Story and photo by Bill Vance

Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile 4 4 2, 1964 1990 motoring memories
1970 Oldsmobile 4-4-2. Click image to enlarge

The muscle-car era began in 1964 when the Pontiac Division put a 6.4 litre (389 cu in.) Pontiac V8 engine into the lightweight, intermediate Tempest model and marketed it as the GTO option. In so doing they tapped a youth market that was craving high performance at a reasonable price.

Pontiac sold 32,459 GTOs during its first year, 75,352 in the second, and almost 97,000 in the third. It started a whole new trend; intermediate sedans fitted with big V8s, soon dubbed muscle-cars. The name struck.

Pontiac’s success lured other makers into the muscle-car market. Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396s, Ford Fairlane GTs, Mercury Cyclone GTs and Plymouth Road Runners came to challenge the GTO. It started a wild and woolly performance era that lasted into the early 1970s. Then tightening emission controls and brutal insurance rates snuffed it out almost as fast as it had appeared.

Oldsmobile wanted into the muscle car parade too. Oldsmobile had established a genuine performance image years earlier with the introduction of its all-conquering 1949 “Rocket” 88. It had been the scourge of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuits in the ’50s, and won the first Mexican Road Race in 1950. But as the decade unfolded, Oldsmobiles gradually lost that early performance advantage.

Pontiac’s reversal of its market perception as an old lady’s car, culminating in the GTO, further encouraged Olds. It answered the GTO with the Oldsmobile 4-4-2.

The 4-4-2 package was introduced in Oldsmobile’s intermediate F-85 and Cutlass series in mid-1964. It had a 5.4 litre (330 cu in.), 310 horsepower V-8, and 2,999 were built during its half-year production run. The 4-4-2 designation stood for a 4-barrel carburetor, a 4-on-the-floor manual transmission, and twin exhausts.

The 4-4-2 didn’t have quite the performance of the GTO – zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.4 seconds, compared with 6.6 for the GTO. So in 1965 Oldsmobile increased displacement to 6.6 litres (400 cu in.), and horsepower to 345. With the discontinuance of the four-speed manual as part of the package, the second 4 in its name now meant 400 cubic inches.

Performance sparkled with the bigger V8. Car and Driver reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 5.5 seconds, and zero to 161 (100) in 15.9. This was truly tire-burning pickup.

But the 4-4-2 was more than just straight-line acceleration. Oldsmobile engineers improved cornering with such items as a rear anti-roll bar, that helped make the 4-4-2 into what was reputed to be the best handling of the muscle cars.

For 1968 the 4-4-2 became a full series rather than an option package, and this, accompanied by the all-new styling for the intermediate models, helped Olds sell 33,607 4-4-2s. The 6.6 litre (400 cu in.) engine continued with various power ratings, depending on compression ratio, carburation, and transmission, and whether one ordered the optional under-bumper W-30 air induction system.

GM’s intermediates were growing heavier, which no doubt contributed to the slower zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.0 seconds that Car And Driver reported on a 350 horsepower automatic transmission equipped 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 received an even larger 7.4 litre (455 cu in.) engine for 1970, which Olds claimed was the largest ever offered in a special performance car.

Nineteen-seventy-one saw the beginning of performance degradation as emission hardware started to bite and compression ratios began to fall. This of course affected muscle-cars, and it was the last year in which the 4-4-2 would be a separate series.

For 1972 the 4-4-2 was an option package, mostly trim and appearance, on the Cutlass line. It still, however, included some enhanced handling pieces such as heavier front and rear anti-roll bars and larger wheels. This would be the theme of the 4-4-2 for the rest of the ’70s: a trim-and-handling option for the Cutlass. Then in 1981 during a recession the 4-4-2 option was dropped altogether.

It came back in 1985, again as an appearance and handling package, but also with its own higher performance 5.0 litre (305 cubic inch) V8, now listed at 180 horsepower by the more realistic Society of Automotive Engineers net rating.

The 4-4-2 disappeared in 1987 as Oldsmobile followed the change to front-wheel drive. But it brought it back again; for 1990 Oldsmobile offered a 442 (no hyphens). It came in the form of the Cutlass Calais Quad 442 model powered by the Oldsmobile-developed, 2.3 litre, double-overhead cam, four-valves-per-cylinder, four cylinder engine, which in H.O. (high output) form, produced 180 horsepower. This time the numbers meant four cylinders, four valves per cylinder, and two overhead camshafts.

When compared with the early 4-4-2s, the new one was cleaner, more economical, and probably almost as fast, all with less than a third of the displacement of the biggest 4-4-2 V8. It was an environmentally friendly performance car for the ’90s.

But to true muscle-car fans nothing can replace that hibernating bear sound when the V8′s secondary barrels open up. To them, a little four, no matter how high tech, will never replace a big rumbling eight.

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