General Motors has always made cars to suit everyone’s tastes. If you wanted luxury, there was Cadillac and Buick. if you wanted basic transportation, they offered Chevrolet and if you wanted high performance, pick a Pontiac. And if you wanted a healthy dose of all three, you bought an Oldsmobile.
Oldsmobile – An Original Muscle Car
When the first shots were being fired in the muscle car wars, Oldsmobile was the only GM division other than Pontiac that wasn’t asleep at the switch Olds built a car that had an image of the world’s most exotic sports car, which was exactly what the new performance minded youth market was asking for. This car embodied everything that Oldsmobile was about: high style, the ultimate in creature comforts and neck snapping performance. This car featured, among other things, four barrel carburetor, a four speed transmission and dual exhausts. It didn’t have a name, just a number They called it 442. What more could the drive in crowd ask for? And, oh yes, it just happened to launch like a rocket. The 442 Oldsmobile’s luxury muscle machine.
Oldsmobile’s Performance Heritage
In the 50s and 60s, you might have thought America’s space program was located, not in Cape Canaveral, but in Lansing, Michigan. Oldsmobile’s advertising made you think jet fighters were rolling off their assembly lines. The way their cars performed, this wasn’t far from the truth. Oldsmobile’s performance heritage dates back to the days when horses outnumbered cars on the nation’s roads. Ever since Ransom Old’s Pirate, which achieved a break neck speed of 60 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in 1904, Oldsmobile has always been at the top of American car performance. Olds leaped to the forefront of American performance in 1949, when they introduced their overhead valve 303 cubic inch V8. This engine made 135 real horsepower and it was the first really modern V8 made in America. “Rocket 88″ soon became the cars to beat in stock car racing.
Red Byron won the 1949 Dayton Beach race in an Olds and continued on to win the Nascar championship that year. Bill Rexford won the national championship in 1950 in an Olds. Also in 1950, Oldsmobile won the Mexican road race: a grueling 2000 mile event. For the next three years, Oldsmobile won almost half the stock car races on Nascar’s schedule as they continued to developed their world beating engine from 303 cubic inches to 324 cubic inches and 202 horsepower.
By 1955, the other auto makers had developed their own overhead valve V8s, which broke Oldsmobile’s stranglehold on stock car racing but it sent the Olds engineers back to the drawing board. In 1957, the J2 option came out with 370 cubic inches, 9.75 to 1 compression and triple Rochester two barrel carburetors This boosted horsepower to 300, torque to 415 foot pounds and it put the rocket Olds back out front again. Oldsmobile knew that racing improved the breed. All the knowledge gained on the track went right into their cars. Thanks to the racing experience, when the muscle car wars began in 1964, they were ready.
The stock car racing world went sailing along into 1958 with everyone ready. What a perfect time to throw a wrench into the whole thing. Or at least the automobile manufacturer’s association thought so. Says Tom Shaw: “GM’s own president, Harlowe Curtis had three motivations to get out of racing in 1957. #1 – Bad press. #2 – Costing them a lot of money they could be putting into product elsewhere. #3 – Ford was catching them and no one wanted to lay out that kind of bread to be second best.” In 1959, Lee Petty managed to win the first Daytona 500 held on the big back track using cars bought from ex racers at bargain basement prices. It was the last win for Olds in Nascar racing for a long time.
Oldsmobile – Off the Race Track and Into the Showroom
Oldsmobiles wouldn’t return to stock car racing for nearly 25 years. Somewhere in the Oldsmobile management ranks, someone must have breathed a sigh of relief. Now that all the racing hooliganism had been done away with Now maybe they could get done to the real business at hand: making and selling gentleman’s motor cars. Big, heavy, chrome, slow, gentleman’s motor cars. Welcome to the age of the fins. There is an interesting side benefit to building luxury barges. It takes a lot of horsepower to pull 4000 pounds of not very aerodynamic metal through the wind. And even more power to run all the accessories on the option lists.
So, engine development at Oldsmobile kept right on going. It had to. Without more and more power, there was the danger that someone might mistake a ’60 Olds for a condominium or a gymnasium. GM placed more emphasis on the new wave of compact cars. These cars weren’t the favorite of car dealers, though. They were inexpensive and they didn’t have a lot of extra cost options to help the profit margin. But by golly, they had one big thing going for them. They were slow. These compacts were built as the cars of the future by GM. Each took a different tach, engineering-wise.
Buick’s little special offered a V6. Pontiac’s Tempest came equipped with an automatic trans axle and a drive shift. And Chevrolet went off the deep end completely with the Corvair. Oldsmobile reached out as far as they dared with their jet fire and came up with maybe the one innovation that had any performance potential at all: the all aluminum V8 with the turbo charger. With the ’63 Jet Fire, Olds had achieved what all the other GM divisions had hoped for with their compacts: a sports car imagine But in 1964, there was something blowing in the wind over Michigan’s frozen tundra. It was called GTO.
Greg Dunne of Acworth, Georgia remembers: “When I graduated from high school that was the very first car I had every had. And I think it’s either a mid life crisis or nostalgia, one of the two. I decided I wanted to get another one. And so I went and searched and found this. Mostly it’s the desire I have to relive some special moments in my life. It kind of brings me back to the mid 60s.” Nick Piccini of Lawrenceville, Georgia is another Oldsmobile lover: “I love sitting back in the seat in this car. Sunk down in with my head barely sticking up from the hood because they made all these cars with the dash way up here. You’re just kind of peeking out over it and I love it when you step on it and engine tears.”
Pontiac had pulled out a bushwhack of its sister divisions with the GTO. It hit the market like an atomic bomb. And the whole world scrambled to jump on this bandwagon. Oldsmobile reacted first. By midyear 1964, a new option appeared on the Cutlass F85 option form. Option B09 delivered you a brand new ’64 Cutlass with a hot rod version of their 310 horsepower 330 cubic inch jet fire rocket engine and special performance suspension. On its body and interior, there appeared little badges which told the world that this car had a four barrel carb, a four speed transmission, and dual exhausts. And yes, even the ones with automatic transmissions had the badges. Pontiac had circumvented GM’s ten pounds per cubic inch rule by making the 389 part of the GTO option package. Olds didn’t have to pull a similar fast one on their management since their engine was a 300 and the car weighed about 3400 pounds. Olds’ 330 was rated only 25 horsepower less than the GTOs standard 335 horse 389. In a side by side stoplight drag race, though, it still did alright. Still, though, this new muscle car marketplace as a big go big or stay home proposition. So by the following year, Olds was ready. The four and 442 meant 400 cubic inches.
It was this horsepower that enticed Ken Hickey to restores his 442: “This is my 1965 Oldsmobile 442. I’ve had it for about four and a half years. I found it for sale in the paper just here in Atalanta and went to see it and kind of fell in love with it. I’d never seen the ’65 442 but I really fell in love with the body style and especially the interior. I did an engine rebuild on it about two and a half years ago. It wasn’t anything major, I just put it back to stock pretty much. Just took care of the components that are made to wear. It’s been a great car, it’s never left me stranded on the side of the road, it’s been a great car.”
The 1966 Hurst Oldsmobile
For 1966, the Olds engineers went in search of some quick and easy horsepower. So they resurrected the triple carburetor set up, which made the Olds motors so mean nearly a decade earlier This was the W30 engine. With a bore of four inches and a stroke of 3.975, equipped with a standard Rochester quadrajet carburetor, the Olds 400 developed 350 horsepower at 5000 RPM and 440 foot pounds of torque at 3600 RPM. With triple Rochester carburetors, it made 10 more horsepower. The engine was still rated at 10.5 to 1 compression and the W30 option option provided a wilder cam and valve train improvements. When you opened the hood on a tri carb equipped ’66 442 though, you might just see a strange looking air cleaner and two large tubes running the ducts.
Two of the big buzz words of the muscle car era were hood scoops. They looked racy and they set the muscle car apart from the more mundane base vehicle from which it was usually derived. Magazine went gaga over hood scoops, even the ones that didn’t work and by 1965, some folks were even opening the scoops. Unfortunately, the 442 had a flat hood, so they had to be a little creative to get some cold air into the engine. The only thing climbing faster than the 442′s horsepower was its price tag. A full on ’67 442 hit the streets with a sticker price of almost $4300. Greg Dunne remembers: “When I decided I wanted to purchase car, I found a car listed by a dentist from Staten Island, New York. I went to New York, took a look at the car and right when I saw it I decided I wanted to buy it. It reminds me of a time in my life that was pretty special and a lot of fun. They’re a lot easier to work on and you need that because you’re always working on them. They’re not as high tech as today’s cars, they don’t ride as well, they’re not as comfortable, but for nostalgia and fun they’re a lot more enjoyable.”
The 1968 Hurst Oldsmobile
As the ’68 models were introduced with a new body style, Olds took a leap forward in the entire industry and redesigned the 400 engine to reduce exhaust emissions. Recalls Tom Shaw: “The rest of the auto industry was dinking around with air pumps as a stop cap pollution control, Oldsmobile re engineered their entire 400 and they kept their horsepower levels up too: 350 for stick cars and 325 for automatics.” A car restorer says, “I’ve had this car for about a year now. Last summer I tore it apart, re-did my engine on it and I haven’t really done anything to the body. I got it from a woman who was the original owner here in Atlanta, Georgia. She had the car, got it as a graduation present in 1968 and pretty much took real good care of it. All the pieces are about 95% here so my restoration work hasn’t been too bad because I haven’t had to look for too much. It has been a doozy, though. The couple pieces I’ve needed have been hard to come by. Right inside here, in the engine you can see where I did all my restoration work on it. I pulled the motor out and the transmission out and took the front nose apart, took my hood off and redid all my fender wells and my nose pieces Had all my radiator and my engine block all redone, my transmission redone and the reason I went for ’68 Olds when I was younger, I had an old F85 that we used to bracket race and I was always particular to that body style. I like the fact that the side wells bubble out a little more, have a little more definition than your Chevelles or Camaros or any of them. And it’s just a good fast car. Always a lot of fun to drive.”
The Special Edition Hurst Oldsmobile
442 was already an expensive high profile car. These are just the kinds of cars that make excellent platforms for what they call special edition cars. The Hurst Olds was a very special edition. Tom Shaw explains: “George Hurst wanted an executive hot rod, so he had Jack Watson tool up a doctored up 442. He fitted it with a lot of custom touches: grill, spoiler that rose off the rear deck when the brakes were applied. This was the prototype. When the production cars hit, the dealers were clamoring for it.” 515 Hurst Olds were built in 1968 and this small production run was actually farmed out to a business in Lansing. All 68 Hurst Olds came with the 455 engine that Olds wouldn’t put into a regular 442. This 455 received the W30 treatment with a hot cam and the other goodies. All ’68 Hurst Olds came with the M40 turbo hydromatic trans and the Hurst dual gauge shifter naturally. And every heavy duty option you could get on a 442. From battery to fan to radiator. All were painted Peruvian silver with special hand painted accent stripes and a black rear panel. It was one of the most successful image builders for any car. And the concept lasted, in one form or another, for 15 years. Tom Shaw goes on: “The Hurst Olds is not just a beauty queen either. With 455 cubic inches under the hood, the car could run 1299 at 108 miles an hour.” Just when you thought you had seen all they had, Olds came out with more.
In 1969, they hit you with new cylinder heads, which breathed much better on the exhaust side. In 1970, the head office okayed the 370 horse 455 engine in the 442. And the force air package now breathed through two huge scoops and a fiberglass hood. They now offered a factory aluminum intake manifold and an aluminum rear axle center section. All the years of R&D, the racing, the constant improvement culminated in the 1970 W30 442. The mission the Olds engineers and designers set upon in 1949, with a rocket V8, led right to this car.
Their MO was the same with this car as all the ones which came before. If it helped make a better car, go for it. The red plastic inner fenders, the extensive use of aluminum engine components, the very effective hood scoops. These and 100 other features were all folded into a package that makes the 442 a favorite of collectors and restorers. Greg Dunne talks about his car: “The car’s in excellent condition. All I’ve had to do since I had it was put a new paint job on it, do a little work on the interior and we recently did the heads on the car and everything is original” Charlie Crooks, another restorer, talks about the process: “The car was restored in 1979. It was completely disassembled. New fenders were put on it, new door panels, new hood, the car was completely detailed in the undercarriage area. Completely repainted, totally. The interior is original interior. The restoration process took about a year, year and a half. The Oldsmobile was built to be a little more luxurious, appeal to a different market, and at the same time they wanted brute strength and good handling and plenty of horsepower and it had the best of all three worlds.”
The Muscle Era Draws to a Close
The years after 1970 did not come launching out of the gate with a lot of tire smoke and roaring engines. The muscle car era was drawing to a close. But Olds was going down swinging thanks to the fine preparation Olds engineers had made in the previous years, the new 8.5 to 1 compression ratios weren’t as severe a blow to the 442′s performance as was felt by others. The big 455 was now being rated very conservatively at 375 foot pounds of torque at 3800 RPM and so o oppressive were the forces of the day, from the insurance companies to the emissions police, that nobody even advertised horsepower anymore. But a reliable estimate put it at around 300. Still, though, Olds figured a way to keep their rocket at the top of the rapidly slowing performance pack. In 1972, the 442 suffered th insult of losing its model status and returned to being just an option on the Cutlass The magic was gone. An era had ended.
Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Gold Shifter, says: “My favorite car of the Hurst Oldsmobile was the 1972 Indie 500 pace car. And which Mark Donahue ended up winning. I gave him the car. And now Roger Pinsky has saved that car. It’s beautiful and it’s in that collection. My favorite was that big block 455. Smoke those tires, shift those gears. I loved the ’72 pace car, that was my favorite. I have a ’75 and a ’79 I drive on the street at home now but my favorite car in the whole wide world probably was the ’57 Chevrolet. First kiss I ever had was in a ’57 Chevrolet!” Another restorer says, “I’ve had some fun in it. I had a guy one day, going down the freeway on a CBR 600, wanted to race me, started doing a little bit of hesitation and we took off, went down the highway and we were probably doing about 100-120, perfectly legal, you know, but he finally let off and cooked on by and let off a ways down the road. It’s a screamer, definitely hauls ass!” And yet another restorer says, “Restoration is a process that I Think you’re going to see more and more cars go through Even cars in the 70s and late 70s. I hope it’s something that continues to last well into the next century.”
The Magic of the 442 Lives On
The 442 continued on in name only for another 10 years. Never again to be the muscle car it once was. But the magic lives on in the great 442 still on the road today. Whether they’ve been lovingly restored or carefully preserved, thanks to them we’ll never forget what a four barrel carburetor and four speed transmission can do if they’re in a car made by Oldsmobile.
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