2004 3800 Series II supercharged
2004 3800 Series II supercharged. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

Although hidden away from view, the engine is still the heart of the automobile. But unlike assembly quality, paint, upholstery, tires, etc., the engine isn’t visible every day.

In fact, the best engine to the average motorist is one that is hardly ever seen at all. It simply goes on day in and day out doing its job as a durable, reliable and economical friend that never lets one down. When a motor company designs a good engine, then, it’s not surprising that it hangs onto it as long as it can.

Although good basic designs are important, they can never be allowed to stagnate. One of the best examples of the evolution of a sound concept is the General Motors 3.8 litre V-6, now called the 3800 Series, that currently powers some mid-size and large GM models.

Although now past its 40th birthday, beyond retirement for most engines, the 3800 just seems to get better, whether in naturally aspirated or supercharged form.

The 3800 has had an interesting past, not all of which, surprisingly, was with GM. When it first saw the light of day in late 1961 in the 1962 Buick Special, it was a bold move for GM. Few cars had used V-6s, the most notable being the Italian Lancia Aurelia which had appeared in 1950. GM had installed V-6s in trucks, but their use of a V-6 car engine was a first for an American manufacturer.

The V-6 was developed because Buick wanted an alternative to its 3.5 litre (215 cu in.) aluminum V-8 for its senior compacts. The 215 was a sweet little engine, but it was expensive to build.

Since there was barely adequate room under the hood for an inline six, Buick decided to use the little V-8 as the basis for an all-new V-6. Cutting off two cylinders, and adding 3.3 mm (0.125 in.) to the bore, and 10.2 mm (0.40 in.) to the stroke, created a V-6 of 3.2 litres (198 cu in.).

Although made of cast iron, it was quite light, thanks to the use of thin-wall casing techniques. It weighed only about 21 kg (46 lb) more than the aluminum V-8 from which it was derived. Since it still had the V-8’s 90-degree cylinder bank angle, it was inherently rougher running than an inline six because the firing frequencies were not spaced evenly apart. GM tried its best to mask this with soft engine mounts.

The V-6 soldiered on for several years, providing good reliable service and growing to 3.7 litres (225 cu in.) 1964. This was, however, the era of cheap gasoline, and most motorists worshipped at the alter of the high performance V-8 engine.

Fuel economy wasn’t much of a concern and the term energy crisis hadn’t yet entered our vocabulary. Thus, in 1967 GM found itself with more six cylinder engines than it needed, so it sold the Buick V-6 rights and tooling to the Kaiser-Jeep Corp. for use in the Jeep.

But soon the whole fuel economy equation would change, and events of 1973 would bring a dramatic transformation to the motoring world. Late in the year the Yom Kippur war resulted in the first “oil crisis.” Drivers were faced with skyrocketing gasoline prices, line-ups at the pumps, and even the fear of an ultimate shortage. The North American continent with its big cars and wide-open spaces saw its whole motorized way of life being threatened.

Auto manufacturers responded the best they could with smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Buick developed a subcompact model based on the Chevrolet Vega platform. To power its new car GM convinced the Jeep Corp., now part of American Motors, to sell the V-6 back to it. GM had never torn up the original foundation for the V-6 tooling, it had just covered it over. When this was unearthed, the V-6 tooling was re-installed on the same foundations it had left seven years earlier! With its displacement now up to 3.8 litres (231 cu in.), the V-6 engine reappeared in the 1975 Buick Skyhawk.

2001 3800 Series II for Chevrolet
2001 3800 Series II for Chevrolet. Click image to enlarge

In a world now more concerned with fuel economy, Buick began to see its future in six-cylinder power, even for its full-size cars. A program of evolutionary improvement began on the V-6. It got even firing via a split-pin crankshaft in 1977; turbocharging in ’78; freer breathing in ’79; fuel injection in ’84; roller lifters in ’86; a balance shaft in the engine vee in ’88; and supercharging in ’91.

Over the years the V-6 also benefitted from the latest in electronic engine management, and such refinements as improved combustion chamber and piston design. In the process it evolved into a very economical and reliable powerplant.

The 3800 Series became the standard workhorse engine for many of GM’s cars, including full-size Buicks, Chevrolets and Pontiacs. It is virtually as smooth and quiet as a V-8, and has adequate power: 205 horsepower normally aspirated, and 240 supercharged.

In the early 21st century there is no doubt that the 3800 Series is an old design with its cast iron construction, and pushrods operating two valves per cylinder. In today’s high-tech world GM’s venerable V-6 will ultimately be replaced. And when it is, it will leave behind a remarkable history.

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