From the “what tangled webs we weave” department comes this odd tale of how Buick’s efforts to build an economy car in the early 1960s gave birth to the premier British hot rod engine and a V6 that was still powering new GM cars some 45 years after its original demise. This is the story of the 1961-1963 Buick Special and Skylark, the aluminum Buick / Rover V8, and the long-lived GM 3800 V6 engine.
FORTUNES OF WAR
By the end of World War II, Buick, second from the top the General Motors model hierarchy, was firmly established as a “semi-prestige” make. If it didn’t quite have the snob appeal of Cadillac or Packard, it was still highly respectable — the kind of car a doctor, lawyer, or bank vice president might own. It was, in short, an aspirational car for middle-class buyers, an enviable position that earned it a consistent fourth-place ranking in U.S. auto sales, exceeded only by the “Low-Priced Three”: Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth.
Buick’s strength in the fifties was based mostly on its entry-level model, the Special, which was priced only about $200 above a Chevrolet Bel Air. This was down-market for Buick, invading the price range normally occupied by Oldsmobile and the higher-end Pontiac models, and while it was very successful, its success came largely at the expense of Buick’s corporate siblings.
For GM’s mid-price divisions to eat each other’s lunch like this flew in the face of the doctrine laid out by Alfred P. Sloan in the twenties, but it was an effective and profitable strategy for Buick. Sales rose to more than 737,000 for the 1955 model year, more than 40% of which were Specials. That was an almost 50% increase over Buick’s normal volume, taking the division to third place in the industry and beating Oldsmobile and Pontiac by more than 150,000 units.
Unfortunately, Buick soon fell victim to its own success. By 1956, its wild sales growth and the attendant rapid increase in production had wreaked havoc on Buick’s traditional quality control, exacerbated the following year by a disastrous new transmission, the Flight Pitch (Triple Turbine) Dynaflow. As word spread about how problematic new Buicks were becoming, buyers began to shy away just as a national recession nearly crippled the mid-price market. Buick sales for the 1958 model year plummeted to barely a third of their 1955 peak, leading to an extensive housecleaning of the division’s leadership.
The recession, as we have seen, produced a sudden spike in the popularity of compact economy cars like AMC’s newly revived small Rambler and the imported Volkswagen Beetle. Chevrolet was developing the compact, rear-engine Corvair for 1960, but that did nothing to help Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick, which had been hit much harder. Starting in 1958, GM imported a limited number of European Opels and Vauxhalls for Buick and Pontiac dealers, but it was strictly a temporary measure while the corporation prepared a more considered solution.
THE COMPACT BUICK SPECIAL
In a move reminiscent of Alfred P. Sloan’s ill-fated “companion make” program of the late twenties, GM management decided in 1957 that Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick should each have their own compact sedan. The three cars were jointly developed — still very unusual for GM in that era, when each division generally handled its own engineering and manufacturing — and shared a stretched version of the new unitized Y-body shell used by the Corvair. When the new cars debuted in late 1960 for the 1961 model year, they were swiftly nicknamed “Senior Compacts.”
Buick’s Senior Compact, which went on sale on October 5, 1960, was dubbed the Buick Special. Although Buick had dropped the Special nameplate after the 1958 model year, the old Special had been a sales success and new Buick general manager Ed Rollert may have thought that giving the new car a familiar name would help put buyers at ease.
Some reassurance was probably necessary because the Special was a major departure for Buick. Excepting a small number of Opel Olympia Rekords the division had imported from GM’s German subsidiary between 1958 and 1960, the new Special was the smallest car Buick had offered in more than two decades.
Although it shared the Corvair’s body shell, the Special looked nothing like its Chevrolet cousin and was somewhat larger, stretching 8.4 inches (213 mm) longer overall on a 4.1-inch (104mm) longer wheelbase. The Special was more than 2 feet (63 cm) shorter and about 1,500 lb (680 kg) lighter than a 1961 Buick LeSabre, but gave up surprisingly little interior room; the full-size Buicks were big, but packaging efficiency had not been a major priority in their design.
Unlike the Corvair, the Special had an entirely conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout and suspension, meaning that it drove like any other American car, with a soft ride, light steering, and predictable understeer. The Special even had a V8: a brand-new 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) all-aluminum engine.
The use of aluminum for automotive engines was not new even in 1961. Marmon had offered an all-aluminum V-16 back in 1932 and many prewar Detroit L-head engines had offered aluminum cylinder heads. The postwar switch from L-head to OHV engines, whose cylinder heads are considerably more complex than those of a flathead engine, had led Detroit back to cheaper, more familiar cast iron, although aluminum heads were fairly common on European engines of the fifties, at least in the higher price classes.
Aluminum’s principal advantages as an engine material are light weight and superior heat conductivity. Although aluminum isn’t as rigid or as durable as iron and requires greater thickness to achieve comparable strength, the use of aluminum can still reduce an engine’s weight by 30% or more compared to a cast iron engine of the same size and displacement. Aluminum’s better heat conductivity, meanwhile, provides better cooling for air-cooled engines and can allow a water-cooled engine to use a smaller, lighter water jacket, providing additional weight savings.
Despite its advantages, aluminum also presents several significant drawbacks. The first is cost; aluminum is extremely energy-intensive to produce, which in turn makes it substantially more expensive than iron to buy. Second, while aluminum is in some ways easier than iron to machine, it requires different casting procedures, which can mean major investments in engine plants and foundries. Third, aluminum is softer than iron, which makes it less suitable than iron than for high-wear surfaces like valve seats or cylinder bores. The latter are a particular sticking point for aluminum blocks; Porsche resolved the issue by chrome-plating the bore surfaces of its engines, but that was very expensive, so most aluminum block engines instead relied on pressed-in steel or iron cylinder liners. (Engineers in the auto and aluminum industries were already working on more sophisticated approaches, such as the use of special high-silicon aluminum alloys, silicon coating, or thermal spray hardening, but those techniques were still largely experimental in the fifties and early sixties and would not be perfected until many years later.)
Back in 1950, Charles A. Chayne, then Buick’s chief engineer, had ordered the development of an experimental high-performance aluminum V8 for the LeSabre and XP-300 concept cars. Designed by engineer Joseph D. Turlay, who would also design Buick’s first production OHV V8, the experimental engine displaced 216 cu. in. (3,535 cc) and featured an aluminum block with iron cylinder liners, aluminum heads with hemispherical combustion chambers, dual carburetors with methanol injection, and a belt-driven supercharger. All this yielded up to 335 hp (250 kW) from an engine weighing only 550 lb (250 kg), very impressive for the time.
The supercharged V8 was never intended as a production project, but Chayne undoubtedly remembered it when he became corporate VP of engineering in 1951. By 1952, Chayne’s corporate engineers were working on aluminum engines and engine components. By 1956, that work had culminated in a project to develop an all-new compact, lightweight aluminum V8 that would be suitable for mass production. A year later, that engine was selected to power the new X-100 compacts.
As originally designed by engineer Darl F. Caris of the corporate Power Development Section, the aluminum V8 had a displacement of 183 cu. in. (about 3,000 cc) and used an experimental bore-coating process that allowed it to run without cylinder liners. Early testing, using an Opel Rekord test mule, suggested the need for more torque, so the engine was bored and stroked to 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc).
In September 1957, engineer Oliver K. Kelley, previously the head of the corporate Transmission Development Group and one of the lead designers of the original Hydra-Matic and Dynaflow transmissions, became Buick’s new chief engineer. Kelley successfully lobbied for Buick to build the corporate engineers’ aluminum V8, which was originally supposed to be shared by all three X-100 cars. Like Buick’s bigger OHV “Nailhead” V8, development of the production engine would be overseen by Joe Turlay and his assistant, Cliff Studaker.
THE ALUMINUM BUICK V8
Like most American V8s of its era, Buick’s aluminum engine was a 90-degree V8 with a single block-mounted camshaft and pushrod-operated overhead valves. It eschewed the pentroof combustion chamber layout of Buick’s big Nailhead V8 in favor of a modified wedge shape that Buick described as a “slanted saucer,” intended to minimize detonation with low-octane regular gasoline.
Both the cylinder block and cylinder heads were aluminum, but the linerless block was deemed too risky, so the production engine got unusual cast-in iron cylinder liners, held in place by grooves in the cylinder walls. Unlike the aluminum blocks subsequently offered by AMC and Chrysler, the Buick engine’s block was cast using a combination of die-casting and semi-permanent steel molds. The cylinder heads used only the latter process, adding cast iron valve guides.
Even with the addition of iron cylinder liners, the Buick aluminum V8 was one of the lightest automotive engines in the world, weighing only 318 lb (144 kg) dry, a creditable figure even today. It was fully 215 lb (98 kg) lighter than a small block Chevrolet V8 and barely half the weight of Buick’s larger Nailhead. In fact, the aluminum V8 was lighter than some contemporary cast iron fours.
Oldsmobile also used the aluminum V8, but that division’s engineers insisted on making various detail changes, including new cylinder heads with six head bolts rather than five, slightly larger intake valves with conical springs, different rocker arms, and conventional wedge combustion chambers with flat-topped rather than dished pistons. Oldsmobile engineers claimed their version of the aluminum engine was slightly more powerful and somewhat more durable than was its Buick cousin, although any advantage was not readily apparent. The two engines had the same rated horsepower, but the Oldsmobile version claimed only 210 lb-ft (285 N-m) of torque and weighed 32 lb (15 kg) more than the Buick V8.
The development of Pontiac’s senior compact, the Tempest, is a more complicated story beyond the scope of this story, but suffice it to say that Pontiac eventually balked at either sharing the Corvair’s powertrain, as the corporation originally had in mind, or using the aluminum V8, which Pontiac general manager Bunkie Knudsen and chief engineer Pete Estes thought too expensive. Instead, Pontiac adopted a new 195 cu. in. (3,186 cc) “Slant Four” derived from the division’s 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8, offering power comparable to the Buick engine’s at far less cost (although also with far less refinement). Under pressure from senior management, Knudsen and Estes reluctantly agreed to offer the Buick V8 as an option on the Tempest in 1961–1962, although very few were sold.
Even in mildly tuned two-barrel form, the Buick V8 gave the relatively lightweight Senior Compacts fine all-around performance. Buick claimed that a 1961 Special with the optional two-speed Dual-Path Turbine Drive automatic and 3.08 axle could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a reasonable 13.4 seconds; claimed top speed was 101 mph (162 km/h). The standard three-speed manual would trim about 2 seconds off that time, which was better than some considerably larger and far more powerful contemporary V8 sedans could manage. Either way, fuel consumption ranged from 15–16 mpg (14.7 to 15.7 L/100 km) in city driving to around 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) on the road, about 20% better than a full-size Buick and good enough to qualify the Special as an economy car by American standards.
BUICK SPECIAL SKYLARK
For all its virtues, the compact Buick Special found itself in an awkward market position. With a list price starting at $2,330, the Special was about 25% cheaper than the least-expensive full-size Buick, but was still one of the priciest compacts on the domestic market, costing over $200 more than a Pontiac Tempest and $129 more than the popular Corvair Monza.
Late in the model year, Buick added a little pizazz to the line with the new Buick Special Skylark, reviving the name of the limited-edition Skylark convertible of 1953-1954. Initially offered only as a two-door sport coupe (not a hardtop), the Skylark had plusher trim, a vinyl roof, bucket seats, and a more powerful high-compression four-barrel engine making 185 gross horsepower (138 kW). (That engine became available around the same time in the new Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass, which was essentially the Oldsmobile version of the Skylark.)
Even with the Skylark, first-year production of the Buick compact was an underwhelming 86,868. That was a bit better than Oldsmobile’s Y-body F-85, which sold only 76,394 units in the U.S., but still less than a quarter of the old Special’s peak sales and undoubtedly less than Buick had hoped.
Why didn’t the compact Special sell better? A sluggish economy probably didn’t help, but the bigger problem seems to have been a mismatch of size, price, and customer expectations. Americans were still buying compacts in 1961 — Rambler remained No. 3 in domestic new car sales — but shoppers who went looking for a smaller car generally did so with the expectation of saving money, which made Buick showrooms an unlikely destination. Keen shoppers were also likely to note that while the Special (or the F-85) was cheaper than a full-size LeSabre, the price of a new Special was also very close to that of a full-size Chevrolet Bel Air. That a full-size Buick was superior to a full-size Chevrolet was something most contemporary buyers would have accepted with little question, but whether a small Buick was better than a big Chevy was a more complicated question.
The compact Special was also a puzzler for traditional Buick customers. Despite its lower price, the earlier Buick Special was by no means a small car; much of its appeal had lain in the fact that it looked and felt much like any other Buick. By contrast, while the Y-body Special looked like a Buick — the stylists had done a fine job of adapting the division’s contemporary design cues to the smaller dimensions — it was unarguably small to American eyes, not only by Buick standards, but within the context of the U.S. auto industry as a whole. Had the Special arrived in 1958 (which of course would have been impossible, lead times being what they are), buyers might have embraced it, but now, it seemed like not enough Buick for the money.
Beyond that, we can’t imagine that the similarities between the Special and the F-85 did either car any favors. The two divisions had been stepping on each other’s toes for years, but the Special and F-85 were identically sized, identically priced, and powered by substantially the same engine, which meant that the only meaningful differences between the two cars were styling, the relative values of the two brand names, and mechanical variations the average buyer wouldn’t necessarily even notice. It foreshadowed the blurring of brand identities that would do GM’s market position so much damage in later years.
All this would have been problematic even if the cars had been mechanically flawless, but that was unfortunately not the case. Although the aluminum V8’s design was fundamentally sound, its construction tested the limits of GM’s metallurgical capabilities. Many nearly completed early engine blocks were scrapped because of excessive porosity in the aluminum. Some engines so afflicted weren’t detected in time and ended up in customer cars, where the blocks quickly developed severe oil leaks or ended up with cross-contamination of oil and coolant.
While that issue was eventually addressed, cooling system problems remained a headache. Some of those were the result of machining problems, but most were the product of using the wrong coolant. If owners or dealers substituted antifreeze intended for cast iron engines, the coolant would strip layers of metal off the insides of the water jacket and eventually clog the radiator with aluminum deposits. Routine spark plug cleaning or replacement also required care to avoid stripping the aluminum heads’ plug threads, which would have expensive consequences. None of those problems was a fundamental design flaw, but such issues did not enhance the engine’s reputation.
BUICK FIREBALL V6
Buick recognized early on that price was going to be a significant handicap for the Special. In response, the division hastily prepared an alternative: a cheaper base model equipped with the first six-cylinder engine Buick had offered since 1930 and the only V6 in any American passenger car of its era.
The new engine, known as the Fireball V6, was suggested by Joe Turlay, who convinced Ed Rollert that a V6 version of the small V8 could be produced on the same production lines and would be superior in every respect to the big Pontiac four. Since the V6 was a relatively straightforward derivative of an existing engine and shared many minor components, development was very rapid; the V6 went from concept to production in well under a year.
The V6 shared the V8’s basic architecture, including the aluminum engine’s 90-degree bank angle. That was expedient, but left the Fireball engine with certain intrinsic design problems. V6 engines are inherently unbalanced, with a secondary couple that causes the engine to twist and/or rock end to end. Eliminating that imbalance requires either a counter-rotating balance shaft turning at twice the speed of the crankshaft or something exotic in the way of counterweights. Using a 90-degree vee (rather than the 60-degree bank angle common to most modern V6s) significantly increases the magnitude of the coupling force.
Furthermore, because the Fireball’s crankshaft was derived from the V8’s, it had only three throws, which provided uneven firing intervals that alternated between 150 and 90 degrees of crankshaft rotation. (A six-throw crank allowing even, 120-degree firing intervals was judged too expensive.) In partial compensation, the unusual cross-bank firing order improved breathing, so Turlay, Studaker, and the development team eventually decided to accept the odd-fire crank and concentrate on isolating the rocking motions with softer engine mounts and a heavier flywheel. These efforts were successful enough that the engine’s vibration was not readily apparent to the driver or passengers, although the soft mounts and some additional engine compartment sound deadening couldn’t disguise another side effect of the uneven firing intervals: an odd loping sound at idle.
The earliest prototypes of the Fireball V6 were aluminum, but the production engine reverted to cast iron, which was easier to cast and eliminated the need for cylinder liners. Bore and stroke were increased, giving a total displacement of 198 cu. in. (3,235 cc). By taking advantage of recent developments in high-precision “thinwall” casting techniques, Buick was able to hold the cast iron engine’s weight penalty to only 50 lb (23 kg). The V6 was less powerful than the V8, making 135 gross horsepower (101 kW) and 205 lb-ft (278 N-m) of torque, but had better fuel economy and was significantly less expensive to manufacture.
The V6 became standard on base Specials for 1962, earning Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year Award. While the V6 was cheaper to produce than the V8, a 1962 Special V6 was actually only $26 cheaper than an equivalent V8-powered ’61, which wasn’t a vast amount of money even at the time. Nonetheless, roughly one-third of all Special buyers opted for the Fireball engine, which promised to be more economical and less troublesome than the V8.
SKYLARK AND JETFIRE
The aluminum V8 remained optional on 1962 Buick Specials and standard for the Special Deluxe, again offering 155 hp (116 kW). The four-barrel version, standard on the Skylark and optional on Specials, now boasted 190 gross horsepower (142 kW) thanks to a higher compression ratio. A four-speed manual transmission — the ubiquitous Borg-Warner T-10 — was newly optional, although at $200, it was actually $11 more expensive than the Turbine Drive automatic most buyers preferred.
It’s worth adding here that Oldsmobile initially did not adopt the Fireball engine, instead retaining the Olds versions of the two-barrel and four-barrel aluminum V8, which again offered either 155 or 185 gross horsepower (116 or 138 kW). In mid-1962, Oldsmobile also added a new performance model of which Buick had no equivalent: the F-85 Jetfire, powered by a turbocharged version of the aluminum V8 with a single Garrett AiResearch turbocharger making up to 5 psi (0.34 bars) of boost. The Jetfire V8 retained the Cutlass engine’s 10.25:1 compression ratio, but sought to prevent detonation with a fluid injection system using a 50/50 blend of distilled water and methanol, which Oldsmobile helpfully dubbed “Turbo-Rocket Fluid.”
The Jetfire was far more sophisticated than the turbocharger installation in the contemporary Corvair Monza Spyder and far more powerful, making 215 gross horsepower (160 kW) and 300 lb-ft (407 N-m) of torque. Unfortunately, while Oldsmobile had gone to great lengths to protect the engine from overboost or abuse in hard driving, the Jetfire engine coped less well with the lazier use to which most F-85 buyers were apt to put it. Only 9,607 Jetfires were sold before Oldsmobile canceled the turbocharged engine in 1963 and many survivors later had their turbocharger hardware removed by helpful dealers.
The Y-body Senior Compacts returned for a final encore in 1963, receiving an extensive facelift that added about 3.7 inches (94 mm) to their overall length. The two-barrel versions of the Buick and Oldsmobile V8s continued mostly unchanged, but the four-barrel version in the Buick Skylark now claimed 200 hp (149 kW) and 240 lb-ft (325 N-m) of torque while the similar engine in the Oldsmobile Cutlass boasted up to 195 hp (145 kW) and 235 lb-ft (319 N-m) of torque with automatic transmission.
By this time, Ed Rollert, Oldsmobile general manager Jack Wolfram, and Pontiac boss Pete Estes had all lost faith in the Y-body cars and in the aluminum V8. (Pontiac had actually dropped the aluminum Buick engine even as an option after 1962, substituting a de-bored version of Pontiac’s cast iron V8.) Sales had been underwhelming — the Special and Skylark had accounted for only about 390,000 units in three years, the F-85 and Cutlass considerably less than that — and all three cars had been much too expensive to build, cutting into profit margins and return on investment. The aluminum V8 had not been the sole reason for that, but the engine’s manufacturing problems and high warranty costs had not left any of the divisions with warm feelings.
High costs and low profits were not the GM way, so for 1964, the Y-body Senior Compacts would be replaced by a new generation of bigger, more conventional, less costly A-body intermediates.
The demise of the Senior Compacts also meant the end of GM’s interest in the troublesome and expensive aluminum V8. Even if the aluminum engine had had a better service record, the latest thinwall cast iron engines were only moderately heavier and were far cheaper to build.
For 1964, Buick discontinued the small V8 in favor of a new 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) engine. The bigger engine had basically the same architecture as the aluminum V8 and initially shared the older engine’s aluminum heads, but the block was now a thinwall cast iron design — in essence, a bored-and-stroked V8 version of the Fireball V6. The larger V8 made 210 gross horsepower (157 kW) in low-compression two-barrel form and 250 hp (186 kW) with 11.0:1 compression and a four-barrel carburetor. (Oldsmobile, incidentally, did not use this engine, having developed its own all-new cast iron 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) V8 for the A-body cars.)
The following year, Buick discarded the V8’s aluminum cylinder heads in favor of cheaper cast iron heads. The all-iron 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) V8 now weighed almost 150 lb (67 kg) more than the original aluminum V8, but was still lighter than either any other GM V8 of similar displacement or, for that matter, Ford’s smaller 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) engine, another thinwall iron design.
The Fireball V6, meanwhile, returned basically unchanged for 1964. It was now standard not only on the Buick Special, but also the new A-body Oldsmobile F-85, where the engine was dubbed “Econ-O-Way.” The V6 returned for 1965, but Buick expanded its bore and stroke to match those of the cast iron V8, bringing the V6’s displacement to 225 cu. in. (3,692 cc). In this form, the V6 had 155 gross hp (116 kW) — raised in 1966 to 160 hp (119 kW) — matching the old aluminum V8 and offering better fuel economy at much lower cost.
Buick’s small V8 grew for 1966 to 340 cu. in. (5,574 cc) and for 1968 to 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc). In that form, it would survive through the 1981 model year. The V6, meanwhile, was standard equipment on 1964–1965 Oldsmobile F-85s and on the Buick Special and Skylark through the 1967 model year. After that, Buick dropped the V6 in favor of a bigger inline six purchased from Chevrolet. However, the Fireball V6 was not dead, as we’ll discuss shortly.
ROVER TAKES A HAND
Ordinarily, that would’ve been all she wrote for the aluminum V8 and its V6 brother, but each engine had a different — and separate — fate in store.
In 1963, the British automaker Rover was looking for a new engine to power its top-of-the-line cars. The existing Rover P5 saloon had a somewhat elderly 183 cu. in. (2,995 cc) F-head straight six that was too heavy and too thirsty for its modest output. Rover was exploring five- and six-cylinder versions of the new inline four from the Rover P6 when managing director William Martin-Hurst had an entirely different inspiration.
Martin-Hurst was then visiting Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to talk to Mercury Marine president Carl Kiekhaefer about licensing Rover’s new gas turbine engine for marine applications. During those discussions, Martin-Hurst noticed (or, in some versions of the story, literally stumbled over) a Buick aluminum V8 that Kiekhaefer had intended to install in a power boat. After Kiekhaefer explained what the engine was, Martin-Hurst arranged to have the V8 shipped back to Solihull for evaluation.
Some Rover engineers were less than thrilled with the idea of using an American engine in their cars, but the aluminum V8 transformed the performance of the Rovers in which it was installed. The V8 was only slightly heavier than the P6’s four-cylinder engine, significantly lighter than the P5’s F-head six, and dramatically more powerful than either.
If Buick had still been building the aluminum V8, Rover would likely have arranged to purchase complete engines for use in its own cars. Since the aluminum engine was no longer in production, however, Martin-Hurst instead approached Rollert about the possibility of Rover’s purchasing the manufacturing rights. Although GM was initially puzzled by the inquiry, a deal was struck by early 1965, giving Rover the rights to manufacture and use the aluminum engine.
Although Buick threw in copies of its technical data and a number of unused production engines, Rover had very little prior experience with V8s or vee engines in general. Since the engine’s lead designer, Joe Turlay, was about to retire, Rover arranged to hire him as a consultant and move him to England to oversee the establishment of Rover’s new V8 production line.
The aluminum V8 required various changes to prepare it for Rover’s use. Since there were then no English suppliers capable of replicating GM’s casting methods for the V8’s aluminum block, Rover had to redesign the engine for simpler sand casting methods, which also required substituting pressed-in cylinder liners for the Buick engine’s cast-in units. The V8 also got a new crankshaft and an assortment of British-made carburetors and accessories. Those changes made the Rover version of the aluminum V8 around 55 lb (25 kg) heavier than its Buick predecessor, but the Rover engine was still very light for its size and displacement.
Since none of Rover’s manual gearboxes could withstand the V8’s torque, the aluminum engine was initially available only with automatic transmission, the locally built Borg-Warner 35. The V8 was first added to the Rover P5 (now badged 3½ Litre) in September 1967, offering 184 gross horsepower (137 kW; 161 hp/120 kW net) — fully 50 hp (37 kW) more than the much heavier F-head six. The aluminum V8 went into the Rover P6 (badged Rover 3500) in early 1968, transforming the already sporty P6 into something of an executive hot rod, and in 1970 the alloy engine was chosen to power the new Range Rover sport-utility vehicle.
The aluminum V8 survived Rover’s 1967 acquisition by Leyland Motors (owners of rival Standard-Triumph) and the 1968 merger that created the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC or just BL). The Buick/Rover engine subsequently found its way into everything from military Land Rovers to the MGB.
The Rover V8 was eventually offered in a bewildering array of displacements, from the original 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) to 241 cu. in. (3,947 cc), 261 cu. in. (4,278 cc), 269 cu. in. (4,416 cc), 277 cu. in. (4,546 cc), and 304 cu. in. (4,988 cc). It remained in production until the demise of the first-generation Land Rover Defender in 2004. Even that was not the end; in 2006, the British engineering firm MCT Mitchell Cotts licensed the rights to build the V8 in crate form for use as a replacement engine for older vehicles or to power race cars, kit cars, or small-volume specialty makes. The Rover V8 is likely to remain in at least limited production well past its 60th birthday.
FROM FIREBALL TO DAUNTLESS
The Buick Fireball V6, meanwhile, was beginning a strange odyssey of its own. In the early sixties, Jeep was still using the old Willys F-head Hurricane four in the CJ-3B and CJ-5 Jeep Universals, which for space reasons couldn’t use Kaiser Jeep’s more powerful Tornado OHC six. Since the elderly Hurricane had only 72 gross hp (54 kW), barely adequate even in the compact and relatively lightweight Universal, owners and some Jeep dealers began looking around for alternatives. The Fireball V6 soon became a popular choice because it was relatively light and was compact enough to fit in the space intended for an inline four.
After the factory learned of these swaps, Kaiser engineers obtained a Fireball-powered CJ-5 prepared by a dealer in Salt Lake City and put the vehicle through its paces. Extensive testing revealed that the V6 not only greatly improved the CJ-5’s performance, but was also at least as durable as the archaic and overtaxed four-cylinder engine.
In 1965, Kaiser Jeep approached Buick about the possibility of offering the Fireball V6 as a factory option for the CJ-5. The first factory-built, V6-powered CJ-5s arrived later that year as 1966 models. The Jeep version of the V6, which Kaiser Jeep called Dauntless 225, was very similar to the Buick version, but had an even heavier flywheel to dampen more of the V6’s second-order vibration. Kaiser Jeep subsequently arranged to purchase the manufacturing rights to the V6 along with its tooling, which in 1967 was transferred to the Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.
After American Motors bought Jeep from Kaiser in early 1970, AMC vice president Gerry Meyers decided the V6 had had its day. While it was superior to the (still available) F-head four, the Dauntless was rougher than most contemporary sixes, so Meyers deemed it unacceptable for regular passenger car duty. American Motors had neither the money nor the inclination to invest in improving the V6 and opted instead to substitute AMC’s own inline six, already used in various other Jeep products. For the 1972 model year, Jeep dropped both the Hurricane four and the Dauntless V6 and reengineered the CJ-5 to accept a new lineup of AMC engines. However, the tooling for the Dauntless engine was not scrapped, but rather packed in Cosmoline and placed in storage in Toledo.
Surprisingly, even that was not the end of the road for the Buick V6. The first OPEC oil embargo, which began in October 1973, had a devastating effect on auto sales around the world; Buick’s sales for the 1974 model year fell 50% as buyers again turned to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. That was bad news for Buick, whose smallest 1974 model was the Apollo, a clone of the Chevrolet Nova powered by Chevy’s big 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) straight six or Buick’s own 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc) V8.
Recognizing that Buick desperately needed an engine smaller and more frugal than the Chevrolet six, Buick chief engineer Philip Bowser found himself musing on the fate of the old Fireball V6, which seemed like exactly what Buick needed. Upon further further investigation, Cliff Studaker, who by this time was Buick’s assistant chief engineer for powertrain development, found that while AMC was no longer building the Fireball/Dauntless engine, they still had the tooling.
Late that year, Bowser and Studaker found an early Buick V6 in a local junkyard and installed the engine in a 1974 Skylark. GM president Ed Cole drove the car and agreed with Bowser that a revived Buick V6 would make a lot of sense. Cole and Studaker then drove the test mule from Flint to Toledo, where Cole arranged for them to inspect the mothballed production equipment. The initial plan was for AMC to resume production of the V6 so that Buick could buy the engines, but by March, Cole decided it would be simpler (and probably cheaper) to buy back the tooling. By April, the deal was complete and the tooling had been hastily reinstalled in its original space in Buick’s Flint engine plant.
Buick engineers increased the V6’s bore from 3.75 to 3.80 inches (95.3 to 96.5 mm) to match Buick’s 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc) V8 — itself another cast iron descendant of the original aluminum V8 — which brought the V6’s displacement to 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc). The next step was to modify the engine to meet 1975 federal emissions standards. Remarkably, by August, the V6 had completed its EPA emissions certification, allowing the resurrected engine to return to the Buick lineup for the 1975 model year.
The revived V6 bowed with a compression ratio of 8.0:1, high-energy ignition, a catalytic converter, and modest SAE net ratings of 110 hp (82 kW) and 175 lb-ft (237 N-m) of torque. The V6 was standard equipment on the 1975 Skylark, Century, and Regal, although the Apollo retained the Chevrolet six. Around the time the 1975 model year began, Ed Cole belatedly shelved GM’s troubled rotary combustion engine project, so the V6 also replaced the stillborn rotary engine as standard power for the new H-body Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Starfire, and (a year later) Pontiac Sunbird.
Buick engineers immediately set about addressing some of the V6’s inherent limitations, something that had never been a high priority in the previous decade. Studaker developed a new “split-pin” crankshaft with two journals per throw rather than only one. Each pair of journals was angled 30 degrees apart, allowing even firing intervals and making the engine noticeably smoother.
The “Even-Fire” engine debuted during the 1977 model year, followed a year later by production versions of the turbocharged V6 first seen on Buick’s pace car for the 1976 Indianapolis 500, making either 150 or 165 net horsepower (116 or 123 kW). The turbo V-6 had a troubled early history, but went on to a storied career in the fearsome Grand National and GNX coupes. For economy-minded buyers, there was also a new de-bored, 196 cu. in. (3,216 cc) version of the Even-Fire V6, followed for 1980 by a bigger 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) version and for 1982 by a short-stroke 181 cu. in. (2,996 cc) engine. By then, the V6 had completely replaced Buick’s V8s.
Over the next two decades, Buick made changes to the V6 almost every year, reducing internal friction, trimming weight, adding features like fuel injection, and whittling away at the engine’s intrinsic vibration problems. The 90-degree V6 became one of GM’s corporate engines, shared by every division; the 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) V6 even showed up briefly as an option on 1981–82 Cadillacs.
The V6 was renamed “3800” following an extensive 1988 makeover that finally added a counter-rotating balance shaft. A cheaper, short-stroke 3300 (3,341 cc, 204 cu. in.) derivative appeared in 1989. The turbocharged version died in 1988 (save for a final, limited-edition Pontiac Trans Am in 1989), but a new supercharged 3800 bowed for 1991. Further redesigns followed in 1995 and 2004. The final version, known as the 3800 Series III, offered up to 260 net horsepower (194 kW) in supercharged form. Production finally ended in August 2008.
The venerable Buick Fireball / 3800 V6 survived in various forms for 47 years, often outliving newer engines originally intended to replace it. As of this writing, it appears to have finally reached the end of the line, but it’s been pronounced dead at least twice before, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see it rise again, perhaps in the service of some smaller foreign automaker.
RES IPSA LOQUITUR
This curious story reveals a great deal about GM’s inherent conservatism. When the aluminum V8 and Fireball V6 were new, they represented a considerable departure from the corporation’s normal practice; as a result, GM seemingly couldn’t wait to get rid of them. After GM bought back the rights to the V6, it was cheaper and more expedient to continue refining it than to replace it with a clean-sheet engine, so GM clung to it until it was older than many of the people who built it.
Admittedly, Rover/British Leyland/Rover Group clung to the ex-Buick V8 just as tenaciously, but that more reflected the perennially cash-poor condition of the British auto industry than any strong philosophical tendencies. GM, by contrast, had the money to refine the aluminum engine or design a superior replacement, but chose not to. In both cases, the corporation doggedly pursued the path of least resistance, not always to its advantage.
As for the Buick Special and Skylark, we feel obliged to point out that nearly 50 years ago, GM had compact, lightweight, reasonably fuel-efficient unit-bodied sedans very similar in size to today’s popular Honda Accord, Ford Mondeo (a.k.a. Contour/Fusion), and Toyota Camry, but threw them away, just as it threw away their lightweight V6 and V8 engines. GM subsequently spent more than 25 years trying to reinvent that particular wheel and it’s only been in the past few years that the corporation has developed truly competitive cars of this type.
Like the heading says, the thing speaks for itself.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on the Buick V8 and its Oldsmobile sibling came from the following sources: William C. Anderson, “Charles A. Chayne, Buick’s Unsung Hero,” The Buick Bugle September 2003, www.buickheritagealliance. org/ pdf/ chayne.pdf, accessed 20 May 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Ray T. Bohacz, “Welcome to the Jet Age: The 1961 Buick Aluminum V-8,” Hemmings Classic Car #7 (April 2005), pp. 70–72; John R. Bond, “New from Europe: Taunus: Taunus now has V-4s and V-6s in all models,” Road & Track Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 1964), pp. 96–98; Terry V. Boyce, “Standard Catalog of Buick 1946–1975,” Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev 4th edition, ed. John Gunnell (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Buick Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “1962 Buick Special: The Happy Medium-Size Car!” [brochure, ca. October 1961], “Skylark” [brochure, ca. April 1961], “The Best of Both Worlds: The Special Size 1961 Buick Special” [brochure, ca. October 1960], and “The New Special Size 1961 Buick Special” [brochure, ca. October 1960]; “Buick Stories by Phil,” Buick Street, 2005, www.buickstreet. com/ buickstories.html, accessed 1 December 2015; Linda Clark, “1964 Oldsmobile 442: Muscling in on the Ponycars,” Special Interest Auto #69 (June 1982), reprinted in Cutlass And 442: Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 124-131; Terry Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, Buick: A Complete History (Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marques Book), Third edition (New Albany, IN: Automobile Quarterly Publications, 2005); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); Ken Fermoyle, “Buick, Olds, Pontiac Go Compact,” Popular Science Vol. 177, No. 4 (October 1960), pp. 72–76, 244–246; James M. Flammang, “1962–63 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire: First Wave of the Future,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 6 (April 2003), pp. 8–17; Chris Goffey, “History of the Aluminium Alloy V8: The story of the Buick V8 engine which found its way across the Atlantic to power a generation of Rover and Leland vehicles,” Autocar 20 November 1976, reprinted at www.britishv8. org, accessed 23 November 2007; Ken Gross, “All Things to All Men: 1953 Pontiac Custom Catalina,” Special Interest Autos #32 (January-February 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 28–34; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Michael Harvey, “The last Rover coupe,” Autocar & Motor 4 March 1992, p. 36; Wick Humble, “1961 Pontiac Tempest: But cars aren’t supposed to have curved driveshafts,” Special Interest Autos #48 (November-December 1978), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 74–86; M. Park Hunter, “1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire: Turbo Before Its Time,” Special Interest Autos #152 (March-April 1996), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); Roger Huntington, “1965 Engines,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 12 (December 1964): 36-47; “Jetfire History: 215 Engine,” The Olds FAQ, 10 April 2000, www.442. com/ oldsfaq/ofjet.htm, accessed 23 November 2007; Don Keefe, “1961-63 Pontiac Tempest: Innovative Brainstorm,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2002), pp. 8–21; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Michael Lamm, “Martyr,” Special Interest Autos #22 (May 1974), reprinted in Corvair Performance Portfolio 1959-1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 132-140; “New Cars Described: Porsche Modifications,” The Autocar 12 December 1952, reprinted in Porsche 356 Ultimate Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), pp. 8–9; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac, 1946–1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1979); Oldsmobile Division, General Motors Corporation, Oldsmobile Division, General Motors Corporation, “F-85 by Oldsmobile” [brochure], February 1961, and “Oldsmobile for ’64: Where the Action Is!” [brochure], September 1963; Graham Robson, The Rover Story, Fourth Edition (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Patrick Stephens Limited, 1988); Mike Spinelli, “Famous Rover V8 Engine Saved,” Jalopnik, 23 February 2006, www.jalopnik. com, accessed 23 November 2007; James Taylor, The Classic Rovers 1934-1977: A Collector’s Guide, 2nd printing (Pitlake, Croydon: Motor Racing Publications Ltd., 1989); David W. Temple, “History of Automotive Deign: 1951 Buick XP-300,” Hemmings Classic Car #35 (August 2007), pp. 56–60; “The Rover V8 will burble again,” PistonHeads, 22 February 2006, www.pistonheads. com, accessed 23 November 2007; Mark Wan, “AutoZine Technical School: Engine Smoothness,” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ technical_school/ engine/smooth1.htm, accessed 23 November 2007; and Rene Winters, “The Rover V8: The American Connection” The Rover V8 World, December 2005, www.rover-v8. nl, accessed 23 November 2007.
The history of the reborn Buick V6 came from Buick Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “1975 Buick” [brochure, ca. September 1974]; Jim Dunne, “Detroit report,” Popular Science Vol. 205, No. 1 (July 1974), p. 22; Patrick R. Foster, Standard Catalog of Jeep, 1940–2003 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2003) and The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); Ken Mosher, “The Life and Times of the Buick V6: The Little Engine That Could!” GNNTYPE.org, n.d., www.gnttype. org, accessed 23 November 2007; Arch Brown, “1962 Buick Skylark: School Teacher’s Hot Rod,” Special Interest Autos #87 (May-June 1985), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks; Larry Griffin, “Buick Regal T-Type: Boost mastery approacheth,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), p. 69; John B. Hege, The Wankel Rotary Engine: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001); Michael Lamm, “’78 Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 148, No. 4 (October 1977), pp. 100-102, 170-173; Jean Lindamood, “Buick Turbo Regal: When Lloyd Reuss Returned, so did performance,” Car and Driver Vol. 27, No. 8 (February 1982), p. 83; Karl Ludvigsen, “GM’s Wankel: The $700 Million Miscalculation,” Motor Trend Vol. 27, No. 3 (March 1975), p. 53, and “Suddenly It’s 1980,” Motor Trend Vol. 27, No. 2 (February 1975), pp. 35-39, 97; Robert Lund, “Driving Buick’s turbocharged V6,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 148, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 40–44; the Old Car Brochures website (oldcarbrochures.org); Don Sherman, “Back by Popular Demand! Fireball V-6: Super-motor of the Future,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 1 (July 1977), pp. 67-71; “Buick Regal Sport Coupe,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 64-70; and “The New Approach: X,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 11 (May 1979), pp. 80–82; and “Turbochargers give little engines a lift,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Vol. 34, No. 3 (March 1980), p. 24. A few details also came from the Wikipedia® entry for the Buick V6 engine (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buick_V6_engine, last accessed 20 October 2010).
We also consulted the following period road tests: “A Brand New Baby from Buick: The Special,” Popular Mechanics October 1960, pp. 97–99, 308; “Olds F-85: Another Rocket Hits the Road,” PPopular Mechanics October 1960, p. 100–102, 310; “Buick Special: When better (sized) cars are built, Buick will build them,” Road & Track November 1960; “Road Test: The Invicta and the Special,” Motor Life January 1961; John Lawlor, “The Buick Skylark: a new luxury coupe that may be a good preview of styles to come in ’62,” Motor Trend Vol. 13, No. 6 (June 1961); “Buick Special V-6: A surprising power source in a well-known chassis,” Road & Track November 1961; and “Buick Skylark: ‘When better cars are built…’ a slogan we once laughed at now means something,” Road & Track March 1962, all of which are reprinted in Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); Bob McVay, “Buick Special,” Motor Trend Vol. 15, No. 9 (September 1963); Jim Wright, “Buick Skylark Road Test,” Motor Trend Vol. 15, No. 12 (December 1963); and “Buick LeSabre 400: A Budget-Priced, Conservative Luxury Car,” Car Life January 1965, all of which are reprinted in Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2001); “Oldsmobile F-85,” Motor Trend Vol. 13, No. 2 (February 1961; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile F-85,” Car Life May 1961; “Oldsmobile F-85,” Car and Driver Vol. 8, No. 11 (May 1961); “Road Test: Oldsmobile Jetfire,” Car and Driver Vol. 9, No. 12 (June 1962); Bob McVay, “Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass: Softly sprung F-85 offers luxury and performance sans blower,” Motor Trend Vol. 15, No. 7 (July 1963), all of which are reprinted in Oldsmobile Automobiles 1955-1963 (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1989); “Autocar Road Test Number 2151: Rover 3.5-Litre,” Autocar 28 September 1967: 17–21; “AutoTest: Rover 3500 (3,528 c.c.),” Autocar 15 October 1970, pp. 74-79; “AutoTest: Rover 3500S,” Autocar 21 October 1971, pp. 88-91; “Compact power pack (Motor Road Test No. 17/68: Rover Three Thousand Five,” Motor 20 April 1968, pp. 41-46; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire,” Car Life Vol. 10, No. 3 (April 1963), pp. 31-35; Jim Dunne and Ray Hill, “Six-cylinder compacts,” Popular Science Vol. 208, No. 6 (June 1976), pp. 30–36; Harold Hastings, “A new kind of Roving,” Motor 20 April 1968, pp. ii-iv, 69-70; Geoffrey Howard and Dave Thomas, “2-Car Test: Rover 3500S, Triumph 2.5 PI,” Autocar 5 October 1972, pp. 36-41; Raymond Mays, “Rover makes good,” Motoring Life #19 (1968), reprinted in Rover 2000 + 2200, pp. 67+; “Power with pomp (Motor Road Test No. 34/67: Rover 3.5-litre coupé),” Motor 7 October 1967, pp. 59–64; “The Autocar road tests 1814: Buick Special,” The Autocar 31 March 1961, pp. 494–497; Wayne Thoms, “Road Trial: Buick Special,” Motor Trend Vol. 12, No. 12 (December 1960), pp. 22–27; and Jim Whipple, “Buick Special’s performance-plus economy,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 115, No. 3 (March 1961), pp. 122–125, 286–291; “PM Owners Report: Nimble Olds F-85 Pleases Owners; Mileage, Transmission Draw Fire,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 120, No. 1 (July 1963), pp. 76–79, 196–197; and “PM’s 1000-Mile Road Test of Buick’s New V-6,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 1961), pp. 108–111, 258–260.
Historical exchange rates for the dollar to the pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder.ubc. ca), and Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, 2009, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are listed separately. Inflation estimates were calculated using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All such figures are approximate and are provided for informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!