Note: None of the pictures in this post are of the actual car
Oh, GM 3800 V6 engine, how do I love thee? Let me count the 3800 ways. In 1989, I was getting married and was in the market for a newer, better car. A co-worker had a 1989 Pontiac Bonneville and told me how well he liked it. I looked it over one day, took it for a ride, and decided that this was the next car I would get.
I located a former GM executive car that had only 3,000 miles. It was equipped with the 3800 V6 engine, automatic 4 speed transmission, power steering/brakes/windows, and air conditioning. It also had a split bench seat in cloth upholstery. Mandatory as I had had many cars with vinyl upholstery that were hot and uncomfortable in the summer. It was as close to a new car that I have owned in many years.
As has been discussed elsewhere, the 3800 V6 engine has had a long and storied history from 1961 to 2008. My prior experience with this engine was with RWD Cutlasses and Centuries. I had rebuilt or replaced three of these engines in cars that I had bought to flip. It was a simple engine to work on and had good power and economy. In 1988, the engine was upgraded to include a balance shaft. With the balance shaft, it was a very smooth running engine as compared to the earlier versions. It is often said that “Americans buy horsepower, but drive torque,” and this engine had torque. I was in love.
As compared to the Buick LeSabre and Olds 88 versions of the H-body, the Pontiac Bonneville had more style. The body was more rounded on the corners and the dashboard came equipped with a full set of gauges. Pontiac was allegedly trying to emulate BMW by back lighting the gauges in red. It was more annoying than sporty since the orange dials matched the red markings at night.
The car also had the standard AM/FM stereo radio. That was OK for a while, but I wanted to listen to cassettes so I purchased as used GM AM/FM/cassette stereo to install. Later, I came across a GM AM/FM/CD radio that I purchased and installed. At least in those days, you didn’t have to reprogram the radio with the vehicle VIN.
The cross-lace aluminum wheels were and still are attractive, however, my car came with the plastic “aero” wheel covers shown above. I always thought they were ugly, but early one morning, someone removed them from my car as it was sitting parked on the street. I eventually found another used set to replace them.
Note: Typical GM seat belt in the door installation
The Bonneville (and all of the other H-bodies) had the front seat belts located in the door itself. At least it wasn’t the two part belt with a motor that was prevalent in early 80s cars. These belts worked well and I had no complaints. The door latch, however, is another story.
One by one, three of the four door latches refused to open at different times. Once the door was latched and the failure occurred, you couldn’t easily pull the door panel to work on it. You had to be patient and hope the door would open when you were at home and had access to tools. The failure mode was the lack of lubrication in the latch itself. Once open, you could get some spray lubricant and injected through the part of the latch visible through the open door.
Another interesting failure was the harmonic balancer on the engine. If you revved the engine right after starting it, you would hear a clunking sound from the belt tensioner. Traced it back to the failure of the rubber on the balancer. Now, how to remove it. The shop manual specified a special tool to hold the flex plate while you wrenched on the crankshaft bolt. Right. Just try to find the tool somewhere. So, I jacked up the car, put a socket on a breaker bar, and positioned the bar such that the cement on the driveway would hold it. Then I cranked the engine over and the bolt came loose. Of all the cars I have owned, this is the only one that had this failure happen.
The air conditioning system also failed during my ownership. The small orifice filter in the suction line clogged, requiring discharge of the system and replacement of the suction line. The line had to be replaced as GM had redesigned the line and you couldn’t get the old parts anymore. Most of the junkyard cars I had looked at had the same failure, so used parts weren’t an option.
Overall, this was a good car to own and operate. I bought it in 1989 and sold it in 2001. It had over 150,000 miles and probably would have hit 300,000 except for the fact that it was in a “sandwich” accident one morning on the way to work. It was a bright sunny day and I was stopped at a traffic light behind a Chevy Blazer. Next thing you know, I was looking up at the ceiling as the seat mounts broke at the front. I had been hit by a senior citizen driving an Olds Cutlass Ciera. He said that he didn’t see me. When the police arrived to investigate, they determined that he had taken some medication that morning that made him drowsy.
My car was driveable, but the right rear quarter panel was badly damaged and the trunk lid would not close. Likewise, the front of the car was driven into the Blazer in front of me and the hood/grille/lights were badly damaged. No one was hurt and I was grateful that the Blazer was in front of me. It prevented me from being pushed into the cross street traffic and potentially being hit by another car. As I did not have collision insurance, the car was not worth fixing for cash. When you consider all of the years that I did not have to pay for collision insurance along with the $700 I received from the culprit’s insurance company, I broke even. These were the days before the Chinese demand for scrap metal caused junk cars to skyrocket in value, so I gave the car to the junk man for free. I briefly toyed with the idea of looking for a car to transplant the power train into, but my wife said that was a waste of time.
In the end, this car was my introduction to the modernized 3800 engine and I was satisfied with its performance. I would eventually own several other cars with 3800 engines, three of which are still in my fleet today.
4-5 years ago, I was looking for a car, and based on comments here the 1st criteria was to look for something with a 3800. I’m hoping to get another few years out of my Olds 98, but I suspect that its replacement will also have one.
Loved that engine in my ’88 LeSabre T-Type and then the supercharged version in my later Regal GS. Great engines along with excellent fuel economy!
I had a low-mileage ’94 LeSabre for several years – inherited from my mom. The 3800 was great. You’re right about the fuel economy – I could break 30 mpg on the interstates at steady speeds.
About the door-mounted seat belts in GM vehicles, I couldn’t imagine why those were even legal, considering how dangerous the upper anchor could be to the head during the side collision. When I sat in one of those GM cars with the door-mounted seat belts, I glanced and saw how neatly the protruding anchor lined up with my head.
Another flawed thinking at NHTSA…
At that time the focus was on head-on collisions. The door mounted belt was an idea to circumvent the hated motorized mouse. GM called the release an “emergency release”- right!
I don’t think that was the intention.
NHTSA mandated the side impact protection for model year 1973 with side impact beams integrated in the doors.
Page 28 in https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/810748
It was amended to be stronger and offer more protections for model year 1993 for passenger cars and 1998 for commerical vehicles.
Ah, the good ol “passive restraint” era. I had an ’89 Bonneville, as well, and I remember the owner’s manual clearly stating they intending for you to leave the seat belt fastened all the time-it was attached to the door so you hypothetically could slide in and out under it.
Of course, it didn’t work like that, and I put the belt on and off like normal… And hoped the door-mounted thing never became an issue.
Had the supercharged 3800 in an ’01 company owned Bonneville. Only supercharged engine I’ve ever had. A bit to my surprise, it proved amazingly durable. Nary a problem in 200k miles. Although the engine’s reliability wasn’t matched by the rest of the car, I still hated to turn it in when the company decided to rotate it. That engine made the car quite entertaining.
“Oh, it’s being turned back in tomorrow for a new car?” (there’s just enough time left to hoon the front tires down to the cords, with maybe a few dropping from neutral to drive burnouts included, right?)
Is it just me, or is that instrument cluster weirdly asymmetrical with the fuel gauge oddly placed in the tachometer, when it should be to the left with the rest of the gauges.
I can only guess there was a lower trim model that didn’t get the gauges and, instead, had idiot lights but still kept the tach/fuel gauge combo.
The stripper model instrument clusters only had a large speedometer, with a temp gauge on one side and the fuel on the other.
The Olds and Buick versions of these cars still float around Michigan in pretty fair numbers (albeit dwindling fast)… but I just realized I haven’t seen a Bonneville of this generation on the road in ages. Actually, I don’t even remember the last time I’ve seen the 92-99 version still running. These cars used to be everywhere! I still see the final 00-05 versions around, but they’re ALL beat to hell with peeling plastic cladding dragging on the pavement and/or flapping in the breeze… unlike their generally clean Buick platform mates.
It seems like the Pontiac version of every GM sedan gets beat into the ground and hits the scrapyards about twice as fast as its corporate siblings. It must be completely due to the opposite owner demographics, as the mechanical components are identical and they were never that much cheaper to buy.
We have a couple of L36 3800s in our fleet. 03 Impala ls and a 99 Regal ls. Had a beautiful 97 Bonneville l36, green with gold lace alloys that I loved but the Mrs wrecked it up good. Great torquey, efficient engines. Not without flaws of course, but a great unit over all.
The photo here is the 1st chance I have had to see the instrument cluster on one of these. I agree with a previous poster that the cluster looks a bit off kilter.
I always thought that these were decent looking cars, but if I had needed a full-sized car in the late 80s/early 90s I think I would have looked long and hard at the Sable, or maybe the Taurus before this car. I had owned an 82 J2000 and found it to be an underwhelming driver. Generally reliable for the first few years, then getting annoyingly prone to parts breakage of the interior.
Speaking of the interior:
You cannot lay the blame for the seatbelt used in this particular car on the NHTSA, at least not completely. Consider the fact that GM pioneered the airbag, then when it couldn’t interest it’s customers into buying them when they were still optional, did a 180 and dragged it’s feet installing them as standard equipment. Blame GM, and not NHTSA for coming up with a poorly designed placeholder.
Well, NHTSA could have say, ‘hey, this is not safe! Let’s revise the design so it’s safer.’ NHTSA made mistake of broadening the description of what ‘passive restraint system’ should be.
If you are thinking about General Motors wanting to save money by not installing airbags, why did General Motors come up with two keys for lock and ignition switch when it could offer just one key for both? I understand that General Motors had at least six different ignition switches at one point when it could use just one for all.
Now, NHTSA had (and still has) fumbled through the decades with questionable regulations that did more harm than good.
The first generation air bags were later discovered to be too aggressive and intended to protect the UNBELTED adult man of average height and weight. NHTSA hadn’t considered the deadly effect on the smaller women and passengers who didn’t seat themselves properly. The ‘killer airbags’ had been responsible for at least 200 deaths before NHTSA changed its regulations to require the ‘smart airbags’ in 1994.
The head restraint system as required by NHTSA was joke. In most North American vehicles until late 1990s or early 2000s, they were nothing but like a brick in size and shape. No matter how high you can pull them up, they didn’t prevent whiplash.
Anyone remember the seat belt interlocking system that was intensely derided by the public? Good. That’s probably NHTSA’s first mistake.
Joan Claybrook, the former director appointed by Jimmy Carter as a token to the feminism, was so totally clueless about automotive technology and engineering. She refused Ford’s application to permit halogen headlamps because she assumed the improved output would compel people to drive faster at night. She was so bad that Reagan administration had reversed or eliminated her decisions. That included her idiotic 85-mph speedometer.
What’s more? Oh, yes, let’s talk about the seat belts themselves. NHTSA didn’t bother to mandate the three-point seat belts for the rear seat passengers. The lap belts in the rear seats offered no protection and were fitted to the American vehicles until 1988 when 20/20 revealed the danger of lap belts. General Motors and others rushed to fit three-point seat belts in the rear seat as standard equipment even though it wasn’t mandated by NHTSA until much later.
NHTSA didn’t want those cool form-fitting headlamps as on the vehicles sold in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It took a lot of lobbying effort by Ford to change the regulations allowing the form-fitting headlamps with replaceable bulbs. All good? Well, no, NHTSA had no spine when demanding the UV protection coating or material: we ended up with so many jaundiced and fogged up plastic headlamp lenses that compromised our driving safety.
NHTSA refused to change its splotchy headlamp output pattern to UNECE with sharp cut-off, which reduced the chance of dazzle-back in fog, snow, or rain conditions. Until 1992 when it finally permitted the UNECE sharp cut-off with strict condition that the H4 bulb (known as HB2 or 9003 in the US) be built to ‘tighter’ tolerance. Yeah, right, whatever.
We’re still waiting for NHTSA to mandate the separate amber turn signal indicators for the taillamps. The agency did a real world experience analysis and found the significant improvement in reducing collisions with amber turn signal indicators.
Hmm, oh, yes, those infamous battle ram bumpers. That is self explanatory elsewhere in other articles here.
What’s wrong with NHTSA? How could General Motors and others get away with bad designs that caused more harm than good? The answer is: Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972. This federal law allows the manufacturers to demand cost benefit analysis before NHTSA could require any changes or new additions to the FMVSS. The killer first generation airbags failed the cost benefit analysis by huge margin. In addition, the NHTSA staff was given the immunity for their decisions. They could get away with bad decisions that impacted the American public.
Had the United States swallowed its NIH-pill and adopted UNECE WP29 regulations in 1958 or even in the 1960s, things would be very different today. Australian Design Rules were known to be most difficult for the manufacturers to comply until Australia started to harmonise ADP with UNECE. The result is increasingly wider choices of vehicles for the Australian (of course, it probably killed the local manufacturing, but that’s another story). Same with Japan. Canada was this close in switching to UNECE in 2000 but was threatened with transfer of manufacturing to the United States or Mexico and shutdown of factories.
One more thing: NHTSA uses the ‘honour system’ unlike UNECE. The difference with the former is the manufacturers submitting the documentations of test procedures done by the independent contractors. That gave too much room for cheating or hidden dangers as EPA later discovered when General Motors cheated the emission test by switching off emission control system in Cadillac with 4.9-litre V8 motors when air conditioning system was used.
Australian vehicle manufacturing was killed by the reality that Australia is a tiny market far from other countries. A small local factory can’t compete on cost with a huge factory, and it’s cheaper to ship a few cars to Aus than to ship most of the output from a big modern factory in Aus.
The most popular vehicle in Aus moves about 50K units, and the ten most popular lines total less than 400K. A single modern factory could supply all of that with capacity to spare. Unless it were illegal or punitively taxed to bring in competing products, there’s no way the local market would take close to that much product from a local factory.
Coupled with the fact that when market conditions changed to smaller sedans and SUVs, local manufacturers were still locked in to producing the full-size sedans that fewer people were buying (Falcon, Commodore). They were often hamstrung by bad product decisions in their overseas HQ.
Once the market changed, it wouldn’t make sense to build a local factory to sell 50K vehicles and export 300K, regardless of type.
Let’s not overlook the influence of corporate money on the the regulatory bodies of the government. I have the feeling that corporate influences massage the regulatory output as to avoid the costs associated with developing effective technical solutions. It’s cheaper to pay an army of lobbyists.
One thing that I take issue with is the airbag argument. Yes, GM may have pioneered them, but they were very costly. There wasn’t the manufacturing efficiencies we have now to lower the cost, IIRC, no one else was offering something like this in the mid-1970’s.
One could argue the issue of since they cost so much, no one ordered them and since no one ordered them there was no demand. This may be true to some degree.
But back in the 1970’s people still believed that weight=safety in auto accidents. I can remember my hometown mechanics in disbelief when seeing some European cars came with crumple zones. The common belief was reinforced that these were “throwaway” or “deathtrap” cars and you needed lots of solid metal around you for safety.
We’ve come a long way in the last 40+ years.
Those 1970s airbags installed in some GM cars were expensive for the time. A GM executive quipped that GM should have “charged for the airbag and thrown in the car for free.”
And those airbags weren’t being installed in Vegas and Novas.
Had a 1989 Bonnevile LE. The highlight of that car was definitely the 3800, which was not only peppy, but trouble free for 6 years and 90K miles. Also loved the optional gage package with full instrumentation. Nice interior with the luxury interior option, which was less than $100. Lowlights were delaminated paint in 4 years (dealer re-sprayed for free), failing power window motors and a sound system which broke 3 times. Replaced with a similarly equipped 1996 Bonneville, which was fine for 6 years, until just about everything but the 3800 started failing. Replaced with a 2002 Acura TL that was perfect for 8 years and never bought an American car again.
I have owned two different cars with the GM 3800 V6, in both cases the engine itself was fine but other things conspired against long-term ownership. The first was a 1996 Camaro; I wanted the V8 but finances dictated otherwise. The 3800 produced adequate power and was reasonably smooth. Unfortunately I started having some major back issues shortly after I purchased the Camaro and entering/exiting the car became very difficult. I ended up keeping the vehicle less than a year as I had to have something easier for me to get into and out of.
The other was a 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix; it wasn’t a hot rod either but again the V6 was more than adequate for daily driving. The Grand Prix was quiet, comfortable and even reasonably fuel efficient (around 20 MPG in town and 32-33 MPG on the highway). Unfortunately this car had a voracious appetite for power steering pumps, needing a new one every six months or so. As long as the car was under warranty this was just an inconvenience but I decided to move on before having to replace a PS pump on my dime. During my ownership of the Grand Prix I got to know the service department at the local Pontiac store on a first name basis; it might not have been their fault but they were aggravating to deal with. This dealer also had the Cadillac & GMC truck franchise here and when GM pulled the plug on Pontiac, those franchises went to another dealer; I was not displeased at this turn of events.
I found one of these in the late 90s with low miles on it. In spite of it being an older car, it did not look particularly dated and it served him well in his work as a realtor. It had good power, decent handling and room for his family. Its 3800 and 4-speed auto were very durable, and the car as a whole held up much better than the early Taurus that preceded it. His sister had the same drivetrain in a much less stylish Buick Century Limited, and it was solid there as well. Both cars ran up well over 150k miles before deferred maintenance got the better of them, and the drivetrains were still strong.
Down Here some people put the GM 3800(231)in old Toyota pickups and you will be amazed how much more weight they can carry.tough and reliable Engines.
The only harmonic balancers I have been privy to replacing were on GM 3800s and Honda J-Series V6s…. And they are fairly common failure points on both. The 3800s all seem to be Series I and II, the Honda engines all seem to be from about 2000-2010.
I currently own two 2000 Series II engines without balancer failure, a 2007 Series III without balancer failure, and have previously owned a 92 and 98 Series II without balancer failure. The Bonneville blog I used to participate in had many posts about balancer failure. The 89 3800 here is the only one where I experienced a failure.
I had one of those, same set-up in dark grey metallic paint.
Loved that car, great driver and good looking.
I just saw one of my first of these in years within the last two weeks, for sale in front of a farm house. White with a navy blue carriage roof!?!?
I think the Pontiacs saw normal use where Oldsmobiles and Buicks were often bought by higher income retirees who preserved them better, thus extending their lives.
I was never a fan, but maybe my opinion is colored by the fact that the only person I ever knew with one bought the lowest trim possible in one of my least favorite color combos (the butterscotch yellow with that Kraft Caramel interior that GM put in half the cars it built after 1970.)
My sister had one of these Bonnevilles from 1987 to 1995, accumulating almost 300K miles on it. She then gave it to my nephew who pushed it to well over 400K miles over another 5 years. AFAIK, the drivetrain on the car was bulletproof, but I don’t know as much about the interior/other hardware.
That car was probably the mileage champion among all of us siblings. I don’t think anyone else among the four of us had that many miles on a car.
Gawd those cheap-ass GM door mechanisms! I didn’t have a usable back seat in my 1989 Bonneville for months because of those stupid mechanisms. Fortunately, mine also had the split bench, so when the one in the driver’s door went bad I could still at least get into the car.
Still one of the best, and one of my favorite, cars I have ever had, but those damned door things!
I’ve always found it remarkable, though not really surprising, that GM never bothered with making a 2-door H-body Bonneville, especially given that they did with the 88/LeSabre and 98/Electra. Had the demand for large coupes dropped off so much from 1985 to ’87 that it wasn’t even “worth it” to reuse the 88/LeSabre roofline? Or was it just intended as a continuation of the Model G, which was also 4-door only?