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The Cars That Killed GM The Oldsmobile Diesel Autosavant Autosavant

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The Cars That Killed GM: The Diesel

Home Features The That Killed GM: The Oldsmobile

As far as I know, Rudolf Diesel and Milhous Nixon had little in other than being guys.  But had Herr Diesel an enemies list like at least one from beyond the I m certain that GM would been at the top of the list.  No single did more to sully the good of the diesel engine in North than the Oldsmobile Diesel.  Nor did any engine do more to kill GM.

  The division one of the few nameplates ever to more than a million in a year in the USA may even be among the had it not been for the diesel that its name.

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

But to the early 70 s.  GM based its vast empire on the sales of large at relatively premium prices.  GM dabbled in compacts and even but the real money was in Impalas, 88s, LeSabres and Caddys.

  And were good, solid with chic styling, acceleration and loads of profit-laden Most importantly to the bean-counters in the GM they made piles of

Then came the OPEC oil of 1973.  Gas prices soared and of full-size cars plummeted.  shunned large cars never before and GM worried, good cause, that prices and shifting consumer would slay the golden

  And Americans at the time, like today, were not willing to pay a for a small car.

People at GM that they needed to people buying their cars.  At the same time, cars use much gasoline and were looking for fuel The solution was clear: put diesel in the large cars.  That the public could keep its love affair with cars without paying in at the pump.

  This strategy admirably preserve the corporate line.  Good idea.

better idea: make optional at significant additional The plan was diabolically perfect-sort of we d now expect from Exxon or There was, of course, the step of downsizing the land to more reasonable levels of job both well-conceived and well-executed the 1977 model year.

  Exit: Diesel Town.

GM on a 350 cid V8 for its foray into oil-burner It also decided that it be an Oldsmobile engine.  I m not exactly why Olds was given the project, but GM let Olds introduce new technologies, as it did the Hydramatic transmission and front-wheel .  Contrary to popular myth, the engine was not simply converted Oldsmobile s Rocket 350.

  It was a new with the same bore and but it did use many parts from its sibling.

One of problems was that it too many similar parts-more on later.  But initially, when the were thrust before the for the 1978 model year, it like pure genius.  comfort and luxury with car gas mileage.  Your gargantuan 98, the one with the red leather seats and everything, now gets almost 30 MPG on the

  And when the Iranian Revolution a second oil shock in early was downright prescient.  Along the introduction of the X-cars, GM was miles of the competition and appeared- appeared -to be by a psychic cabal of super

To put it in perspective, in 1978, Olds a hair over one million Of that number, 33,841 diesels.  And you had to pay $850 to get one in your 88 or in a 98.   The base V8 four-door 88 cost $5,659, so this a 15% premium.  By 1980, the diesel was more popular, and available in the Cutlass and the Toronado.

  And Olds 126,885 diesel-powered cars model year-out of a total of and every one sold at a considerable And it soon became available wide-even in Cadillacs.

Performance much- namely, everything- to be For instance, the 1979 Cadillac diesel wheezed to 60 MPH in 16.9 and the quarter mile mark in a leisurely 20.7 seconds.  the horsepower dropped to 105 with the model year, it only the decline (pun intended,

  The 1981 Seville Diesel-Cadillac s prestige vehicle-limped to 60 MPH in an embarrassing seconds.

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

I am too to remember the particulars of the Olds No one in my family owned one.  But I a sense of optimism surrounding I remember my grandparents saying Diesel this, and Olds that.

  They were GM working in Lansing, which was an town.  The paychecks, until or so, still said Oldsmobile on We built the Cutlass, America s popular car.  GM even a new plant in 1979 or 1980-Plant the outskirts of town to make the V6.  The nation was mired in but here was a new plant in Lansing.

  It was new and exciting.  And it would, once show the world what GM s of Excellence meant.

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

And so it was.


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

 Remember

In addition, diesels rely on a dollop of diesel fuel to be at precisely the correct moment.  And the delivery system has to be precisely in order to do this.  Many of the of this complex system are of steel.  Needless to say, has a tendency to rust when to water.  In addition, water in the chamber is bad-real bad-for

  It leads to stuff like the connecting rod pictured here.  For reason, an indispensable part of the engines is a water separator in the system.  GM, however, dispensed the indispensable.

  Remember this too.

the diesel presented Mr. Goodwrenches at of GM s thousands of dealerships with they d never before And neither GM nor dealerships apparently up for diesel training.

  So they and repaired the Olds Diesel they would a gas engine. 

These flaws, like s rage or Oedipus quest for inevitably led to a tragic conclusion.  The bolts and studs could not with the pressure of the diesel s This led to head gasket This, in turn, allowed into the combustion chamber.

  there, it joined water the fuel system.  Water t compress-witness the wonders of hydraulics.  the water, plus the weak bolts, plus the failed meant the dreaded hyrdralock, treated your engine s bodily internals like treated Atlanta.

  Not good.

So, off the goes to Mr. Goodwrench.  Who repairs it like he would a gas engine.  And the head studs and bolts, like on a gas engine.

  Thus, the cause of the problem continued Adding to the carnage, the head and studs were already by the initial failure.  So they fail again.

  Only and forever.

That $800 or so you down, or more likely at 18% interest at the time you know, cash that seemed a good investment after the s ignominious exit-remember that?  investment just laid an A very brown, malodorous

So your newly rebuilt only a year or two old, is a of scrap iron.  Whatever you saved in fuel economy you lost in wrecker bills, car fees and lost work If nothing else, GM paid for the and replacement.

  In fact, problems were so that GM dealers had a code for diesel warranty repairs-they AFA: Automatic Factory But GM couldn t help with resale value, which was deeper and deeper into the like the super-heated core of a reactor.

But there s more.  The in the fuel system corroded the internal parts, which the system, leading to exceedingly performance.  And when the Old Diesel at a walloping 125 HP***-in a nearly pound car no less-you can t afford other than peak

  But the internal parts merrily away, and the precision delivery of fell further and further out of with the needs of the engine.

more!  People with in the fuel line have, time immemorial, used dry which is basically a water-absorbing So they used the same in their Olds Diesels.

  But the destroyed a fuel injector ring.  This further the engine s timing.

But it s not finished The leaking head gaskets led to loss of lubrication over surfaces, with predictably outcomes.

Now comes the cherry on the Olds Diesel was unrefined, a cacophony of clatter and rattle in its It emitted a foul, tractor-trailer-like So, when you weren t renting a car Mr.

Goodwrench further maimed engine, you got to drive a loud, and laboriously slow car.  of Excellence?  Not so much.

There probably even more with the engines, but you get the point.  most of them were performance being a notable demand declined and the engines after 1985.  But like GM disasters-Vega, X-cars, Fiero-it was too The damage was done.

  Reputation is hard to overcome.  Let s it, you re not probably going to visit the who mistakenly removed your mom s leg, no matter how much he you he s improved.  Hell, it tanked sales for a generation.

The Olds not only tarnished GM s reputation for big cars-a market they it also dealt another blow to its reputation for engineering and prowess.  Buyers simply not trust that GM s cars well-engineered or well-built.  Another that left millions to every buy another GM car.

  legacy burden GM must if it is to succeed.

*Sales numbers Standard Catalog of Oldsmobile . Chevedden and Kowalke.

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

versions were downgraded to a 105 HP, offering embarrassing levels of that could easily be by a geriatric mall walker from hip replacement.

Post-Script: any car, the Olds Diesel has its .  I like old cars too, and I m I could have a hoot Lansing s finest oil burner.  doesn t mean it was a reliable plant at the time, which is what counts.  Just ask Leyland about the next Allegro.

Author: J.S.

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