Vintage Car Life Tech: Buick’s New V6 Engine (1962) – The Beginning Of A Very Long Life

Who in 1962 could have imagined that the Buick 90 degree V6 would still be powering new Buicks in 2008? No one, especially back then when technology was still changing so rapidly. The Buick V6 rivals the Chevy small block for longevity and ubiquity, and I suppose one could argue that at least in passenger cars, the Buick V6 essentially replaced the SBC with the change to FWD as the most common engine.

Car Life took a look at its birth, technology and performance.

Car Life gets right to the (painful) point as to why the V6 came to be: the aluminum V8 was expensive to build, even more so because we now know that Buick’s aluminum foundry had to reject many of the block castings, at least in the early days. And of course it wouldn’t likely be common knowledge yet, but it also would soon become known as a somewhat problematic one, due to issues of overheating due to the copper radiator coils being affected from incompatibility due to incorrect coolant and such.

Buick decided very early on that in order for the Special to be truly successful, it needed a cheaper and more economical power plant. They explored several options, including a large four based on their large V8, a la Tempest, but it would have also been heavy, as in over 500 lbs. An inline six just wasn’t going to fit in the engine compartment, and wouldn’t be all that light either. So the decision evolved towards a V6 adaptation of the 215 cubic inch aluminum V8. Makes perfect sense, except of course for the less-than-ideal 90 degree cylinder banks.

By increasing the bore and stroke, the resultant V6 displaced 198 cubic inches, only 17 less than the V8. Its weight was only moderately heavier than the featherweight (324 lbs) V8. Obviously, the issue of its “odd fire” 120 degree crankshaft was somewhat of an issue. It results in a primary rocking couple, but large counterweights at the ends of the crankshaft counter that fully. A secondary coupling, at twice engine speed, is handled by special soft engine mounts. “In driving this car, it is virtually impossible to tell, without looking, whether a V8 or V6 is under the hood”.

Well, one didn’t have to look; just listen. I distinctly remember a friend of my brothers pulling in the driveway in his ’62 Special V6 while I was nearby. It sounded…odd. A bit like someone had pulled a couple of spark plug leads off a V8. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but it did sound odd, as in “odd fire”

Here’s what it sounds like. And boy, does this 231 version ever look lost in the mighty maw of a Colonnade Special.

A key element to the successful adaption of the aluminum V8 to the iron V6 was in pushing the limits of thin-wall casting techniques. It and the Falcon six were pioneers in this, resulting in considerably lighter engines (370 lbs for the V6, without flywheel).

The V6 also pioneered the use of cast iron connecting rods, using pearlitic malleable-iron, which GM had already begun using increasingly for crankshafts. before anyone throws out the tired old line about how forged cranks and such were the true signs of a quality engine, please remember that Ford pioneered the use of nodular cast iron cranks quite some years earlier, and for anything but all-out racing, they are perfectly suitable.

Of course the key element was to reuse as many parts a possible from the V8, which included main and rod bearings, wrist pins, valves, springs, pushrods, valve lifters, rocker arms, and a number of others.

One key benefit of the 120 degree crankshaft was that it made possible a truly balanced intake manifold, something that V8s and inline sixes inherently do not have, and cause some cylinders to not run at maximum peak output as a result. That also helps explain why the four cylinder engine has superior torque output (an a per cubic inch basis) than V8s and inline sixes. A 90 degree V6 allows non-overlapping manifolds, with a resultant higher torque peak.

Buick claimed that the V6’s maximum torque (205 lb.ft) was superior to comparable inline sixes. As a point of comparison, the new Chevy II 194 six was rated at 177 lb.ft. And Chrysler’s 170 and 225 slant sixes produced roughly 6-9 % less torque per cubic inch. The V6’s torque was only 15 lb.ft. less than that of the aluminum V8, but also 5-9% more economical, and up to 18% more economical than competitive inline sixes. Impressive numbers, which help to explain its enduring appeal.

CL felt that subjectively, it was “almost impossible” to tell the difference in performance between the V8 and V6. With the optional 4-speed manual, CL predicted that it would do 0-60 in about 11 seconds.

In closing, CL (rightly) predicted that the thin-wall casting used in the V6 and Ford’s new small V8 “has probably sounded the gong for further use of aluminum in cylinder blocks“. Sure enough; the Buick aluminum V8  would be gone after 1963, and both Chrysler and AMC’s aluminum block sixes would also have a short lifespan.