Where there’s smoke, there’s scandal
Long before aging hippies and more respectable members of the general public fell victim to the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal, there was the Oldsmobile diesel.
Born of high oil and gasoline prices at the tail end of the turbulent 1970s, GM’s diesel engine (in 4.3-litre and 5.7-litre guises) seemed the answer to many consumer demands – better mileage, more power, cheaper operating costs.
By the dawn of the 80s, diesels were slapped into nearly everything GM produced, from low-end Buicks to Cadillacs.
Sales peaked at 310,000 in 1981, representing 60% of the diesel market in North America – no small feat considering the amount of Mercedes, Volvo and, yes, Volkswagen diesels being imported at the time.
Just watch this breezy and glamorous promotional video for the 1980 diesel Oldsmobiles.
Seems like a dream come true, right?
Well, the dream of the 80s didn’t stay alive for long.
Customer frustration grew after people had lived with their diesel Oldsmobiles for a while. Poor performance, noise and unreliability emerged as the biggest complaints, and the engines were phased out of the GM lineup by 1985.
So derided were the rumbling power plants, that it created a stigma around diesel that continued in American to this day.
Earlier this year, that stigma seemed to be lessening. Volkswagen TDI models were still rolling steadily off lots in the U.S. and Canada, as they had been for years, while the light-duty 3.0-litre EcoDiesel was being lauded for its use in Ram pickups and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Chevrolet’s popular Cruze had just become available with a powerful 2.0-litre turbodiesel that, though rare in the marketplace, was receiving positive press.
Then, the news came that a small European environmental group and a West Virginia University had exposed one of the biggest scandals of the modern automotive era (and there’s been quite a few lately).
Dieselgate is more than just news of a faulty part or a shady corporate cover-up – it comes across as the indictment of an entire fuel. One that powers an engine that can trace its roots back to 1890.
Time will tell how the technology survives this scandal, the eventual recalls, and multiple investigations by regulatory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps oil burners will shrug off the black eye, though it’s possible that – in the face of stricter emissions requirements – automakers might just give up and go in a new direction.
Now, please enjoy this video of an early-80s Oldsmobile 98 diesel starting up.