(first posted 9/14/2016) “There’s an old car driving up behind us,” my wife said as I slowly dozed off in the passenger seat. I unhurriedly looked over my shoulder. “It’s a Caprice,” I said, “…they’re still fairly common.” I closed my eyes again. Then, as it passed us, she calmly added “It’s a diesel.” Quicker than any alarm clock, those words startled me awake. Yes, we got passed by a 35-year-old GM diesel. But life in the slow lane can have its advantages, and briefly seeing this car is one such example.
My photographs of this car are not ideal. I apologize, and promise to take better pictures the next time I see a Caprice diesel. But don’t hold your breath; that time frame might be measured in decades. Caprice diesels were made only between 1980 and 1985 and suffered very high mortality rates. This example is particularly rare, being a 2-door with the high-end Landau package. And it’s still on the road.
When it passed by, my wife noticed the one exterior clue to the car’s engine type – a small “Diesel” badge on the front fender. Notice how the lettering differs from the “Caprice Classic” badge above it? The Diesel badge matches Oldsmobile’s division lettering, and that’s not a coincidence, as this car’s engine was sourced from the Oldsmobile division.
During the late 1970s, GM undertook a somewhat daring foray into the world of diesel-powered cars, and tasked Olds with leading the way. Oldsmobile’s full-size B-bodies received an optional 350-cu. in. diesel engine in the process. It was an interesting concept – mating a full-size 6-passenger car with an efficient diesel engine – and one that, in theory, was perfectly suited to the times. For a brief period, this seemed like a brilliant move, particularly in the wake of the 1979 fuel crisis.
With demand for fuel efficient vehicles surging, GM expanded its full-size diesel offerings to Chevrolet for 1980. The value-oriented Impala/Caprice B-bodies received an optional engine transplant courtesy of the Diesel 350, and offered the right resume for the times – good value, big size, plus excellent economy.
One step up from the bargain Impala, the Caprice (gas or diesel) provided buyers with extra comfort and amenities. The appeal of a Caprice diesel is clear: A traditional American sedan with the fuel mileage of a compact import. As shown in the ad, this car had a theoretical highway cruising range of 918 miles, enough to take it from central Ohio, where I spotted our featured car, to New Orleans without stopping.
Unless it blew a head gasket. And that, unfortunately, is what people remember most about the Olds-sourced 350 diesel. A first-hand review of this engine’s mechanical concerns can be found in this GM Deadly Sin post by Paul N., but to summarize, GM rushed the engine into production, and cut corners in the process. Blown head gaskets (insufficient head bolts couldn’t cope with the diesel’s 22.5:1 compression ratio) were just one of many serious problems reported en masse by customers. The lack of a fuel tank water separator – a major oversight – caused even more maladies.
Making matters worse was that GM dealers were ill-equipped to diagnose or repair diesel engines. Often, customers would have a blown head gasket repaired only to have the same problem a few thousand miles later. It was not uncommon for owners to replace engines multiple times in the same car.
As with many of GM’s false starts in the 1970s/80s, the Diesel 350 improved as years went by. One of the biggest improvements was a strengthened block (called the DX block) introduced with the 1981 models. Gradually, the engine’s initial problems were being addressed.
But by 1981, the die had been cast, and GM diesels quickly developed a horrendous reputation. Magnifying the problem was that the diesel engine was marketed as a premium product. In the ’81 Impala/Caprice line, the diesel was a $695 option ($1,800 in today’s dollars) – adding nearly 10% to the car’s base price.
Our featured car is of course rare because it’s a diesel, but if that weren’t enough, it’s also a Landau Coupe – Landau being the top-line trim package featuring a vinyl roof, wire wheel covers and other upgraded features. Only 6,615 Landau Coupes were made, and diesel production undoubtedly stayed in three digits.
This car wasn’t cheap. Landau coupes started at $7,990, and with the diesel and other options, this car likely carried a sticker upwards of $10,000.
An Internet search revealed that our featured car was sold in 2013. At that time, it was advertised with 79,000 miles and the above interior photo reveals a car in very good condition. The low mileage accounts for part of its unlikely survival, but certainly appropriate maintenance was involved as well. These diesel engines required an owner with thorough knowledge of proper diesel care in order to survive more than a few years. That GM would sell such a car to the general public (where insufficient maintenance should be expected) is as much a blemish on the company’s discretion as the engine itself.
Caprice diesels were slow, as one would expect from a 3,500-lb. car with a 105-hp engine. However, this example had no trouble keeping up with (or passing) traffic. Accelerating from a stop light, the Caprice gave off a plume of black soot, but otherwise the engine type was unobtrusive – even the noise wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I would have expected.
1981 was GM’s peak year of diesel production, with 350,000 of the oil burners being built. At that point, GM optimistically expected 20-25% of its production to be diesels by 1985. Instead, sales fell to 30,000 by 1984, and most GM diesels were discontinued in 1985.
Stories of diesel owners and their tales of endless repairs became legendary. Eventually, GM compensated owners somewhat (one class action lawsuit alone was settled for $22.5 million), but that hardly made amends. GM diesel failures were even noteworthy enough for the local government in Fairfax County, Va. to refund personal property tax payments to owners due to their cars’ plummeting value – a ruling that never occurred before or since. Headlines like the one above are a nightmare scenario for a car company.
The Oldsmobile diesel engine saga cost GM dearly in terms of money and respect. But what suffered the most were diesels. Problems associated with this car’s engine turned Americans off to diesels so completely that to this day it’s a nearly insurmountable task to persuade Americans to buy a diesel passenger car. For such a villain, though, this particular car was very inconspicuous. In fact, had it not been for my wife’s sharp eye, it might have driven right by in the passing lane unnoticed. I bet GM would have loved for its diesels to be less conspicuous 35 years ago.
Photographed in Columbus, Ohio in August 2016.