HURST WITHOUT HURST
By almost any standard, Hurst-Campbell had been extraordinarily successful throughout the sixties. Aside from his automotive business, Hurst also invented the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic rescue tool that remains standard equipment for firefighters and emergency workers. Profits were outstanding and in 1968, Hurst took the company public.
In 1970, Bill Campbell sold his share of the company to Sunbeam Products, the appliance manufacturer. With Campbell’s departure, Hurst no longer had a controlling interest and soon had no real operational control; he finally departed a few years later. It was a harsh blow — after spending 15 years tirelessly promoting his own name, Hurst lost the right to use it commercially in the field he loved.
The company went on without him. Hurst continued to develop new products throughout the seventies, although most were more like J.C. Whitney gimmicks than serious performance hardware: pointless accessories like custom mud flaps and gimmicky digital tachometers.
THE HURST OLDS PACE CARS
Hurst and Oldsmobile went their separate ways until 1972, when Hurst built a new H/O as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. The Indy Pace Car program had nearly collapsed in 1971 after the previous entry, a Dodge Challenger driven by dealer Eldon Palmer, had crashed into the photographer’s grandstand, causing many injuries. Nonetheless, the program was still good publicity, so Hurst Performance decided to sponsor an Indy Pace Car for 1972: a souped-up Cutlass Supreme convertible with the now-obligatory white paint, gold stripes, and gold-painted wheels, driven by Jim Rathmann.
Hurst and Oldsmobile subsequently offered a new production Hurst Olds late in the 1972 model year. It once again had a 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) V8, now rated at 270 net horsepower (201 kW). The W-30 Force-Air package was optional, boosting output to 300 net horsepower (224 kW), but it was rarely ordered. Production totaled either 624 or 629 units, fewer than 50 of which had the W-30 engine.
Although the 1973 Indy Pace Car was a Cadillac Eldorado, there was again a production Hurst Olds for 1973, this time based on the newly restyled Cutlass “Colonnade” coupe. Mechanically, it was much like the ’72, with a 455 engine with either 275 or 300 horsepower (201 or 224 kW). Hurst built 1,097 of them.
A custom-built Hurst Olds convertible paced the 1974 Indy 500, leading to yet another production H/O. This time, the small-block 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) V8 was standard, although the 455 was still optional. Hurst built 1,903 of the ’74s along with 92 full-size Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight convertibles with H/O badges.
The Cutlass-based Hurst Olds returned in 1975, now equipped with removable T-tops and various tacky cosmetic details, including a padded vinyl top with blind rear quarter panels. Perversely, the 1975 H/O was the most popular H/O yet, selling 2,535 units.
There were no H/Os in 1976 or 1977, although the Cutlass Supreme offered an optional Hurst-installed T-top roof, which included Hurst Olds emblems. By 1976, Oldsmobile no longer needed the image boost. The Cutlass was enjoying record sales and the factory couldn’t spare any cars for Hurst.
THE FINAL HURST OLDS
Like the 442, which lingered well after most of its direct rivals had disappeared, the Hurst Olds made several unexpected encore appearances, first in 1979 and again in 1983 and 1984. These latter-day Hurst Olds were a far cry from their tire-smoking predecessors, but they were the most popular of the breed. Oldsmobile sold 2,499 of the ’79s, 3,000 of the ’83s, and about 3,500 of the final 1984 models. There would have been an 1985 model as well, but Oldsmobile decided to revive the 442 instead, allegedly because Hurst wanted too much money for the use of the Hurst name.
George Hurst had reportedly become increasingly despondent over the past decade and on May 13, 1986, he was found dead in his garage in Redlands, California, an apparent suicide. He was 59 years old.
In 1987, about a year after Hurst’s death, Sunbeam sold the company to Mr. Gasket, Inc. Former “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter” Linda Vaughn returned to the fold, becoming Mr. Gasket’s vice president of public relations. For a while, Mr. Gasket even honored the original lifetime warranty on Hurst shifters, although they added a $45 handling charge.
The Hurst Olds name surfaced once last time in 1988. It was not a complete car, but an aftermarket kit, developed by Doc Watson and Tempe, Arizona-based Action Products. The kits were purely cosmetic and had to be installed by the customer, which was not a simple task. Fewer than two dozen were sold.
In 2007, Mr. Gasket sold Hurst Performance Products to B&M Racing. Now based in California, Hurst continues to manufacture shifters for manual and automatic transmissions, although McLeod Industries, another B&M subsidiary, now apparently make its shift linkages.
In November 2008, Hurst launched Hurst Performance Vehicles, offering special editions in the mold of the original Hurst Olds. To date, Hurst’s modified cars have included the Dodge Viper, the Ford Mustang, and the new Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro. In the summer of 2009, Doc Watson lent his name to Hurst’s final collaboration with Pontiac: a limited run of 52 supercharged Pontiac G8 sedans.
It’s easy to criticize GM for restrictive and arbitrary policies like its mid-sixties displacement limits, but we don’t know that they ultimately made much difference. Even if it had been possible to order a 428 Firebird or an SS427 Camaro or Chevelle without resorting to engine swaps and chicanery, we suspect that sales would have been very limited. Few customers appreciated the virtues of the big engines and fewer still could afford them — Chrysler’s experience with the 426 Hemi and 440 makes that clear enough.
Viewed in that light, offering the big engines in special editions like the Hurst Olds probably made a lot more sense. The H/O was still a car of narrowly focused appeal, but the limited production made it seem exclusive rather than just unpopular.
The original Hurst Olds is not really our sort of car, but it does arouse a certain curious nostalgia. It was the product of a more innocent era of marketing and product planning, when cross-promotion and co-branding were new and exciting concepts. In 1968, the idea that a former shade-tree hot-rodder like George Hurst could get his name on a production car — and an Oldsmobile, at that — was a novelty, an event. Within a few years, it had become all too ordinary, an increasingly calculated (if not cynical) exercise. It’s hard to imagine the average observer today feeling much frisson at the sight of an L.L. Bean Edition Subaru or the ubiquitous Eddie Bauer editions of Ford trucks and SUVs. We assume that if these branding mash-ups weren’t profitable, manufacturers wouldn’t bother, but the thrill is gone — cast off and long forgotten, not unlike George Hurst himself.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for the history of the Hurst Olds included “1966-1985 Oldsmobile Toronado,” Automotive Mileposts, n.d., automotivemileposts. com, accessed 10 November 2010; David E. Davis, Jr., “Modern Muscle: Grab your Frankie Valli cassettes and we’ll see you at the beach,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 1 (July 1985), pp. 38-43; Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); John Heilig, “Cutlass Supremacy: The Story of Oldsmobile’s 1973-77 Intermediates,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 2 (August 2005), pp. 8–21; Hurtst-Campbell Inc., “Believe It” [1968 Hurst/Olds brochure] and “Muscle: 1969 Hurst/Olds” [1969 Hurst/Olds brochure]; Indypacecars.com, 1999, accessed 14 February 2010; John F. Katz, “1968 Hurst Olds: Catch-455,” Special Interest Autos #164 (March-April 1968), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 108-115; the Old Car Brochures website (oldcarbrochures.org); C. Van Tune, “Retrospect: ’68 Hurst/Oldsmobile: The Day the Image Changed,” Motor Trend Vol. 44, No. 4 (April 1992), pp. 100-102; B.T. Van Kirk, “1968-84 Hurst/Oldsmobile: Executive Hot Rod,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 3 (October 2000), pp. 8-21; and Oldsmobile Mail List Server Community, “Olds FAQ — Hurst Olds” (10 April 2000, The Olds FAQ, www.442. com/ oldsfaq/ofhos.htm, accessed 11 February 2009). Additional information on the life of George Hurst came from Jim Donnelly, “George Hurst: From garage rat to marketing genius,” Hemmings Muscle Machines September 2006; and Brian Lohnes, “Gearhead Guys You Should Know: George Hurst” (7 January 2009, Bangshift. com, accessed 12 February 2010).
We also consulted the following period road tests: Steve Kelly, “Mix in talent (Olds), a dash of ideas (Hurst), and blend thoroughly with endless strings of enthusiasm. Result: Hurst-Olds,” Hot Rod July 1968; Eugene Martin, “Tune Out the Feds,” Cars August 1968; “Hurst-Olds: An H/O Hauler: Another GM division pushed closer to the racing pits,” Road Test July 1969; and “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile Rallye 350: Beneath that gaudy paint and wing lurk bargains in performance and handling,” Car Life May 1970, reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971 (Muscle Portfolios), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); Bill Sanders, “H-O doesn’t stand for ‘Hairy-Olds,’ but maybe it should,” Motor Trend September 1968; Eric Dahlquist, “The Hairest Oldsmobile: Mr. Hurst and Dr. Oldsmobile build the mind shatterer, or, why Lucille will never be the same again,” Motor Trend June 1969); Karl Ludvigsen, “Bridging the Insurance Gap,” Motor Trend February 1970; “Car Life Road Test: Dr. Oldsmobile – Meet Dr. Hurst,” Car Life July 1969; John Pashdag, “73½ Hurst Olds: The Super-Car Still Lives!” Motor Trend June 1973; Jim McCraw, “HO Locomotive on a Grand Scale: A look at the street-legal version of the 1974 Hurst Olds that will lead 33 cars to the green flag at Indy this year,” Hot Rod May 1974; and Paul Garson, “Fine Lines: Oldsmobile 442, 1964-74,” Car Craft April 1988, reprinted in Cutlass And 442: Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998).
Some details on the modern Hurst cars, including the 2009 Hurst-Pontiac G8, came from the Hurst Performance website and their 29 June 2009 press release (www.hurst-performance. com, accessed 12 February 2010).
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