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Oldsmobile 442

Oldsmobile 442

By Jack Nerad

Oldsmobile 442 If you look back at automotive history Oldsmobile might have a stronger claim to engineering excellence and high performance than its sister General Motors division, Pontiac. After all, GM used Oldsmobile as a kind of test bed for innovations that included the automatic transmission prior to World War II and the high-compression V8 engine introduced in the late Forties. The technologically superior "Rocket V8" engine gave Olds a leg up in the postwar horsepower race and stood it in good stead in the early days of stock car, drag and long-distance road racing. In the late Forties and early Fifties, Oldsmobile was the performance division of GM, while Pontiac was building warmed-over mid-priced cars for retirees and schoolteachers who didn't want the slugabout Chevies.

By 1955, though, all that changed. Chevrolet, which had already entered the performance car sweepstakes with the introduction of the Corvette two years earlier, got really serious about it with the debut of the legendary small block V8 engine. At the same time, Pontiac introduced a V8 of its own, and, the next year, its new division manager, Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, put the division on a performance kick, using the engineering talents of Pete Estes and John Z. DeLorean. Olds countered with its J-2 in 1957, but after that Oldsmobile dropped into mundane, middle-class mediocrity, while Chevrolet and Pontiac started tearing up the racetracks. Despite Oldsmobile's proud heritage as the keystone division of General Motors, nothing would change on this score until 1964.

The year 1964 was certainly a memorable one for those of us who lived through it. The country was still recovering from the shock of John F. Kennedy's assassination the year before; the United States was finding itself ever more involved in the Vietnam war; Barry Goldwater was battling Lyndon Johnson for the presidency; and the youth of the nation was beginning to assert itself, turning its back on the blandness of the Eisenhower years. They were fast times, and John DeLorean, a fast-living bon vivant who had taken over the engineering reins at Pontiac, was right in tune.

For the '64 model year, Pontiac was scheduled to introduce a new version of its Tempest mid-sized car, while, at the same time Oldsmobile and Buick would unveil their new, very similar mid-size offerings. But DeLorean and Estes, who had become division head, had an ace up their sleeve. They decided to offer a performance version of the mid-sized car, which had been renamed the Tempest LeMans. But their idea to drop the Pontiac 389 big-block engine under the mid-size car's hood was directly in conflict with GM policy of the time that prohibited the use of large-block powerplants in mid-size cars. The two Pontiac honchos found a loophole, though, and the car that resulted, which bore the rather clumsy moniker Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO, was an immediate hit. It struck a chord with the California surfing and hot rod culture that was then sweeping the country borne by songs from the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. In fact, with the help of marketing guru Jim Wangers, it inspired a hit song of its own: "Little GTO."

All of this was not lost on the other General Motors divisions, especially Oldsmobile. Its braintrust wanted to move as many mid-size F-85s as they possibly could, and they quickly grasped the "halo effect" the GTO model was having on the entire Pontiac Tempest line, so they scrambled to put together a performance model of their own.

When it appeared very late in the 1964 model year (described in Motor Trend as a "1964 & 3/4 offering"), it was officially known as option number B-09 Police Apprehender Pursuit, but it was more commonly referred to as the 442. No, the numbers didn't indicate engine displacement; instead they were shorthand for four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission and dual exhausts. The 442 option cost an extra $285.14 over the regular, everyday F-85 Cutlass, which had a suggested base price of $2,784. The actual vehicle that Motor Trend tested in '64 bore an as tested price of $3,658.74.

The key difference between the 1964 GTO and the 442 came in the engine compartment. Estes and DeLorean had had the chutzpah to equip their factory hot rod with the big block 389-cubic inch engine. Oldsmobile execs were more content to follow current GM dictum, so the original Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass 442 was equipped with the Oldsmobile small-block V8 instead of the big-block unit from its more luxurious cars.

Certainly the performance credentials of this engine were nothing to sneeze at, especially when decked out for the 442 package. The upgrades included a "wilder" camshaft, valve modifications, heavier duty main bearings and stronger connecting rods. Running at a heady 10.25:1 compression ratio, this added up to a stout engine that produced 310 horsepower at a somewhat heady 5200 rpm, a 20-horsepower increase over the previous top-of-the-line Cutlass V8. Olds claimed that torque actually remained the same at 355 pound-feet @ 3600 rpm, but testers of the day remarked that the 442 felt much stronger than the other Cutlass models, so it is likely that these figures somewhat underestimate the 442's real power potential. Building upon a police package and apparently wanting their new offering to deliver some road-handling benefits in addition to superior straightline acceleration, Olds engineers specified heavy-duty front and rear springs and shocks, a sturdier anti-roll bar up front, one in the rear as well, plus 7.50 x 14 inch Red-Line tires. Motor Trend reported, "These items bring the car's usually soft springing up to a nice, firm combination that gives a solid feeling of control and handling, with no loss in riding comfort."

Road testers of the day liked the 442's robust acceleration, but they seemed even more impressed with its all-around balance. Because of the heavy-duty clutch, lack of power brakes and stiff four-speed transmission, the 442 wasn't for the dainty, but even with hot cam and high compression, the engine idled smoothly and quietly. Its flat torque curve made it easy to drive, allowing it to pull cleanly from as low as 15 mph in fourth gear.

Of course, the car's acceleration was its calling card. Despite the absence of a big-block engine, zero to 60 mph took just 7.5 seconds. Motor Trend took its example through the quarter mile in a very respectable 15.5 seconds at 90 mph.

Despite these praiseworthy attributes, the first 442 did have shortcomings. Rushed into the marketplace as a stopgap, the 442 version bore unmistakable signs of its mundane F-85 heritage. Yes, it could be equipped with front bucket seats and "four-on-the-floor," but instrumentation was sparse. You could order a tachometer as an option, but it was mounted, not on the dash, but on the console, where it had all the usefulness of a flower pot.

Road testers of the day were also very critical of the car's brakes. At the time disc brakes were coming into use of foreign cars, but virtually all American iron stuck with (were stuck with?) drum brakes. The 442's 9.5-inch drums were decently big, but heavy-duty metallic linings were an optional extra. In the same vein, the 442's power steering, designed for grocery-getting duty, was deemed vague for a performance car.

While the original 442 was by contemporary American standards a very good car, it lacked one thing that made its rival, the Pontiac GTO, stand out, namely big-block horsepower. The Olds V8's 310 horsepower was fine, but it just wasn't enough in comparison to 348 horsepower available from a Tri-Power Pontiac 389.

By the 1965 model year, Oldsmobile had the answer, some 35 additional horsepower. Apparently General Motors brass were swayed by the success of the Pontiac GTO, so they relented on their decision to keep big blocks out of the mid-size cars. The '65 Cutlass 442 could be equipped with a de-stroked version of Oldsmobile's monster Stage II 425 Rocket V8. Apparently modified to keep within the revised GM bounds restricting mid-size cars to engines of 400 cubic inches or less, this new 442 powerplant measured out at 400 cubic inches on the nose. (The same dictate restricted the size of the engine in the Chevelle, resulting in the famous SS 396, although those in the know will tell you the Chevy engine in that application actually displaced 401 cubic inches.) Using what Hot Rod magazine described as a "moderate" 10.2:1 compression ratio, the 442's Rocket engine produced a claimed 345 horsepower and an amazing 440 pound-feet of peak torque at 3200 rpm. No substitute for cubes, indeed!

Designed for heavy-duty use, the engine offered such hot rod parts as forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods, light, stamped steel rocker arms with tubular pushrods, plus 2.0-inch intake and 1.625-inch exhaust valves. All of this good stuff, to use the words of Hot Rod, "contributed to vigorous and long-lasting health."

With the big-block engine under the hood the 442 had quickly come into its own. Oldsmobile still advertised the broad range of its vehicles with the mildly provocative slogan: "Pick the Rocket to fit your pocket!" But with the beefier engine, 442 now meant 400 cubic inches, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts. The big-block 442 was the wave that would carry the car's reputation through the Sixties and into the smog-clogged Seventies.

A series of W30 options available on the 442 would do nothing but enhance the reputation of the car as the years passed. The first of these added a Tri-Power-like triple two-barrel carburetor set-up and forced cold-air induction to deliver what Olds said was 360 horsepower. Others suggest the true horsepower figure was more like 400. Before the demise of the 442, it would be equipped with a 455-cubic inch V8 of monstrous proportions that only made its legend more stellar. Finally, as the Seventies rolled onward, restrictive air pollution regulations choked out the horsepower gains, and by the time the first Oil Crisis hit in 1974, the true Olds 442 became a relic of an era gone, like our youth, far too quickly.
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