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Buick's venerable 3800 V6 engine appears on its way out

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Coasting Toward Retirement: Buick's venerable 3800 V6 engine appears on its way out

RICHARD TRUETT | Automotive News
Posted Date: 10/4/05
Time is catching up with Buick's seemingly ageless V6 engine.

The venerable workhorse, which set several industry benchmarks for quality, reliability, durability, performance, fuel economy and manufacturing costs in its 43-year production run, is slowly and quietly coasting toward retirement.

Tom Stephens, General Motors Powertrain group vice president, won't say when production of the 3800 engine will stop or even confirm that the end is near. But the signs are unmistakable.

For the 2006 model year, the engine is being offered in only three GM vehicles: the Buick LaCrosse and Lucerne and Pontiac Grand Prix cars. The engine was available on 11 2005 models.

GM has dropped the supercharged version of the 3800.

Production, which once topped more than 1 million units a year likely will be about 200,000 for the 2006 model year, based on estimated 2005 production figures.

Cast-iron block

While the 3800's fuel economy, emissions and reliability are still world-class, its technology is showing its age. Except for Chevrolet's small-block V-8, no other domestically produced engine is as old as the 3800.

Built in GM's Flint, Mich., V-6 engine plant, the 3800 has a heavy cast-iron block and uses pushrods to operate the valves. GM's new generation of 2.8- and 3.6-liter V6s that are replacing the 3800 have modern features such as overhead cams, variable valve timing and weight-saving aluminum blocks.

Auto analyst Lindsay Brooke of CSM Worldwide in Southfield, Mich., says: "GM spent millions developing the engine, but that investment has paid enormous dividends. The 3800 has been GM's bread-and-butter engine."

With about 25 million built and a long production run dating to the Kennedy administration, Buick's V6 has a track record that few engines can match. But the 3800's success was borne out of an expensive failure.

In the early 1960s, GM launched a small-displacement aluminum V8 engine for Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac compacts. But that 215-cubic-inch engine was expensive to build. Scrappage rates were high because GM was just learning how to make aluminum engines. GM couldn't get consistent quality from the difficult-to-cast aluminum blocks, so it dropped the engine after just two years. But the basic design and technology were resurrected for an iron block, a 198-cubic-inch V6.

Sold to Kaiser-Jeep

The engine grew to 225 cubic inches in 1964. Production stopped in 1967, and GM sold engine and production tooling to the Kaiser-Jeep Corp., the company that owned the Jeep brand.

After the first gasoline crisis in the early 1970s, GM was struggling to make its cars more fuel efficient. It bought the engine back from Jeep's new owner, American Motors.

A year later GM reintroduced the engine as the 231-cubic-inch V6, and the engine began earning its reputation as a workhorse. By 1981, GM was building more than 1 million 3800s a year. The engine easily made the transition from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive. It was raced successfully and provided a sorely needed performance boost for many 1980s and 1990s GM cars, such as the turbocharged Buick Riviera and supercharged Pontiac Bonneville.

Dick Michalski, chief engineer for GM's overhead valve engines, says the secret to the 3800's long life began with the engine's design. It has what he calls a lot of "bandwidth" for engineers to tune it for a wide variety of applications.

A major reworking in 1988 cemented the engine's status as one of the best of all time. GM engineers installed a balance shaft to quell vibration. They reworked the internal parts to have the same close tolerances found in the best Japanese engines. Then they designed new fuel injection and ignition systems.

Says Michalski: "That was the really the turning point in the engine's history."
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