The 215 cubic-inch V-8 motor is one of the most fascinating and long-lived engines in automotive history. The “215” has been built in both the US and Great Britain, and used to power an array of vehicle, from sedans to sports cars, race cars.
GM experimented with aluminum engines stating in the early 1950s. An early-development supercharged version of the 215-cubic inch V8 was used 1951 Le Sabre concept car and the 1953 Buick Roadmaster concept car, and work on a production unit commenced in 1956.
The 215 cubic-inch aluminum V8 was originally announced in 1960 as a lightweight economy engine for General Motors new line of compact cars; Buick Skylark, Olds Cutlass and Pontiac Tempest. The “215” first in the appeared in the 1961, with production ending in 1963 after ¾ million engines produced. There were two (2) versions available: Buick’s model and the Olds, which featured different heads, valve train and valve covers. Pontiac used the Olds version.
The reason that production ended so soon was a high rejection rate during the casting process, as GM used a pressure casting of the Reynolds 356 aluminum alloy around steel sleeves. A 2nd method was then tried by heat treating to T-6 condition, but the heat treating caused the steel sleeves to shift and rejection of the blocks continued.
GM cured the casting, but the advent of new thin wall iron casting soon rendered the aluminum motor too expensive and led to the cancellation of the “215” after the 1963 model year.
Rights to these engines were purchased by the British Rover Company and used in the 1967 Rover P5B that replaced the 3L straight six. Throughout the years, the Rover Co., which became part of British Leyland in 1968, continued improvement on the engine making it much stronger and reliable. The Rover V8 engine remained in production use for more than another 39 years. GM tried to buy it back later on, but Rover declined.
The 215 was also used in the Italian-American Gran Turismo Apollo in 1962-1963 as well as in the Asardo 3500 GM-S show car.
“215” VERSION DIFFERENCES
Buick’s 215 had a 4.24 in bore spacing, a bore of 3.5 in, and a stroke of 2.8 in, for an actual displacement of 215.5 cu in. At the time the engine was the lightest mass-production V8 in the world, with a dry weight of only 318 lbs. Measuring 28 in. long, 26 in. wide, and 27 in. high, it became standard equipment in the 1961 Buick Special. Oldsmobile and Pontiac each used an all aluminum 215 on its mid sized cars, the Oldsmobile F-85. Cutlass and Jetfire, Pontiac Tempest and LeMans. Pontiac used the Buick version of the 215, Oldsmobile had its own. The Oldsmobile version of this engine, although sharing the same basic features, had cylinder heads and angled valve covers designed by Oldsmobile engineers it looked like a traditional Olds V8 and was produced on a separate assembly line. The Oldsmobile engine was 350 lbs. as compared to the Buick engine weight of 318 lbs.
The major design differences were in the cylinder heads: Buick used a 5-bolt pattern around each cylinder where Oldsmobile used a 6-bolt pattern. The 6th bolt was added to the intake manifold side of the head, one extra bolt for each cylinder, meant to alleviate a head-warping problem on high-compression versions. This means that the Oldsmobile heads will fit on the Buick block, but not vice versa.
The Buick’s 215 was rated 155 hp at 4600 rpm. 220 lb-ft of torque at 2400 rpm with a Rochester 2GC two-barrel carburetor and 8.8:1 compression and a four-barrel carburetor, raising output to 185 hp at 4800 rpm and 230 lb-ft at 2800 rpm. For 1962, the four-barrel engine increased the compression ratio to 10.25:1, raising it to 190 hp at 48 rpm and 235 ft-lb. at 3000 rpm. The two-barrel engine was unchanged.
For 1963, the four-barrel was increased to 11:1 compression and 200 hp at 5000 rpm and 240 ft-lb. at 32 rpm.
DIFFICULTIES WITH PRODUCTION
The great expense of this engine was the aluminum which led to its cancellation after 1963 model year. The engine had a high scrap ratio due to hidden block casting porosity problems, which caused serious oil leaks. Another problem was clogged radiators from antifreeze mixtures incompatible with aluminum. It was said that factory could not detect leaks on engine block as much as 95%. Casting-sealing technology was not advanced enough at this time to prevent the high scrap rates.
THE “215” IN USE
The Buick 215’s high power-to-weight ratio made interesting for automotive and marine racing.
Mickey Thompson entered a stock-block Buick 215 powered car in the 1962 Indianapolis 500. In 1962, the Buick 215 was the only non-Offenhauser powered car in the 33-car field. Dan Gurney qualified eight but did not finish the race because of transmission problems.
Surplus Oldsmobile engine blocks formed the basis of the Australian Formula One Repco V8 used by Brabham and won the Formula One Championship in 1966.
Rights to the 215 engines were purchased by the British Rover Company and used in the 1967 Rover P5B. In 1968 the Rover Co., became part of British Leyland, Improvements were made making the engine much stronger and reliable. The 215 used by the Range Rover saw the engine into countless other platforms (Chevrolet Vegas and British MG sports car. Although dropped by GM in 1963, the Rover V8 engine remained in production for more than another 39 years, even longer on the aftermarket. GM tried to buy back the rights to the 215 later on, but Rover declined, instead offering to sell engines back to GM. GM refused this offer.
BOBBY PARKER ON DRIVING A 215 IN A MIDGET:
“I drove a Buick/midget owned by Keith Anderson on several occasions and it had plenty of power! The car was designed for a four-cylinder engine, so in order to stuff the V8 in there, it had to sit up pretty high in the chassis. This made for great weight transfer coming off the corner, but you never knew what it was going to do going into a turn. I did win some races with it, but is was a bit quirky to drive. I told Keith to get some young kid who would stand on the gas and not worry about stopping to drive it. He went out and got Jan Opperman and they did really well!”