Junkyard Find: 1981 Buick LeSabre Diesel

junkyard find 1981 buick lesabre diesel

Ah, the disastrous GM diesel V-8 cars of the 1978-85 model years, equipped with failure-prone engines that scared generations of Americans away from diesel cars. Nowadays, of course, diesels work just fine (except when they don’t), but it’s good to see the occasional reminder of these miserable GM cars in the junkyard as part of our American automotive heritage. Only problem is, just about all of these cars were crushed or had gasoline-engine swaps decades ago (I recall helping my uncle drop a Chevy 307 into a very clean Olds 88, around 1988 or so).

Here’s an extremely rare example that I found in a San Francisco Bay Area self-service yard last week.

With gas prices out of control thanks to events far away, the cheapness and fuel efficiency of the diesel engine seemed appealing to many Americans who might have dismissed it as a stinky, clattery, hard-to-start Freightliner powerplant just a few years earlier. A big 350-cubic-inch diesel V-8 making 205 lbs-ft of torque would make a B-body LeSabre get out of its own way reasonably well, too.

Sadly, The General made a sturdier version of the 350 engine block to deal with the higher compression ratios of a diesel engine, but then he thought he’d save a buck by using the same cylinder-head bolts and bolt pattern as the regular gas 350. This allowed the diesel engines to be built using much of the same machinery as their gasoline brethren … but also encouraged head gaskets to fail early and often. Many did.

There were other problems with the Olds diesels, but it was all the blown head gaskets on eight-month-old cars that really did the damage to GM’s already-battered image.

Could this be the actual mileage, or is it really 118,053 or 218,053? The car seems too nice for the latter figure.

There they go, Elmer!

Join the conversation
2 of 79 comments
  • MRF 95 T-Bird MRF 95 T-Bird on Jan 21, 2016

    Back in the late 80's I owned a 1980 Olds Toronado diesel coupe. It was charcoal grey with a maroon velour interior and most options including a steel sunroof, no vinyl roof but oddly no tilt wheel. Bought it from the original owner for a mere $500 who had a new Goodwrench motor put in under warranty. I did have a very good aftermarket fuel/water separator which I think kept it running well. I got a couple of fairly reliable years out of it (28 MPG highway!) with normal maintenance mainly a rebuilt brake hydro-boost unit(since diesels had no vacuum the brake booster was hydraulic and connected to the power steering pump) new alternator, glow plugs and their controller. Then around 100k it starring making demonic sounds like a death metal band and blew up. I thought about buying a 307,350 or 403 and drop it in but I figured I'd cut my losses and sold it to a E-body aficionado.

  • Andrew Andrew on Jan 24, 2016

    About two years ago I stopped by a classic car shop here in Portland that always has some neat rare stuff and occasionally has some other rare but not-so-neat stuff. That day I was in for a surprise: tucked in the back was the Malaise-y-est brown 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass diesel complete with Malaise-y opera lights and a brown vinyl roof. You could have eaten off any part of the vehicle you desired and the original owner even took to removing the old registration stickers from the plate before applying the new ones. The odometer showed 12,741 miles confirmed to be original despite having a 5-digit display. I regret not asking them to start it up for me but part of me wonders where that car is now. That shop later picked up a 1976 Granada Ghia with 32,000 original miles and all whore-house red but when I saw that, I was there mostly for the Packard Super Eight.

  • Snickel Fritz I just bought a '97 JX 4WD 4AT, and though it's not quite roadworthy yet I am already in awe of it's simplicity and apparent ruggedness. What I am equally in awe of, is the scarcity of not only parts but correct information regarding anything on this platform. I'm going to do my best to get this little donkey back on it's feet, but I wouldn't suggest this as a project vehicle for anyone who doesn't already have several... and a big impressive shop with a full suite of fabrication/machining/welding equipment, and friends with complimentary skillsets, and extra money, and... you get the idea. If you don't, I urge you to read up on the options for replacing anything on these rigs. I didn't read enough before buying, and I have zero of the above suggested prerequisites... so I'm an idiot, don't listen to me. Go buy all of 'em!
  • Bryan Raab Davis I actually did use the P of D trope, but it was only gentle chiding, for I love old British cars of every sort.
  • ScarecrowRepair The 1907 Panic had several causes of increased demand for money:[list][*]The semi-annual shift of money between farms and cities (to buy for planting and selling harvests)[/*][*]Britain and Germany borrowing for their naval arms race[/*][*]San Francisco reconstruction borrowing after the 1906 earthquake and fire[/*][/list]Two things made it worse:[list][*]Idiotic bans on branch banking, which prevented urban, rural, and other state branches from shifting funds to match demands. This same problem made the Great Depression far worse. Canada, which allowed branch banking, had no bank failures; the US had 9000 failures.[/*][*]Idiotic reserve requirements left over from the Civil War which prevented banks from loaning money; they eventually started honoring IOUs illegally and started the recovery.[/*][/list]Been a while since I read up on it, so I may have some of the details wrong. But it was an amazing clusterfart which could have been avoided or at least tamed sooner if states and the feds hadn't been so ham handed.
  • FreedMike Maybe this explains all the “Idiots wrecking exotic cars” YouTube videos.
  • FreedMike Good article! And I salute the author for not using the classic “Lucas - prince of darkness” trope, well earned as it may be. We all know the rap on BL cars, but on the flip side, they’re apparently pretty easy to work on (at least that’s the impression I’ve picked up). On the other hand, check the panel fits on the driver’s and passenger’s doors. Clearly, BL wasn’t much concerned with things like structural integrity when it chopped the roof off a car designed as a coupe.