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Buick v-6 left a remarkable 47-year legacy

The engine is the heart of the automobile, and to the average motorist the best ones are hardly ever seen.

The engine is the heart of the automobile, and to the average motorist the best

ones are hardly ever seen. They simply do their jobs as a quiet, reliable and economical friend, and when a motor company designs a good one it hangs onto it as long as possible.

A good basic design is important, but it cannot be allowed to stagnate. One of the best examples of the evolution of a sound concept was the Buick V-6, later called the General Motors 3800 Series. The 3800 had an interesting history - surprisingly, not all within the GM family.

The Buick V-6 was introduced in late 1961 in the 1962 Buick Special and others. It was a bold move for GM, because V-6s were then unknown in American cars.

The production V-6 engine layout was pioneered in the Italian Lancia Aurelia in 1950. GM started using V-6s in some trucks in 1960, but the Buick V-6 was the first in an American car.

It came about in the early 1960s because Buick wanted an alternative to the expensive-to-build 3.5-litre aluminum V-8 that powered its senior compact.

Since underhood room was limited for an inline six, Buick decided to use that little V-8 as the basis for the development of an all-new V-6.

By cutting two cylinders off the V-8 and adding 3.3 millimetres to the bore and 10.2 mm to the stroke, it created a 3.2-litre V-6.

Although it was made of cast iron, thin-wall casting made it just 16 kilograms heavier than the aluminum V-8. General Motors then sold their small aluminum V-8 to British Leyland for its Rover vehicles.

Since the V-6 still had the V-8's 90-degree cylinder-bank angle, it had uneven firing sequences that made it inherently rougher-running than an inline or 60-degree six. Buick masked this as much as possible with crankshaft counterweights and soft engine mounts.

The V-6 grew to 3.7 litres 1964, but in an era of cheap gasoline, most motorists preferred a V-8.

Thus, when GM found itself with more sixes than it needed, it sold the Buick V-6 rights and tooling to the Kaiser-Jeep Corp. in 1967 for use in the Jeep. K-F named it the "Dauntless 225."

With the arrival of the first oil crisis in 1973, and the resulting Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, Buick needed more economical cars and a smaller engine. Engineers remembered their old V-6, scrounged one from a junkyard and rebuilt it. They found that it worked fine, so in 1974 Buick purchased the V-6 tooling back from Jeep Corp., now part of American Motors.

According to Buick historian Lawrence Gustin, by a stroke of luck Buick had never torn up the original V-6 tooling foundation in the floor of the Buick plant in Flint, Michigan. It had just been covered over, and when it was unearthed the V-6 tooling was reinstalled right where it had been removed seven years earlier. With displacement now up to 3.8 litres, the V-6 reappeared in the subcompact 1975 Skyhawk and Apollo and was used by other GM divisions.

In a world now very concerned with fuel economy, Buick began to see a six-cylinder future even for its full-size cars. A program of improvement and refinement began on the V-6 that would take it through Series I, Series II and finally to Series III.

Developments included even-firing cylinders in 1977 via an ingenious split-pin crankshaft; turbocharging in '78; freer breathing in '79; fuel injection in '84; roller valve lifters in '86; a balance shaft in the engine vee in '88; and supercharging in '91.

Over the years, the V-6 also benefited from the latest in electronic engine management and improved combustion-chamber and piston design. In the process, it evolved into an economical and reliable powerplant.

It also proved very versatile. Installed both longitudinally and laterally, in front-wheel drive and rear drive, it was shrunk and enlarged over the years from 3.0 to 4.1 litres. It powered all sizes of GM cars right up to the Cadillac.

The 3800 Series was a real workhorse engine for GM. It was virtually as smooth and quiet as a V-8 and had adequate output, right up to 260 horsepower in supercharged form. In its ultimate stage of development, it even powered many Indianapolis 500 race cars, including sitting on the pole three times.

But by the early 21st century, the 3800 Series was an old design with its cast-iron construction, pushrods and two valves per cylinder. In the modern high-tech world of overhead cams and four-valve heads, it would ultimately have to be replaced. When this happened in August 2008 after more than 25 million had been made, Buick's V-6 left behind a remarkable legacy.

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