’t deep enough in the block. While the crank was increased from 2.5″ to 3.0″ mains, it still was cast (albeit nodular iron) rather than forged. The head bolts weren’t increased beyond 10 (even a SBC had 17) despite it having very high compression even for a diesel, TTY bolts were used and again the holes in the block were not deep enough. The injector pump was run off the timing chain, which surely lead to the extra load on the timing chain. The camshaft material was improved, but not enough to cope with the extra stresses imposed by a diesel engine.
The DX was what should have been released, but of course the engine was released under developed, which was at least keeping with GM tradition. Even the DX version was woefully inadequate with its 105 hp rating (the 120 hp rating was only for 1978 and 1979). At least the roller cam tech migrated into the 307 gas engine, helping it make its earth shattering 140 hp. Had GM done this engine correctly, maybe it wouldn’t have started a new era of diesel engines, but certainly it would have cost GM far less in the long run than this engine actually cost them.
FWIW, I dug up an old comparison from MT in 1980 where they tested a pair of 1980 Caprice wagons, gasoline powered and diesel powered. For 1980 the 5.7 diesel was was down-rated to 105 hp and 205 ft-lbs of torque for cars. They complained about the diesel performance, saying it often required full throttle and belched out black smoke. Even though it had the 2.73 gears compared to the 305 gas engines 2.56 gears, it was far slower, running 0-60 in 19.6 secs and the 1/4 mile at 21.7 @ 64.4 mph. Even the fuel economy was only 19.8 MPG in the MT 73 mile test loop, vs the 305 wagons 16.8 MPG. They also complained that the torque converter lock-up on the diesel was very rough (it was okay on the gas car) and the extra weight resulted in longer stopping distances.
Profit maximization is one thing but how were they not able based on test results to predict ruinous warranty costs, and at least an attempt to measure the immesurable loss of consumer/public goodwill?
At least the later DXs became good foundations for small block Olds racing/HP applications when they were thick on the ground.
I remember by the time I got my license in the late 1980s, low mileage diesel GMs, in otherwise great shape, could be had for pennies on the dollar, a great deal if you were willing to swap in a 350 gas engine.
Agreed. The DX block is about the only good thing that came from an Olds diesel. A friend of mine had a 1980 GMC half-ton that had its crapped out diesel replaced with an Oldsmobile 350 gasser.
Excellent piece – I was unaware that they went to the V6 diesel in 1982. Here’s one I shot locally back in 2017 that looks to be in pretty good nick:
Front view looks clean, too:
Yep, it’s a diesel!
Geez a little piece of tape would have kept the two badges lined up or what!
The factory had templates that were supposed to be used to properly position the self adhesive badges. Some were magnetic and some were vacuum attached, depending on application to steel or plastic body components. Of course many installers would just grab a hand full of badges and stick them on by eye, some guys were pretty good that way, some didn’t care and the location and accuracy varied. That’s how some ended upside down, on the wrong side, or Buick on Chevy models. The feeling was that the dealer could fix it after delivery. Not the high point of craftsmanship. A lot of the workers felt that anything that we did could never really hurt the company. These were just small acts of apathy, rebellion, or hostility. They would be surprised later that they were actually shooting themselves in the foot. I was long gone by then.
Yeah, but is there a diesel under the hood? So many of these had gas 350s swapped in. The odds of finding a genuine diesel are not good.
I have 3 still original Olds diesel cars including one with the rare 260 V8.
This model had the 5.7 V-8 diesel
Thanks for this — I’ve never read a single history of the Olds diesels that has laid the various issues out so concisely. While I was aware of some of these issues, many are completely new to me.
And for your collection of Olds diesel memorabilia, here is a 1979 ad for the 4.3L V-8:
Thanks, but I already have it; it’s in the post. 🙂
Paul, oddly, I don’t see it on my laptop or on my phone. On my laptop, it’s simply not there… on my phone there’s a blank spot where that ad should be in your post.
I checked my wife’s phone (on which I’m not logged on to CC), and it shows up fine. There are several other graphics that are missing when I view this article on my devices too, as I’ve just noticed. I’ve never noticed that before — wonder if it’s a common thing that other folks experience?
It’s on my laptop (Windows) but not my iPhone. Just a thin blue line running between paragraphs. The next picture isn’t there either.
I have had multiple problems getting ads to appear in posts. I upload a batch and insert them, only to find them MIA when I try a preview. The only way I have found to fix it is a second separate upload of the ad.
I see it’s not on my Chromebook, but it was on my desktop PC. Andyes, this is not an uncommon situation.
In that situation, I usually go back and use the Snipping Tool to copy it, which often (but not always) solves the problem.
Tried that, but it still won’t show up in Chromebook. Oh well; somehow that’s appropriate. 🙂
Time and again GM’s failures are almost singularly due to one my favorite quotes:
“There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.”
I’ve never seen a company so exemplify the virtues of this philosophy as much as GM!
Between this mantra of indifference and the exaltation of bean counters I’m truly amazed this company is still in existence. Makes you wonder who will bail them out next time!?
LOL anyone think the “New GM” post bailout is any different is deluding themselves…
The “New GM” is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting different results. That, AFAIK, is the definition of insanity.
GM is said to be pivoting to EVs. Fine, but their pivoting skills are at best clumsy and at worst, suicidal. The EV-1 worked, so they killed it. And worked hard to erase it from history. The Volt was a great idea, especially for the time of it’s premier as a show car, as it killed range anxiety with the gas engine as generator/backup. But due to the expense, it should have come out first as a Cadillac, as the ELR, first, as a technology showcase. Because of cost, it failed to spark a lot of buyers. A hybrid was cheaper, got the same tax credits, and was less of an unknown. The Bolt fixed a lot of the problems, but too late as the damage was done.
So now, it is those same folks who claim to be pivoting to EVs. Pardon me if I don’t have much faith in their decision-making abilities. Good engineering goes away due to accountants figuring a penny saved enriches the company, only to have dollars fly back out to correct mistakes and losses to future sales. They ignore their partners, especially if those folks are in another country, and any “partnerships” will go down in flames as the new folks get ignored by corporate.
Paul makes a great case for “what if” in his last paragraphs. The one good thing GM American understood was big and powerful. Had they put their effort into creating a diesel that was performance oriented, we would probably see the C8 as a mid-engined oil burner, but with all (or better) performance capabilities as the current engine. As it is now, truck and SUV performance enhancement firms that utilize diesel technology are doing amazing things, and GM could have been leading the way. As it is, they are only leading the way to irrelevance, followed by ignomious final bankruptcy. The sad part is that the obituary for GM will have to skirt around the fact that they commited suicide, as all the fatal wounds were self-inflicted and perfected over the years by repeated attempts.
GM is a monster whose tentacles have wrapped itself so deep into the global supply chain that they’ve formed a new foundation.
Less poetically, a collapse of GM would be catastrophic for the global economy.
Wow…As a 60 year old I grew up with GM, specifically Buick. Growing up I always thought they were the premiere American manufacturer…and obviously many others agreed with an almost 50% market share at their height. The downsized B-bodies were revolutionary and left everyone else in the cold…BUT….So much hubris,
There is a saying that everyone shoots themselves in the foot once in a while….GM just reloaded faster
Through the ‘malaise era’ GM seemed to have a machine gun permanently aimed at their foot!
I had forgotten all about the 260 V8-based diesel and the V6 version. But then as short-lived as they were, this is understandable. Thanks too for the detail on the relatively low output and the only marginal improvements in economy for the engine’s size and output.
We all know that I am no fan of CAFE, and I wonder if GM/Oldsmobile might have done a better job of this had they not been under the gun to meet the looming 1978 standards. This was not the only project they had going on at the time – Oldsmobile was working on the 260 around this time also, and the entire company was in the middle of a top-to-bottom redesign of nearly everything they built. GM was pretty good at what it was pretty good at, but turned out to be a failure when pushed into doing things it wasn’t pretty good at. Or maybe CAFE just applied pressure which showed up the company’s weakened state of the late 70s. In either case, they embarrassed themselves over and over during those years.
If we are into alternate fantasy histories, I can think of the one where Studebaker (16 bolts per head, forged steel crank and timing gears, thank you very much) converted its stout V8 into a supercharged diesel (R2D2?) that changed the company’s fortunes until it bought a dying AMC and then took over the failed Chrysler of 1979-80. Their macho, lifted diesel pickup (aptly named The Stud) was an early 80s favorite. Who doesn’t love science/engineering fiction? 🙂
Ah memories. My Dad actually owned one of these (a 1981 Bonneville – COAL here: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/cars-of-a-lifetime/coal-1981-pontiac-bonneville-diesel-smoke-em-if-you-got-em/).
When it ran, it ran well. We would regularly get MPG in the high 20’s for highway cruising, phenomenal for the era. Unfortunately, it frequently didn’t run well.
I’ve actually thought about buying one of these for sentimental reasons, but the survival rate in the GM diesels is unsurprisingly low. It seems that most of them self-destructed and got scrapped or got their engine replaced with a gasoline V8.
The Corvair didn’t have a front anti-roll bar. The Vega didn’t have a coolant overflow tank. The Olds diesel didn’t have a fuel/water separator. I see a pattern here.
You left out the most important one. The ignition switches. The ones you mentioned killed the cars, that one killed people. Over something that cost them a reported $0.57 per car to fix.
Don’t overlook the long forgotten side-saddle fuel tanks..
“….over 10 million trucks – all 1973-87 General Motors full-size pickups and cab-chassis trucks (pickups without beds) and some 1988-91 dual cab or RV chassis – is the worst auto crash fire defect in the history of the U.S.”
Do you suppose GM had this in mind when they were shooting to be #1!?
It’s my understanding that the sidesaddle tank issue, while not nonexistent, was greatly inflated by Dateline NBC.
Agreed – Dateline rigged the test with some kind of small explosive device to make sure the tank would blow up spectacularly and on cue for the camera. I knew the attorney from Indianapolis who tracked the trucks Dateline used to the junkyard and then represented GM in a defamation suit. NBC, as I recall, paid GM’s attorney fees and offered a retraction.
Those sidesaddle tanks could not have been any worse than the early Mustang tank that served as the trunk floor or pre-1973 truck tanks that lived behind the driver’s seat.
That tank issue was overstated and the Dateline rigging them to explode on cue made for great television, but much like the Pinto fuel tank issues, it took a small safety issue (not negating the horror of those it affected, but that was a relatively small number of people, and a low speed crash that would not injure the people would not cause a fire in either the Pinto or pickups) and sensationalized it for increased viewership. The issue that news became a product of entertainment rather than separating the two is the cause of many problems like that. Make stuff explode in the movies, fine, but not when presenting it as fact.
Both the GM pickups and the Ford Pinto had overall safety records that were slightly above average for their respective eras.
As I remember it was proven that GM pickups with side-saddle fuel tanks were not significantly more prone to post-crash fires than other contemporary light trucks, and actually had an overall safety record that was commendably good. There were a few tragic accidents involving extreme circumstances, but for the most part the issue was blown way out of proportion. After all, how many of those things were on the road?
I remember the axles that would come loose from the differential on some GM cars. My family received a recall notice on their 1978 Monte Carlo a couple of years after they traded it off. It had a strange intermittent vibration that I think was that very thing.
But GM corrected all of this fairly soon. Too bad the accountants have control in these corporations.
One can only imagine what a thoroughly developed Oldsmobile V8 diesel and other diesel derivatives could have became, the same with a Corvair featuring an anti-roll bar from the outset and the Vega with the OHC L-10 engine.
Would have also loved to have seen how Ford would have remedied the dreadful CVH engine and if it was within Ford’s ability to develop an earlier version of the ZVH?
Good ‘ol GM. Mark of Excrement. Sad.
It will always continue to boggle my pea sized brain how a company that just 20 or so years earlier gave us things like the Corvair and the Buick Aluminum V8 (an engine that would have been perfect for the ’80s). Sad.
Basically, Homo Economicus conquered Ideas Man for the leadership.
…..enabled by homo politicus and homo bureaucratus (both of which are well known to be deadly parasites)
I’ve read interviews with retired GM engineers who disclosed that GM executives knew their existing engines of the late 70s were inadequate to meet the upcoming CAFE and emissions standards. They knew the solution was in efficient lightweight gasoline OHC designs with effective combustion chamber shape, extensive use of aluminum, EFI etc., essentially the engines their overseas competitors were already making.
They eventually built these engines too, but it was just 10 years too late. The GM diesel program went ahead due to cost, it was cheaper to develop than the engines they knew they really needed, and cheaper to build because it used existing factory tooling.
People love to say how GM cheap’ed out and did this or that due to cost. Fact is it was going to be expensive as all hell to produce new engines for all of their vehicles. Sure they didn’t really need so many different 350 engines, and those were whittled away. However with the volume that GM did, at that time, they still would have needed to utilize all of those factories and retool each and every one for an all new line of engines. Plus they needed something for the short term and building a diesel based on an existing engine would in theory make it to market much sooner than a clean sheet design.
Short term was always in their hands, in the form of Opel and other subsidiaries. The cost to retool the factories over here with existing and proven technology from Europe was less than all the money spent on their desire to not use something not developed “over here”. They were too arrogant (pride is not strong enough a word to use) to utilize what was known and practical, determining that they were too smart and could do better by starting from scratch themselves. Instead, they kept the status quo, and started down the path to ruin they are still on today.
They could have continued to produce some larger cars, but they could have pivoted to building proven small cars from Opel in America and kept the Japanese at bay. It could have been a situation of AND – not either/or. Build both, using the best of what they had, but they chose to do ignore the possibilities.
What was the point of GM having all these overseas subsidiaries – just to cream off their profits as a dividend for investors? They never seemed to learn from their subsidiaries; indeed from your article it seems they never even asked them for assistance when they badly needed their overseas subsidiaries’ expertise with projects like this. How insular and stupid is that?
Short term financial benefit at the cost of long-term reputation and goodwill. Hubris has a lot to answer for.
Indeed. One’s mind boggles when, for example, the J cars are contemplated – how difficult would it have been to Americanize the Opel Ascona / Vauxhall Cavalier, competitive cars in Europe when they were introduced? How about turning to Opel for help on the diesel (Opel was making its own small diesels for years, and whereas maybe not as stellar as Peugeot’s they were not bad)?
Nothing in the Opel line up would have made suitable replacement for the traditional US full size car. When they first put pencil to paper on this project full size cars were a significant part of their sales and profit and the fact that went all in on downsizing the B/C cars first and foremost shows just how important that segment was at the time.
Now if you want to talk about the Vega, yeah they should have at least used some parts from their foreign subsidiaries. The Pinto launched with English and German Ford engines with proven durability. That definitely reduced development and tooling costs too.
Nor would GM needed to make an Opel a replacement to the large US car. The A, B and C bodied cars were a USA only market vehicle, and it was fine to have them for US sales. But as the North American market demanded smaller cars as well as the large ones, GM decided to do their own clean sheet versions for USA market cars rather than bringing over proven Opel models. They could have easily brought over new tooling from Europe and installed in any factory that built Corvairs, Vegas or compacts, but they chose to go it by theirselves, thinking they knew better. Same with the smaller engines. They had the Opel CIH 4/6, but they went with their old technology version USA designs. The Buick V8 that was sold to Rover was proven to be a good design once they mastered aluminum alloys, but they screwed that one up. This after making the Corvair 6 for how long? They had early turbocharging, but didn’t master the need to add fluid to keep it working properly, so they gave up. GM wasted more money on technology brought to market but they never followed up on than an average company spent on R&D that actually made production.
You can argue they did what they had to do, but the fact seems to indicate they did what they WANTED to do, and were blind to any other option that was already on the table that they did not design themselves. That, in my eyes, is shooting oneself in the foot, repeatedly. With a shotgun at close range.
Excellent piece, thank you. I figured the 350 Diesel had been covered before as a deadly sin.
As with life, it is amazing how many quickly things can unravel, and how one can get pummeled from one of many things. This article eloquently points out how many deadly sins of design plagued this engine (and I thought a fuel/water separator would fix it!)
Yet the 350 Diesel was just ONE item that GM messed up during the depths of malaise. The THM200. The V8-6-4. The brilliant in concept, but half-baked X-car. The still half-baked A-car (derived from the J). The look-alike 1985 full-size cars.
Just a decade before, GM had to worry about anti-trust issues. My father, and BOTH our neighbors, and tens of millions of others, believed that GM was “the mark of excellence”. While some GM believers drove another car, it was because it was a “good deal” or “my brother-in-law gave it to my wife” kind of thing. By 1986, neither my father nor the above two neighbors had a single GM car between the three families.
Yet the message didn’t make it up to the top that things were wrong. Often in Corporate America, the messenger gets shot. The delusion of the 14th floor is surreal…you can’t make this up.
I’m surprised this 350 diesel hadn’t been covered as a deadly sin before.
BTW, my candidate for the next “deadly sin” (reflecting my personal feelings) is the BMW eta engine…..a low-revving device that was the antithesis of a sporting engine.
The BMW eta engine was no DS. It might not have satisfied the true enthusiasts, but for a very large percentage of its American buyers, it was actually quite ideal, as it had lots of low end torque and suited typical daily driving better than a high winding six.
And it turned out to be very durable too. It has a strong following still.
Didn’t Lincoln offer a BMW diesel engine as a option for the Continental Mark VII and Continental in the mid-1980s?
Very briefly, about 1984, I think.
Thaqts the same mistake GM made here replacing torquey V6 engines with screamers BMW did it right.
The best selling E28 variant in Europe was the 525e, which had the same 2.7 liter eta engine that was used in the US 325e and 528e.
I’ve seen you say that before, but I don’t believe it. The best selling models were the 518i and 520i. I remember seeing the sales stats for them in ams. In fact, IIRC, the eta version was a rather weak seller, as Germans were all about the top speeds of their cars back then, and the eta was no autobahn renner. Plus the taxes on the higher displacement was a negative, as well as the higher purchase price.
You are correct. I wonder if it was particular to the Dutch market, where I lived in 1984. I’ve seen it written in some context. US consumption of the 528e pushed M20B27 eta-powered E28s into second place overall, but only 44,039 of them were European spec 525e models. The 520i was the volume model overall, which is slightly odd because 121 lb/ft of torque at 4,300 RPM is not what I would have wanted in that car. The 528e had a bit of a stigma when I was in the BMW CCA, but it would have come much closer to being livable than a 520i with four passengers.
I drove a low mileage E28 535is 5-speed about two years ago and learned that you can never go back. It kind of broke my heart how I had this idealized memory of ’80s BMWs based on comparing them to ’70s, ’80s and ’90s cars that were often designed with zero consideration of the idea that someone might drive for pleasure. At least the visibility was as good as I’d remembered.
The torque figure is/was less important in Germany than here as there are relatively few road layouts such as here where we are constantly stopping and starting and rushing to get up to speed on multi-lane city streets. Generally you are either driving on single-lane city streets hemmed in by whoever is in front of you or cruising along a Bundesstrasse with minimal lights/stops or hopping on an Autobahn where people (generally) practice lane discipline and you aren’t constantly slowing and accelerating hard. A relatively small displacement engine will do just fine on the Autobahn and be vastly more efficient everywhere else, a large engine will do “even finer” on the Autobahn but overall isn’t considered “necessary”.
@tomLU86 – The A bodies were derivatives of the X car, not the J. The J was its own animal that was supposed to be a “world car” in the same way the Escort was early on.
Funny enough the A bodies still live on today – true road roaches. Toward the end they sold the Ciera with zero advertising and it was a reliable, V6, 4-speed OD multiport injected car. I’m sure they’d have kept making it except for the improved side impact standards introduced in 1997. Being a 1981 design at best, the A body didn’t meet that at all, like many pre-1997 vehicles. Ever notice how many cars underwent major changes in the 1996/97 era seemingly simultaneously?
The Olds 350 diesel was a disaster. But those of us in the auto salvage industry benifited greatly. In 1978 the average 350 diesel made it not much further than 20,000 miles. 10,000 was the figure I remember. On the other side of the coin was the fact that the Oldsmobile gas engines were fabulous. They sat on the shelf so long because they didn’t sell. A tribute to a great engine that went all the way back to the mid 1960’s. By 1978 you couldn’t find a gas
V 8 they were in such demand as diesel replacements. And a nice feature was that all V-8 gas engines basically interchanged from the little 260 to the 455. All we needed to do was include all the mounting brackets for the alternator ,power steering pump etc and the exhaust y pipe.. The 200 turbo transmission? Another money maker., Any Olds, Pontiac or Buick 350 turbo fit right in. All that was needed was the detent (downshift) cable, brackets and sometimes a little re-engineering of the carb to accept the cable end. And the Vega? They should have kept the Corvair. From 1971 to 1973 we couldn’t sell a Vega motor. They burned oil from the day they left the dealerships. Not until 1974 when they finally built the engines with steel sleeves in the cylinders. Instead of the Pistons riding on the “hardened” aluminum cylinder walls. What were they thinking?
The A bodies that left the factory with a diesel were quite popular around here for a while, ie once they added a visual to the tail pipe idle test. Diesels were exempt from emission testing for many years. So you wanted to build a hot car and keep it licensed find that Cutlass Supreme that came with a diesel and go to town replacing it with what ever you wanted. The holes are there in the frame for the SBC mounts if you don’t want to stick with Olds.
“Instead of the Pistons riding on the “hardened” aluminum cylinder walls. What were they thinking?”
They were just ahead of their time. Name me one current production passenger car engine that isn’t built that way. Alcoa probably sold them a bill of goods at the time just like they tried to sell us at Douglas Aircraft aluminum-lithium alloy that was junk.
Would GM have been better off using the Chevrolet Small Block V8 as a starting point for an earlier common family of V8 and V6 petrol and diesel engines to better atomize costs instead of using different engines like the Oldsmobile V8 for dieselization, the Pontiac V8 for turbocharging, etc as glorified make-work schemes to keep the other US GM marques happy?
It is also my understanding GM could have produced an indirect successor to the all-alloy 215 BOP V8 by making use of the all-alloy Chevrolet Small Block V8 via a production version of the 5-litre all-alloy V8 used in the 302 Vega V8, together with an earlier GM 90-degree V6 carrying over the displacements of the Buick V6 (that can be potentially applied to the related Small Block V8 in all-alloy with displacements as low as a 4-litre V8 via a GM 90-degree V6 featuring the same bore and stroke from the 181 Buick V6).
They might have been better off using the SBC because it has 17 head bolts instead of 10 in the Olds.
As to amortization, it didn’t make much difference, because it was al about using the existing production capacity. During this time, GM was preparing to use various engines across all the divisions, so if Olds’ capacity was maxed out, they just started putting Chevy engines in Olds instead.
As to your second point, GM made aluminum versions of various of its engines as prototypes, but there’s a big difference from making one (or a handful) and making them in volume.
Chevy had made aluminum heads for racing, as well as full aluminum blocks also, for a number of years. They were expensive and except for the very limited production ZL-1, not cost effective for mass production.
The main reason the Vega used an aluminum block was to utilize the extensive aluminum casting facilities GM built for the Corvair. They didn’t want it to go to waste. The weight savings in the Vega engine was negligible. It also explains why they went to aluminum for the HT4100; to utilize those former Corvair facilities.
From my perspective the Chevrolet Small Block V8 and an earlier related GM 90-degree V6 cast in all-alloy* from the early/mid-1960s would have almost completely negated the need for GM to buy back the tooling / manufacturing line of the Buick V6 from AMC (and attempt to buy back the 215 Buick V8 from Rover/BL), whilst allowing GM to apply the lessons they previously learnt on all-alloy engines since the 215 Buick V8 onto the Small Block V8 / 90-degree V6.
The only question mark would be the ability of the Small Block V8 and 90-degree V6 to feature displacements below the existing 267 (in V8 form) and 200 (in V6 form). even better if they reach 244 (as a V8) and 181 (as a V6 via the Buick V6’s displacement) or get close to the capacities of the 215 Buick V8 (and hypothetical 161.65 V6).
The 90-degree V6 has shown it was capable of being turbocharged to match or even exceed the Buick V6, while opening up the possibility a Small Block V8 Turbo could have butterflied away the 301 Pontiac V8 turbo. Additionally as you already mentioned the Small Block V8 (and 90-degree V6) would have been a significantly better starting for a diesel compared to the Oldsmobile V8 (and V6) diesel.
And lower displacement (e.g. 4.0-4.4-litre) all-alloy and dieselized versions of the Small Block V8 could have easily formed the basis of suitable 4-cylinder engines (in place of the Vega and Iron Duke engines), similar to Land Rover who were also looking at similar Slant-4 petrol and diesel engines derived from the 4.4-litre Rover V8 (yet without being limited by financial constraints unlike Land Rover).
Returning to the Oldsmobile Diesel V8 (and V6), it is known whether they looked at turbodiesel versions similar to what Rover / Perkins experimented with on the Rover V8-based Project Iceberg (that put out 100 hp in NA and 125-150 hp in turbodiesel forms)?
*- An earlier all-alloy 90-degree V6 would have also been a cheaper and much more conventional alternative to the Corvair’s Flat-6 engine, which unlike the latter could have been utilized by other GM models. Something that was noted IIRC from reading Hemmings Corvairs for the 70s article.
It looks like the owner of that ’82 Isuzu lit up while refueling, once too often…
You’ve heard of oil undercoating, it has oil sidecoating.
It’s interesting to note all of the Deadly Sins so far have been particular models of GM cars. This is an engine used to power many models of GM cars, making this DS a particularly deadly one if not the worst. If it weren’t it would not have turned so many people off to diesel engines in the US.
In the end, it all boils down the arrogance and hubris others have mentioned. Sad, but such seems to be a component of life.
As CJinSD points out a few posts down, the Olds Diesel fiasco may have been a blessing in disguise. The effort so turned off Americans to diesel cars, that, now, decades later, diesel as an alternative to gas has all but been supplanted by cleaner battery power. If the Olds Diesel had been engineered properly and been even a modest success (instead of such a dismal failure), there’s a good chance the US would have, today, been in the same state as Europe with stinky, smelly, polluting diesels everywhere.
Notice that the “state of Europe with stinky, smelly, polluting diesels everywhere” was as the direct result of government mandates forced on auto makers and consumers throughout Europe. Of course governments want this fact to be buried down the memory hole. No-one is supposed to recall who it was that passed the very regulations that caused particulate issues for European cities in the first place- and they did know all about the particulates, they just didn’t give a toss.
Interestingly enough the earlier wrecking of the US car industry came as the direct result of government mandates (such as CAFE etc.) complete with arbitrarily tight deadlines and swingeing fines forced on auto manufacturers and consumers. No-one is supposed to recall who it was that passed the very regulations in the very time-frames which auto-industry engineers reported would wreck the product and devastate the US domestic industry. The regulators, legislators, bureaucrats and politicians all knew, they just didn’t give a toss. Funny how these “leaders” are able to commit atrocity against the common man, restricting his choice, limiting his life-style, wrecking his standard of living and mortgaging his future away and yet…. no-one ever expects them to take responsibility for the ruination they cause.
Actually, it’s not really funny at all…
The past popularity of diesels in Europe have nothing to do with the government mandates. For example in Finland, where I’m from, the diesels get annual extra road tax of 350-600 euros depending on the size. This punitive additional tax on diesels has been in place as long as I can remember.
Still the diesels have been very popular for two reasons:
1) much reduced fuel consumption
2) much better torque low down
Even works for small cars. For example Toyota Auris 1.4 litre diesel has a torque of 205 Nm @ 1800-2800 rpm, meanwhile the 1.6 gasoline version has 157 Nm @ (substantially higher) 5200 rpm. For the driver the difference is nippy vs. gutless. Unless you like revving like a boy racer.
The city/road combined consumption figures are 4,2 l/100km versus 7,1l/100km respectively.
Which one would you choose?
I took a look down the rabbit hole of GM Diesel passenger car engines as ancillary research when I wrote my post on brown, RWD, stickshift station wagons, but it was only tangentially related to my post, and the rabbit hole looked scary, so I stopped.
Am I correct in thinking only GM made a passenger-car Diesel engine, among the Big 3? I believe Ford used engines from Mazda and BMW and Chrysler never sold a passenger car with a Diesel.
And for light-duty trucks, the Big 3 turned to truck engine manufacturers. The 6.2 that supplanted the Olds 5.7 in pickups was from Detroit Diesel (although that’s a part of GM) and Ford went to International, and Dodge turned to Cummins.
Yes. The others wisely let GM be the guinea pig on lots of new technology.
If GM’s bean counters had been brain surgeons they’d have gone to prison for criminally negligent homicide.
Excellent and sad history, Paul. Goes to show that who runs a company matters. When car guys were running the General, they couldn’t be beat by and large. But once dynamic car guys were replaced with go along to get along, the bean counters reigned supreme and the product suffered.
I think the current chapter of GM is still being written. Sadly, there are still many people who think nothing’s changed since 1985 and stay away. But just as sadly, when it seems the General’s taking a couple of steps forward, some blunder takes them a step or two back.
Great stuff, I knew about the bad reputation of the Olds V8 diesel, but now I finally get the full story & picture.
The ad of the VW Golf brought a smile to my face. A refrigerator-white Golf Mk1 diesel was the car I took my driving lessons in, back in the spring of 1984. Slow, yes, but so utterly easy to drive. Perfect pedals-transmission-engine harmony. You could drive it flawlessly while REM-sleeping.
My parents’ 1979 Ford Fiesta 1300S (also 4-speed manual) -with its shitty automatic choke- was exactly the opposite. You always had to be fully-concentrated to start it up and to let it roll down the road smoothly, even with a warm engine.
VW group diesels seem to be the easiest vehicles ever to learn how to drive in.
My 1993 Audi 80 made me feel like me and the car were one. Even my 06 C220 CDI struggles to be as straightforward to drive
When GM was on its game in the early 1960’s, the experimental division, Oldsmobile knew enough to add extra head bolts to the Buick aluminum V-8 before turbocharging it.
This debacle never should have happened. GM had enough institutional knowledge of how to build a good diesel engine at Detroit Diesel, Bedford, and affiliate Isuzu that the Olds diesel should have been a benchmark. Nonetheless, the 5.7L diesel was doomed to fail before the first one was even sold. The project was run by Olds, whose engine engineers had virtually no experience with diesels, their testing and validation protocols were based on what they used for gasoline engines, and most significantly the project mandated using existing gas V-8 tooling. That right there was the main problem. The most expensive part of developing a new engine is tooling, and in order to save money Olds wanted to machine the 5.7L diesel block using much of the same tooling the gasoline version used. Contrary to popular belief, the 5.7L diesel did not use a gasoline engine block. It was significantly heavier, had larger bearings, and provisions for an injector pump. What it also had was the gasoline engine’s bore spacing, deck surface area, and head bolt number, location, and size. Going a step further the diesel initially used a similar head gasket and the same head bolts as the gasoline 5.7L.. Failure was engineered in right from the start! It is true that GM eventually engineered all the problems out of the engine with the introduction of the ‘DX’ series, but I figure they would have spent less money and pissed of far fewer customers if they had just designed a proper diesel engine from the start. Ironically, the 4.3L V-6 diesel was basically a ‘ground up’ design, and was built with all new tooling in an all new engine plant in Lansing.
I worked on a few 5.7L diesels back in the day, and the later versions were reliable as was the 4.3L V-6 diesel. For some reason, it was said at the time the 5.7L diesel was more reliable in Chevy and GMC 1/2 ton pickups than passenger cars, but I never saw anything that would explain that. The only diesel passenger car I would have considered in those days was the Pug, Peugeot diesels were quite reliable and good performers. I didn’t have a high opinion of the Rabbit diesel, though more reliable than the Olds they were known for sudden catastrophic failure. The 240D’s were slow, noisy and dirty, I saw many with soot covered rear ends like GM transit coaches!
I worked for GMC Truck and Coach Division during this time. I was a tech at a factory branch store. Our first 1/2 ton diesel pickup arrived in the winter. Wouldn’t start and when they did finally get it going it tossed a rod out the side of the block. This was just the start of many miserable days to come. Many pissed customers. Later on the 6.2 diesel engine and the 700R4 transmissions, more misery. As bad as the Olds diesels were the 6.2 diesel tended to fail more spectacularly. Glow plugs were still a problem. Failing to use a turbocharger was a major mistake. We used to joke about never having to worry about a differential failure, engine and transmissions wouldn’t run long enough to wear out the diff.
The Stanadyne (Roosa Master) fuel injection pump was junk when it was used on farm tractors some twenty years earlier. Also didn’t help that this was when GM decided you could just glue together engines and transmissions with silicone. Very frustrating days working for the General. There were issues everywhere. Some problems you could figure out a “fix” for. Other problems you were just screwed.
Very good write-up, as always.
There are still horror stories floating around my family of Great-Grandpa’s 1983 Buick Riviera with the Oldsmobile 350 Diesel. It got traded in for a 1983 Riviera T-Type, but not before it incurred thousands of dollars’ worth of warranty work.
This is generally what happens when the automakers face a strict and sudden tightening of fuel economy standards. They release technology and powertrains that they know *full well* isn’t going to last, because they had to have *something.*
I wonder if a repeat of that isn’t in order, what with stuff like the new Trailblazer and Encore GX, featuring overboosted 3-cylinder engines pushing 3400+ lbs of crossover.
Hi Kyree. I am wondering after reading your comment if your realative had to have fuel injection, as both those engines would have them. I know that was the reason alot of people I know bought those engines. Also, would love to read more. But for now I just had to ask! Thanks.
I have no actual idea why he bought it. He was a very self-indulgent man and probably just thought it was a good idea.
Kyree, I’m not an emissions-law historian, I highly doubt the tightening emissions rules were anywhere near sudden. I have vague memories that Detroit fought the rule changes each step of the way.
Yup. The emissions rules and fuel economy rules (along with all the other myriads of regulations, e.g. what lights had to be fitted, what speedometers had to be fitted, what bumpers had to be fitted, what sort of automatically deploying seat-belts had to be fitted etc. etc. etc. etc.) were arbitrary and set to very tight deadlines in the face of sound advice in opposition. Entirely new technologies (new to the auto industry) and new devices/mechanisms and systems had to be rush developed and then productionised in super fast time. Most of it previously untried and untested and with little to no prior experience to fall back on. The industry “fought” the rule changes by accurately explaining to the government and its agencies how problematic the new regulations were and the trouble they would cause. They were ignored, then over-ruled. The consequences were entirely as predicted and as expected.
It is easy to cast aspersion upon GM et al. It seems few are prepared to hold the government people responsible for their sabotage of the US domestic car manufacturing industry. Funny that.
The regulations were very much the opposite of “arbitrary”. The Amerian vehicle regulatory system was deliberately designed to require that regulations be necessary, practicable, cost-effective, and (to the maximum possible degree) performance-based and technology-neutral. The regulatory agencies have a very steep climb to meet the heavy burden of proof required of them. That’s not to say the regulators always get it right; sometimes the regs wind up flawed, sometimes deeply so, but arbitrary requirements are just about absent from them.
And that “sound advice in opposition” you’re on about was just bitching and moaning by automakers (because cost and effort) and by car enthusiasts (because ignorance).
As to your claim about the US Government sabotaging the domestic auto industry: No, there weren’t special rules just for the domestic automakers; the same regs apply to German, Swedish, French, British, Korean, Chinese, Cuban, and Martian automakers, too. Japanese and European automakers put money and effort into meeting the regs, while US automakers put money and effort into fighting the regs. It is obvious which approach was more fruitful. People who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.
If I could add another perspective on this – the whole point of this diesel chapter was to satisfy a federal mandate hoisted upon the industry called CAFE. Now, CAFE is no excuse to create disasters, but what it did do, and still does, is force manufacturers to focus on the wrong things. Why were we trying to get a 4500 pound vehicle to get 25 miles per gallon?
Because we were “running out of gas”. The fear of running out of gas cause our Federal and California governments to put fines on auto manufacturers that didn’t meet an average fleet gas mileage. Based on what? Based on how many models, engines, popularity, highway/town averages – based on a very arbitrary number set by who? Experts? In what field? Honestly, the entire era dictated by CAFE is a disaster for auto manufacturers, especially our domestic industry, once the world’s largest.
The whole thing was based on panic. No one should drive a 7mpg New Yorker, or an 8mpg GTO, but we were. My parents ended up with an entire set of new drinking glasses, filling up on Marathon gas during the 1960s for a Dodge Royal Monaco wagon and a Dodge Charger. It was flat out wasteful, but it was not a crisis. The panic occurred when we ended up dependent on gas from countries with different political goals than ours, and they decided to turn off the spigot. We didn’t run out of gas, we didn’t take care of ourselves.
So the diesel fiasco is due to a forced and arbitrary fleet number set by Washington. If it wasn’t for CAFE, we could have ended up with a nice domestic diesel engine for passenger cars that weren’t thrown together with spittle and bailing wire. We can say it is the marketing people, or the bean counters, or the engineers, or the blind ego of GM – but the crux of the matter is that these fiascoes are the fault of a bunch of self appointed experts in Washington who couldn’t change a flat tire, but dictate to the auto industry unrealistic standards untethered to reality.
We all got screwed.
I don’t always agree with your viewpoints, but I do think you represent them well and I enjoy reading them.
I totally agree with you on US manufacturers finding themselves in a corner due to your often panicky and over-corrective EPA – much more than European or Japanese automakers who, in practical terms, had “CAFE-exempt” fleets, but I respectfully disagree this justified the Olds diesel disaster. As others noted, GM HAD diesel knowhow in other divisions and subsidiaries (Detroit Diesel, Opel, Bedford and Isuzu) which it should have utilized. This was not EPA’s doing, sorry.
As noted, well stated, but blaming the government is not the correct take, any more than just blaming the manufacturers or buying public.Everyone had a part in this fiasco, and everyone could have made a difference.
All of it was (and is) intertwined. The 3 moving parts (Gov, OEM, and the buying public) all have different goals, and nobody seemed to talk to the other 2 sides as to what might be the best solution.
The government was freaking out that the OPEC nations had us by the balls over oil. We didn’t realize that we had enough home grown deposits, and we outsourced the oil supply before we figured that out.
The OEMs knew (and still only know) how to build large vehicles with poor economy figures for a large profit. They cannot or will not take the time to figure out how to make a smaller product that makes money, or how to make something attractive to buyers that gets good mileage while still bringing in margins they want.
The public will always go with what they are told to buy. The minute marketing makes driving something big into a social stigma, one denoting lack of class or status, and makes it attractive and status conscious to own something smaller or more efficient, then it becomes the item of desire. Individually, we have our preferences, and many like larger vehicles, but a lot of buyers only buy large because it is perceived to be a status buy, much like buying a current BMW or Mercedes for “quality” when it is not really a high quality product any longer. Those get purchased more for the badge than any other reason.
Had the government and OEMs figured out a reasonable goal for a CAFE like regulation, and then had the OEMs used their marketing to sell those vehicles to the public over the other models, we would see a real change. But as all three have differing agendas, this would never happen in real life.
“The public will always go with what they are told to buy.”
Nonsense! If that were correct then US drivers would all be driving 1300cc hatch-backs. But they don’t. They drive huge trucks and SUVs. Every year they purchase hundreds of thousands more of those. The OEMs build what they can sell. Market 1300cc wonder-boxes all you like, but most people just do not want those because such vehicles do not suit their needs and requirements. Instead they buy what they judge suits them more closely.
Detected in your comment is the hubris that it is possible to make people like what an authority or expert or some self-determined superior demands they like whether by manipulation, fiat or coercive threat. That ALWAYS leads to disaster, one way or another.
US car makers have become truck makers because of what the regulations do. The consumer is the victim.
My rich uncle, the retired oil man, bought a diesel Seville. He had driven Chevys and a VW his working years and decided to finally treat himself to an expensive Cadillac. The lack of a water separator in the fuel system was his biggest problem. He lived in El Paso and ended up getting a tank of Pemex diesel across the border. The fragile Stanadyne injector pump couldnt take it, so an expensive repair.
Why should a consumer have to count head bolts?
In 1968 I bought a 1958 Mercedes Ponton180D and rebuilt it under my carport. 35 MPG and I was in love. It was a million mile 4 cylinder with 17 head bolts.
Later, I put a Isuzu C240 in a worn out Chevy Vega wagon. WOWZER! Fantastic daily driver and 45 MPG, but the body fell apart.
The C240( a 4 cylinder) had 20 head bolts.
Then, in 1978, our family business bought 7 Oldsmobile diesels. Before the end, I knew of all the shortcomings mentioned. Very sad story.
OLDS 350 diesel V-8 – 20 head bolts total. exactly half of what was needed.
this was the end of assuming GM was an automotive leader. It broke my heart because I love diesel power and these jerks ruined it forever.
The infamous International/Ford 6.0 and 6.4 Powerstrokes had also 10 head bolts per side. The original 7.3 Power Stroke had 18 per side. You can neither fix stupid nor bullet proof that mess.
Chevy Duramax- 18 head bolts per side. same with late model Ford 6.7 Powerstroke.
never had one but the Rabbit had the same 10 head bolts on the gas and diesel heads. but the head was a very tall and longitudinally rigid casting that apparently was designed to hold the compression of each.
Enough head bolts doesn’t guarantee the engine will be all it can be, but it does indicate the project was not shortened up by bean counters or other light weights.
On a positive note, GM spared us a couple of decades of soot-spewing diesel passenger cars. If they hadn’t poisoned the well, the ’80s and ’90s could have been the era of asthma, eye irritation and stench.
This is an excellent article, but I do think you were a bit kind to the early VW diesels. They were hit or miss at best for years before they had bouts of reliability between regulation and specification changes. I used to read the Washington Post classifieds in the ’80s looking for pretty much anything European with a manual transmission. The diesel VW listings seemed to always mention replacement engines. I knew lots of people who bought them in Rabbits, and none of them were pleased by the time they were done. I also know a few 4th generation Golf/Jetta owners who swear by their diesels, but the learning curve was brutal.
There is a Popular Mechanics Owner Survey article for the early Oldsmobile Diesels that is available on Google Books for free. The sad thing is that most of the buyers liked just about everything about their cars. It wasn’t until they hit 30+ thousand miles that these engines revealed their frailties. If you find similar articles about first year ownership of diesel Rabbits, you’ll see that they had glaring faults from day one. I have at least one such article here, although I don’t have a scanner.
The Olds diesel started out life as a big block motor. I was involved in a conversion where gas heads were installed on a diesel bottom end. I had to enlarge the head bolt holes as the diesel bolts were a larger diameter but obviously not enough of them. Diesel pistons, block, and crank, gas cam and manifolding. The thing ran like stink when all was said and done. The fiber ring in the injection pump connected the governor weight retainer ring to the rotor. If not contaminated they would just make 100,000 miles before crumbling. As for the 6.2, what a turd. These were cheapness personified. Rumor I heard years ago was that Detroit refused to have their name on the motor because it was so bad. Bean counters cheapened them up to the point of unreliability. Same injection pump as the 350 and the Ford/IH 6.9. G.M. didn’t even have piston cooling jets on these. You work one hard and if the head gaskets don’t fail, the pistons will. I did a bunch of work on the Bunny diesels too, not too bad but gutless and don’t neglect the timing belt changes. Replaced many expensive aluminum heads from that. Did one that was lugged too much that wore the block into the next county while the pistons were well within spec. I’ll take the Pug 505 turbo diesel over any of those other turds anytime.
Great article, Paul.
Minor correction, Detroit Diesel made a smaller 3 cylinder variant of the 53 series (3-53), my Dad had two of them in a 35′ Challenger houseboat during “peak diesel”. It was more of a curiosity, the 43′ Nautaline with twin 351 Waukesua’s that replaced it proved much more satisfactory.
There was also a 2-53 two banger that was primarily an industrial powerplant.
By “smallest of the DDs” I meant the -53 family, not the 4-53 specifically. I’m aware of the 3-53 and 2-53.
There was even a 1-71, a one cylinder version of the -71, so strictly speaking it would have been the smallest DD.
Great Oldsmodiesel article, don’t want to go too far with the sidebar, but wait a minute… someone has to at least give a pat on the head to the red-headed stepchild, 51 series. LoL
I’m the curator of a small diesel engine collection that includes a 2-53, which physically I believe is lighter and smaller than 1-71. We can look at that some other day, back to Oldsmobile.
I know everybody did Oldsmobile diesel-to-gas swaps, me too. But I actually went the other way too, planting Olds diesel power in place of gas – and not just Oldsmobile gas.
By “smallest” I was referring to displacement.
I understand what you meant.
Though technically of the same family -GM paid the child support lol- the single cylinder really is an oddball.
From the twin cylinder on up the family resemblance is obvious and indisputable. Valve cover, hand-hole cover, accessory drives, blower design… two cylinder on up the commonality is obvious, not so the single.
But about the Olds… They lived on in industrial applications. I saw Olds mills disguised in name and color, but this minute the exact application hasn’t fermented out of memory yet. I’m thinking light plants or air compressors?
Great article and comments, lots of good information.
One thing I apparently don’t understand like I thought I did.. does the x-yy DD engine code mean x number of cylinders at yy displacement per cylinder? If so, a 3-53 or 2-53 would have to be smaller than a 4-53.. right?
Not trying to pick nits, just trying to get un-confused – not always easy for me 🙂 Thanks!
Actually, there was a 51 Series. And it was weird! 2 stroke and no valves, there were both intake and exhaust ports at the bottom of the cylinder. Camshaft only operated the unit type injectors. Blower had felt-covered rotors. I believe it came only in 2 and 4 cylinder versions, and was something of a throw-away engine. I believe it was developed primarily for generators and marine use:
Yup. Built from about 1950 to 1959, superseded by the 53 starting in 1957. Here’s a nice running one:
My uncle built a matching pair of monstrously-powerful pickups back in the 90s, putting gas heads on these diesel blocks. Bored out .030 over, and a turbo for each cylinder bank. One time I rode in it was probably the fastest I’ve ever gone. He somehow took the stopper out of the 85 MPH speedo, and it was at about the 3:00 position, having already swept past 85.
Great article, I’m in the UK met my first GM vehicle,a smashed 1968, 327 Camaro.I bought it as soon as I saw it.I was only 20 in 1975 not long into working for the Kenning Motor Group as a trainee mechanic servicing mainly British Leyland vehicles.British Leyland in those days was also going through development problems with all models and of course emissions.
I sourced second hand body parts for the Camaro and repaired it,but alas on running the engine it had a cracked cylinder head,no antifreeze in the coolant.That was my first engine strip down of any vehicle,but I loved that 327.I was even impressed with the quality of the bodywork steel.British cars weren’t as good and rotted out very quickly.Over the years I acquired alot of US cars,Camaros,Firebirds,Cutless,Mustangs,most from the mid 60s to late 70s.
I came across 2 Oldsmobiles with the 5.7 Diesel,both had run the big ends,knocking like the conrod was going to throw.I was offered them very cheap but decided not to follow through on the deal.In the year 2000 I was offered another diesel Olds,still running well but quite oily,again I passed up on it but it was a lovely car.
A bit of my story,but I must say I loved your cars and made my younger days exciting.Sadly nowadays I cant afford the cars I used to have.Regards Roger.
I worked as a gm tech back in the day. We pulled more 6.2 diesels out and reinstalled gas engines than i can remember. 700R4 trans were shit also. Caddie 4-6-8 were junk my uncle had one and i worked on a couple. California should have fell in to the ocean. Along with all these other emission guru’s. Just like gas cans we cant get fuel out of now. Use a race can these days. Over engineered for your convenience. Always wished these asshole that invent stuff should have to work on the worse things every made.
Car companies are in business to make money and are ultimately run by the accountants and not the engineers. If the engineers were in charge they would all go bankrupt quickly. So the result of the middle ground are these disasters that they dump on us. Caveat Emptor is your best defense. I have a 1982 6.2 Suburban right now and runs perfect.
I knew I had seen “industrialized” Oldsmobile diesels, but today trying to find mention of them on the web turned up with almost zip.
Almost zip, here’s an Olds in work clothes.
I don’t know anything first hand about this particular engine.
Image is borrowed from a place called, well, dieselplace.
(Hope to post another image in follow-up post)
I don’t recall exactly specifics of the engine installations that I saw. However, I’m pretty sure that I saw Olds engines carrying more famous name and livery.
It’d be interesting to know if GM targeted non-automotive markets, or if manufacturers independently purchased over-the-counter engines? Maybe surplus new engines were being used up?
Maybe this had something to do with it. I remember up into the mid-90’s brand new ‘DX’ Olds 5.7L diesels were in the GM ‘crate’ engine catalogs. I remember thinking at the time there must have been a warehouse full of those things in Lansing somewhere, manufactured for an anticipated demand that never happened. Diesel cars were either junked or the engines replaced with ‘junkyard’ 350’s.
Speaking about diesels in “normal” countries : Mercedes Benz has a proven amazing clientele in all European countries . Then it was the move of Peugeot diesel engines , as succesful everywhere as Mercedes played .
Third to arrive on massive Diesels , and again very reliable machines , were the venerable Opel Rekord 2300cc Diesel . How it was possible that America’s GM didn’t took the chance to improve or to copy the efficient diesel developments of German’ s GM ?
The cost of fuel. diesel and gasoline cost 2-3 times more in Europe
Good article, fairly accurate, (Seville diesel was 1978, DX block was mid 1981 model year, the flat tappets were only an issue in early 1978, etc.) really enjoyed reading
I think a point missed here is, “You have to start somewhere”. So they built the diesel, had some teething pains, but worked hard to correct the problems. The alternate viewpoint would be complete defeatism. Fuel injection, diesel, OHC, FWD, all of those must be too difficult to do, so we won’t do anything, just shut down our company.
There’s a lot of real estate between “You have to start somewhere” and “Must be too hard so let’s not do anything”. The problem has nothing to do with defeatism; it was that GM (ab)used their paying customers as beta testers rather than doing a reasonably complete R&D job before releasing this engine. It was neither the first nor the last time GM did this.
It’s difficult to comprehend what happened with the Oldsmobile diesels, and what their fate says about the power that GM had forty years ago. They were greeted by wild enthusiasm by the automobile magazines and consumers alike in 1978. I think most luxury buyers were aware that Mercedes-Benz was enjoying a great deal of success with their diesel offerings, and conditions were ripe for GM to show them what an American brand could do. The consumers who mattered most, the ones who traded every two years, were hungry for engines that didn’t stumble when their throttles were opened and then chug on when their ignitions were switched off. Diesels solved both of these problems by not having throttles.
Early adopters were thrilled with their new Oldsmobiles. They were put together just as well as Cadillacs or Buicks, according to consumer surveys. They returned improved fuel economy and drivability compared to carbureted gas GM products. It wasn’t until they were on the road for a couple of years that water contamination in the fuel and other issues came to be considered endemic rather than incidental. Still, their peak sales year was 1981. How did GM have so much inertia that they could sell 310,000 known lemons three years into production?
GM kept at it until 1985. The last ones were slower than the first, although the worst version came and went in 1979. Did GM give up on diesel cars here because they failed, or because the depressed economic conditions that brought them about had been reversed by Ronald Reagan while electronic engine management advances made strong, efficient and clean gasoline-powered cars an affordable reality? Mercedes-Benz tried to keep diesels available for loyal customers, but their 1986 300E set the course for several years of cars that weren’t just fast or quiet enough; they were legitimately quick and refined. Diesels automobiles were never particularly significant in the US again. GM has been blamed(and credited) with stopping their adoption here, but maybe the reality is just that we had the freedom and abundance to not have to deal with diesels for a couple of blissful decades.
After owning a ‘78 Buick Regal Turbo Sport Coupe – a car that appeared to be assembled using 50% of the screws/bolts/nuts that should’ve been used – there is nothing negative about that particular GM era I wouldn’t believe.
First engine lasted 30 minutes, should have fired the whole team right there.
Couldn’t find a book on diesel engine design? Must have checked the table in the break room, no book here, must not be one.
Water is still a problem in diesel fuel and always will be, you need a water separator.
Timing chain stretch, jeez I wonder if drive an fuel injection pump might be a problem.
Roosa-Master fuel pumps, used by farm tractors and construction equipment.
GM must have had the bean counters right in the room with the “engineers”.
I missed this stellar post when it came out in May. Another Paul tour de force!
My family’s shop swapped out dozens of diesels for gas motors. We had several Delta 88s that we bought with blown up diesels and swapped in whatever was available, usually a 307. Dad got on a V-6 kick, which was a total disaster. Since the driver had his foot to the rug 90% of the time, they used more fuel and broke motor mounts.
Even a teenager, I my reaction to the first diesel road tests was, “What were they thinking?” All the buff books were singing diesel praise but the cars were bog slow and didn’t use a lot less fuel in real world driving. It was really a lose-lose proposition.The buff books did all they could to love the Olds diesel but the 17 second 0-60 time made it hard for them to have much love.
Back then, I read every car magazine I could find, and my opinions of GM were much the same as now. Why not take the rugged Olds block, lighten it a bit and put on a set of good breathing aluminum heads? Ditch NIH syndrome, and put Bosch K-Jetronic on it. That would easy give a 180 hp 307 that used no more fuel than the diesel slug.
All the US makers were just obsessed with cast iron. I would assume it was because they had a bad or no experience with it.
Would you believe that there is actually an Oldsmobile Diesel V8 fanboy webpage?
It is at:
The last time it was updated appears to be 2001. There can’t have been too many Oldsmobile Diesels still running then, never mind now!
These were sold in Israel as taxis and were immediately popular as they were much fancier than the Mercedes 240Ds that populated the taxi stands. A year later they were all being sold. In Israel at the time, private people couldn’t by diesels since diesel was not taxed since it was used only in commercial vehicles. Commercial vehicles were also not taxed so anyone buying one would have to pay the import duty that had been waved (150%) and replace the engine with a gas one. The cars were given away and some people imported Olds V8s and installed them , paid the duty and sold the cars, which were very impressive in a land of Fiats and Renaults.
We had two Detroit 3-53’s in our two former Army Gamma Goats used as wildfire brush vehicles on our fire dept. Very reliable and we were told to “wind the piss out of them, they’ll take anything you throw at them” And they did!