The Cars That Killed GM: The Oldsmobile Diesel

As far as I know, Rudolf Diesel and Richard Milhous Nixon had little in common, other than being white guys.  But had Herr Diesel kept an enemies list like Nixon, at least one from beyond the grave, I’m certain that GM would have been at the top of the list.  No single engine did more to sully the good reputation of the diesel engine in North America than the Oldsmobile Diesel.  Nor did any single engine do more to kill GM.  The Olds division – one of the few nameplates ever to sell more than a million cars in a year in the USA – may even be among the living had it not been for the diesel that bears its name.

Like many GM blunders, the fundamental concept was good.  In the early 1970s GM was not only the largest automaker in the world, it was the largest corporation in the world period.  Most shocking to our younger readers, it was also the most profitable.  Yes, kids, GM was once a profit machine-it even made money during the Great Depression.

But back to the early 70′s.  GM based its vast cash-generating empire on the sales of large automobiles at relatively premium prices.  Sure, GM dabbled in compacts and even subcompacts, but the real money was in Impalas, Delta 88s, LeSabres and Caddys.  And they were good, solid cars, with chic styling, zippy acceleration and loads of profit-laden options.  Most importantly to the bean-counters in the GM building, they made piles of cash.

Then came the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.  Gas prices soared and sales of full-size cars plummeted.  People shunned large cars like never before and GM worried, with good cause, that fuel prices and shifting consumer tastes would slay the golden goose.  And Americans at the time, like those today, were not willing to pay a premium for a small car.

People at GM recognized that they needed to keep people buying their large cars.  At the same time, large cars use much gasoline and people were looking for fuel economy.  The solution was clear: put diesel engines in the large cars.  That way, the public could keep alive its love affair with large cars without paying in appendages at the pump.  This strategy would admirably preserve the corporate profit line.  Good idea.

Even better idea: make diesels optional at significant additional cost.  The plan was diabolically perfect-sort of what we’d now expect from Exxon or Microsoft.  There was, of course, the intermediary step of downsizing the land yachts to more reasonable levels of excess-a job both well-conceived and well-executed with the 1977 model year.  Next Exit: Diesel Town.

1979oldscutlasscruiser-dieselGM settled on a 350 cid V8 for its foray into oil-burner territory.  It also decided that it would be an Oldsmobile engine.  I’m not exactly sure why Olds was given the project, but GM often let Olds introduce new technologies, as it did with the Hydramatic transmission and front-wheel drive.  Contrary to popular myth, however, the engine was not simply converted from Oldsmobile’s Rocket 350.  It was a new design, with the same bore and stroke, but it did use many parts from its gas-powered sibling.

One of problems was that it used too many similar parts-more on that later.  But initially, when the cars were thrust before the public for the 1978 model year, it seemed like pure genius.  Full-size comfort and luxury with economy car gas mileage.  Your gargantuan Olds 98, the one with the red leather seats and power everything, now gets almost 30 MPG on the highway.  And when the Iranian Revolution caused a second oil shock in early 1979, was downright prescient.  Along with the introduction of the X-cars, GM was miles ahead of the competition and appeared-appeared-to be managed by a psychic cabal of super geniuses.

To put it in perspective, in 1978, Olds made a hair over one million cars.  Of that number, 33,841 were diesels.  And you had to pay $850 to get one in your 88 or $740 in a 98.   The base V8 four-door 88 only cost $5,659, so this represented a 15% premium.  By 1980, the diesel was even more popular, and available in the best-selling Cutlass and the Toronado.  And Olds made 126,885 diesel-powered cars that model year-out of a total of 910,306-each and every one sold at a considerable premium.*  And it soon became available company wide-even in Cadillacs.

Performance left much- namely, everything- to be desired.  For instance, the 1979 Cadillac Eldo diesel wheezed to 60 MPH in 16.9 seconds and the quarter mile mark passed in a leisurely 20.7 seconds.  When the horsepower dropped to 105 with the 1981 model year, it only accelerated the decline (pun intended, sadly).  The 1981 Seville Diesel-Cadillac’s top-line prestige vehicle-limped to 60 MPH in an embarrassing 21.0 seconds.

Putting this in perspective the 1980 Chevrolet Caprice Wagon with a gas V8 reached 60 MPH in 13.9 seconds and ran the quarter in 20.0 seconds.  Its diesel counterpart needed nearly six more seconds to get up to 60 MPH, getting there in 19.6 seconds and reaching the quarter in 21.7 seconds.**  That’s just plain shameful, even by the anemic standards of malaise era iron.

I am too young to remember the particulars of the Olds Diesel.  No one in my family owned one.  But I recall a sense of optimism surrounding it.  I remember my grandparents saying “Olds Diesel” this, and “Olds Diesel” that.  They were GM people working in Lansing, which was an Olds town.  The paychecks, until 1984 or so, still said Oldsmobile on them.  We built the Cutlass, America’s most popular car.  GM even built a new plant in 1979 or 1980-Plant Five-on the outskirts of town to make the diesel V6.  The nation was mired in recession, but here was a new plant in Lansing.  It was new and exciting.  And it would, once again, show the world what GM’s Mark of Excellence meant.

Sure, performance was bad-real bad-but economy was great and the diesel allowed Americans to keep their land yachts.  And it allowed GM to reap a handsome profit-and we’re talking a Johhny Depp or Brad Pitt Profit, not some measly Tom Hanks or Ewan McGregor money.  It seemed too good to be true.

And so it was.

As previously mentioned, The Olds Diesel used too many parts from the Rocket 350.  As the discriminating autophile knows, Rudolf’s cast-iron kinder achieve ignition via compression rather than spark.  The corollary is that the high compressions needed to achieve combustion create much higher pressure and stress in a diesel than in a similarly situated gas engine.  This means that the head stud pattern and bolt strength needs to be much more heavy duty.  Instead of a heavy-duty stud pattern with extra-strength bolts, GM used the same ones as on the gas 350.  Remember this.

bent_connecting_rod_1In addition, diesels rely on a precise dollop of diesel fuel to be injected at precisely the correct moment.  And the fuel delivery system has to be precisely calibrated in order to do this.  Many of the parts of this complex system are made of steel.  Needless to say, steel has a tendency to rust when exposed to water.  In addition, water in the combustion chamber is bad-real bad-for diesels.  It leads to stuff like the bent connecting rod pictured here.  For that reason, an indispensable part of the diesel engines is a water separator in the fuels system.  GM, however, dispensed with the indispensable.  Remember this too.

Finally, the diesel presented Mr. Goodwrenches at each of GM’s thousands of dealerships with issues they’d never before faced.  And neither GM nor dealerships apparently ponied up for diesel training.  So they serviced and repaired the Olds Diesel like they would a gas engine.  Remember.

These flaws, like Medea’s rage or Oedipus’ quest for truth, inevitably led to a tragic conclusion.  The head bolts and studs could not cope with the pressure of the diesel’s compression.  This led to head gasket failures.  This, in turn, allowed coolant into the combustion chamber.  While there, it joined water from the fuel system.  Water doesn’t compress-witness the wonders of hydraulics.  Thus, the water, plus the weak head bolts, plus the failed gaskets meant the dreaded hyrdralock, which treated your engine’s precious bodily internals like Sherman treated Atlanta.  Not good.

So, off the engine goes to Mr. Goodwrench.  Who repairs it just like he would a gas engine.  And reuses the head studs and bolts, just like on a gas engine.  Thus, the main cause of the problem continued unabated.  Adding to the carnage, the head bolts and studs were already weakened by the initial failure.  So they would fail again.  Only sooner and forever.

That $800 or so you plunked down, or more likely borrowed at 18% interest at the time – you know, that cash that seemed like a good investment after the Shah’s ignominious exit-remember that?  Your “investment” just laid an egg.  A very brown, malodorous one.

So your newly rebuilt engine, only a year or two old, is a pile of scrap iron.  Whatever money you saved in fuel economy you probably lost in wrecker bills, rental car fees and lost work time.  If nothing else, GM paid for the repairs and replacement.  In fact, problems were so legion that GM dealers had a code specifically for diesel warranty repairs-they were AFA: Automatic Factory Acceptance.  But GM couldn’t help with your resale value, which was burrowing deeper and deeper into the earth, like the super-heated core of a nuclear reactor.

But there’s more.  The water in the fuel system corroded the delicate internal parts, which ruined the system, leading to exceedingly poor performance.  And when the Old Diesel peaked at a walloping 125 HP***-in a nearly 4,000 pound car no less-you can’t afford anything other than peak performance.  But the internal parts merrily oxidized away, and the precision delivery of fuel fell further and further out of synch with the needs of the engine.

Still more!  People with water in the fuel line have, since time immemorial, used dry gas, which is basically a water-absorbing alcohol.  So they used the same stuff in their Olds Diesels.  But the alcohol destroyed a fuel injector governor ring.  This further damaged the engine’s timing.

But it’s not finished yet!  The leaking head gaskets also led to loss of lubrication over bearing surfaces, with predictably negative outcomes.

Now comes the cherry on top: the Olds Diesel was unrefined, leaving a cacophony of clatter and rattle in its wake.  It emitted a foul, tractor-trailer-like smell.  So, when you weren’t renting a car while Mr. Goodwrench further maimed your engine, you got to drive a loud, stinky and laboriously slow car.  Mark of Excellence?  Not so much.

There were probably even more problems with the engines, but you get the point.  Eventually, most of them were solved-anemic performance being a notable exception-but demand declined and the engines retired after 1985.  But like other GM disasters-Vega, X-cars, Fiero-it was too late.  The damage was done.  Reputation is hard to overcome.  Let’s face it, you’re not probably going to visit the doctor who mistakenly removed your mom’s right leg, no matter how much he tells you he’s improved.  Hell, it tanked diesel sales for a generation.

The Olds Diesel not only tarnished GM’s reputation for building big cars-a market they dominated-but it also dealt another stunning blow to its reputation for engineering and production prowess.  Buyers simply could not trust that GM’s cars were well-engineered or well-built.  Another disaster that left millions unlikely to every buy another GM car.  Another legacy burden GM must overcome if it is to succeed.

*Sales numbers from Standard Catalog of Oldsmobile 1987-1997, Chevedden and Kowalke.

**All performance numbers found at http://www.exoticcarsite.com/0-60-quarter-mile-times.htm.  And no, your grandmother’s 1982 diesel Caddy does not now qualify as “exotic.”

***Later versions were downgraded to a spine-tingling 105 HP, offering embarrassing levels of “performance” that could easily be exceeded by a geriatric mall walker recovering from hip replacement.

Post-Script: Like any car, the Olds Diesel has its fans.  I like old cars too, and I’m sure I could have a hoot with Lansing’s finest oil burner.  That doesn’t mean it was a reliable power plant at the time, which is ultimately what counts.  Just ask British Leyland about the next generation Allegro.

Author: J.S. Smith

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32 Comments

  1. Too.Many.Things.To.Say.

    Must regroup and decide how much I want to insult GM before I comment. There are just so many choices.

    And, you know, it was a long time ago. Almost everyone involved with this huge, tragic mistake has been gone for a long time.

    Maybe it’s just piling on at this point, sort of like re-hashing your buddy not noticing that he had lipstick on his undershirt before he went home to his wife, who is now his ex-wife. You know, you can explain some lipstick on your shirt, but it’s really tough to explain lipstick underneath your shirt.

    Everything that GM did wrong seems so obvious now, but they thought they had everything planned out. Just ike your friend thought, and he was so wrong.

  2. The desciption you have of the service work is very revealing and explains a lot. I never understood why the rebuilt engines failed at such a high rate.

    I don’t know if they could have sourced a real diesel engine from someone like Cummins back then, but it’s obvious now they should have. I remember the Lincoln had a BMW 524td engine in it for a short time and maybe GM should have gone that way with their diesels.

  3. If any other automaker had made this mistake, it would have killed them. Especially in the depressed market of the early 1980s. For too long, GM’s size insulated it from poor decisions.

    Having said that, I love the shot of the rear of the Delta 88, vestigial tailfin and all.

  4. My father owned a Delta 88 diesel. Numerous failures. I can’t remember them in detail except one. The heater failed on a trip to Florida (from Illinois in winter time) and it was a hazard to drive with no defroster or heat because of visibility problems. The car sounded like a Greyhound bus.
    Didn’t GM have some diesel engineering experience from their truck divisions? Probably the answer was that the cost accountants ran amok and prevented many necessary refinements for reliable operation.

  5. The photo is courtesy of someone’s Flickr account. :)

    One of my dad’s employees back in the 80s had a late 70s/early 80s Delta 88 coupe with a diesel. Eventually, he converted it to a gasoline engine; that conversion was fairly common back in those days.

    This tale is a perfect example of how good ideas turn into bad ones with poor execution.

  6. A friend of mine in high school had a K5 Blazer with the 350 based Diesel in it. (The Blazer used the Olds engine for 2 years before they switched to the 6.2 Detroit Diesel)

    It was as they say, “not good”.

  7. I’ve heard that the 6.2 liter unit was a strong engine. GM learned its lesson–let the experts design the diesels.

  8. It was one of the worst engines ever put into mass production, period. It’s amazingly bad, not just bad.

  9. There were quite a few ‘good’ diesel engines back in those days (some Toyota and Izuzu engines come to mind) but they were, by modern standards, heavy, clunky, rattly, unrefined and asthmatic. Which is why they were quite common in trucks and 4x4s…..but in a car? Even a land yacht like the Olds…even I wouldn’t have put up with that.

    But quite a few did…..I remember the diesel engine that M-B fitted to their 200D for instance…very common in rural and regional Oz.

    But the special memory is the Holden Gemini diesel. The Gemini was a car about the size of the current Toyota Matrix and some genius had it assembled with a four cylinder diesel that wouldn’t have been out of place as a stationary engine in a shearing shed. This huge lump of Izuzu (?) steel sat over the front axle like a boulder and wheezed out bugger all horsepower in a relentlessly diesel kind of way…..it was a sad car, a mad car…..and such a fun car.

    And I still drive a diesel today….fortunately a modern (ish) Euro one…

  10. I guess we should be happy Toyota tackled the first production gas electric hybrid and not GM. But what about the Volt? Hmmm.

  11. This GM diesel debacle is what has soured so many Americans on diesel powerplants to this day. Slow, noisy, and smoky is the perception that lingers with most of the public- which is sad, as in Europe GM (and most other automakers) offer, incredibly efficient, refined diesel motors.

  12. GM must have been makings TONS of money, because this would have put any other company under from the warranty claims alone.

  13. Comment by Kevin Miller on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @ 00:35
    which is sad, as in Europe GM (and most other automakers) offer, incredibly efficient, refined diesel motors.

    GM’s European diesel engines are not GM designed. The 1.3, 1.9 and 2.0 diesels are FIAT designed and made, the 1.7 is a ISUZU diesel, the one in the Antara is by Daewoo (and NOT good), the commercial van diesels are Renault ones…

    The Omega had a BMW 2.5L I6 diesel in it’s last few years.

  14. Seano: There was a similar car in the States–the Chevette Diesel, which cranked out all of 50 or so horses. Accelleration was measured in Baktun Cycles. I;ve seen numbers of around 21 seconds or so. MPG, not surprisingly, was astronomic–41 city, 55 highway (although in older, inflated EPA numbers).

  15. If I’m remembering correctly, the VW Golf diesel of 1984 had a 51 hp rating. And a four-speed manual transmission.

  16. I’d love to see a modern diesel offered in a car like the Malibu, but I think that would be a big step for GM and GM’s customers.

    The dreaded diesel issue for GM.

  17. The hubris and the horror would be a good title for this post.

  18. I have a 1981 olds 98 with the 350 diesel. The engine has been wonderful. One thing that must be done is you have let the engine warm up first before you drive away.
    What happens when you just start it up drive away without letting warm up is the upper part of the combustion chamber heats up too fast and makes the block deck and the cylinder head deck expand faster than the head bolts.
    This squashes the head gasket and stretches the head bolts over time and eventually the head gaskets fail.
    So remember let diesels warm up also dont let them overheat and your diesel will live a long life.

  19. Some rambling thought on the subject from a 65 yr old…

    I’m a retired computer service manager who grew up in the ’60s, setting drag strip records with 442s & GTOs. I’ve owned everything from a ’63 Jetfire & a ’66 turbo Corsa (Corvair) 180 h.p., to a Cadi Allanti, ’90 Reatta, etc. Even owned a Datson diesel & an Audi 4000 diesel (VW engine) & a S10 diesel. One of my favorites was my 1982 Cadi Seville diesel… what a car… 4 wheel independant suspension, 4 wheel disc brakes, all leather & a classic look never mistaken for anything else, and 30 mpg to boot! We still regularly use our ’96 Chevy 4×4 pickup with the turbo 6.5… about to turn 190,000 miles without any engine or tranny repairs. You name it, I’ve probably driven it.

    I started a consignment lot in suburban Minneapolis & got a dealer’s license in 1990. I developed a Canadian contact that I ended up wholesaling about 75 – 80 GM 5.7 ( & a few 4.3s) diesel cars to – Buicks, Olds, Pontiacs, Chevys & Cadillacs… even a few Chev/GMC pickups before they went to the 6.2s. He would replace the head gaskets with the upgraded version, doing the head bolts at the same time, and retail them. He sold them as fast as I could find them.

    I owned and drove at least 10 or 12 of them over those years. Once the head gaskets were upgraded (w/ new bolts too), they ran great. While they were hardly “drag racers”, they were adequite IF their timing was adjusted occasionally. The Cutlasses, Centurys, Malibus & Impalas were actually pretty “peppy”, probably due to their lighter weight. A good running one would actually squeal their tires off the line – no joke!

    Bottom line – GM made numerous mistakes with this product, especially the head/head gasket “problems”. I feel strongly most of GMs problem was the fact they did not have mechanics at their dealerships that had any idea what a diesel was, and really didn’t want to know. The public also didn’t have a clue on how to treat a diesel. Within a year of new, GM diesels had their glow plug circuitry bypassed, half of their glow plugs burnt out, semi plugged fuel filters & injector pumps so far out of timing the car was a smoking mess that couldn’t get out of it’s own way! As someone said, some poor consumer took his beautiful Toronado or Cadi into his GM dealer, got his head gaskets replaced, got hit with a $1000 bill, only to have the damn thing fail 2 months later because the dealer didn’t have a clue about the head bolts! Soon the owner had enough and got rid of a really nice car that no body knew how to service. Too bad, woulda, shoulda, coulda, but GM didn’t initially understand the problems & then couldn’t respond fast enough to save the engine.

    Now we’ll get the “Volt”, a Vega type puddle jumper, instead of a better made GM “Jetta TDI type” commuter that would sell like hot cakes. Build a TDI car without the numerous VW quality problems & then you’ve got something! (Wife’s Jetta TDI gets 43 mpg in town & highway combined). But don’t hold your breath for “Obama-motors” to figure it out – they won’t.

    Now where did I put the keys to the ’65 442?

    Regards -

  20. Incidently, Jeeps initial entry with their German diesel in the early ’80s wasn’t much either, not very fast & not very refined. Lincoln’s diesel was rare, and if you ever drove one, you knew why. The Volvo diesels were bulletproof, but were real dogs – so slow as to be unsafe. The early Mercedes were much the same. Mazda & Toyota flopped too.

    The Isuzu engine in the Chevy S10s & Luvs (& Isuzus) was the only sweatheart of the bunch.

  21. If you look deeper into the corporate hierarchy at GM, you will find the true flaw in the 5.7L diesel and it’s downfall. Oldsmobile Division began development of the diesel engine in 1975. Back in those days, the divisions acted autonomously and even actively competed with each other. Oldsmobile engineers had running mules by ’76, and the prognosis was good; excellent fuel mileage, and adequate performance. However, they had durability issues. Now here comes the problem. GM’s top brass found out about the diesel prototypes, and demanded it be released immediately across all model lines (even Cadillac). Despite the Oldsmobile engineers’ objection due to the project’s incomplete state, the sales department won out over the engineering department, and the engine went into production. Meanwhile, development of the V6 continued. The V8 diesels began spilling their guts out on the highway all over the place, while the V6 reached it’s durability and reliability targets. Note that the V6 diesel did not have the durability issues that the V8 diesels did, due to their being fully developed before being sold. Later versions of the V8 were decent, but the damage had already been done. The diesel V6 suffered at the hands of the V8s reputation also. The V6, based on the 350 V8 design, was extensively modified, especially with 6 headbolts per cylinder versus 4 as on the V8. In fact, the V6 had 14 bolts holding each head down, versus the V8 with only 12 bolts. The proof that the 350 diesel could have been a reliable engine is in the fact that the V6 was, and the later versions were decent, and the Goodwrench ones (with help from Caterpillar) were even better still. A 350 diesel with ARP head bolts, Victor Reinz head gaskets, and a decent water separator will last a very long time. My ride all through high school and college was a 1981 350 diesel powered 98 Regency. It was my grandfather’s car, and it’s original engine blew up at 13,000 miles. The replacement Goodwrench engine had 150,000 miles on it when I got my license at 16, and had 260,000 miles on it when a drunk in a Dodge Ram hit me at a red light at 50 MPH (in a 35 MPH Zone) and caved in the whole back end of the car. I might still be driving it otherwise. The pitiful THM-200C transmission on the other hand was a real disaster. The only way to fix that was to replace it with a THM-350 (which I finally did after it blew up on me my senior year of high school). I loved that car. 30 MPG and it was a comfy highway cruiser and a tank.

  22. I agree GM made major mistakes here. By the first redesign in 81 to the DX block GM knew about the head bolts and did nothing, GM knew about the water in the fuel problem and did nothing and use of alcohol as a fuel dryer and did nothing. Eventually GM did fix the alcohol problem but too late to make any difference. To GM’s credit the 5.7l made as good or better performance as the MB, Toyota, VW, or most manufacturers of the day and with the 4sp auto introduced in 82 the 5.7l’s performance was very acceptable. Also to GM’s credit, they achieved the goal of making a diesel that required no more attention from the driver than fill it with fuel, change the oil and turn the key. Turn kew wasn’t the case with other manufactures in the late 70′s. I owned an 81 Toronado which I purchased used with about 60K miles and drove it to 180K with the only major problem being glow plug system failure. I replaced it with a button. The Toronado gave me 25-26mpg all around commuting 100mi (total)/day for about 6 years. I then purchased an 84 Eldo with the 4sp auto., what a difference in performance. The Toro would downshift into 2nd on the 6-7% grades around Denver (5000+ft above sea level) and make 50mph, the Eldo will downshift into 3rd and make 70+ on the same hills. I still have the Eldo, It’s tired at 340K, but with a water separator I have had no real problems. I plan to rebuild the Eldo and upgrade the head and main bolts to ARP studs. Maybe get another 300K? It’s a shame that GM didn’t take a little action up front with water separators and either larger 9/16″ bolts or higher quality bolts. They could have been leaders in the auto diesel field offering much needed hard industry employment rather than goats of the diesel movement. I sincerely hope for our sakes that they survive and grow so more of us and our offspring may enjoy the excellent earning potential that GM as offered in the past.

  23. I ran across this old thread and found it interesting since I have some personal experience with this subject matter.

    Being a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the era when the Big Three really meant something, when your family’s American car brand loyalty was much like a religion. Mine was a die-hard Chevy family for generations, and my dad got a brand new Belair every few years as a matter of course. I still remember going to the dealer with him to order the new ’65 Belair, those being the days when ordering a new car was much more common than buying one out of stock. I even got to pick out the color (well, at least he let me THINK that I did). Several weeks later came the proud day when he and I went back to the dealer to pick it up. It made quite an impression on me.

    When I became old enough to drive, of course my first car at age 17 was a Chevy (’69 Camaro SS 396). I entered the military at a young age and made relatively good money fairly quickly. I bought my first brand new car at age 18 – a sensible, made-in-America 1979 VW Rabbit. I tried to buy American, but I could afford only a small, basic car, and the American offerings – Chevette, Pinto, Omni/Horizon, and whatever AMC was selling – were all crap. I test drove them all, and sadly, they didn’t compare to the Vee-Dub. Anyway, it worked out well, because very soon after I bought the Vee-Dub came the ’79 gas crisis. It was the perfect car to have at that time, and if I had waited just a couple more months, once the crunch really set in, cars like my VW were going for a premium.

    However,only two years later in 1981, I had advanced significantly up the ladder, making probably double what I made in ’79, and I wanted a new car. Not something sensible and only what I could afford, like the VW, but more what I wanted. Even though I was only 20, I decided I liked the newly updated Caprice (I also still had my Camaro).

    in doing some pre-purchase background work, I called my high school buddy back home who was a Mr. Goodwrench at a large Chevy dealership, and asked him what I should look for and avoid in the Caprice. The first thing out of his mouth was to avoid the diesels like the plague, they had diesel owners forming lynch mobs. I said no danger there, I didn’t want a diesel. He also recommended that i avoid the gas V6 that was standard in the Caprice. He said it and the transmission with which it was paired was really designed for a mid-sized car like the Malibu, and they were having problems with transmission failures in the larger, heavier Caprice. He told me they also got a lot of complaints about it being underpowered in the Caprice (duh) and rough-running. He said if it was him, he’d get the tried-and-true gas engined V-8, and predicted I’d have few if any problems with it.

    Both of those things were good advice. I went to my local Chevy mega dealer and told them I wanted a new Caprice. Their first response was to tell me was there was a waiting list for a diesel (HA!), and that almost everyone who came in about a Caprice wanted a diesel. I said not only did I NOT want a diesel, I didn’t want a crappy V6 either, which eliminated their whole in-stock inventory of Caprices at that moment. Gasoline had recently doubled to around $1.20 a gallon (around $3.50s in today’s money), and big cars weren’t moving off the lot, especially those with V8s, so they tried to not keep many in inventory if possible. Meanwhile, their small to mid-sized cars were going for a premium. On the other side of the house, their used car lot was stuffed full of bloated ’70s iron that had been practically given away on trades for Chevettes, Citations (HA!), and V6 Malibus. Now here this young man stood who wanted to trade in his two year old VW for a gas V8 Caprice. Needless to say, it was a a bit of a buyer’s market for me. They wanted my business.

    In the meantime, I had to wait a week or so until they got in another shipment of Caprices, but out of the 15 or 20 they received (I think Chevy was dumping them on their dealers to get them off of the factory holding lots), were a few V8s, including a beautiful two-tone copper example that had everything I was looking for. A deal was struck, she was prepped, and I proudly drove it home that night. Incidentally, I had to bring it back maybe two days later for them to take care of a couple of add-on promises they had made to me as part of the deal, and my former VW was already on the raised, “trophy” platform in the front row of their used lot, with spotlights shining on it, hovering over the sea of gas-guzzling dinosaurs.

    Btw, that Caprice was a great car, one of my favorites out of the 40-ish vehicles I’ve owned so far. Just as my buddy had promised, I had no mechanical issues with it at all.

    Fast forward to 1985. I had just completed my second tour, separated from the military, and moved back home. I needed a temporary job to tide me over until I could get into what I wanted to do long term, so I took a job in sales at a big Ford dealer. I was in the throes of my metamorphosis away from Chevy and GM in general – sacrilege! – to Ford – double sacrilege!! – and imports such as Audi, which in retrospect was emblematic of GM losing a whole generation of what should have been its “legacy” customers in those days. Anyway, I figured the sales job would put me around cars, which I liked, and teach me something about the business and sales in general for my future edification as a consumer. It was definitely as education, and after a year I moved onto my real civilian career.

    However, 1985 was just when the GM diesel mess was coming to a head. There were class action lawsuits against the company from legions of people stuck with nearly worthless cars they in many cases still owed big money on. Many were very desperate to trade them in even if they weren’t yet having any problems, and many were willing to take a huge loss to get out from under them, but my dealer had a policy that they would NOT take a GM diesel in on trade under any circumstances. They wouldn’t even look at it. The first time I lost a deal because of that policy, the sales manager showed me the NADA book after the dejected customer skulked off the lot. It had the rows of numbers to add up for all of the different options the various GM models could have on them, then was a note in bold letters: IF DIESEL, SUBTRACT $2500. He said people who had those cars just went from dealer to dealer, practically begging someone to take them as a trade on anything, and they (the dealership) was not going to get stuck with unsellable cars.

    So, these people who had probably waited for months on a list to buy their new GM diesel, and who had paid a premium not only for the diesel option, but probably above sticker price in general because of demand, and who then had gone through a service and reliability nightmare for their entire ownership experience, were then finding it impossible to get anyone to take their car off their hands on a trade on anything for any price. I am quite certain that many if not most of those people never bought a GM product again.

    Btw, those early 3.3L and 3.8L 90-degree Chevy gas V6s that my buddy had warned me away from weren’t much better. Those tended to be some rough running cars since the design was inherently unbalanced, and Chevy in their infinite wisdom didn’t add a balance shaft until much later (’92?). We ended up with a few late ’70s/early ’80s GM V6s on the used car side of the house, but especially by the middle ’80s when gas prices had come down quite a bit, we had a hard time giving those rough running cars away. That was another crap GM product of that era that customers couldn’t wait to unload and run away from, and who probably never went back to GM.

  24. I was a teenager when these Olds diesels hit the market. I remember well the noise and smoke they bellowed out, and how they had glow plugs and two batteries. I thought it was sort of cool. I remember seeing the full sized cars pile up behind the service departments at dealerships not long after they were intoduced. You could see the ones with the engines removed, thier front springs sitting up high. There is one major thing about these engines and their concept I NEVER understood. Why did the Oldsmobile division design this mechanically weak engine when at the time GM still had the Detroit Diesel division who were well capable of designing a small diesel that would easily hold up in a car? The fuel/ water separation and head bolt/gasket issues would have never come in to play had Detroit Diesel designed the engine, making it much less vulnerable to catastropic damage from owner ignorance or lack of maintenance. As far as I see it, GM kicked their own butts with this engine by not properly utilizing their corporate resources.

  25. Ford wasn’t any better. Instead of fixing the Pinto, they decided it’d be cheaper to pay off plaintiffs who sued Ford after the gas tanks blew up after the car got rear-ended hard.

  26. And now we’ve come full circle. GM has released the Cruze Diesel, and it’s getting pretty decent reviews. Like VW diesels, it gets better economy than the EPA sticker would suggest (seems that high 40s/low 50s is par for the course, with a careful driver able to climb that into the mid-50s).

    Not only that, but Mazda is getting ready to drop their 2.2 liter turbo diesel into their 6 midsize sedan, and hopefully CX-5 compact SUV. I would consider it a coup if they bring it over in their Mazda 3 hatchback. America could see how far diesel tech has come, and how efficient it can be.

  27. That doesn’t answer the question as to why General Motors’ diesel engine was so disastrous. Was it how it was built? I read that they cut corners, which I think was their biggest fuck up. If you’re going to build a diesel engine and have a car company offer it to the car buying public, you never, ever!, cut corners, for any reason. You never know when your customer’s lives might depend on your car’s ability to get from point A to point B.

  28. I bought and still own a 1978 Olds SW with the diesel engine. It’s been stored in my garage since 1989 and I keep putting off installing a gasoline engine. Maybe someday, or with new high strength engine components, keep the original as is.

  29. You want to see pissed off, you ain’t seen nuthin’ like a mink-befurred society woman whose Olds 98 crapped out on her way from St. Louis to Kansas City in 1983. Poor little rich woman’s 98 had to be towed to the Booneville IH dealership where somebody knew something about diesel engines. So there she is surrounded by manure spreader brochures while perched precariously on the one rusty rickety folding chair set up as the “waiting room” of this dealership, gagging on last week’s Farmer’s Brothers coffee in a reused styrofoam cup with coffee whitener shaken it to kill the putrid taste and trying to politely shoo away the nightwatchdog Doberman with clipped ears who’s uncommonly interested in sniffing her expensively wool-suited crotch. One look at the expression on her face and you realized GM’s gonna pay for this screwup sooner or later, baby. Sooner or later.

    Sure enough….

  30. An odd unexpected benefit of the diesel equipped Olds Cutlass is that hot rodders can yank the oil burner out and stuff a hot mouse or rat motor in AND STILL BE STREET LEGAL BECAUSE THE VIN OF THE CAR IS EMISSIONS EXEMPT!

    Anybody who still has an Olds Cutlass with the diesel engine is sitting on a highly desirable vehicle these days.

    Go figure.

  31. I sold my new $8700 1982 Honda Accord in 1984 for $6900, to save on Car payments. Ended up buying a 1981 Cutlass Wagon with the Diesel, 36K Miles, for $3500 in 1984. The prior owner mentioned Engine corrections and repair done by GM, so all should be OK now. I had to change the Shocks, they were worn out due to heavy Engine, it was an experience hitting any Intersection with some dips in it, the front end would fly up and Down like a real Land Yacht hitting a big wave. K-Mart Shocks were much stiffer, and problem solved. I dreaded climbing hills with it, once the motor got hot, it seems to loose a lot of it’s power. It would recover later after cooling off. The Dual Battery system was another problem, one of them was bad, and we could not jump start it with any normal technique, took a while to figure this out, no one knew how to diagnose even the Start system. I was fortunate to cut my losses and sell it for $1900 in 1986 with 56K Miles, I hoped the next guy was as lucky as I was in getting away with a huge repair bill.

  32. I own a 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Diesel and a year ago 2 head bolts snapped. I replaced them with high tension ARP bolts and now it runs again. When you live in Europe where gas is $8 per gallon you gladly compromize on performance when you get a decent gas mileage. My Mercedes 200D does 0-60 in 31 seconds. So the Oldsmobile Delta 88 is quite an improvement with 21 seconds.

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