How Oldsmobile killed Detroit's diesel dreams


Long before Volkswagen's Dieselgate made headlines and broke hypermiling hearts, and eons before fanboys were burning french fry oil or rolling coal across the Midwest, oil-burning engines were reviled by the vast majority of drivers in the United States. Perceived as dirty, noisy, and rough-running, diesels had been almost entirely relegated to an industrial role where they powered backhoes and dump trucks, not the shiny new sedans and coupes found in your nearest new car showroom.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2019/01/16/oldsmobile-killed-detroits-diesel-dream


Those were the Roger Smith years, when cost accounting ran everything. My dad worked for Hydra-Magic at that time and had numerous horror stories about cost cutting. Even the advent of the new front wheel x bodies, the future of the company was impacted by this approach. It was similar to what Ford experienced under McNamara and Lundy. The intent to squeeze cost out of product became so dominant, quality suffered. Worse, entire corporate systems were altered to affect that outcome. I guess we know how that turned out. The incredibly diverse power train, performance and even styling options of earlier times became so homogenized and lost that GM didn’t need and couldn’t support five car divisions.


Don’t forget about UAW and the disasters a Union could create for any Corporation. You will enjoy this book.



My dad bought a ‘78 88; i was 16 and decided one day to see how fast it would go, got it up to 80 and something went. Got it home, told my dad ‘something happened’ leaving out the speed part, thinking it was my fault. Had thrown two rods and snapped a camshaft. Olds bought it back and I felt guilty for about twenty years until I got the whole story on these pieces of crap.v


We had a Delta 88 sedan, I remember my dad standing in the kitchen talking on the corded phone to the GM Zone manager. My dad is the calmest human you’ll ever meet, and he was ticked. I don’t recall the details but GM ponied up for half of whatever the remedy was, it may have been a new head gasket or heads.


Barrett-Jackson auctioned one off on Monday, An original owner 78 Delta 88 Royale sold for $2,200
Guess nobody else appreciates this monster either.


It was kind of an interesting motor, although it had some flaws. We drove one for years, usually getting between 25 and 28 mpg, even while towing our boat. Back then diesel was also cheaper than gas.

The later ones might possibly have been the first motors out of Detroit to use hydraulic roller lifters.

As a side note, conversion to gas was not too difficult. And a big block crank could be used to make a 454 cube motor.

The bean counter mentality started earlier. Remember when each division had their own 350 that didn’t share parts?


A 1978 Delta 88 was my dad’s car when I was in high school. I think we put 3 engines in that thing (all diesels). Dad just wouldn’t give up. One of the engines didn’t have a block warmer. He refused to use starting fluid and when we went on a trip in cold weather, he’d have to get up every two hours and start it or it simply would not start. I disagree that they weren’t good cars when they WERE running. They got great mileage and a comfortable ride. It had adequate power, too (nothing was that strong in those years). That thing had an amazingly tight turning radius too…you could push the tires sideways with how far the wheels would turn. Car was in beautiful shape when it went to the junkyard on a hook.


Handled a few claims on these back in the day. Never saw one have a problem with the heads; the weak point was the block. If memory serves, the block had only 3 main bearings, and it was common for the webs supporting the upper bearings to crack. All the way through. Unrepairable. Once GM switched to a 5 main bearing design the engine was much more durable. And things got a lot better after GM remembered that they owned Detroit Diesel.

Another big reason americans got turned off by diesels was the Peugeot diesel; a good car with a famously bad engine. Some wrecking yards wouldn’t even accept a wrecked Peugeot if it had a diesel engine. More than anything, the diesel spelled the end of Peugeot in America.


I bought a Cadillac Coupe de Ville with the Diesel engine in 82. Had problems with the engine right away. Accelerating into highway traffic was a white knuckle experience due to the lack of power. About six months in, the power got even worse and the engine started smoking worse than usual. That lead to a new “Roosa Master” injection pump…the first of three over the next few years. After the last pump, I contacted the BBB and wound up getting GM to put in what they called a “Target” engine. It had the roller cam and several other upgrades. That engine worked well until I sold the car.9
The next adventure was with the pathetic TM200 transmission that was matched to the engine. I had it rebuilt by AAMCO after about one year. I got the “lifetime warranty” but got sick of spending so much time in the shop due to many failures. I finally bought a THM400 from a junk yard and installed it in the car. Kept it for four more years with no other problems. Too bad GM never figured it out.


I remember vacationing in Northern California back then. An uncle of mine who lived in the Bay Area let me use his diesel 80something Grand Prix. It was a comfortable, nice looking car to sit in. Driving it was terrible. I heard years later that the 350 blocks sought after by drag racers who’d put gas heads and manifolds on them. The blocks were thicker cast, very stout, and could be bored and stroked beyond the gas block. So maybe they found a little redemption at the track.


I was an Oldsmobile dealer during this time period and early on we dubbed it the “diesel disaster” so that’s not a new term. I vividly recall sitting in on an Oldsmobile Zone meeting in Charlotte and having the zone manager reluctantly announce that the “failure rate on 1978-1980” Olds Diesel engines would be 100% by 100,000 miles if they made it that far. And remember, this was only one year after Oldsmobile dealers and customers endured the “engine swap” debacle. No wonder they went out of business. Still loving and driving my ‘67 442, ‘64 Jetstar I and ‘49 Futuramic 98 convertible!


Think the early ones before the DX block had the normal small block mains. The DX block is a beast - noticeably heavier.


Had a friend who had a GMC Jimmy with a diesel. At 8000 miles the engine blew - broke the crank. Had it towed to the dealer for a replacement engine, Went back to the dealer to pick the repaired truck up. Dove out of the dealer lot, turned down the street and stopped for a light. While idling, waiting for the light to change, the new crank broke. He left the vehicle sittng right there in traffic.He later called from a pay phone to tell them to pick it up. He used the state “lemon law” to avoid paying for the truck.


Good lord, when I was a kid a neighbor had one of those horror stories. He eventually converted it to a gas V8 and was much happier. A relative had a diesel Cadillac from the same era. The dealer said “if the engine blows we’ll replace it under warranty.” They wound up making good on that promise.

Anyone else remember the days when diesel was cheaper per gallon than gasoline? The part of the story left out is what the auto industry did to the price of diesel once they realized they couldn’t catch up to the Europeans. The boys from Detroit got their pals in congress to raise the taxes on diesel and eliminate the European competition, ending the need to pursue making diesel cars at all.

The trucking industry didn’t care - they passed the cost on to their customers. But that pretty much killed the incentive for the retail buyer to get a diesel car. Since then gas engine technology caught up and closed the economy gap that diesels once enjoyed. But Detroit played dirty pool for a while.


I had a 1979 Olds Toronado with the 350 diesel on a two year lease. I don’t remember experiencing any problems over the two years, except it wasn’t particularly quick off the line. I believe fuel economy was typically in the mid to high 20’s. Later got the wife a 1983 Olds Cutlass Ciera with the smaller V6 diesel. GM by this time had worked out the bugs in their diesels and it was a very good performing motor with plenty of power for the size and weight of the Ciera. Regularly got mileage in the high 20’s and even low 30’s on the open road.


I vividly recall being in the late 70’s GM Project Center meeting where the Finance types nixed the fuel separator device due to its $12.00 cost. Those of us who understood diesel engines knew that that decision meant big business for Roosa Master and/or Stanadyne for replacement injection pumps, but the Finance types didn’t want to hear about it - all they cared about was the $12.00 piece cost savings they could chalk up.


Which Hydra-Matic plant?


Those Oldsmobile diesels were the biggest bags of filth that were ever made. I changed over about 6 Chev Pick Ups to 350 or 455 Rockets back in the 80s. I saw many of them in cars and pick ups, but I never saw one that worked right. Terrible idea. And I’m happy it’s gone.


When I was a mechanic at a Chevy dealer, this diesel pick up 1/2 ton came into the service dept. One poor buyer had it towed back with 82 miles on it. He was really sad. After many trips back for repairs, it was never running right for very long.