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Retro Review: Oldsmobile 88

Chris Kaiser

The Oldsmobile 88 became an unremarkable 90s sedan but began life as a V8 powered NASCAR champion. Here’s what we miss about this 1950s icon.

Proto Muscle Car

1950 Oldsmobile 88 - Two Guys and a Ride on YouTube.com

1950 Oldsmobile 88 – Two Guys and a Ride on YouTube.com |  Shop Oldsmobile 88 on Carsforsale.com

The Plymouth Barracudas and Ford Mustangs of the world weren’t the first American cars to feature the formula of small stature and big engines. Jump back two decades and you’ll find a key progenitor to the muscle car, the Oldsmobile 88. The “Rocket 88” combined the 5.0L V8 of the Olds 98 with the smaller body of the 78 for a potent blend of power and lightness that made the 88 a racing champ on the stock car circuit and a sales champ for Oldsmobile.

While the Oldsmobile 88 had a good fifty-year run, its most compelling decade was the 1950s. Over that ten-year period the 88 saw four generations that pushed forward both aesthetic design and performance expectations.

Kittering’s “Rocket”

1949 Oldsmobile 88 - carsforsale.com
1949 Oldsmobile 88 - carsforsale.com

Starting in 1949, Oldsmobile marketed the 88 with the tag line (and badging) of “Futurmatic”. The term, carried over from the 1948 Olds 98, denoted a futuristic design and referenced the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. As with the name, much of the design for the 88 was carried over from the larger 98 from the prior year.

What was “futuristic” in the 88 was the new “Rocket” V8 it shared with the 98. The engine was a 303 cu. in. V8 featuring innovative overhead valves and a high compression ratio (something it shared with Cadillacs of the same time). This new design came thanks to George Kittering, GM’s chief researcher. The new engine impressed with it’s 135 horsepower and 283 lb.-ft. of torque producing a 0-60 time of 13 seconds. Not fast by today’s standards but back in the late 1940s this was swift indeed. Not only was the new engine powerful, it was also 10% more efficient than prior GM V8s.

1951 Oldsmobile 88 Rocket 303 CID V8 - carsforsale.com
1951 Oldsmobile 88 Rocket 303 CID V8 - carsforsale.com

Kittering’s engine was so impressive there was a push to have it carry the designer’s name. But, reportedly, GM executives were loath to name a car after a living person. The alternative “Rocket 88” wasn’t beloved in the C-suite, either, but quickly caught on with the public.

Other items of note on the first generation 88 include the rocket hood ornament seen on early 88s could be optioned for $5 as well as options for a soft dashboard and a radio, available for the hefty sum of $100.

NASCAR and Rock ‘n Roll

1950 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday - carsforsale.com
1950 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday - carsforsale.com

The formula of lightness and power caught the eye of racing enthusiasts who were quick to enter the 88 into competition. In its debut year of 1949, the Oldsmobile 88 won six of its first nine NASCAR races. It continued to dominate the circuit in the early ‘50s, winning 10 of 19 races in 1950 and 20 of 42 in 1952. Thanks to its high-compression Rocket V8, the 88 had become one of the premier cars of NASCAR.

The Oldsmobile 88 also became the GM division’s bestselling car. In 1950, Oldsmobile sold approximately 407,000 cars with over 250,000 of those being the new 88. The 88 came in a variety of body styles including a two-door “Holiday” hardtop (which deleted the B-pillar), a four-door sedan, and even a “woody” station wagon complete with exterior wood paneling.

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1950 Oldsmobile 88 sedan - carsforsale.com
1950 Oldsmobile 88 sedan - carsforsale.com

The Oldsmobile 88 even got some pop culture shine in the form an early rock ‘n roll song “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenton. Decades later the car got another shout out in Tom Waits’s “Goin’ Out West”.

88 Through the 1950s

1954 Oldsmobile 88 - Fast Lane Classic Cars on YouTube.com
1954 Oldsmobile 88 - Fast Lane Classic Cars on YouTube.com

The second generation of the 88 debuted in 1954. It featured a stylish new wraparound windshield, a flattened hood, and a longer body. The Rocket V8 also grew from 5.0L to 5.3L and made another 10% jump in fuel efficiency. It also got a newly revamped four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. The pillarless “Holiday” body style was expanded to a four-door version. A/C became a new option on the 88 along with a “park” being added to the gear selector (the prior generation had had to settle for just the parking brake).

The third -generation 88 arrived in 1957 with a still larger V8, now up to 6.1L. The four-barrel carbureted version could produce up to 300 horsepower and the triple double-barrel version getting up to 310 horsepower. The exterior of the car continued to evolve with even more chrome and new fins for maximum 1950s aesthetic. A new “Fiesta” hardtop body style was also added.

1959 Oldsmobile 88 - Jay Leno's Garage on YouTube.com
1959 Oldsmobile 88 - Jay Leno's Garage on YouTube.com

In 1959, the 88 saw its fourth generation. Two new version of the Rocket V8 were added, a 374-cu. in. and a 394-cu. in. The car was also lower, larger, and flatter with a huge rear deck that presaged the designs of the early 60s to come.

From Rocket to Land Barge

1970 Oldsmobile 88 455ci V8 - carsforsale.com
1970 Oldsmobile 88 455ci V8 - carsforsale.com

Through its subsequent five generations the Oldsmobile 88 added new version of the Rocket V8. The largest of these was the sixth-generation’s 7.5L “Rocket 455” V8. The seventh-generation 88 of the 1970s was a classic “boat” of the era with a massive hood, questionable paint colors that included what we assume was labeled “pea soup green”, and wraparound instrument panel.

The eighth generation saw the introduction of a V6 option to the 88, its first. By the ninth generation, only 3.8L V6s remained in the 88. The car had also shrunk in stature, down a full foot of wheelbase to just 110 inches. This was thanks to GM’s new H platform that had been adopted over the long-running B platform.

1998 Oldsmobile 88 - carsforsale.com

1998 Oldsmobile 88 – carsforsale.com |  Shop Oldsmobile 88 on Carsforsale.com

The tenth generation Oldsmobile 88 received a fiftieth anniversary edition in 1999 that included luxury touches like steering wheel controls and gold-plated badging. 1999 would also be the 88’s final year of production.

The Oldsmobile 88 had come a long way in its fifty-year run. From NASCAR champion to the rather uninspiring, cheaper alternative to a Lincoln or Cadillac. In this way, the car’s trajectory matched that of its namesake. An early blaze of glory (and chrome) followed by a long arch of high style and ending in a slow, unmarkable decent.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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