The engine that killed General Motors

TTAC‘s Charles Dagastino says the 231 V-6 engine, introduced in some of the General’s most popular 1978 models, was the turning point:

…It quietly appeared on the scene then gained wide spread use in 1978. That year saw a major redux across the A-body line: Oldsmobile Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Regal. These were General Motors’ bread and butter products and they were wildly successful. And it is here that GM makes its final, fatal collision; the corporate Titanic hitting the metaphorical iceberg.
GM sent these cars out of the factory with a multitude of quality glitches of which 231 engine issues were no small part. The oil pump was poorly designed, causing the oil pressure to sink dangerously low. By the time the consumer figured out something untoward was happening, the engine was apt to have blown a bearing or, worse, seized up. Game over. If your 231 engine didn’t throw a bearing, there were transmission “issues.” Cracked springs in the suspension. Rear wheel cylinders that fell off of their backing plates. All of this pushed many in the public towards their GM repair shop, and then, imports. The rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back, GM should have jumped in and cleaned up this multifarious mechanical disaster with honor and swiftness. At the time, they had enough cash to make all their customers whole. It would have been an extremely expensive PR disaster, but pretending there wasn’t a problem sealed their fate with hundreds of thousands of former loyalists.
GM tried to run from the warranty claims. Worse, they continued producing the 231 well into the 1980s. In the years that followed, it was mostly more of the same. GM sent out V8s with soft camshafts, torque steering X-cars and Fieros a quart low on oil. As the quality issues stacked up, GM’s market share deteriorated.
In the 1990s, they had one last chance. Cash rich from the SUV craze, GM could have re-invested the profits into their cars to make them mechanically-bulletproof world-beaters. Sadly, they squandered on brands and products and deals they didn’t need. And so here we sit in 2009, trying to bail them out, trying to figure out how to turnaround a submerged leviathan.

Damian P.

7 thoughts on “The engine that killed General Motors

  1. Durward says:

    I don’t dis-agree completely but you have to take into consideration that it was governments that forced car makers to produce cars few wanted, compacts and glorified go-carts.
    GM was the muscle car champion and when they got away from building cars people actually wanted it was over.
    I waited and waited for a rear wheel drive muscle car to come onto the market not geared for the rich who continued to drive high powered rear wheel drive vehicles while the rest of us were forced to buy garbage front wheel drive duds.
    I finally got my Magnum RT in 2008 and can not be happier, power comfort and safety, I only wish it did not have computer chips and other unnecessary crap that makes it impossible for me to work on.

  2. dcardno says:

    “…but you have to take into consideration that it was governments that forced car makers to produce cars few wanted, compacts and glorified go-carts.”
    Ri-ight. I guess the governments involved gave special dispensation to Honda, Toyota, BMW, Saab, Mazda, Subaru, etc. The ‘big three’ decided that they couldn’t compete in the small to medium auto segment and didn’t care to put in the engineering and management efforts to become competitive, so they wrote off the market. They turned to the SUV and truck business, where margins were better and (until recently) competition less fierce. This just masked the fundamental problem of a non-competitive business model, and when the better competitors turned to that remaining market niche the basic flaws were exposed.

  3. Brian says:

    I have 2000 Subarau Forester with 170,000Km and very few problems … no rust and it runs fine.
    Having had a string of US cars in the 70’s and 80’s with all sorts of issues , I first bought a Mazda 626 and kept it for 10 years … I was not interested in a US car.
    Oh … and for those who claim the cars are made in Canada … right … the junk was designed in Detroit.

  4. Bill Greenwood says:

    GM’s problems have had an unfortunate and rather disastrous side effect- that being the lumping of Ford and Chrysler into the same boat. Both brands have had their share of unnecessary quality issues, but they were handled with far greater aplomb than GM. The big problem with GM was that they knew that they could count on vast numbers of buyers who would far sooner buy GM junk than switch (you have to go to a Tony Robbins seminar to really grasp it.) While Ford and Chrysler were advancing the quality of North American cars, GM was giving domestics a bad name. It’s very telling that GM has lost the largest chunk of it’s market share over the last 30 years. I’m not saying Ford’s or Dodge’s are perfect, but of the five vehicles that park in front of my house- the overall quality of the Dodge’s and the Ford outstrip the GM’s by a long shot. I have an ’03 Dodge Ram, an ’03 PT Turbo and a ’94 Ford E-350 motorhome. My son has a ’98 GMC pick-up with about 125k, my daughter a ’94 Cavalier with 150K. Both GM products display that litany of little crap that drives me nuts about GM’s. They rattle, the doors don’t hang right any more, mirrors that shake, interior lights that haven’t worked since Bill Clinton was in office. Our 93 Grand Caravan was still tight at 200k, and my 99 Ram was far better at 190K than the GMC is now. Our 01 Neon had 145K when we sold it, and was worlds apart from the Cavalier.

  5. Jack Daniels says:

    There are some sick people out there writing negative GM stories dating back to 1978. I wish these people would get a life!

  6. paulsstuff says:

    Sorry, but TTAC might as well put a disclaimer on its site that it is an advertisement for Import cars. Rarely do they ever point out anything positive about domestics. As for the gist of the article, its complete fluff. If that was the case why to people buy Toyota’s, Honda’s, and Hyundai’s? These models from the eigthies rotted out in a matter of years, and were prone to early engine and transmission repairs. And repair costs were higher.
    But lets take the theory of the article one step further. Toyota recently had a problem over three model years with engines, notably oil galleries to small, affecting over 3 million vehicles. Wouldn’t that mean buyers should now be running away from Toyota’s? Toyota recently had a major problem with camshafts breaking in Tacoma pick-ups, as well as tailgates collapsing. When can I expect TTAC to run that article?
    Honda in recent years had a problem with steering shafts breaking, causing drivers to lose control. Still waiting on that article as well. Go on Mitchell’s if you can and research TSB’s. You will quickly see that all manufacter have their share of issues.

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