Reynolds Aluminum was pretty proud of this engine. The engine was all-new when it made its debut with the newly introduced Chevrolet Vega in 1971. It was just around the time that General Motors could no longer pretend to ignore the Japanese imports gnawing away at its market share. Ed Cole, for one, had had enough. Cole was GM president and COO in the late 1960s. A year after assuming the office of GM president in 1967, Cole initiated Project XP-887 envisioned as a fighter brand against imports.
Project XP-887 would later morph into the Chevrolet Vega, an economical car smaller than any GM model ever built in America and rocking an all-new inline-4 engine producing up to 110 horsepower via a two-barrel Rochester carburetor and 8:1 compression.
Reynolds was proud of the engine’s die-cast aluminum alloy open-deck block comprising 77 percent aluminum, 17 percent pure silicon, four percent copper, and one percent iron. Reynolds called it the “A-390.” It was a novel engine technology. A Reynolds ad at that time read; “… Reynolds Automotive Team shows the engine that makes iron cylinder sleeves obsolete.” So, how did this engine and the car carrying it end up as Chevrolet’s first major blunder?
The GM 2300 Inline-Four Engine Overview
GM’s Chevy division produced the 2.3-liter (139.6 cu-in) inline-4 (with 2,287cc displacement) between 1971 and 1977, same model years as the Chevrolet Vega and Chevrolet Monza. The engine’s primary distinguishing feature is – as stated earlier – its die-cast aluminum alloy cylinder block comprising 17% silicon.
It was, at the time, a novel and high-tech engine technology whereby the pure silicon particles eliminated the need for heavy iron cylinder liners that came with a $2 per cylinder price tag. That’s because pure silicon is scuff- and wear-resistant, similar to quartz. The engine block’s main caps and crankshaft were cast iron to improve structural integrity, camshaft bearing longevity, and overall lower cost of production.
General Motors had the engine block and cylinder heads cast at its aluminum casting foundry, Massena Casting Plant, in Massena, New York. They used Accurad die-casting process to ensure an even distribution of the silicon particles. The Chevrolet 2300 engine had a bore and stroke of 88.9-mm (3.501-inch) and 92.1-mm (3.625-inch) and featured a valvetrain using a sleeveless aluminum block direct-acting SOHC design.
The Chevrolet Vega Gave The 2300 Inline-Four Engine A Bad Name
Actually, Chevrolet wasn’t the only GM division in the ’60s on a mission to challenge the usurping imports. Pontiac was on the same mission too, with both GM divisions pursuing separate projects but with a similar goal. Ed Cole was still GM’s executive vice president of operating staff in 1977 when he presented the group’s president with a small car project of his own. This was separate from Chevrolet and Pontiac’s small car programs.
General Motors thing Cole’s proposal over Chevy and Pontiac’s versions. This winning proposal by Ed Cole is what we got to know as the Chevy Vega, manufactured and sold from 1970 until 1977. Vega was a subcompact in sedan, hatchback, wagon, and notchback flavors, all of which got propulsion power from the supposedly innovative inline-4 engine with a lightweight aluminum alloy cylinder block. The Chevrolet Vega launched to high acclaim when it hit the dealerships on September 10, 1970, for the 1971 model year.
It won notable awards, including Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1971. The initial high praise is proof of the car’s potential, perfect timing, and innovative features. With time, however, the Chevrolet Vega developed a reputation for a slew of problems, including problematic engineering, poor reliability, a propensity to rust, and poor safety, most of which seemed to boil down to the engine’s reliability.
In fact, the problematic engine would become central to Vega’s market rejection and ultimate failure. It mattered little that GM initiated a series of recalls and design upgrades. The model seemed on a mission to sink General Motors despite a slew of variants, most notably, the short-lived 1975 limited-production Cosworth Vega performance model.
Why The 1971-1977 Chevrolet 2300 Inline-Four Engine May Have Been Misunderstood
Vega got named after Lyra, the constellation’s brightest star. It’s rather unfortunate that Vega’s shine was so short-lived. Most people blame it on the engine, which we don’t argue. But what if the 2300 inline-four was just misunderstood? As every Austin Dillon needs a Paul Swan, even the best engines need optimum functioning parts.
People most often blamed the cylinder wall’s poor coating and absence of a coolant recovery tank in the debut models as primary culprits of the Chevy 2300 inline-4’s poor outing on the Chevrolet Vega. However, the matter was hardly black and white.
The engine’s Accurad die-casting process ensured even distribution of the silicon throughout the engine block, with subsequent machining and etching at a different production plant in Lordstown, Ohio, leaving the cylinder bores of pure silicon and eliminating the need for heavy iron cylinder liners. Multiple sources confirm the absence of liners in aluminum engines isn’t the problem. This got demonstrated by models like Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, and Audi – all used linerless aluminum engines for years without sharing in Chevrolet Vega’s fate.
So, blaming the linerless design of the Chevy inline-4 Reynolds-developed aluminum engine is baseless. However, the absence of cylinder liners become problematic mixed with other engine problems – which were many, including backfiring and carburetor issues. But even more problematic was the automaker’s decision to marry the linerless aluminum block with a cast-iron cylinder head. Why? As Aaron Severson explained in Ate Up With Motor,
“If an aluminum/iron engine overheats, the aluminum side will expand faster than the iron side, putting considerable stress on the head gasket (which mates the head to the block) and eventually causing it to fail. Since aluminum is softer than iron, severe overheating can also cause the aluminum to warp, resulting in permanent damage.”
As Severson agrees in his expose, Chevy’s aluminum/iron head and block inline-4 engine by no means have a monopoly on this problem. But the silicon particles add to the vulnerability because excessive overheating could soften the cylinder bores, resulting in the pistons scuffing.
Chevy could fix this by doing something to prevent the engine from overheating, except that Ed Cole came to a miscalculated conclusion that the aluminum ultimately eliminates the engine’s need for a radiator. A subsequent attempt by Chevy engineers to rectify this goof with a larger coolant recovery tank was too little too late. Ultimately, the 1971-’77 Chevy 2300 inline-4 had great potential – just poorly packaged.
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