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1984 Buick Century diesel: a confession

The diesel badge on the fender of a Buick Century diesel
The diesel badge on the fender of a Buick Century diesel
© Flickr

The notion that "confession is good for the soul" can be found in all sorts of places, from Hollywood to the Bible. It's supposed to be cathartic, liberating, and comforting.

Well, it's my turn.

I've been harboring a deep, dark secret from my automotive friends and colleagues for years. I have a load of bricks that I've been carrying all this time, and I've decided I'm ready to set it down.

You see, I don't come from a 'car' family. Sure, my family owns cars, but to them, they're just transportation. Machines. A necessary tool. Though my family is supportive of me and my pursuits, none of them share my passion. They're not 'car' people, and no other member of my family can better demonstrate how "not 'car' people" they are than my father (may he rest in peace).

My father prided himself on his frugality. Neither style nor soul, neither speed nor beauty, were motivating factors behind his automotive purchases. The less money he had to spend to get to where he was going, the happier he was.

So, one day, when I was about 4 years old, my father came home with...

... okay, here it goes...

... a 1984 Buick Century...

... diesel.

Yes.

You may have read some obscure blogs about these cars, and browsed some pictures on the Internet out of boredom, but few people have stepped forward with first-hand experience of them.

I'm doing that now, because one of these unacceptably awful cars was the first car I ever washed, the first car I ever turned a wrench on, the first car I ever started, and very nearly the first car I ever drove.

If you're not familiar with malaise-era GM diesels... well, you're fortunate, honestly. The 1970s oil crisis had made everyone from all walks of life very conscious of fuel consumption, but people still weren't ready to give up their big traditional American cars. So GM decided the best thing to do was offer the same big traditional American cars with fuel-efficient diesel engines. In 1978, two V8s, a 4.3L (called the LF7) and a 5.7L (called the LF9), found their way into all kinds of GM vehicles, from the Cadillac Eldorado to the Pontiac Bonneville.

A few years later in 1982, a 4.3L diesel V6 called the LT7 (which was nicknamed the "chopped Olds V8" because it was essentially the LF9 with two missing cylinders) appeared in cars like the Chevrolet Celebrity, the Pontiac 6000, and, of course, the Buick Century.

The 4.3L diesel V6 made 85 horsepower, the 4.3L diesel V8 made 90hp, and the 5.7L diesel V8 made as low as 105 horsepower. I have researched and have yet to find anything definitive (so don't hold me to this), but I believe that these engines may hold a record for the lowest power output per liter of any postwar production engine - 20.9 hp per liter for the 4.3L V8, 19.7 hp per liter for the V6, and 18.4 hp per liter for the 5.7L V8.

Even the Ford Flathead V8 had a higher specific output than any of the GM passenger car diesel engines.

Anyway, our family's 1984 Buick Century diesel (which was brown inside and out) was the cause of much consternation when it was my mother's turn to drive it. She already hated it for being noisy, rough, and difficult to start, but the rear drum brakes were very prone to locking up. One day, as we were driving back home from my piano lessons, she was heading west on Colonial Drive in Orlando, downhill approaching Hiawassee Road, when she was suddenly cut off. She left such a long and dark set of skid marks that we could still see them several months later. I used to get excited and point them out to her when we drove by that same spot - "oooh Mom, look what you did!" - though I'm pretty sure she didn't find it quite as amusing.

Worse than the noise and the smelly, sooty exhaust and the horrendous brakes, though, was the water-in-the-fuel issue. GM supposedly fitted a water filtration system on all its diesel engines from 1981 onward, but many a morning was wasted having our oil-burning Buick towed to the mechanic because the fuel injection system kept failing due to water getting into the fuel pump and injectors.

However, the best tale I have about the diesel Century is from a day when my father and I were on our way to the store and the bolts holding the midpipe of the exhaust broke, leaving the rear section of the exhaust to hang down towards the front of the car. I maintain that, to this day, our suddenly straight-piped Buick Century was the best-sounding diesel I've ever heard in my life. But since we'd only gone a mile or so, my father tried to get the car back home. The exhaust was dragging on the ground, and as he drove over a railroad crossing, the exhaust pipe caught the rail, and my father and I both went for the ride of our lives as the leverage from the stuck exhaust pipe shoved the rear end of the car several feet up in the air.

After that, my father did what every other GM diesel owner did: he cut his losses and got rid of the car. He replaced it with an Acura Legend. The reputation had been cemented: in his mind and in the rest of America's minds, diesels were slow, stinky, miserable piles of junk, and they still have not made a full recovery 30 years later.

Hmm... that wasn't as cathartic as I hoped it would be. Maybe I should start playing the piano again.

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