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Worst Car Wednesday: The Oldsmobile Diesel Disaster

“I can do it fast, good, or cheap; pick two.” That‘s known as the “iron triangle” in the project management world. General Motors had been in business for more than enough years to understand that mantra all too well. And yet, when it came to delving into diesel engine development, it all went out the window. The late-1970s and 1980s Oldsmobile diesel debacle fell squarely into the cheap and fast category. And as sure as the iron triangle doesn’t lie, Oldsmobile ended up with one of the worst engines ever. 

Things were moving fast at the General in the late-1970s and 1980s

Things were moving fast at the General in the late-1970s and 1980s. Foreign auto manufacturers were bombarding the US with better vehicles. The result was GM losing market share as it had never seen. Suddenly, everything was explored and a solution found. That included Mercedes Benz’s success with diesel-powered sedans. GM needed to blunt that success, and it was deemed Oldsmobile would lead the charge.

On a tiny budget and with a very short timeline the Olds engineers were to create the first GM diesel for passenger cars. To cut time and costs it was mandated the block would be based on the same bore and stroke as the Olds 350 ci gas engine. This meant tooling for the 350 could work for the diesel. Time and money saved!

One of the main differences between gas engines and diesel is the higher cylinder pressures diesel need to ignite the diesel fuel. That means the diesel block needs to be robust and the cylinder heads supported in such a way that they won’t move around. But, again, in an effort to save time and tooling costs the bean counters insisted on the same 10 head-bolt pattern and bolts as those for the 350 gas engine. 

Another idiotic diesel mandate included no water separator

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As diesel compression ratios are three-times those of gas engines imminent disaster was only “when” not “if.” Another idiotic mandate included no water separator, despite water found in much of diesel fuel of the time. 

The goodness of diesel is mileage and range. Proclamations of 30+ highway mpg with 700 miles between fill-ups exploded onto Olds diesel advertising. In 1978 Olds Delta 88 with the LF9 diesel engine the merits were commendable. And, were it not for what was to follow these were great advantages to diesel driving. 

When it came to testing the bench time was cut extremely short. One of the discoveries during the short testing time was that the block needed to be supported so as not to explode in the first few thousand miles. Bean counters were cheap, but they knew how costly warranty work was for the General.

Diesel engines were going into big Oldsmobile sedans close to 5,000 lbs

What the engineers wrought was a 120hp 220 lb-ft of torque Whizzer motor. These were going into big Oldsmobile sedans close to 5,000 lbs. Taxed beyond their capabilities these engines were always on full throttle just to get the heap out of its own way. 

Immediately unwitting customers found head gaskets blew, leading to water in the engine oil and quick disintegration of the engine. Those caught in time were just another blown head gasket away for destruction as replaced head bolts were the same inferior bolts as used before. With no water separators, fuel pumps failed on a regular basis. One “fix” was dumping alcohol into the gas tank. It fixed the water problem but soon seals in the fuel system were cooked. 

Then there was the transmission. Having nothing to do with the mounting engine failures it was sourced from GM’s compact car program. A three-speed automatic, it couldn’t handle the weight and demands put to it from the underpowered diesel dynamics. All of these failures and inconveniences could almost have been tolerated except for one thing. 

The smell, noise, and smoke dump were especially prevalent with the Olds diesel

If you’ve ever been behind an old diesel bus at an intersection, the smell, noise, and smoke dump were especially prevalent with the Olds diesel. The combination of poor performance, failures, and diesel characteristics, it was a diesel disaster.

At its peak, GM’s LF9 diesel could be found in almost 30 different models. These spanned virtually every car division within GM. For a time it was the only engine you could order for a Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. The most expensive, top-of-the-line GM car was stuck with this turd until after 1985. 

The aftermath still haunts GM’s image as the schlock-maker 40 years later

Though GM finally had some success with a V6 diesel years later it cast a pall over all diesel engines for decades. And the aftermath still haunts GM’s image as the schlock-maker 40 years later. Oh, for sure there were other examples to hang around GM’s neck, but this was right up there with Cadillac’s 4-6-8 engine and too much space won’t allow. 

But GM wasn’t alone in its Diesel folly. Worst Car Wednesday has already featured Lincoln’s equally disastrous foray into diesel darkness. For many different reasons it too failed miserably, in spite of using an established BMW diesel engine. Detroit can go down rabbit holes beyond normal rationality. It’s what makes for so many Worst Car Wednesdays.