1949 Oldsmobile 'Rocket' 88
1949 Oldsmobile ‘Rocket’ 88. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The 1949 Oldsmobile “Rocket” 88 could be called the 1932 Ford of its day. Henry Ford’s V-8-engine-in-a-light-body created one of the most spirited cars on the road in 1932; Oldsmobile did the same in 1949. Each was a performance sensation, although Oldsmobile moved it to a higher plateau and really began the modern high performance era.

Both were pioneering efforts. Whereas Ford brought smooth, velvety V-8 power to the popular price field, Oldsmobile – along with Cadillac – introduced the short stroke, overhead valve V-8 to the American scene, and set the standard for the North American auto industry for some 30 years.

This was not Oldsmobile’s first V-8. Its short-lived Viking “companion” car of 1929-’30 was also V-8 powered. The Viking was to be a kind of lower priced version of Cadillac’s LaSalle, introduced in 1927, but the Depression quickly killed it.

Oldsmobile began working on its new V-8, which it called the Rocket, in 1946. It was based on experimental work done by GM’s brilliant research director Charles Kettering, famous for many automotive engineering advancements, including Cadillac’s 1912 electric starter.

Kettering and co-worker Thomas Midgley, an engineer and chemist, had studied the problem of engine combustion knock caused by pre-ignition prior to 1930. Their experiments led them to add tetraethyl lead to gasoline. This raised the fuel’s octane, or resistance to knock, allowing much higher compression ratios. This “ethyl” gasoline went on sale in the mid-1920s. Just after World War II, Kettering built an experimental six-cylinder engine with the unheard of compression ratio of 12.0:1. It gave 35 to 40 per cent better fuel economy, and developed 25 percent more power than the normal 6.25:1 ratio. Kettering’s paper on high compression that he presented to the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1947 started a revolution in thinking among Detroit’s engineers.

Kettering’s findings fired up Oldsmobile engineers to press forward with development of a higher compression engine. They settled on the V-8 layout because it was compact, and its short crankshaft was sturdier than that of an inline eight.

Cadillac was also working on a new overhead valve, short stroke, high compression V-8, which was introduced in 1949, but the new Olds and Caddy engines shared no common parts.

The Olds V-8 Rocket engine appeared in the fall of 1948 in Oldsmobile’s top-of-the-line 98-series. It displaced 5.0 litres (303.7 cu in.), developed 135 horsepower, and replaced the 4.2 litre (257 cu in.) 115 horsepower side-valve, inline eight that dated back to 1932. The 76 series continued with Oldsmobile’s side-valve, inline six.

The 98 and smaller Cadillacs had received GM’s new post-war “Futuramic” styling in 1948. They were well received, but Olds engineers had an even better idea coming.

Olds installed the new V-8 into the light 76 series, new-for-1949 A-body, also shared with Chevrolet and Pontiac. They called the new series the 88, slotting it between the 76 and 98. Introduced as a mid-year model in February 1949, it was instantly nicknamed the “Rocket 88,” and chosen to pace the 1949 Indy 500.

The new 88, although only a half-year model, helped increase Oldsmobile’s sales from 171,518 in 1948 to 288,310 in the 1949 model year. In 1950 Olds sales reached 407,289, of which 268,414 were 88s. The success of the 88 convinced Olds to discontinue the six-cylinder 76.

While it was doing well in the showrooms, the new 88 was also cleaning up on the tracks. Almost overnight, the Rocket 88 vaulted Oldsmobile from a somewhat staid, conservative machine to a high performer that became the one to beat on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuits. It won six of the nine NASCAR late-model division races in 1949, 10 of 19 in 1950, and 20 of 41 in 1952. Although Oldsmobile’s racing glory would eventually be eclipsed by the low-slung, powerful Hudson Hornet, it was still the first real “King of NASCAR.”

For 1951 Olds introduced the Super 88 based on the heavier GM B-body, shared with Buick. Although the original 88 was continued, the division began concentrating its sales efforts on the larger model.

By the mid-1950s, everybody was in the V-8 game. Chrysler had brought out its fabulous V-8 Hemi in 1951, and Ford and other GM divisions now had overhead valve V-8s.

But the Oldsmobile Rocket engine had built a lasting reputation. In the 1970s, about a quarter century after the original Rocket appeared, GM adopted a corporate engine policy of mixing and matching powerplants among its various car lines. Much to the surprise of many Oldsmobile owners, they found Chevrolet V-8s under their hoods. Even though the Chevy was a later, more sophisticated design, Olds owners were so soundly convinced of the Rocket engine’s superiority they took GM to court for misrepresenting its product.

The matter was eventually resolved, but it was a demonstration of the strength of the reputation that the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine had built up. It was truly one of the benchmarks in American automotive engineering; few other automobile engines in history have established such a powerful image.

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