If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Buick V-6 engine is surely one of her offspring as opposed to the V-8 Fireball. It has proven to be both durable and adaptable, outlasting nearly all other engines of the same era. Once discarded by General Motors as unnecessary, the Buick V-6 was resurrected for its fuel economy but later earned recognition for its performance by winning the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 no less than three times, including the 1995 race.
The V-6 was originally conceived because Buick needed a cheaper alternative to the expensive-to-produce 215-cubic-inch aluminum V-8 used in its Special, which had debuted for 1961 concurrently with two other GM compacts, the Oldsmobile F-85 and Pontiac Tempest. Riding a longer 112-inch wheelbase and priced upmarket compared to the Chevy Corvair/Ford Falcon/Plymouth Valiant compacts, they could be considered "senior compacts."
The Special and F-85 came only with the 215-cid V-8, called "Fireball" (a name that Buick had used for many years on its old straight-eights). The Tempest offered buyers a choice of a 195-cid four-cylinder engine, basically Pontiac's 389-cid V-8 with one cylinder bank removed or the aluminum V-8 shared with Buick and Olds.
The Special was Buick's answer to the low-priced compacts that had arrived in 1960 and grabbed an important market share in a sluggish economy. The least-expensive Special in 1961 was the $2,330 Standard Sport Coupe, which commanded a hefty $416 premium over the Falcon and $375 more than the Valiant, both of which came with sixes.
This sizable price disparity gnawed at Edward Rollert, Buick's general manager. The message came down to the engineering department that Rollert wanted to lower the Special's base price to a more competitive level by adding a six-cylinder engine, even though Buick had used eight-cylinder engines exclusively since 1931.
However, a straight-six wouldn't fit into the Special's compact engine bay, so Joseph Turlay, Buick's director of powertrain engineering, designed a V-6 on paper that was basically the 215-cid V-8 minus the front two cylinders. There was one complicating factor: a 90-degree V-6 with three crankshaft throws meant there couldn't be even 120-degree firing intervals. An uneven firing sequence would surely result in vibration.
"We knew we had a problem right off the bat," recalls Cliff Studaker, who was the assistant chief engineer assigned to the V-6 project. "We evaluated a couple of different firing intervals by taking an aluminum V-8 and leaving the front cylinders empty. We put in a different crank and a different camshaft and intake manifold." The firing interval that proved best was every 150 and 90 degrees for each crankshaft throw with a cylinder firing order of 1-6-5-4-3-2, alternating between the cylinder banks. "That was a little bit different than people were accustomed to, and if you sat in the car at idle you had a kind of little dance that you went through, so we said it had a personality of its own."
GM management was impressed enough to approve the V-6 for the 1962 model year despite the inherent vibration. Though it had a different crankshaft, camshaft, and intake manifold than the V-8, it used the same starter, alternator, fuel pump, oil filter, water-pump housing, front cover, transmission housing, and valvetrain. It was the first GM engine to use cast connecting rods.
In addition, the V-6 utilized a cast-iron block, giving Buick a substantial cost savings over the V-8. Despite having two fewer cylinders, the cast-iron V-6 weighed 368 pounds, 50 more than the aluminum V-8. However, it was still lighter (and more compact) than contemporary inline sixes -- by about 50 pounds compared to Chevy's new 194-cid six.
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Modifying the Buick V-8
Buick increased the V-8's bore from 3.50 inches to 3.625 and stretched the stroke from 2.80 inches to 3.20 to give the V-6 a 198-cid displacement. With a two-barrel carburetor, horsepower was a respectable 135, 20 less than the V-8. That was enough to propel the Special to 60 mph in about 12.5 seconds (two seconds slower with automatic according to Road & Track) -- hardly muscle-car territory but more than competitive with its six-cylinder rivals.
The most-powerful Falcon engine for 1962 was a 101-horsepower, 170-cid six, although the Valiant was available with an optional 225-cid "Slant Six" rated at 145 horses. In any case, the new V-6 topped out at nearly 100 mph on Buick's test track: 97 mph with stick-shift, 95 mph with automatic.
The automotive press heralded Buick's new engine as a major achievement. Motor Trend magazine named the 1962 Special "Car of the Year" and praised the V-6, also called Fireball, for its "pure progress in design and originative engineering excellence." Road & Track, also very upbeat, said that "The V-6 engine sounds and performs exactly like the aluminum V-8 in most respects," though it pointed out that performance was down about 10 percent. Buick engineers, meanwhile, modestly claimed that economy was "at least 8% better than the V-8." R&T estimated 20-24 mpg.
Notably, this was the first mass-produced V-6 to be offered in an American passenger car. The Italian automaker Lancia had sold a handful of V-6 Aurelia sedans in the U.S. during the early Fifties, while GMC truck had introduced a 305-cubic-inch V-6 in its 1960 pickups. However, both non-Buick engines featured 60-degree angles between cylinder heads, which allowed even-firing intervals; so Buick's engine was unique for its 90-degree design.
The Fireball V-6 had the desired impact in the marketplace. Despite a price increase on the V-8 models, the new engine enabled Buick to lower the base price on the Special coupe to $2,304 and tout both performance and economy. The advertising slogan was "Six for Savings -- V for Voom." Production of the Special and sporty Skylark variants soared from 86,868 in 1961 to 153,843 in 1962, and more than 59,000 of the 1962 Specials were equipped with the new V-6. So why hadn't Buick or another American car company built a V-6 sooner?
"A V-6 is a little more expensive to build than a line six because you have two cylinder heads," Studaker explains. "And car size back then didn't require it. Really, we were kind of pushed into it because the Special wouldn't take a line six. It was designed for the aluminum V-8." Since Buick was trying to save money, the division dismissed GMC's truck V-6 from serious consideration. The Special was designed around a 90-degree V-8; the 60-degree truck V-6 was taller and would have required considerable re-engineering to fit into Buick's compact car, increasing the cost. Because the truck engine was a completely different design, it didn't share any parts with the V-8, so there was no cost benefit from a manufacturing standpoint.
GM Engineering was tinkering with a 120-degree V-6 design at that time, but Studaker describes it as almost as wide as a "flat" or horizontally opposed engine, creating east-west space problems in the Special's engine bay. During this era Pontiac was touting its "Wide Track" design; Studaker says a 120-degree V-6 would have necessitated "Wide Wide Track" in the Special. The clincher in favor of Buick's V-6 was that it could be built at the existing engine plant in Flint, which was tooled to produce 90-degree engines.
Though the V-6 won critical acclaim and successfully filled an economy niche in Buick's lineup, most buyers were getting their "voom" from V-8s instead of V-6s. In 1963, 40 percent of the 148,770 Specials and Skylarks produced were powered by the V-6. In 1964, the Special/Skylark moved up to a larger and heavier intermediate-size 115-inch-wheelbase chassis (120 inches for wagons). That same year, displacement of the V-6 grew from the original 198 cubic inches to 225.
Meanwhile, GM sold the rights of the aluminum V-8 to Rover (and that engine is still with us in updated form in their luxury sport-utilities!), and Buick switched to a 300-cid cast-iron engine for its small V-8. The V-6 was bored to 3.75 inches and stroked to 3.40 to make it three-fourths the size of the 300 V-8, thus allowing the two engines to share pistons, rods, and other key components. Horsepower jumped by 20, to 155 -- the same as the base version of the departed aluminum V-8.
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1967 Buick V-6 Fireball
By 1967, as the horsepower war was really heating up, only about 10 percent of the 193,333 Specials/Skylarks came off the line with the V-6 Fireball. Most buyers were choosing one of the three V-8s offered in Buick's midsizers by then. A 300-cid V-8 was optional in the Special and upscale Skylark, and a 340-cid unit was available in the Skylark. In addition, the high-performance GS 400 variant of the Skylark debuted for 1967 with a monster 340-bhp 400 V-8.
Oldsmobile had made the V-6 standard in its F-85 compact for 1964, and production of Olds models with this engine reached 66,100, the high-water mark at that time. Olds, however, switched to the 250-cid Chevrolet straight six for 1966. With the Buick Special and Skylark as GM's only customers for the V-6, production fell to less than 20,000 units in the 1967 model year -- hardly enough to warrant keeping the engine in production.
The V-6 thus became an unwanted stepchild at GM, so the rights to that motor were sold to Kaiser-Jeep for an undisclosed sum. The tooling was shipped to Toledo, Ohio, where the engine was produced as the "Dauntless V-6" until 1971. For 1968, the Special and Skylark were redesigned (gaining about 100 pounds), along with the similar Chevrolet Chevelle, Olds F-85/Cutlass, and Pontiac Tempest/Le Mans. At this point, Buick had little choice but to follow Oldsmobile's lead and switch to the Chevy inline six as the base engine for its intermediates.
GM was temporarily out of the V-6 business -- until war in the Middle East completely changed the political and economic landscape. In October 1973, OPEC, the Arab-led oil cartel, shocked the world with an embargo. Suddenly, V-8s were out and fuel economy was in. Prodded by necessity, GM desperately wanted to bring its orphaned V-6 back into the family.
"We were going along fat, dumb, and happy with the economy, building bigger engines with V-8s all the time," Studaker remembers. "We had a 350 small job, we had a 430 for our upper series, we went to a 455, and we were working on engines in the 500- to 520-cubic-inch range when, all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. The oil embargo was instituted and, of course, 500- or 525-cubic-inch engines were no longer in vogue. Needless to say, the program stopped immediately."
With fuel economy the new Number One priority and no time to design a completely new engine, Buick looked in the parts bin. The only passenger-car six-cylinder engine in production at GM in 1973 was Chevrolet's old inline unit. The Chevy six, however, was too long to fit into Buick's new Skyhawk, a sporty spinoff of the Chevy Monza that was set to debut for 1975. But there was room for a V-6 ...
Buick engineers located one of their old V-6s in a junkyard on Dort Highway in Flint, Michigan (less than two miles from the factory where it had been produced), rebuilt it to factory specs, and installed it in an Apollo, the only 1974 Buick offered with a six-cylinder (the Chevy 250). The compact Apollo, a Chevy Nova clone, had arrived the year before as part of a GM badge-engineering binge. Oldsmobile's version was called Omega, Pontiac's the Ventura. String the first initials of the four cars together and they spell "NOVA." The V-6 fit easily into the Apollo's engine bay, which had been originally designed to hold either a straight six or a small-block V-8.
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The AMC V-6
Buick Chief Engineer Phillip Bowser sent word of the Apollo V-6 to GM President Edward N. Cole, who announced that he wanted to drive it. On December 17, 1973, Studaker drove the yellow Apollo prototype from Flint to the GM headquarters in downtown Detroit, followed by a chase car "just in case." He expected Cole would give it the usual perfunctory executive test drive.
"I'd been on these rides before with corporate management and knew what that usually entailed," Studaker said. "They get in the car, ride around the block a couple of times with you, get out of the car and say, 'Well, that was a very good job young man. We'll be in touch.' But this time it didn't happen that way. Ed got into the car and headed for Interstate 75 and turned south. I couldn't figure out where we were going. When I asked, he said, 'We're going down to Kaiser. We're going to talk with those people down there.'"
Accompanying Cole was his chief technical assistant, an engineer by the name of Robert C. Stempel, who later became GM's chairman of the board. This was a pretty wild ride down the interstate, according to Studaker. Cole was a man with a mission: "He had his foot in the firewall the whole way, passing nearly every car on the road. He says, 'Man, we gotta have these engines. This is what we really need with this oil embargo. If we could get 50,000 to 100,000 of these, that would really help us.'"
Kaiser-Jeep Corporation was now owned by American Motors, and AMC representatives met Cole at the Toledo engine plant, where the V-6 tooling had been mothballed for more than two years. AMC's engineers favored their own straight-sixes over the V-6, in good part to achieve "economy of scale" in their own manufacturing operations. Besides, as one AMC executive pointed out, the V-6 was "rough as a cob." The old GM V-6 was thus dropped in Jeep products after 1971.
"So we went out into the factory, and we're walking down along the equipment, and Ed Cole was waving his arm and he says, 'How long do you think it would take you to get this line back in production? How many do you think you could build us in a year -- 25,000? Maybe 50,000? Even more than that? How much do you think they'd cost?'" Cole had a much greater sense of urgency than the AMC people, who figured they could tool up to build 20 engines an hour within a year. Cole said he needed 75 an hour by August. Studaker describes the stunned AMC executives as "standing there with their mouths open." They told Cole, "We'll get back to you."
Meanwhile, it was obvious there was much work to be done to update the V-6 to meet the stricter emissions regulations of the mid-Seventies while preserving fuel economy. That task was assigned to Buick Engineering. "We worked all through the Christmas holidays," according to Studaker. "They ran prototypes day and night at the Milford Proving Grounds," testing durability, emissions, and fuel economy. EPA certification required 50,000 miles on the odometer, so as soon as one driver's shift was over, another jumped behind the wheel.
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Buick's V-6 Returns
In January 1974, AMC did get back to GM about the Buick V-6. They were willing to sell V-6s, but at a price GM wasn't willing to pay. "We could have put 455 V-8s in every car and still saved money," Studaker says with some exaggeration. It looked like the two auto companies couldn't agree on price, so work on the V-6 was temporarily stopped at Buick. But when GM offered to buy back the tooling, AMC was more amenable, and the deal was completed in February -- barely seven months before the 1975 model year.
The tooling was hauled back to Flint, and jackhammers were used to knock out the concrete that had been poured in the footings at Factory 36. With the tooling reinstalled into its original anchors, Buick's engineers were put on a 150-day crash program to get the V-6 ready for the 1975 model year.
In addition to its more compact size, Buick engineers discovered the V-6 had other advantages over a straight-six, namely cleaner exhaust and better fuel economy. Studaker recalls what Chief Engineer Bowser used to say about the fuel economy, "You don't know where it came from, but you sure like it. I just call it serendipity, a kiss in the dark." Buick's tests indicated that the V-6 was about two mpg better than GM's inline six in city driving, three mpg better on the highway.
Before reentering production, the V-6's displacement was increased slightly from the previous 225 cubic inches to 231 (3800-cc), this so the V-6 could share more parts with the 350-cid V-8 Buick was then producing. The bore grew to 3.80 inches, while the stroke remained at 3.40.
Luckily, the revamped V-6 was also able to use most of the same emissions equipment as the V-8. This not only saved money, but also helped Buick meet the deadline for 1975 production because the smog controls had already been developed and tested. In August 1974, Buick announced that it was ready to build the V-6, just 137 days after the project had been given the green light. Normally, engine development took at least 18 months.
The resurrected V-6, outfitted with a two-barrel carburetor and rated at 110 net horsepower, was offered by Buick for 1975 in the midsize Century and Regal, the compact Skylark (the coupe version of the Apollo sedan, which continued using the Chevy inline six), and the Skyhawk, a 2+2 hatchback cloned from the Vega-based Chevy Monza. Oldsmobile also used the V-6 in its Starfire (a.k.a. Monza/Skyhawk).
A record 133,000 V-6s were produced by Buick that year. For 1976, Buick extended the V-6 to the full-size LeSabre, and Pontiac made it optional for its new Sunbird (another clone of the Monza/Skyhawk/Starfire), and production jumped to 238,300 units. By 1978, every GM division except Cadillac offered the V-6 in cars ranging from subcompact coupes to full-size sedans, and production increased to 342,059.
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1976-1996 Buick V-6
Economy may have been the inspiration for the Buick V-6 and its return to GM, but in 1976 a different spark ignited interest in this engine -- performance. A Buick Century T-Top coupe with a turbocharged 231-cid V-6 was chosen as the Official Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500, forecasting a production turbo engine that did in fact debut two years later. Two other V-6 Official Pace cars were to follow: a 1981 Regal coupe with a naturally aspirated 4.1-liter V-6 and the 1983 Riviera convertible 4.1 V-6 with twin turbos.
The pace cars gave the Brickyard its first hint of the racing potential of the V-6, which earned the pole for the 1985 Indy 500. Pancho Carter led the field that year with a full-race version of the V-6 that was clocked at a record-setting 212.583 mph. Seven years later, Roberto Guerrero drove a Buick V-6 at 232.482 mph to earn the Indy pole position with a qualifying record that stands today -- an impressive achievement for a push-rod engine with such humble origins. With a V-6 based on Buick's production engine, Scott Brayton won the 1995 Indy pole with a speed of 231.604 mph.
Buick built production turbocharged V-6s from 1978 through 1987, with the one in the limited-production 1987 Regal GNX (547 built) being the most famous. Officially, the GNX's 231-cid V-6 had 276 horsepower. Realistically, it was believed to be closer to 300 based on 0-60 times of under five seconds (4.7 according to one account), quicker than the Chevrolet Corvettes of the day. Between 1978 and 1993, GM also built V-6s with displacements of 173, 181, 196, 204, and 252 cubic inches (2.8, 3.0, 3.2, 3.3, and 4.1 liters); all were derived from the design used for the original Buick V-6.
The V-6's reputation as a "shaker" led Buick to start a series of improvements that started in 1977, when Buick developed an even-firing sequence that made the engine much smoother. "We split the crank pin by 30 degrees at each stroke and actually made it a six-stroke crank with 120-degree spacing -- even-firing intervals. That was probably the most significant development during my tenure as far as keeping the engine a viable one for long-term usage," said Studaker, who retired in 1980 after 34 years with GM, the last 30 with Buick.
In 1988, Buick reworked the 3.8-liter V-6 so extensively that it renamed it the "3800 V-6," this for its metric displacement. It featured sequential-port fuel injection, a gear-driven balance shaft (to reduce vibration), roller lifters, and on-center crank pins. The result was 23 percent less reciprocating mass, less vibration, and reduced piston friction. Horsepower moved up ten percent, to 165 at 4,800 rpm, while torque jumped to 210 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm. The 3,800 propelled the new limited-edition Reatta two-seater from 0-60 in just under ten seconds, provided improved mid-range acceleration, and yielded 19 mpg city, 29 highway, according to the EPA.