THE A-BODY F-85 AND CUTLASS
The new A-body Oldsmobile F-85, launched in the fall of 1963, was nearly 15 inches (38 cm) longer and 500 pounds (227 kg) heavier than the earlier F-85 and traded the Y-body’s unitary construction for a separate perimeter frame. The aluminum V8 was gone, replaced by a new 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) cast-iron small block with up to 290 gross horsepower (216 kW). Also discarded was the unloved three-speed Roto Hydra-Matic, which was replaced by a two-speed “Jetaway” automatic with a novel variable-pitch stator. Stan Wilen’s Oldsmobile styling studio gave the new car tasteful if rather squarish styling, making it look like a scaled-down version of the full-size Olds.
Critics lamented the demise of the smaller F-85 and its lightweight engine, but Oldsmobile buyers apparently did not, for sales increased by more than 35%. Part of the attraction was the ’64s were actually somewhat cheaper than before, reflecting the new cars’ lower production costs. The Oldsmobile Cutlass, still the top trim series, accounted for about 40% of sales.
Although the A-body F-85 and Cutlass sold better than before, they were still not high-volume products for Oldsmobile, amounting to only 30% of its total volume. Customers shopping for an intermediate were far more likely to turn to Chevrolet or Ford, whose midsize cars offered everything the F-85 did for less money. There was also strong new internecine rivalry from Pontiac’s new A-body Tempest and Le Mans.
THE PONTIAC GTO
The 1964 Pontiac Tempest shared the F-85’s A-body shell, its basic suspension hardware, and much of its running gear, although Pontiac had its own 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc) V8. Prices were very similar, model for model, and on paper, there was little to choose between them. Nonetheless, the Tempest outsold its Oldsmobile counterpart by more than 10%. The reason could be summed up with three letters: GTO.
Pontiac had developed a formidable performance image in the late fifties and early sixties, only to run into trouble when GM president Frederic Donner reiterated the corporation’s anti-racing policy. To keep the fire alive, ad man Jim Wangers and chief engineer John DeLorean had decided to develop a hotter street car. Engineer Bill Collins installed Pontiac’s 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8 in the Tempest, which gave it exceptional straight-line performance at a very modest cost. Although GM policy forbade using engines bigger than 330 cu. in. (5.4 L) in the A-body intermediates, Pontiac general manager Pete Estes decided to take a chance, exploiting a loophole in the corporate rules to offer the big engine as an option package, dubbed Gran Turismo Omologato, or GTO. Despite considerable resistance from Pontiac’s own sales organization, the GTO sold 32,450 copies for 1964, accounting for around 17% of Tempest/Le Mans production. Wangers and DeLorean set about turning the GTO into a marketing bonanza, which had a galvanic effect on overall Pontiac sales.
The arrival of the GTO did not go unnoticed at Oldsmobile. Despite Wolfram’s intense conservatism, a lot of Olds engineers were enthusiasts, including Dale Smith, Bob Dorshimer, and assistant chief engineer John Beltz. Even Wolfram had signed off on the short-lived F-85 Jetfire, the world’s first turbocharged production car. It was obvious that Pontiac was onto something, so in late 1963, Wolfram and Metzel authorized the development of a GTO rival.
POLICE APPREHENDER: THE FIRST OLDSMOBILE 442
For the sake of expediency, Beltz, Smith, and Dorshimer dipped into the existing Oldsmobile parts bin. The obvious starting point was the heavy-duty parts Oldsmobile had already developed for police buyers. The F-85, for instance, offered a B01 City Cruiser Apprehender package, which included a firmer suspension and the 290 horsepower (216 kW) V8. Oldsmobile PR executive Dave Jarrard suggested that they needed at least 300 horsepower (224 kW), so they fitted the F-85’s 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) engine with a hotter camshaft, dual exhausts, and sturdier internal components, bringing it to a claimed 310 hp (231 kW).
The obvious question is why Olds did not simply use the big 394 cu. in. (6,460 cc) Rocket V8, which offered up to 345 gross horsepower (257 kW). While it was 73 lb (33 kg) heavier than the small-block 330, the 394 was not a great deal heavier than Pontiac’s 389 and probably would have fit under the hood of the F-85 without much difficulty. On the other hand, the Rocket was then nearing the end of its long life; it was due for a ground-up redesign for 1965. Furthermore, there was still the matter of the engine-displacement policy. The GTO had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of that prohibition and at the time the Olds project began, it was not clear if senior management was going to let Pontiac get away with it. Unlike Pete Estes, Jack Wolfram was not one to take a cavalier attitude toward corporate policy.
Like the GTO, Oldsmobile’s new performance package was technically an option, listed on the order form as the B09 Police Apprehender Pursuit package. It included the 310-horsepower (231 kW) engine and a full assortment of heavy-duty suspension and drivetrain pieces, including stiffer springs, firmer shocks, front and rear anti-roll bars, and wider wheels, borrowed from the F-85 station wagon. Since the two-speed Jetaway automatic could not cope with the high-revving engine, a wide-ratio Muncie four-speed was standard. The price of the B09 package was $285.14, most of which was the cost of the four-speed; Oldsmobile charged nearly $200 for it as a stand-alone option. Someone, presumably Dave Jarrard, recognized that “B09” was not the catchiest of names, so Oldsmobile advertised the package as “4-4-2” (or just 442).
Since it gave up 59 cubic inches (975 cc) and 38 horsepower (28 kW) to the GTO, the Oldsmobile 442 was not as quick as the Pontiac, but could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 7.5 seconds with a top speed of nearly 120 mph (193 km/h). The 442’s heavy-duty suspension erased much of the standard suspension’s sogginess and reduced the A-body’s customary understeer to more manageable proportions. Unfortunately, the brakes were not similarly upgraded; with only 268 in² (0.17 m²) of swept area, the standard drums were barely adequate for a six-cylinder F-85, let alone the hotter 442.
The launch of the 442, late in the 1964 model year, was low key. Compared to the GTO, it seemed almost hesitant, with cautious advertising and a notable lack of gimmicks. Performance car or not, it was still an Oldsmobile, and an Olds police car, at that. Nonetheless, the automotive press was very fond of the early 442 and several reviewers remarked that it was what the regular F-85 should have been. Car Life, which had been sharply critical of the standard Cutlass, called the 442 one of the best-handling passenger cars made in America.
Even so, production was very limited. Oldsmobile built only 2,999 cars with the B09 package in 1964, about 1.8% of F-85 production. The majority of 442s were Cutlass hardtops, but about ten F-85 sedans also got the Police Apprehender package; most apparently went to the nearby Lansing Police Department.