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Diesels Gone Bad: Why Americans Don’t Like Diesel Cars



Oldsmobile U.S. Diesel killer

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In Europe, close to 50% of the cars and trucks on the road are diesels. So why not in the US and Canada?

Polls reveal that Americans, in particular, are very suspicious of buying diesel-powered passenger cars and some say a certain ill-fated Oldsmobile diesel engine from almost 40 years ago is to blame. Specifically, back in 1978, Oldsmobile rushed a poorly-made diesel to market that was not only a real disaster, but left an indelible impression on the psyche of most car buyers. Here’s the story:

In order to meet new American emissions regulations in the mid-1970s, executives at General Motor’s Oldsmobile Division decided to install a series of diesel engines in their passenger cars. At the time, diesels were not subject to the same emissions requirements as gasoline engines, helping them meet federal requirements. Seeing several European manufacturers have success with diesel cars in the U.S. made the top brass think the marketplace was “open-minded” to diesels.

After working franticly, GM released their first diesels in 1978 and immediately there were problems. For starters, Oldsmobile powertrain engineers based the design on the GM’s famous gas-powered 350-cubic-inch V8. There is an urban legend that the engineers simply slapped new diesel heads on the standard 350 block and did little else, but that wasn’t the case, with the service techies at telling us that the new block was properly reinforced and was built of a sturdier cast-iron alloy. The trouble came from the cylinder heads and the fuel system, but especially the cylinder heads.

Diesel engines have much higher compression ratios than gasoline engines do, requiring them to have stronger head bolts and more of them to compensate for their higher cylinder pressure. The Oldsmobile diesel, however, maintained the same 10-bolt pattern and head bolts as gasoline engines so that unique production tooling didn’t need to be made.

As you would imagine, the design wasn’t strong enough and the bolts broke at a very high rate. Production of the Oldsmobile diesel lasted from 1978 and 1985, a rather long time for a failure-prone engine to be on the market. A class-action lawsuit against GM ensued and saw owners reimbursed for up to 80 percent of the cost of a replacement engine.

The Oldsmobile diesel debacle was so bad that in addition to pissing off many buyers, it spurred legislators in several U.S. states to draft early lemon laws and, according to experts, tainted the American consumer’s appetite for diesels for almost 3 decades.

Despite the recent Volkswagen diesel debacle, diesels are beginning to reenter the U.S. car market, but in small number and mostly developed by European manufacturers. If you’re an American or Canadian, will you ever consider a diesel car? Let us know in the comments below.

Source: Metro Kia Atlanta

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