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Top 11: Worst Engines of the 1980’s

Top 11: Worst Engines of the 1980’s

Ah, the 1980’s. Chevy Chase going ballistic at his family. Christie Brinkley in a droptop Ferrari. Hair metal. Things were good…unless you were into cars. The musclecar movement was only just starting to show a sign of life after being on an iron lung for ten years, and the hottest supercars from Italy were cranking out maybe 400hp. And that was the positive end of the scale. Here’s the negative end, the Top 11 Worst Engines of the 1980s.

11. 2.8L PRV ZMJ-159 V6: The DeLorean DMC-12’s body was pure Eighties sexiness, with just a touch of exotica. The stainless body, designed by Giugiaro, had seemed to predict the nose of the early Fox mustang and the tail of the 3rd Gen Camaro. But for a car that the father of the Pontiac GTO designed, the car had absolutely no guts. The “PRV” stands for Peugeot, Renault, Volvo…not quite the manufacturers that came to mind for performance in the 1980s. It was rated for 150hp in Europe, but was choked to 130hp for the U.S. market. Seeing “serious shit” at 88mph? That probably meant when the rods would come out of the block.

10. LQ8/LQ9 GM “Iron Duke” I4: Average hp: 87. Average ft/lb torque: 127. Average disappointment finding one in your vehicle: high. This sad little four cylinder found it’s way into plent of GM products, as well as AMC’s, Jeeps, and the Grumman LLV (that boxy thing that replaced Postal Jeeps). And let’s not forget two highlights: In the Pontiac Fiero, it was a firestarter, and in the Camaro and Firebird, was the icing on your disappointment cupcake. There is nothing sadder than a Camaro with only 90hp.

9. GM 267ci V8: At the end of the Seventies, manufacturers were downsizing engine sizes in a desperate bid to meet emissions and mileage concerns. The 267 couldn’t do either well, and didn’t share components with other GM engines, so it was killed off in 1982.

8. Ford 255ci V8: De-bore the well-regarded 302, put on a restrictive head design, and delete the manual trans option. Yeah, that was a great package for the new Fox platform. To put this into perspective: This is the lowest V8 rating for the Mustang ever, and was only 5hp better than the Mustang II’s 2.8L V6. Luckily, Ford learned the same lesson that GM did, killed it after two years, and brought out the vaunted 5.0L V8.

7. Chrysler 318: It’s very hard to hate on Mopar’s small-block. It’s durable. It’ll run on damn near no oil while overheating. However, 5.2L of V8 should be able to produce some semblance of power, not the 150hp lump breathing out of three catalytic converters you could usually find in the Diplomat. However, many a speeder learned that a lot of cops knew how to hot-rod a Chrysler small block, and got the shock of their life when one rolled up on their Corvette like it was nothing.

6. Ford 1.6L CVH I4: When Ford decided that a good, small, fuel efficient but sporty car was needed, they built the EXP, a two-seater Escort that had..uh…interesting looks and a fire-breathing 70hp four. Yeah. The upgrade got you 80hp. The only bright side out of this story? Car and Driver somehow got 44mpg out of a manual-trans EXP during testing, which is on par with a Prius. Guess how this story ended?

5. Maserati BiTurbo 2.5 and 2.8L V6: The idea that Alejandro deTomaso was running things at Maserati should have produced nothing but joy. The man responsible for the Pantera, an Italian supercar with the swagger and strength of a cocky American, was a match made in heaven. The Maser he produced, the BiTurbo, came straight from hell. Nevermind the horrifying quality and the overloaded electronics…if you have to put “reliable and strong if not abused” in the description of an Italian engine, you have failed. No wonder Jeremy Clarkson dropped a dumpster on one.

4. Chrysler 2.2L I4: This was Chrysler’s go-to block, just as the absolutely indestructible Slant Six was in the Sixties and Seventies. Unlike those engines, the 2.2 had a carburetor that was designed to piss off mechanics everywhere, timing that had less accuracy than a blind man’s dart throw, and a distributor shaft that moved enough that it would cause the rotor to snap off, shutting the car down. While it is a stout platform, with most of the design based upon the Slant Six, the execution in early forms was absolutely piss-poor and soured what was otherwise Chrysler’s great comeback from the dead.

3. GM 305ci Small Block: Yay, it’s a V8! Wait, what do you mean 150hp?! This was GM’s standard V8 throughout the Eighties, and while power was something to hide in shame, at least you had a V8 sound and if you didn’t beat the holy hell out of it, reliability. Later on, the F-twins and the Monte Carlo SS got the 190hp/240tq L69 version, and the LE9 and LB9 got the numbers up to 230hp/300tq.

2. GM diesels: You can’t pick just one. The Oldsmobile 5.7 V8, the 4.3 V6, hell I’ll even throw in the Detroit Diesel 6.2L …the power levels were pathetic for a diesel across the board for both horsepower and torque. At least the 6.2L was dead-nuts reliable, if underpowered. The 5.7 and 4.3 were based off the gasoline blocks, which meant that even with strengthened blocks, they were prone to failure from the start, and fail they did. Oops. At least the 5.7 can be converted to run on fuel for a killer race block.

1. Cadillac V8-6-4: The last traditional big-block engine from Cadillac, the 368ci V8 was equipped with Eaton electronics to create what they called “Modulated Displacement” to shut down cylinders as they weren’t needed for highway cruising. This was done by a device that would disengage the rockers, allowing the rockers to float while the valves were shut. Good concept? Yes. Bad execution. In the early 1980s the processing power of computers wasn’t up to par and the EGR levels weren’t nearly high enough, so that when the cylinders dropped, the engine pinged like a mother. The solution was to cut the “3rd Gear” wire from the transmission and just run the car like a V8.

Any engines missed? Add your comments below!


*sniff!* “Why you guys gotta be so mean?”


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50 thoughts on “Top 11: Worst Engines of the 1980’s

  1. mooseface

    In defense of the Iron Dukes, one of those little buggers stuffed into a first-gen S10 was a pretty good combo for a mini-truck.
    Convert the front hubs to manual locking, drop in a locking rear diff and taller gears and they’re actually a really good trail truck.
    Too bad GM is allergic to ground clearance.
    And build quality.
    And worthwhile designs.

    1. Chris

      Had one a iron duke in a 80 shoebox Monza with a 4spd. It was good on gas and fun in the snow (ebrake handle). Even though the power level sucked, it was very durable.

    2. bill johnson

      I have one in an 85 celeberty that got 34.4 mpg from AK to Okla in 5 days and 5 hours.4 speed trans. sort of slow on the pick up but will cruse at 65 all day

  2. Danny

    Pretty much all of those motors did exactly what they were designed to do. None were designed to make 400 HP. You guys kill me, first you drool over a 1700 CU 4 cylinder that only made 300 HP and turn around and diss engines that were detuned to meet emissions rather than make HP. All of these motors respond to the usual HP tricks, some actually were quite decent when tuned properly.

  3. Blue'67CamaroRS

    Hey now, the lil 267 wasn’t too bad. A customer had an ’82 Malibu 4dr that he bought to our shop, for service. We thought it was a 305 until we changed the belt & saw the spec sticker on the fan shroud…..it sure wasn’t a powerhouse, but wasn’t as weak suck as some of them

  4. Turbo Regal

    1980 Pontiac Turbo 301 – a gutless, carborated turbo on a V8 based on 2 of the aforementioned iron Duke 4 cylinders mated together. It was especially galling that it replaced the 6.6 liter 400 from the previous year as the Trans Am’s top engine.

  5. Greg

    “4. Chrysler 2.2L I4: This was Chrysler’s go-to block, just as the absolutely indestructible Slant Six was in the Sixties and Seventies. Unlike those engines, the 2.2 had a carburetor that was designed to piss off mechanics everywhere”

    Only the ones who didn’t know how to tune a Holley 5200 series. It was based on the Weber 32/36 & I never had one that I couldn’t make purr in less than a hour. They were a good design dating back to the early 70’s.

  6. Thy Name Be Pirate

    …a note about the Fiero: The reason why it was a firestarter wasn’t the engine…it was the electrical system. There used to be a Fiero-based Ferrari F40 kit-car builder in Redmond, Washington…his shop burned to the ground once due to that same electrical system. I seem to recall a relay issue…

    1. A.Trincilla

      Just another note on the Fiero. Although there WERE some recall mods for heat sheilding some wire harnesses, the MAIN cause of the fires were the iron dukes which would throw a rod through the side of the block causing oil to be dumped directly on the exhaust starting a fire which then would light up the plastic. GAME OVER at that point.

  7. Tom P

    Yes add the Pontiac 301, trade it for the 2.2 perhaps.

    I worked on a guys 267 Malibu, picked it up at his place and drove it here and after lifting the hood was surprised to see it wasn’t a six banger. No indication of any more than that through the gas pedal.

  8. Scott Liggett

    You forgot the GM 2.8 ltr V6 that popped up in 1980-ish that first showed up in front drive cars like the Chevy Citation and other crap cars. Then in rear drive form with the S10 and F bodies in 1982. Totally freaking gutless. Major problems with rear main seal leaks from day one. Many that were in front of four and five speed manuals ended up with windowed blocks from spirited, high rev driving. GM made improvements to oil leaks and lack of power with EFI by the late ’80’s, but they were on to slightly bigger engines by then.

  9. Gary

    You forgot Ford’s 3.3L(200c.i.) straight 6. It might have been good for something, but not for sitting between the shock towers of a Mustang.

  10. phlabbergasted

    Can’t leave out the wonderful Mitsubishi 3.0 V6. They loved to eat valve guides, seals, and camshafts. Eight out of every ten you saw on the road on the early mopar minivans were blowing out antifreeze smoke. (And not just a little). Then there was the problem with every nut and bolt on the first Hyundais…

  11. rtm 01

    Hates that The 318 us back in a lust like this. What about those half slant 4 cylinder jobs in k cars. Yugos or kias (b) or the four cylienders in a chevy luv. The 318 was underpowered ect but definatly not to be confused with junk and unbuildable.

  12. Jim Heiberger

    I gotta defend the Iron Duke. I had one in an ’86 Celebrity, my first car, and I drove the @ss out of it like it was my first car…like my first car that I stole and rented. Endless punishment, including red line neutral drops and every straight road was Bonneville. Looking back I’m amazed it and myself lived. The E-brake had to be replaced because I wore it out, the mechanic told my parents he’d never seen that before.

    You mention the pathetic 90 hp Iron Duke powered Camaros, no real fault of the engine, how about the 88 horsepower 2.3l 4 banger Mustangs? My buddy had one, he and I were perfectly matched. There wasn’t a road long enough in Ohio to find out who the eventual winner would be.

    The Duke always got me 25mpg’s too. It dutifully hung on until I sold it to a coworker, the sale helping me buy a ’72 Cutlass

  13. checker99

    Ford’s 2.3 inline 4 overhead cam. Base engine in Mustangs and Rangers it hsd cam oiling problems that made expensive repairs after the powertrain warranty was up.

    1. Fiat38

      The 2.3L Ford OHC 4 cylinder Lima engines that was put into Pinto’s, Mustang’s, and Ranger’s are very tough engines. It was the Ford HSC, and CVH 4 cylinders engines that were junk, those were never put in Pinto’s, Mustang’s, and Rangers. The CVH was the worst as it a interference engine, when the timing belt broke it bent the valves making repairs expensive.

  14. scott smith

    86-89 Hyundai Excel 1.5 were maintenance pigs. (Mitsubishi engine).
    The $3500 cars sold like crazy. I was a tech at the dealer, never sat down.
    Job security!

  15. Kent

    The cadillac 4100. Aluminum block with so much porosity that coolant seeped into the oil and rusted cams and bearings, often resulting in completeltly worn down cam lobes, and many other catastrophic failures. I had one. 2 wiped cam lobes. Fixed cam only to burn 3 transmissions, presumably from crank walk.

  16. Nytro

    While some of these engines do belong on this list, some do not.
    The fact that they weren’t fire breathing horsepower monsters doesn’t mean they were bad engines.
    The 305 Chevys in particular were great engines that did exactly what they were designed to do – just like the 307 from the late 60s.
    They didn’t make big power, but that wasn’t the intent.
    They made enough power that a full size car or truck would get down the road well enough for the average driver and do so without getting killed at the pump.
    They were not troublesome engines at all though, and actually were very reliable.

  17. Blake

    The iron duke was also a cool little motor to slap in a track t or model a, plentiful, dirt cheep and easily packaged, modable and a track t with 110 hp is not setting the world on fire but it’s a good time.

  18. old tech

    I think the HT4100 was WAAAAAAAAAY worse than several of these engines listed! The 5.7 diesel and the HT4100 should of been duking it out for the #1 spot! Most of the american engines listed suffered from some early production teething problems and were later sorted out with the introduction of EFI and some technology!!!

  19. Nitromike66

    The guys that mentioned GM’s 2.8L V6 forgot to add their propensity to have intake gasket failures around the coolant ports, filling the crankcase with coolant and wiping out the bearings.

  20. Louis McLaughlin

    The GM 200 Vsick.I had one in a 79 Malibu with a 3 speed standard,it was a turd !
    Had to pull a hill on the Interstate in 1st gear.

  21. lolthislist...

    what i got out of this list was engines that didint make enough horsepower for the authors tastes DURING AN EMISSIONS CRSIS…like danny said these engines were built for reliability which is what they did…

  22. Stewart Rose

    Worst engine I ever had was in my 1980 Chevy Monte Carlo….It was a GM 229 cu.in. V6…Car couldn’t get out of it’s own way and with it came a lockup converter that kicked in at about 40 mph and bogged the engine down so bad it felt like a 4 cylinder.

  23. Tom A.

    I’ll second (Third?) the votes for the Cadillac HT4100, and throw in two German engines that were severely lacking in precision: The Volkswagen Wasserboxer, which powered 1983-and-newer Vanagons (when it wasn’t leaking like a sieve because the cylinder bores and head gaskets – which were little more than O-rings – weren’t aligned exactly right), and the Mercedes-Benz OM603 that debuted in the 1986 300 SDL Turbo, a straight-six diesel which, between primitive particulate traps that overheated, defective connecting rods and warping aluminum heads, managed to plop itself right at the exact opposite end of the reliability spectrum that its four- and five-cylinder predecessors occupied (and still occupy).

  24. Steve

    1. The 267 & 305 were the same thing. More on that later.
    2. You harped on low power a lot when you said it yourself, no one had big power. Reliability should be the main criteria.
    3. I don’t think 9 out of 11 should’ve been American. Asian & European 4 cylinders were not much better for power or reliability back then.
    4. Two of the worst engines of the day were foreign engines in American cars. The Brazilian 4 cylinders in the gm j bodies were junk, and so were the Japanese v6 engines from the 1st gen minivans.
    5. The small block chevy is a tried & true design, one if the best engines ever. Grant it, the 267 & 305 are two of the worst versions ever.

  25. Brian

    I owned a lot of cars with a lot of these engines in the 80’s and early 90’s.
    I liked my Chrysler with the 318. It was a good engine. Not a power house, but a damn good engine. Too bad the automatic transmissions they put behind them were all junk.
    The GM 2.8 V6. GM’s worst engine ever.
    The iron duke I4 wasn’t a power house ether, but it was a damn good engine. I had one in an 81 citation, and a ’90 Grand Am. Both cars had manual transmissions. They were good reliable cars.
    The 2.2 Chrysler engine wasn’t great. I had a 2.2 turbo in my 87 Sundance. The whole car was a piece of shit, but the turbo and a 5 speed made it awesome… Until it all fell apart.

  26. S3bird

    Well my ’88 Fiero had a 2.5/5speed combo, while not fast it was reliable (for a Fiero). I beat that poor thing every time I drove it and it still gave decent MPG, used to hit mid 30s driving down to the university and it was a ton of fun in an empty parking lot after a fresh snow.

    At the time I thought a Quad 4 swap would have been sweet but I bought a ’94 Z28 (6 speed car) instead…

  27. killer of the giants

    This list is comical.. The author bags on a 4cyl making 90hp when v8’s are making 150.
    This is what happens when an author writes about a time before he was old enough to drive,or was even born..
    The fact that cars even still had v8’s available is a total win, in that dark time of the late 70’s and 80’s..
    Today we are spoiled with gaskets that don’t leak, and other tech that brought the hp back from the dead..

    1. bill johnson

      You are so right they were not old enough to remember the 215 v8 buicks of the early 60s I wasn’t driving with a lic back then. but I remember them.

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