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Oldsmobile Rocket '88

Oldsmobile Rocket '88

By Jack Nerad

Oldsmobile is the senior American automotive marque. Its imminent demise after becoming so ingrained in the fabric of American life is more than a tragedy; it is a sacrilege. Perhaps no automotive brand is as quintessentially "American" as Oldsmobile. Oldsmobile has been smart, innovative, popular, and fearless through the years since that day in 1895 when Ransom E. Olds and his partner Frank Clark got together to build a "horseless carriage."

In 1897, Olds and some Lansing, Michigan, businessmen founded Olds Motor Vehicle Company and thus began the mass production of automobiles in the United States. Of course the Olds Curved Dash Runabout was the firm's calling-card success. In an era when those who were building cars built costly machines for the wealthy few, Olds had the vision of building inexpensive cars for the many. It was that vision that differentiated the American auto industry from the fledgling auto industries of every other industrialized country in the world.

After Ransom Olds left the company that bore his name in a rift with his directors, Olds Motor Works drifted for a time. In fact, it drifted right into Billy Durant's General Motors fold where it, along with Buick Motor Company, became the key building blocks in the success of what would become the biggest industrial corporation in the world.

As part of the GM's plan, Olds settled into a solidly middle-class existence, building good cars for good people. But the brand was more than just another mundane car producer. As the years passed Oldsmobile began to gain a reputation as General Motors' "experimental" division. Perhaps it started with the Olds side-valve V-8 engines of the Teens and early Twenties. Production V-8 engines were a rarity then, with Oldsmobile's GM stablemate Cadillac the pioneer of the engine configuration. A V-8 in a medium-priced vehicle was a sensation.

In 1925 Oldsmobile pioneered what has become standard issue for every car on the road - chromium-plated trim. Prior to the Olds introduction of chrome, bright pieces on most cars were nickel-plated and absolutely hellacious to maintain.

Olds picked a bad time to drop its V-8 engine for less expensive six-cylinder power. Its Viking V-8 of 1929 and 1930 was a good design for its era, as its 81 horsepower would attest, but coming in tandem with the stock market crash, it wasn't destined to stick around long. But by the mid-Thirties Oldsmobile had developed a reputation for solid vehicles that also offered technical innovation. This was exemplified in 1937 when Olds was the first to introduce the so-called Automatic Safety Transmission. It was one of the first workable systems to do away with the tedious chore of manual gear changing and followed in the footsteps of Olds' shift to "synchromesh" in 1931. AST required the driver to use the clutch pedal simply to shift between low and high ranges. Oldsmobile quickly followed up with the introduction of what is generally regarded as the first commercially successful automatic transmission. Olds Hydra-Matic system was introduced in 1939 for the 1940 model year, and it was one of the biggest advances to ease motoring since the invention of the electric self-starter in 1912. Surprisingly, both inventions were largely the work of one man, engineering genius Charles F. Kettering.

Though less heralded than Thomas Alva Edison, Charles Franklin Kettering rivals the father of modern electricity for coming up with inventions that changed the way people lived their lives. In addition to the electric self-starter, Kettering also developed the storage battery-powered electrical ignition that is still used in every gasoline-power vehicle today.

After that early triumph, he developed the first practical engine-driven electric generator, which brought electric light into many rural homes for the first time. In 1916 he sold out his company to GM and accepted the post as head of its research laboratory, a position he held for 31 years.

Kettering saved one of his best inventions for last, as his career at General Motors approached retirement, and that invention would be intimately involved with the respected name Oldsmobile. As a nuts-and-bolts thinker, Kettering reasoned that if an engine were able to use a compression ratio higher than normal more power would be the natural result. But, as Kettering and his colleagues discovered, higher compression engines would literally rattle themselves to death on the low-octane gasoline then available. Engine knock caused by the gasoline exploding rather than burning in the combustion chamber was the cause. Another inventor might then have thrown up his hands and said, "Impossible!"

In typical fashion, Kettering worked backward to find a solution. Instead of trying to adapt his high-compression engine to the available fuel, he set about not only perfecting the high-compression engine, but also perfecting a higher-octane fuel that would make it practical. The results of his labors were two-fold: the high compression V-8 engine that would soon come to be known as the Olds "Rocket" engine and high-octane leaded gasoline.

Introduced for the 1949 model year, soon after Kettering's retirement from GM, the Olds "Rocket" V-8 was a revelation. The big news, of course, was its heady 7.25:1 compression ratio, but the engine featured other state-of-the-art features from its well-balanced 90-degree design to its "monobloc" single cast iron block to its overhead valves to its lightweight pistons. In essence, the Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades. Fact is the very modern engine that graces today's Chevrolet Corvette owes a huge debt to the Rocket and Charles Kettering.

With a displacement of 303 cubic inches and topped by a two-barrel carburetor, the first Rocket V-8 churned out 135 horsepower at 3600 rpm and 263 pound-feet of torque at a lazy 1800 rpm. While this might not seem too potent by today's standards, in 1949 Ford flat-head V-8s were considered to be among the hottest things on the market, and they produced just 130 horsepower. No mid-range car in the world, save the Hudson Hornet, came close to the Rocket Olds performance potential.

In the immediate post-war years Oldsmobile had two models, the near-luxury 98 and the mid-range 76. At first the Rocket (or "Kettering" V-8) seemed destined for just the top-of-the-line 98, but then good sense prevailed and the modern V-8 was also offered in the much-lighter 76 chassis in a new 1949 model dubbed the 88. A legend was born. Though fitted with an automatic transmission (the Olds manual couldn't handle the engine's torque), the Oldsmobile 88 was the hit of NASCAR's 1950 season, winning eight of the 10 races. Given its lightning-like success, one could clearly make the case that the Olds 88 with its 135-horsepower V-8 was the first "musclecar," the first in a line that would include the Pontiac GTO, Dodge Charger and Olds 442 among scores of others. In fact, all the successful Oldsmobile vehicles that would follow it for the next 30 years would bear the distinct seal of Charles Kettering's last great invention, the legendary Rocket V-8.
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