JOHN BELTZ’S PERFORMANCE AMBITIONS
Watson already knew John Beltz quite well; Ed Cole, then GM’s executive vice president, had introduced them back in 1965. Beltz, who turned 40 in 1966, was then on the corporate fast track. As Oldsmobile’s assistant chief engineer, he had been one of the principal architects of the innovative front-wheel-drive Toronado. He became chief engineer in July 1964 and Cole was already grooming him to succeed Harold Metzel as the division’s general manager.
Beltz was unusual for a GM executive: witty, outspoken, and fearless, with a reputation for saying whatever was on his mind, however impolitic. Beltz and Watson hit it off immediately, in part because Beltz was eager to cultivate the kind of sporty image that was making Pontiac such a success with younger buyers.
By mid-1967, Beltz had been campaigning for about a year for an Oldsmobile pony car to match the new Camaro and Firebird, knowing that Oldsmobile still had a long way to go in shaking off the conservative image the division had cultivated under former general manager Jack Wolfram. Cole, concerned about the likelihood of cannibalizing Camaro and Firebird sales, repeatedly refused, but Beltz was not one to take no for an answer.
Part of the reason Beltz was so determined was that Oldsmobile’s 442, a performance-oriented version of the A-body Cutlass, was still struggling to find its place in the sporty car firmament. Despite good reviews and steadily improving performance, 442 sales still hovered around 25,000 units a year, well short of the popular and aggressively merchandised GTO.
At the time of Hurst and DeLorean’s meeting with Pete Estes, Oldsmobile was preparing to roll out a restyled 1968 A-body with sleek fastback styling that made the Cutlass look rather like an overinflated Firebird. The problem, from a performance standpoint, was that for 1968, Oldsmobile had opted to lengthen the stroke of its big V8 engines in search of more torque. That was fine for the full-size cars and Toronado, which would now have a 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine, second-largest in the industry, but the displacement limit for the A-bodies meant the 442 would be stuck with a de-bored 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) version with at best mid-pack muscle. As was the case at Pontiac, Oldsmobile’s bigger engine had the same exterior dimensions as the 400 (and actually weighed a bit less), so it would be straightforward to install the 455 in the 442, but corporate policy expressly forbade doing so.
Watson and Hurst met with Beltz and Oldsmobile engineer Bob Dorshimer in November and laid out the latest version of the engine swap idea: Hurst would install the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine in a limited number of specially trimmed Cutlasses, which would be sold through Oldsmobile dealers. The sales would be minimal by GM standards, but the Hurst-modified cars would generate a lot of buzz in the enthusiast press and give Oldsmobile’s image a much-needed boost.
Of course, this proposal presented the same logistical problems for Oldsmobile that it had at Pontiac. The difference this time was that senior management, having already shot down Beltz’s requests for an F-body, was in more of a mood to make concessions — or at least look the other way.
THE EXECUTIVE HOT ROD
Beltz was amenable to the Hurst proposal, particularly since the cost to Oldsmobile would be relatively modest. However, neither Metzel nor assistant chief engineer Howard Kehrl saw the point, so the project stalled for months while Beltz maneuvered his way through the internal politics. In the meantime, Watson left Hurst-Campbell, although he agreed to remain involved with the Oldsmobile project on a consulting basis.
The Hurst deal finally went forward in March 1968, with divisional authorization for a limited run of 500 455-powered Cutlasses. Since the modified cars would inevitably be more expensive than a standard 442, Watson proposed marketing them as “executive hot rods,” aimed not at teenagers, but at affluent enthusiasts who didn’t want to sacrifice comfort for performance. Rather than being a stripped-out drag-racing special, like the new Plymouth Road Runner, the Hurst car would have a full load of convenience options, including air conditioning — a rare feature for serious performance cars of the era.
There would actually be two engines for the special cars, which were eventually christened “Hurst Olds.” Cars with air conditioning got the W-46 engine, which used the same “C” cylinder heads as the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engines in the Olds Eighty-Eight and Toronado, but with the 442 exhaust manifold, distributor, valve covers and the camshaft specified for 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) 442s with automatic transmission. Cars without air had the W-45 engine, which used the freer-breathing “D” heads from the 442’s optional W-30 engine along with a hotter camshaft and richer carburetor jets. Both the W-45 and W-46 used the W-30’s cold air intake system, breathing through snorkels below the front bumper, and had heavy-duty cooling systems. Oldsmobile quoted the same rated output for both engines — 390 gross horsepower (291 kW) and 500 lb-ft (675 N-m) of torque — but the W-45 was clearly more powerful.
All but one of the original cars had GM’s three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, which was fitted for the purpose with Hurst’s Dual-Gate shifter. W-45 cars had a 3.91 axle for better dragstrip performance while air conditioned cars had a 3.08 axle to keep revs down and give the A/C compressor a fighting chance of survival. The chassis, meanwhile, was the same as the 442’s, with a heavy-duty frame, stiffer springs and shocks, and anti-roll bars both front and rear.
Aside from the engines and 442 equipment, the H/O was distinguished from lesser Cutlasses with unique paint and trim. The original plan was for the cars to be painted Firefrost Gold, Hurst’s signature color, but Oldsmobile was initially unable to replicate the color to George Hurst’s satisfaction, so he opted instead for a Toronado color called Peruvian Silver, complemented with black stripes and white pinstripes. The H/O’s interior was basically stock Cutlass, but the dash got walnut trim along with the tachometer/clock combination that was optional on the 442.
THE 1968 HURST OLDS
Thanks to the early delays, production of the Hurst Olds didn’t begin until early April, barely two months before the end of the 1968 model year. Officially, each H/O began life on the Oldsmobile production lines in Lansing as an engineless but otherwise complete Cutlass before being shipped to Demmer Engineering, a nearby contractor, for installation of the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine and special Hurst Olds trim. In reality, the engines were installed by Oldsmobile on the regular assembly line; Demmer’s main function was to add the paint stripes and other cosmetic touches.
The reason the big engine was not actually installed by Demmer was that Beltz and Metzel were concerned about the potential liability issues; the idea of Oldsmobile being on the hook for warranty claims on engines installed by an outside contractor was uncomfortable, to say the least. Beltz finally concluded that it would be simpler and safer for Olds to install the engines at the factory and say Demmer had done it. We’re not sure to what extent this stratagem really fooled GM’s senior management — we imagine Ed Cole, at least, had a pretty good idea of what was actually going on — but it was a convenient fiction that provided Oldsmobile (and the corporation) with what the CIA once dubbed plausible deniability. Everyone involved stuck to the original story well into the eighties, although even in 1968 some outside observers were suspicious.
The Hurst Olds was not technically a 442, although except for the ostentatious paint job and insignia, the H/O looked much like a 442 and shared many of the same components. With all the “mandatory options” required with the H/O package, the starting price tag was around $4,200, some $400 more than a comparably equipped 442. That was expensive, but not unreasonably so; the H/O package cost more than Oldsmobile probably would have charged for the big engine as a regular production option, but less than the cost of a competent aftermarket engine swap.
At first, the Oldsmobile sales organization wanted no part of the Hurst Olds and tried to kill it; the 442 had hardly been a runaway hit and the prospect of a similar model costing nearly $500 more was not appetizing. General sales manager Mack Worden changed his tune after receiving more than 900 dealer orders within the first 48 hours. Oldsmobile eventually got more than 2,000 orders, but all Demmer had time to complete were 515 cars, all but 64 of them hardtops. Even finishing that many cars was a struggle; Watson had to pay a painter named Paul Hatton more than $10,000 just to finish all the pinstripes in time.
The Hurst Olds was one of the hotter factory offerings for 1968 and, as expected, garnered a great deal of press attention. Testers from the enthusiast magazines found that W-45 H/Os could run the standing quarter mile (402 meters) in just under 14 seconds with a good launch; air conditioning added about a half second to the ET. Handling and braking were much like the 442’s, viz, better than average for a big American car. Fuel economy was predictably awful, dipping below 10 mpg (23.5 L/100 km) in brisk driving, although it wasn’t that much worse than a regular 442 or GTO.
Despite Worden’s fears, Oldsmobile dealers had little trouble selling out the limited run of Hurst Olds, which was successful enough to earn an encore for 1969.