As time marches on, new catch phrases seem to pop up every day. Back in the '60s, nobody had ever heard of the Lemon Law. It was just plain inconceivable that a car dealership would allow a customer to return his (or her) vehicle because it kept breaking down. These days, the Lemon Law seems to be in the news on a regular basis. Combined with countless volumes of other legislation, it's designed to protect the consumer when a manufacturer sells them an inferior product.
Granted, anything with mechanical parts is subject to failure of one type (or a dozen). Over the years, Detroit has been known for automotive innovation, and leadership in design and engineering. However, there have been times when the terms innovation and reliability could not be mentioned in the same sentence. Countless creative ideas have been developed, manufactured, and sold to the public, where the end result was wrought with shortcomings. Take Ford's retractable hardtop of the late '50s, for example. This was a great idea that offered the best of both worlds. Its high-tech retractable roof system featured something like seven motors, related sensors, and assorted relays to do the job. However, if one item failed, the roof would stall, and remain in mid travel, unable to fully open (or close).
And what about the Edsel? Well, that one never caught on. Likewise for the AMC Pacer. These projects fall into the "nothing ventured, nothing gained" category. Or in other words, if you strive for success, you have to stick your neck out once in a while. Another innovative idea that failed was the Bricklin. Marketed as the world's first safety vehicle, Malcom Bricklin's creation was full of glitches, and never really did catch on. Likewise for the Yugo. This three-cylinder "cracker box" was a mechanical nightmare.
Background aside, it's time to look at a few troublesome engines from days gone by. They've been mass produced in numerous configurations, the most popular of which feature four, six, or eight cylinders, operating on gasoline or diesel fuel. Along the way, different castings and materials have been tried, as have unusual firing orders, various induction systems, and more. Here, we'll take a lighthearted look (in no particular order) at some of the more noteworthy powerplants that never operated as well as their designers had intended them to. Hopefully, none of you ever owned any of these, nor experienced the bad karma associated with them.
In 1981, engineers at Cadillac made an attempt at producing better gas mileage for its line of heavy luxo-liners. Dubbed the V8-6-4 (or, Displacement On Demand), the engine changed cylinder modes, eliminating two cylinders at a time as power demands decreased. The idea was right on the money, but the available technology to implement it was not. Measuring 368 cubic inches, oil pressure to specially-designed hydraulic lifters was shut off by solenoids, which caused the lifter to collapse, and effectively prevented the cam lobe from opening the related valve. The biggest rap with the V8-6-4 was a distinct hesitation when cylinders were deactivated, which commonly became known as a "driveability" problem. The same engine resurfaced in 1982, without its cylinder deactivation feature, and as a result, was generally considered to be a good engine.
MOPAR 2.2L I-4
Launched with the successful K-Car line, the Mopar 2.2 soon became known as a rod-knocker. With multiple failures rolling in, Mother Mopar did the unthinkable and added a turbo to it. This may have been okay if it had remained under the hood of only the specialized Shelby GLHS and Dodge Daytona (quite swoopy FWD cars at the time), but Mopar chose to share the love across the entire product line--from the full-size Chryslers (also FWD) to the insanely-popular minivans. Literally, millions of Turbo 2.2 engines were produced, and while many survived, a good percentage caused headaches for owners and service techs alike. Interestingly, when rebuilt for high performance, the 2.2 has proven to be a solid foundation. However, in stock shape, their ill reputation remained.
OLDSMOBILE 350 DIESEL
The GM Corporate partners shared the grief associated with its diesel debacle of the early '80s. More often considered an Oldsmobile motor, this converted gasoline engine was used throughout the GM family, and even found its way into top-of-the-line Cadillacs, with disastrous results. Failures were commonplace, often including internal engine components. At the time, mechanics and service writers referred to warrantee repair orders as "A.F.A." - or Automatic Factory Acceptance, and each respective franchise had mountains of repair orders related to the 350 cid diesel.
CHEVY 2.2L I-4
Recently replaced by the all-new Ecotec 2.2, this pre-Ecotec inliner was a disaster. Lacking in power, unreliable, and hungry for head gaskets, the anemic four was offered in many GM front-drivers (like the Beretta and Cavalier), and the popular line of Chevy S-10/GMC S-15 pickups. Press reviews at the time recommended against backing these engines with automatic transmissions, especially in the pickups. With pathetic power and unreliable durability, what could be worse? A series of steel freeze plugs were also known to corrode, providing a messy time bomb that could go off at almost any mileage reading past 50,000. It's no wonder GM used absolutely no engineering or design from this engine when developing the Ecotec. We think GM should offer Ecotec upgrades to all owners of these pathetic mills, but alas, the designs have so much variance between them, swaps are no easy task. Too bad.
THE FIRST FORD V-8
According to historical reports, Henry Ford's first V-8 was introduced in March of 1932. With a displacement of 221ci and a whopping 65 horsepower, it promised to move America more rapidly. However, its technology demonstrated several design flaws. An 84-year-old automotive historian from Connecticut told us, "Metallurgy was in its infancy, and as a result, piston rings were not yet made of a properly hardened steel, which caused this engine to burn oil. The cooling system also had design problems, and the back cylinders always ran hotter than the rest. The intake manifold resulted in a bad air/fuel mixture from the one-barrel carburetor. One bank ran too rich--the other too lean. This engine only delivered about 10 miles per gallon of gas, along with a miserable 100 miles per quart of oil. Inadequate water jacketing (and cooling), a stupid ignition system, and leaking water pumps all caused problems."
FORD 2.8L V-6
Offered in the downsized Mustang and Capri, as well as Ranger pickups, the Ford 2.8 remains a rickety memory. With a double-barrel reputation based on its noisy solid-lifter valvetrain and cracked cylinder heads, the 2.8 should be commended only for offering World Products the ability to profit from its shortcomings. When World chose to build all-new Ford V-6 heads as replacements for the factory parts, we doubt even they could have predicted it would become their most-popular seller. In a product line armed with some of the best aftermarket performance cylinder heads ever cast, the lowly Ford 2.8 V-6 replacement outsold 'em all. That should tell you how bad the factory design was.
VEGA 140 OVERHEAD CAM
This one was in production from 1970 to 1977. At the time, John Delorean was on Chevy's executive team, and had reportedly commented that the design of this engine resembled a pre-war tractor motor. Though some are not aware, this little "four-lunger" featured silicone-impregnated aluminum cylinders - not cast-iron sleeves, like most aluminum blocks. Early in production, Chevy re-called some 132,000 vehicles to correct the possibility of a carburetor fire. Other design characteristics were displayed as the blocks were subject to distortion, due to overheating, and the cylinders were prone to wear, causing an unusually high oil consumption.
Once again, we called on our 84-year-old automotive historian from Connecticut, whose tack-sharp memory immediately recanted snippets from days gone by. Beginning in 1940, the Lincoln V-12 was developed under orders from Henry Ford. Its basic design elements were borrowed from Ford's existing V-8, though the V-12 was engineered with a 75-degree angle. Surprisingly, it produced an approximate 110 to 120 horsepower, despite being abundant in cylinders. Like many early powerplants, overheating problems ensued, causing warped cylinders and excessive oil consumption. Likewise, early versions suffered from poor crankcase ventilation, resulting in dreaded sludge buildup. Later, engineering changes offered a much improved crankcase ventilation system, and also featured hydraulic lifters for quieter and more reliable operation.
Cadillac strikes again. This time, it was an attempt at developing a lighter-weight, 4.1 liter engine called the HT4100. This engineering marvel featured an aluminum block, and for reasons unknown, cast iron cylinder heads. Displacing a paltry 249 cubic inches, it produced a meager 135 horsepower at 4,400 rpm. Many of its woes were related to failed head gaskets, which allowed coolant into the crankcase. Naturally, that chain of events resulted in GM supplying tons of crankshafts, camshafts, and related hardware under the AFA program. Even when they ran, the HT4100 was grossly underpowered. As a result, Cadillac suffered in sales and stature, conditions that took several years to overcome.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
No, this didn't start out as one of the 10 Worst Engines, it just ended up as someone's 10 Worst Bankbook Bombs. This alloy block from Keith Black Racing Engines clearly demonstrates how a Top Fuel car can take a wealthy man and turn him into an average human being in less than five seconds. Shown here is what's left over when a driver says, "We kicked the rods out of it." That "chainsaw effect" in the number-one cylinder was caused by the broken rod, which most likely failed towards the small end (up near the pin), allowing the remaining length of connecting rod to rotate with the crankshaft. Not good.
ONLY THEIR DESIGNERS COULD LOVE THEM--By Ray T. Bohacz
Every auto maker regardless of country of origin has at least a few engines that they would like the public to forget about. Often the core design was not faulty but either components, brand-new technology, or inexperienced service personnel were responsible for a powertrain's problematic existence. From my years in the industry as a training instructor, consultant and performance shop owner, here are my picks for the engines that lost something on their way from design and testing to the showroom floor.
Based upon the 350 cubic-inch Olds gas engine, the diesel debuted for the 1978 model year to much fanfare. The promise of the future, it allowed big car comfort with small car fuel economy. Contrary to popular belief, the engine was completely different than its gasoline brethren, but it did look the same since it needed to go down the same assembly line and fit into vehicles that could be either gas or compression-ignition powered. The block was much sturdier and the crankshaft mains and crankpins were 0.500-inch bigger, measuring 3.00 inches instead of 2.5 inches. The crankcase was heavier and the pistons were fitted with full-floating pins. The block was so good that during that era many drag racers used it to make big power and it was known to stay together.
Then what happened to the Olds Diesel to give it such a poor reputation and the impetus for a class-action law suit? The engine suffered from poor familiarity by the consumer and Olds service personnel along with the lack of a water/fuel seperator and drain in the fuel system. This was compounded by a flood of very poor-quality diesel fuel into the market place shortly after the engine's introduction. Any moisture or dirt that would get into the high-pressure Roosa Master injection pump would cause some of the parts to hang up. This could have occurred for only a second, but that was enough time of an incorrect fuel inject cycle that would allow cylinder pressure to peak and overcome head bolt tension or break down the head gasket. The driver may have only sensed a slight shudder but the damage was already done. The injured head gasket would then let coolant seep into the cylinder and since there is little quench volume in a diesel, the uncompressability of a liquid was a theory very quickly reinforced. Something had to give and it often was a piston, connecting rod or crankshaft but it spelled disaster either way. In addition, both the dealer body and the consumer often used the incorrect oil for the engine, creating further service issues.
The Olds Diesel, when cared for properly, ran for hundreds of thousands of miles, but only in the hands of an experienced diesel operator. Other than that, it makes a great gasoline race engine block.
Early Carbureted Buick V-6 Turbo
Trying to capitalize on the industry's switch to smaller engines and vehicles while the public lusted after power, Buick bet its future on the 231 cubic-inch V-6 turbo. Three years into unleaded fuel, a water-like 87 octane was the only thing at the pumps. You do not need a PhD in engineering to realize that a draw-through carburetor and a turbo with no intercooler was not the best thinking for the fuel and engine management technology of the day. The little Buick was even offered in two- and four-barrel turbo versions. The saving grace was supposed to be a "black box" that was a slow, analog timing/boost controller that resided on the top of the radiator fan shroud. Plagued with severe detonation, burned pistons, and enough turbo lag to create a five o'clock shadow, this Buick did little in the way of PR to have the public embrace the new engine technology. In addition, a poor intake manifold design not only added to the detonation but caused idle instability and erased Buick's reputation for silky smooth operation. Thankfully, the engine featured an even-fire crankshaft that eliminated the shaking of the earlier V-6. For 1984, port fuel injection along with a proper ignition and engine control system was fitted. 1986 brought further changes to the induction/management system with the repositioning of the turbo and the introduction of an intercooler. It is hard to believe that the now legendary Buick Grand National V-6 Turbo had such humble beginnings.
Chrysler 2.2 liter
Designed by the last remaining member of the original Slant Six engineering team, the 2.2 had a familiar 30 degree off-set that showed its DNA from the world renown six-cylinder. Chrysler wanted to transfer the Slant-Six's excellent reputation to the new-for-1981 K-Car. Though a mechanically sound design, the 2.2, which was eventually fitted with throttle body injection and in some models a turbo with port EFI, suffered from day one with a poor carburetor and distributor. The progressive two-barrel feedback-Holley carburetor was responsible for stalling, surging, rough running and general poor driveability that no one--even the best mechanic--could ever seem to cure. In addition, the distributor was plagued from extreme cost-cutting steps and the shaft-support bushing would wear to such an extent that the rotor would hit the distributor cap and break off, leaving the motorist stranded. Excessive cylinder-to-cylinder timing variations came standard with every 2.2 Chrysler in the early days.
The American public was not ready for technology such as an aluminum cylinder head, OHC design and a rubber timing belt. The American "drive it and forget about it maintenance" theory did not bode well with the 2.2. In addition, the anti-freeze engine coolant of the day did not have the proper additives for use in a mixed material cooling system, so head gasket breakdown and cracked cylinder head castings were common after a few years of use as were cam bearing failures. The non-crossflow cylinder head design made the engine easy to package in almost every Chrysler body style but deemed the powerplant dated before it even had a chance to stall for the first time.
Cadillac HT 4100
Standing for High Technology, the 249 cubic-inch V-8 was anything but. Through some bizarre thinking, the engine was an aluminum block with cast-iron cylinder heads. Developing less horsepower than some four-cylinder engines of the day, the Caddy was always working hard pushing around the behemoths that it resided in.
The cylinder heads were fitted with very small oil drainbacks that were no larger than a pencil. This spelled disaster when teamed with excessively loose valve-stem-to-guide clearance. It was common for an HT 4100 to fill the valve covers with oil after the drain backs plugged. Then the oil would get sucked past the valve guides, creating not only excessive oil consumption, but carbon in the guide. This resulted in sticking valves. Another problem were soft camshaft cores that would wear to such an extent that the valves would hardly open. Amazingly, the engine would sit and idle at 400 rpm in drive as smooth as silk with the only driver complaint being a lack of power. After disassembly and inspection of the camshaft, one would never believe that an engine could idle so nicely with round lobes!
The HT 4100, which was Caddy's replacement for the one-year-only V-8-6-4, did more to shift the luxury car market to the foreign brands than all of the advertising men on Madison Avenue could. Cadillac did eventually redeem itself with the Northstar, but it lost its reputation as "The Standard of The World" along the way
Ford 2300 HSC
Designed for the lack-luster FWD Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz, the acronym HSC stood for high-swirl combustion. Billed as creating a high-level of in-cylinder mixture motion to improve fuel economy and octane tolerance, the design never worked as promised. Even with all of the charge motion, the engine was prone to detonation. In retrospect, the pushrod HSC was better suited for a farm tractor than a compact car. It was offered first with a carburetor and then evolved into throttle body and port EFI. The HSC engine never made any headlines good or bad. Not so much problematic as it was mediocre, it did suffer from cylinder head cracking and head gasket failure. The 2300 HSC was actually a reliable engine that was just boring and lacked personality. Its minimalist performance and high level of NVH forced it from the market place along with the similar performing Tempo/Topaz.
Chevrolet Vega 2300
Another case of too much too soon, the all-aluminum little Chevy was just too different for the public. In the late 1950s, GM Research Laboratories conceived an idea that a high-silicon aluminum alloy could form a hard wear surface for a cylinder bore. Working in conjunction with the Reynolds Metals Company, the material was classified as 390 die-castable hypereutectic aluminum alloy. It promised to allow the construction of an aluminum engine block without steel cylinder liners or impregnated coatings or material to prevent wear. The Vega program code-named XP-887 was announced to the public in October 1968. It was billed as a new engine for a new type of vehicle. GM research data concluded that the engine should be of an OHC design and use a carburetor similar to other Chevrolet products.
Filled with promise when put into the hands of the public, the engine suffered many issues. Overheating and the resulting warpage of the aluminum castings were common along with extreme cylinder-bore wear. Also, rubber timing belt technology was not up to standards and premature belt failure along with bent valves were common. The head gasket did not get along with the then-current anti-freeze formulations that were for cast iron engines and became a service item much like spark plugs.
The little Chevy engine never matched the reliability of the competing Ford Pinto and was replaced by a version of the 1962 Pontiac four-cylinder renamed the "Iron Duke." For 1976, the car featured a 60,000-mile warranty to try and erase the stigma of poor quality attached to the Vega.
It appeared that the Chevy designers had reservations about the 2300 since they unofficially made the engine compartment accept a traditional small-block V-8 with little fuss, making it a great enthusiast car.