Automotive History: The 1977 Oldsmobile Chevrolet Engine Scandal – There’s No Rocket In My 88’s Pocket

1977 Oldsmobile with Oldsmobile Engine

In March of 1977, headlines and TV newscasts across the US breathlessly broke the news that GM had been selling some Oldsmobile models with Chevrolet engines. While this may hardly seem newsworthy to our modern eyes, this was made out to be quite the scandal in 1977. I was nine years old at the time, and this story constitutes one of my earliest automotive memories. I clearly remember seeing this story while my parents were watching the evening news.

GM was unique among all the domestic automakers in that each division had its own bespoke V8 engine architecture. Looking back, I’m not sure why this was so important to GM: Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the Ford brands and Chrysler brands all shared common corporate V8 engine architectures.

At Ford, the MEL (Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln) and FE (Ford-Edsel) V8 engines of the late ’50s and early ’60s were the last engine families that were nominally associated to specific brands, but even then this affiliation was pretty loose: The MEL engine was available in the Ford Thunderbird, and FE engine made appearances in various Mercuries. Successor engine families (the Windsor, Cleveland, and Lima V8 engines) were all just branded as “Ford” engines and were more or less used interchangeably throughout Ford’s entire US brand portfolio. No one seemed to particularly notice or care, and sales didn’t suffer. It certainly didn’t make the evening news.

Chrysler Co. was also sharing V8 engines among its brands since the ’50s. While the original A-Series V8 was exclusive to Plymouth when it came out in 1956, its successor the LA engine (along with the B-Series big-block) were used in various forms and displacements in all Mopar branded vehicles. Again, buyers were essentially indifferent to this.

Engine sharing was not even new to GM in 1977. The Cadillac Seville had launched the previous year (1976) exclusively with a fuel-injected version of Oldsmobile 350 V8. GM’s compact and intermediate cars had been sharing four- and six-cylinder engines since the ’60s.

And the 1971 Pontiac Ventura had either a Chevy six or V8 under the hood, as this small picture attests. Clearly there was no iron clad rule about not sharing V8 engines across divisions. And no had ever complained before, never mind sued.

1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with Chevrolet Engine

1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with Chevrolet 350 Engine. You can tell by the plain black air canister lid, the oil filler on the valve cover, and the air horn facing the passenger side.

 

So it came to pass that in 1977, Oldsmobile launched their all-new eighth-generation B-body Delta 88, which was available with a wide variety of engines, ranging from the 231 Buick V6 to the Oldsmobile 403 V8. In between was a 350 V8, referenced in the brochure as just a single engine. In reality, the 350 could actually be one of two engines: Either the Oldsmobile 350 V8, which was sold on all cars with California emissions and cars going to high-altitude states, or the Chevrolet small-block 350 V8, which was only 49-state certified, but conveniently had the exact same displacement as the Olds V8. The only clue as to which engine you were getting was an obscure ordering code: L34 for the Oldsmobile engine, or LM1 for the Chevy. Not helping matters what the fact that starting in 1977 all divisions began painting their engines blue, eliminating the division-specific engine paint jobs (like the former Chevy red).

Although the 1977 brochure identified the engines under the Toronado and  98’s hood as “Rocket”, in the section on the 88’s, there was a conspicuous absence of any reference to any engine specifics. And there was no table of engines at the back of the brochure, as was normally the case. It does appear that Olds was making a point to avoid any suggestion in the brochures about just exactly what was under the hood of an 88.

In March of 1977, news broke in all the major television and print outlets about the fact that GM had been selling some Oldsmobile models with Chevrolet engines. Indeed, more than half of the Delta 88 models produced for 1977 (over 75,000) had a Chevrolet engine and not the Olds engine. So what was different this time?

It all began with a Joseph Siwek of Chicago, Illinois. The story goes that while having his 350-equipped Delta 88 serviced, parts his mechanic had purchased for the Oldsmobile engine would not fit. This was of course because his engine was not an Oldsmobile engine at all, but rather a Chevrolet 350 V8. Mr. Siwek felt deceived and defrauded, especially since Oldsmobile was supposedly charging more than Chevrolet for the same engine option. Mr. Siwek therefore filed suit against GM in the State of Illinois for false advertising.

False advertising? There’s no mention of Rocket V8s in the ads or the brochures, regarding the 88. The standard 231 V6 is mentioned, although not its provenance.

But the court concurred and issued an order in March of 1977 requiring GM to disclose the manufacturer of the engine of their vehicles, and this is when the story broke into the press.

1977 Oldsmobile with Oldsmobile 350 V8

1977 Oldsmobile with genuine Oldsmobile 350 V8. Note the separate oil filler neck, and “Oldsmobile” decal on the air canister.

 

Now that there was blood in the water, It didn’t take long for other Oldsmobile owners and various states attorneys general to file suit, which upon GM’s petition were consolidated and transferred to a Federal Appeals court in July 1977, and certified as a class action suit on October 13, 1977.

In an effort to settle, on December 19, 1977, GM offered $200 plus a 36-month/36,000 mile extended powertrain warranty to all the claimants, which by this time had grown to include Buick and Pontiac buyers who had also received Chevrolet engines. However, the settlement seemed to get hung up on GM’s instance that it only be offered to people who purchased Chevrolet-engined Oldsmobiles prior to April 11, 1977, arguing that by then the story had become public and that buyers should have been aware that some Oldsmobiles were being sold with Chevrolet engines, while the plaintiffs disagreed.

As a result, the case would continue to wind its way through the Federal court system for another three years, before being decided by a federal jury on June 28, 1981. The final verdict: Purchasers of Chevrolet-engine Oldsmobiles prior to April 10, 1977, would be entitled to refunds of $550, while those who purchased one afterward got nothing. Furthermore, there would be no punitive damages assessed against GM. Total settlement cost to GM: $8.2 million.

So who ultimately gets the blame here? Was there some profiteering on the part of Mr. Siwek and other owners and their attorneys in attempting to make a mountain out of a molehill? Undoubtedly. But ultimately, much of the blame falls on GM for allowing this molehill to get created in the first place by trying to have its marketing cake of divisional-specific engines while eating it too with engine interchange. For years, GM actively marketed not only its hierarchy of brands, but the engines within those cars, training customers that not only was an Oldsmobile better than a Chevrolet, but that an Oldsmobile engine was better than that in the Chevy. You reap what you sow.

In the 1978 Olds brochure, all the available engines were meticulously identified as to their provenance, down to the specific engine plants. GM learned its lesson, painfully and quickly.

 

Further Reading:

March 15, 1977 New York Times article

Open Jurist: GM Engine Interchange Litigation – Oswald vs. GM

June 28, 1981 NYT article on engine switch settlement