While David Byrne sang “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile,” I hope to god it isn’t this one. This sad hunk of Detroit steel is a 1982 Oldsmobile 98 diesel, and it might just be the worst project car you can buy right now.
The listing for this car was dragged across the Autopian Slack channel by none other than David Tracy himself. Look, bad project cars can be fun. Jason’s Yugo is cobbled together with all the care of a drunken frat bro defenestrating a folding chair, yet it’s endearing. It has a plucky, misfit character to it that leans into its own punchline. It’s Mike Wazowski on four wheels, a vehicle that approaches its ribbing with good nature. The Oldsmobile 98 diesel? It’s not even deserving of a punchline. It was a miserably unreliable vehicle when it was new, born of bare-minimum budgets and bare-minimum efforts. Some forty years ago, this pompous, smoking, wheezing belch of a car grimly heaved itself off the assembly line in Lansing, Mich. and had the gall to call itself a flagship.
Sure, the 98 may have been designed by Bill Mitchell, but even the greatest artists have duds. After all, Harris Mann designed the Morris Ital. The rear end of the Ninety-Eight has no tact, it’s a clash of mismatched geometric shapes forced into each other at uncouth angles. At the front, the Ninety-Eight suffers from a bit of Ingolstadt-itis – a family face so barely modified from lesser models that it’s positively devoid of grandeur. No risks were taken, no element of intrigue was created. If you wanted a huge GM car in 1982 that wasn’t a Cadillac, you’d have likely bought a Buick Electra. The Electra had a sense of style.
While the styling of the Ninety-Eight is as bland as the food at Cracker Barrel, the diesel engine in this particular car is downright malevolent. The man in charge of GM during the Oldsmobile diesel V8’s development was one Thomas Murphy. While the 2 Roger 2 Smith: Cost Cutting Drift era was a bad one for GM, the Murphy era was arguably worse. See, Murphy was an accountant who’s credited for saying, “General Motors is not in the business of making cars. It is in the business of making money.” True to Murphy’s word, the bottom line always seemed more important to GM than the cars it produced from 1974 to 1980. The Oldsmobile diesel V8 is a prime example of corporate cost cutting – hastily rework a gasoline engine to run on diesel fuel in order to meet fuel economy requirements. When I say hastily, I really do mean hastily. The head bolts were unchanged from the gasoline engines, leading to head bolt failure from compression chamber pressures. Head bolt failure led to head gasket failure, which could dump coolant into the cylinders and hydrolock the engine.
Mind you, head bolt failure wasn’t the only way water could get into the cylinders on a diesel Oldsmobile. Diesel fuel in the late-’70s and early-’80s was rubbish stuff, often contaminated with water. The prudent way of solving this was to include a water separator, but GM was too cheap for that. It’s worth mentioning that water separation can be countered with a little ethanol, as ethanol is hydrophilic. However, anyone who put ethanol in the tank of a diesel Oldsmobile would be rewarded with ruined fuel system components. Lovely stuff. In addition, the timing chain for the fuel pump would stretch. A minor problem compared to head bolt failure and water in the fuel, but an annoying and expensive one nonetheless. So what did all this trouble get you? In this 1982 car, 105 horsepower and 205 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s noticeably less power and similar torque to the smaller 307 cubic-inch gasoline V8. While the diesel did get 27 MPG combined, 6 MPG better than the gas-powered 307 V8 model, those fuel savings would be quickly eaten by maintenance costs. Not that it matters much, this particular Ninety-Eight is said to be a non-runner.
Granted, it might be worth it to the right person — someone who enjoys pain — to restore a clean but non-running diesel Olds. Emphasis on clean. This 1982 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight diesel isn’t just a non-runner, it’s in horrible shape altogether. All four tires are as deflated as Tom Brady’s footballs, the rear bumper is simply missing, the tailpipe appears to be growing out of the right rear wheel well, half the exterior trim has vanished and any semblance of luxury has been tarnished by 40 years of general dirt and ass water ground into the velour seats. The rear frame horns sit all cattywampus, possibly indicative of a massive shunt in this car’s past. Well, either that or the frame simply rotted out. This is a Michigan car, and every metal panel save for the hood seems to have rust on it. This Ninety-Eight’s dashboard features more cracks than the surface of El Mirage, its wheels are mismatched, its hood is primer red, its driver’s seat is out of a different car, and its front bumper fillers are as gone as Jimmy Hoffa. The grille and glass look good, but that’s about it. I know Michigan chews cars up and spits them out like Optimus Prime at an all-you-can-eat scrapyard buffet, but this one is particularly rough.
It’s not that I’m just a hater. I owned a crusty but trusty 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme as my first car and it was a gem. It was sturdy, durable, and surprisingly well-built for something from the Ste-Thérèse plant. However, this 1982 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight is a brown streak on GM’s underpants. All project cars come with costs far greater than their acquisition prices, but this one might cost a prospective Facebook Marketplace buyer $600 and their soul. It’s a black hole of infinite suckage, devoid of enjoyment and unworthy of redemption. Sometimes the past should stay buried.