In our history of the Oldsmobile 442, we mentioned that it was not exactly the leader of the pack when it came to Supercar performance. To rectify that problem, Oldsmobile joined forces with Hurst Performance Products to create the ultimate high-performance Oldsmobile: the fearsome 1968 Hurst Olds. This week, we look at that car and the subsequent H/Os, a series that ran through 1984.
THE HISTORY OF HURST
No history of American muscle cars would be complete without at least a passing mention of George Hurst, who became one of the era’s most successful aftermarket manufacturers.
Hurst was originally from New York, but after a stint in the Navy, he resettled in eastern Pennsylvania in 1954 and became very active in the local drag racing scene. In the mid-fifties, he and his friend Bill Campbell started a garage in Abington, Pennsylvania, where they built aftermarket engine mounts for performance cars. Although Hurst’s formal mechanical training was limited, he had an intuitive knack for automotive engineering and, more importantly, was a natural showman with a flair for clever promotions.
After some early setbacks, Hurst and Campbell formed a partnership with Jonas Anchel and Ed Almquist, founders of the speed shop Anco Industries. Together, they developed and launched several new products, including a revised engine mount design called Adjusta-Torque and a floor-mounted shift linkage for three-speed manual transmissions.
At that time, manual transmissions were at low ebb in America. Since the advent of Hydra-Matic in late 1939, American buyers had shown a marked preference for fully automatic transmissions, so development of stick-shift technology had languished. In the fifties, many automatics were still too inefficient and sometimes too fragile for serious hot-rodders, but the available manual gearboxes left much to be desired. The typical “three on the tree” was clunky and cumbersome, with a vague, ropy linkage that was rarely sturdy enough for aggressive driving.
The Hurst linkage, which George Hurst first installed in his own 1956 Chevrolet, was a vast improvement. Although rather stiff by modern standards, the linkage allowed clean, fast, accurate shifts and was very durable.
Since Almquist and Anchel were neither willing nor able to put up the substantial amount of capital needed to market the new linkage, Hurst and Campbell obtained a $20,000 loan and established their own company, Hurst-Campbell, Inc., in Warminster, Pennsylvania. It opened for business in 1959.
The hot-rodding and drag racing scene was booming in the late fifties and early sixties and Hurst-Campbell found a ready market for their shifters and shift linkages. Whatever Hurst’s mechanical abilities, his greatest talent was concocting stunts and gimmicks to market Hurst-Campbell products. Hurst sponsored drag racers; offered new cars as prizes for race winners who used Hurst products; and hired a buxom beauty queen named Linda Vaughn as “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter,” paying her to attend racing events in her gold bikini, suggestively caressing giant replicas of Hurst’s signature product. Some of Hurst’s promotional stunts were in dubious taste, but they were undeniably effective. By the mid-sixties, Hurst-Campbell revenues were more than $20 million a year and Hurst shifters had become almost de rigueur among serious enthusiasts.
THE SHIFTY DOCTOR
One of the key selling points of Hurst products was their lifetime warranty. In the early sixties, Hurst hired a young man named Jack Watson, who had previously worked at General Motors. At first, Watson’s role was very minor, but he subsequently became Hurst’s roving repair technician. Armed with a portable machine shop, he traveled to various drag racing events to perform on-site repairs and adjustments for Hurst products. The role eventually earned him the nickname “Shifty Doc,” or just “Doc.”
Watson still had connections at GM and in 1961, he helped Hurst get a meeting with Pontiac general manager Bunkie Knudsen and chief engineer Pete Estes. Estes had seen a favorable write-up on the Hurst shifter in Hot Rod magazine and had been impressed. He was also impressed with Hurst and Hurst’s obvious marketing acumen. Hurst, Estes, and Knudsen struck a deal to use a Hurst linkage and shifter in Pontiac’s new limited-production Super Duty Catalina.
The deal was a great achievement for Hurst-Campbell; Detroit in those days tended to ignore or disdain the aftermarket. It was also the beginning of a long and mutually profitable association between Hurst and Pontiac. Over the next few years, many high-performance Pontiac models would carry Hurst shifters as standard equipment, including the highly successful Pontiac GTO. Pontiac’s association with Hurst did great things for its credibility with hardcore performance cognoscenti, helping to cement the division’s status as the hot American car.
To cultivate more relationships with the major automakers, Hurst opened the Hurst Performance Center in Detroit in 1965, appointing Doc Watson to run it. Much of Watson’s business was with Pontiac, where Hurst now had a strong relationship, but he eventually made deals with other many automakers, including Plymouth, Dodge, AMC, and Oldsmobile.
THE HURST FIREBIRD
In the mid-sixties, Hurst built a number of exhibition cars, including a Plymouth Barracuda wheel-stander called “Hemi under Glass” and the “Hairy Olds,” a 1966 Oldsmobile 442 funny car powered by Toronado V8s. In the summer of 1967, Hurst approached Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers, who was in charge of Pontiac’s promotional campaign, to propose a Pontiac production car that would carry the Hurst name.
The essence of Hurst’s proposal was providing Pontiac with an end run around an onerous corporate policy. Between 1964 and 1969, GM imposed strict limits on engine displacement and advertised horsepower for most of its cars; the safety and anti-smog lobbies were gaining strength and senior management was well aware that General Motors was a prime target. As a result, the corporation prohibited compact and intermediate models (except the Corvette) from using engines of more than 400 cu. in. (6.6 L) displacement or advertising more than one gross horsepower (0.75 kW) per 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of curb weight. For example, a full-size Chevrolet Impala could be ordered with engines up to 427 cu. in. (6,990 cc), but the smaller Chevelle and Camaro were limited to 396 cu. in. (6,488 cc).
Each of the divisions chafed at the restrictions, particularly since Ford and Chrysler imposed no such limits. Hurst suggested turning the limit into a marketing opportunity. While Pontiac couldn’t offer its big 428 cu. in. (7,008 cc) V8 in a production Firebird, there was nothing to stop Hurst from installing the big engine and offering the modified cars as a special limited-edition model. Indeed, enterprising dealers like Chicago’s Nickey Chevrolet were already making similar conversions, albeit on a smaller scale.
In the summer of 1967, Wangers helped Hurst put together a presentation for Pontiac general manager John DeLorean, who liked the idea, but pointed out several logistical problems. First, building cars without engines was as much of a violation of GM corporate policy as offering the Firebird with the 428 would be, so Pontiac could not simply ship Hurst a load of engineless Firebirds and engines to put together. Second, while DeLorean could provide complete Firebird 400s and an equal number of 428s for Hurst to install, he didn’t have the authority to buy back the smaller engines from Hurst afterward. If Pontiac couldn’t do that, Hurst would be stuck with hundreds of unused engines and the cost of project would probably become prohibitive.
DeLorean took the idea up the ladder to the Engineering Policy Committee, which told him that because the Firebird was assembled in Chevrolet’s Norwood plant alongside the Camaro, Chevrolet would have to sign off on the idea. Pete Estes, who had become Chevrolet general manager in 1965, was well-acquainted with Hurst, knew DeLorean, and understood exactly what they were up to. His answer was a firm no; the Firebird and Camaro were direct competitors and he was not about to allow Pontiac such a marketing coup.
It was discouraging news for Hurst, but Estes offered a potential consolation prize: He suggested that Hurst and Watson talk instead to Oldsmobile chief engineer John Beltz.