TNB Night Owl – Rocket 88

1950 Olds Rocket 88 Club Sedan.
1950 Olds Rocket 88 Club Sedan. Public domain.

After the Second World War, the American public was hungry for new cars. Because production of everything had shifted in favor of the war effort, no new cars had rolled off assembly lines since early 1942. Old cars were worn out, and the demand for new replacements far exceeded supply. When automobile production started up again in 1945-1946, manufacturers simply used existing tooling and designs in order to get new machines into the market as quickly as possible. From 1945 through 1948, new car models were essentially 1941-1942 designs with little in the way of improvements. By the late 1940s, people were clamoring for new designs and improved performance. Oldsmobile delivered.

While the post-war assembly lines churned out pre-war designs for ravenous consumers, Olds engineers were hard at work developing the cars of the future. Up until that time, customers could buy the economical model 76 with a straight-6 engine, or the luxury model 98 with a straight-8. (The Oldsmobile division of General Motors did not have a reputation for risk taking). Olds engineers developed an overhead valve V8, with the piston banks at a 90-degree angle. At the same time, Cadillac engineers independently developed a similar overhead valve, 90-degree V8, resulting in a bit of internal squabbling between GM divisions. Cadillac did not want any competition challenging their best-of-the-best brand image, especially from another GM division. Oldsmobile nearly lost that battle to GM’s premiere luxury brand, but ultimately gained approval to proceed.

1950 Olds Rocket 88 Club Sedan.
1950 Olds Rocket 88 Club Sedan. Public domain.

Oldsmobile’s new overhead valve engine, displacing 303 cubic inches, produced 135 horsepower. That doesn’t sound like much today, but then it was astounding especially considering the low octane and poor quality of gasoline which dictated low engine compression. They were able to achieve this remarkable feat by mildly increasing the compression ratio to 7.25:1 – not a dramatic change, but enough to improve engine efficiency – resulting in extra horsepower and improved fuel economy.

The new engine, now named ‘Rocket’, had been intended only for the model 98, but the engineering team used a model 76 to test the new motor. The light weight of the model 76 body (compared to the big, heavy 98), paired with the new high-horsepower Rocket engine, resulted in performance that would seal Oldsmobile’s reputation for decades. A new model was added to the Olds line for 1949: the model 88, soon to be known as the Rocket 88. This combo of light body matched with a high performance motor is widely considered to be the first muscle car, pre-dating the Chevy 409, Pontiac GTO, or any of the pony cars. Oldsmobile marketing got busy and played up the new car’s ‘Futuramic’ styling, and created a now famous marketing slogan: “Make a date, with a Rocket 88!” It became the car every young man wanted.

Oldsmobile also developed an automatic transmission, the Hydra-Matic, the first to work well at a time when competitor’s slush boxes were just horrible. This was the only transmission offered with a Rocket engine in 1949, as Oldsmobile’s manual transmission couldn’t handle the torque the motor produced. However, the Rocket 88 with Hydra-Matic could do 0-60 in just over 12 seconds (still very respectable today) and reach a top speed of 97mph.

In 1949, the car won five of the eight NASCAR races held that year. In 1950, the Rocket 88 won ten out of nineteen NASCAR races, and won the 2,000 mile Carrera Panamericana race. In 1951, the Hudson Hornet started taking away some of Oldsmobile’s glory. Still, Olds had established a firm reputation as a performance car manufacturer, and that reputation would stay with the company for at least three decades.

On a musical note, a popular song about the Rocket 88 topped the charts in June 1951. Some consider this tune one of the first, if not the first, true rock ‘n roll tune. (Ike Turner was lead member of the Delta Cats). “Rocket 88, Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats” (2:54):

Question of the Night: Which classic American car would you want in your garage?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
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