Rocket Bomb: The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Dawn of the American Horsepower Race

In the mid-1950s, American automakers were engaged in a ferocious horsepower race. By the time the battle reached a temporary ceasefire at decade’s end, the average power of the typical passenger car had (at least on paper) more than doubled. The starting gun of that race was sounded by Oldsmobile, with its advanced new overhead-valve V8 and the new mid-size model that shared its name: the 1949-1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 badge


Oldsmobile’s first postwar engine was born during the UAW strike that shut down GM production from November 1945 through March 1946. During that period, Oldsmobile Motor Group draftsman Gilbert Burrell began working privately on concepts for new cars and new engines. This was not an official assignment; he was simply exploring ideas for his own interest and amusement. Burrell examined a wide range of configurations, but the one to which he continually returned was a 90-degree V8, which he judged as offering the best compromise between power potential and physical size.

About six weeks after he started work, Burrell showed his designs to Oldsmobile’s chief engineer Jack Wolfram and Oldsmobile general manager Sherrod Skinner. Deciding Burrell’s ideas had promise, Wolfram and Skinner organized a new advance design group to develop a new overhead-valve (OHV) V8 engine and assigned Burrell to lead it. That July, Burrell was promoted to chief motor engineer for the division.

Coincidentally, Cadillac had been working since 1936 on a very similar OHV engine to replace its familiar monoblock flathead V8. It’s unclear at what point Oldsmobile engineers became aware of the Cadillac engine or how much they knew about it. Olds veterans claimed the Burrell group was completely unaware of the Cadillac project until quite late in the development of the Oldsmobile V8. However, former Cadillac engineer Harry Barr, who led the development of Cadillac’s first OHV V8, later asserted that Charles L. McCuen, then GM’s vice president of engineering (and the former general manager of Oldsmobile) had ordered Cadillac chief engineer Jack Gordon to show Cadillac’s OHV design to Oldsmobile carburetor engineer Tony Wauters. Barr believed the Oldsmobile engine was a direct derivative of Cadillac’s design, although he conceded that Cadillac also benefited from some of Oldsmobile’s work.

Since the advance design group envisioned a 1949 introduction for their new engine, the project was dubbed SV-49. The prototypes, which first ran in November 1946, were 287 cu. in. (4,705 cc) and were designed to take advantage of research that had been done by GM Research VP Charles Kettering on high-compression engines (of which we’ll have more to say below).

Around the end of that year, the project nearly ground to a halt due to objections from Cadillac. Although Oldsmobile (as well as Buick and Pontiac) had used eight-cylinder engines for more than a decade, Cadillac was not happy about the idea of Oldsmobile offering an OHV V8 and convinced corporate management to deny Oldsmobile’s request for development funds. Skinner and Wolfram tried again in March 1947, having decided that alternative engine configurations were impractical, and this time managed to secure production approval from GM president Charles E. Wilson.

Because the high-octane fuels necessary to take advantage of really high compression ratios were not yet available, Burrell ordered the displacement of the production engine (known internally as 8-90) increased to 303.7 cu. in. (4,977 cc). Road tests were conducted later that year and the new V8 went into production a few days before Christmas 1948. The V8 was standard in the new 1949 Oldsmobile 98, replacing the old 257 cu. in. (4,214 cc) L-head straight eight.

1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 front view
1949 Oldsmobiles proclaimed that they had “Futuramic styling” (there’s even a “Futuramic” badge on the front fenders), but it was updating a basic body introduced in 1941. The heavily domed hood would continue through 1953. The grilles under the headlights of this 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 are for the ventilation system, replacing the traditional pop-up cowl vent. They were criticized at the time as being unsafe in city traffic because they picked up their air too close to the tail pipes of cars ahead. The wild rocket hood ornament was technically a $5 option.


The Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s represented the start of several major trends in American engine design. Let’s briefly examine each of them.


Prior to the advent of the 1949 Cadillac and Olds engines, many (though by no means all) U.S. engines were L-head, or side-valve, design. As the diagram below illustrates, an L-head engine has its valves in the side(s) of the block. The cylinder head is little more than a cover for the top of the cylinder, which is why L-head engines are commonly called flatheads.

L-head combustion chamber engine diagram
Simplified diagram of the cylinder of a flathead (L-head) engine. (author diagram)

Flathead engines are easy and cheap to manufacture, but they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to performance. First, their volumetric efficiency is poor. Internal combustion engines are essentially air pumps, so their power depends greatly on how much air-fuel mixture can flow into the cylinders to burn. In a flathead engine, the air-fuel mixture has to go around several corners to make its way into the combustion chamber and burned exhaust gases have a similarly circuitous route out of the cylinders. In short, the flathead’s “breathing” ability is only mediocre.

Second, the combustion chambers of a flathead engine have a lot of surface area; more surface area means more opportunities for the heat of combustion to escape (which engineers call heat rejection) before it’s had the chance to do any useful work. A flathead engine, therefore, also has poor thermal efficiency. These limitations hurt both power and fuel economy. The shape of a flathead’s combustion chambers also limits its maximum compression ratio (the amount the fuel mixture is compressed before burning).

To mitigate these problems, both Oldsmobile and Cadillac adopted an overhead-valve (OHV) layout. In an OHV engine, the valves are placed directly above the combustion chamber, which greatly improves breathing. The placement of the valves also means that the combustion chamber has a smaller surface area and thus greater thermal efficiency — some 20% better than a comparable flathead. OHV engines can also support much higher compression ratios.

OHV engine diagram
Simplified diagram of the cylinder of a wedge-head OHV engine. (Author diagram)

The difficulty presented by an OHV layout is finding a way to operate the valves. In a flathead engine, the camshaft is in the block, driven directly by the engine’s crankshaft. Since the valves of a flathead are also in the block, the camshaft can actuate the valves directly. In an OHV engine, by contrast, the valves are a fair distance away from the crankshaft, which makes operating them far more complicated. Many modern engines deal with this problem by placing the camshaft in the cylinder head along with the valves (an overhead cam (OHC) engine), but there still has to be some way for the crank to drive the camshaft. Both of the practical options available in the 1930s and 1940s — a train of gears or a metal chain drive — were complex, expensive, and noisy.

A cheaper solution (pioneered by Buick back in the days before General Motors was formed) was to leave the camshaft in the block, as in a flathead engine, but add long metal pushrods to allow the camshaft to actuate the valves remotely. A pushrod layout is more expensive than a flathead’s valve gear and the extra mass of pushrods and rocker arms hurts mechanical efficiency. Nonetheless, both Oldsmobile and Cadillac deemed it a good compromise. Other American manufacturers would reach the same conclusion.

Pushrod valvetrain illustration © 2007 IJB TA at the English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Diagram of a typical pushrod/rocker-arm layout of an overhead-valve engine. (Illustration: “Pushrod2” © 2007 IJB TA at the English Wikipedia; resized and changed file format (from PNG to JPEG) 2008 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)


Until well into the 1950s, most engines were undersquare, with a narrow cylinder bore and a long piston stroke. A long piston stroke gives more torque, which means better engine response at low speeds. Unfortunately, it also creates more friction and means that the average piston speeds are very high, particularly at high RPM, which is detrimental to engine longevity.

By contrast, both the Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s were oversquare, with a wide bore and a short stroke. The short stroke allowed the engine to rev more freely while the wider bore provides more room for larger valves, which further improves breathing.


Both the Cadillac and Oldsmobile design teams were strongly influenced by the work of GM research chief “Boss” Charles Kettering, who had been working on high-compression engines since the end of World War I. An engine’s static compression ratio is the ratio of the swept volume of each cylinder to the volume of the combustion chamber; the higher the ratio, the more the engine compresses its fuel mixture before combustion. Raising an engine’s compression ratio allows the engine to extract more energy from the fuel it burns, improving both power and fuel economy.

The desire to raise compression ratios had prompted Kettering and his staff to develop tetraethyl lead as an octane-boosting gasoline additive in the early twenties (as discussed in greater detail in our article on the 1970½-1981 Chevrolet Camaro), but the research staff had been working to raise compression ratios even higher. Shortly after the war, Kettering’s engineers built an experimental 181 cu. in. (2,969 cc) six with a compression ratio of 12.5:1, where most contemporary engines had ratios of no more than 7.0:1. Kettering’s team demonstrated that the higher compression ratio boosted power and gas mileage by nearly 30%.

Naturally, GM was extremely interested in the potential of high-compression engines for passenger cars, but there were two hold-ups. The first was that Kettering’s engine required fuel with a considerably higher octane rating than any contemporary pump gasoline; better fuel economy was hardly useful if you could only fill up at airports. The second issue was that the practical limit for L-head engines was a compression ratio of about 7.0:1; above that threshold, it became difficult to control combustion roughness. (We should note, however, that Packard’s final L-head eight of 1954 used an 8.7:1 compression ratio with no apparent loss of refinement, although the fact that the 359 cu. in. (5,880 cc) engine was a massive straight eight with nine main bearings may have played a role in that!) Overhead valves did not suffer the same problem, which gave them the potential for much higher compression ratios.

Neither of GM’s new OHV V8s had an exceptionally high compression ratio at first — Oldsmobile’s was 7.25:1, Cadillac’s 7.5:1 — but that was mostly a reflection of the low octane of the gasoline of the time. Most commonly available premium fuels had an octane rating of only 80 RON, not nearly enough for the ultra-high compression ratios Kettering proposed. GM embarked on a vigorous campaign to persuade the major oil companies to offer higher-octane premium gasoline for civilian use. (This can’t be viewed as an entirely altruistic effort, since GM still owned a major stake in the Ethyl Corporation, the principle producer of the tetraethyl lead additive that was the primary octane booster used in contemporary gasoline.) If better fuels became available, both the Cadillac and Olds engines had the theoretical potential for compression ratios as high as 12:1.


Oldsmobile’s first OHV V8, dubbed the “Rocket” engine, had a 3.75-inch (95.3mm) bore and a 3.44-inch (87.3mm) stroke, compared to 3.25 inches (82.6mm) and 3.88 inches (98.4mm) respectively for the straight eight the Rocket replaced. The OHV V8 was still a large engine externally, but it was shorter and lower than the straight eight and weighed quite a bit less. The new V8 was also more powerful: Rated output climbed from 110 to 135 gross horsepower (82 to 101 kW) while torque increased from 213 to 283 lb-ft (289 to 383 N-m), allowing an Oldsmobile 98 with Hydra-Matic to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in a brisk (for 1949) 13.5 seconds, with a top speed of 96 mph (155 km/h). The icing on the cake was that fuel consumption was reduced by about 10% compared to the old L-head engine.

1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine
Oldsmobile engineers originally wanted to call this the Kettering Engine, after GM research vice president Charles Kettering, whose work on high-compression engines helped to inspire it. Kettering had retired in 1947, but since he was still alive (and active as a GM consultant), naming the engine after him was against GM’s corporate policy, so Sherrod Skinner suggested the “Rocket” name instead. Some Oldsmobile employees detested that name, but it remained strongly associated with Oldsmobile well into the 1960s. The early Rocket V8 weighs a bit over 700 pounds (318 kg) and had an SAE gross rating of 135 hp (101 kW). Many believe it was deliberately underrated to avoid offending Cadillac, which was concerned about its sister division outmatching the new Cadillac V8.

The new V8 was designed with plenty of extra room in the block for future displacement increases, but Gilbert Burrell and his team actually hoped that Oldsmobile could return to the 287 cu. in. (4,705 cc) displacement of the original prototypes once higher-octane fuels became widely available, raising compression ratios to maintain the same output with lower fuel consumption. That never happened; by the fifties, the industry was far more interested in advertised horsepower than gas mileage. The Rocket would only get bigger, not smaller.


As mentioned earlier, the Rocket V8 was initially offered only in Oldsmobile’s flagship 98, a big luxury car that gave away little to Cadillac in size or appointments. The development testing, however, had been done using the smaller B-body Olds 76 as a test mule. The B-body Oldsmobiles rode a 6-inch (152mm) shorter wheelbase and were 11 inches (279 mm) shorter and 3.6 inches (91mm) narrower than the C-body 98 and weighed 250 pounds (227 kg) less. The Rocket-powered 98 was already a very respectable performer, so installing the new engine in the lighter body made for quite a hot number.

Oldsmobile’s engineering staff already knew what the Rocket could do in the B-body cars and there was no question that it fit, so Harold Metzel, then Oldsmobile’s chief transmission engineer, asked Sherry Skinner if Oldsmobile could offer that combination in production. Skinner liked the idea, but it had to be approved by corporate management, which brought a new round of objection from Cadillac — the 98 was already a close match for Cadillac in performance and a V8-powered B-body Oldsmobile would undoubtedly be faster. The top brass equivocated, but Skinner finally got the green light. The new, mid-sized Oldsmobile Rocket 88 went on sale February 6, exactly seven weeks after the 98.

1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 front 3q view
In shape and size, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 is not much different from the Pontiac Streamline and Chevrolet Fleetline whose body shell it shares. With an overall length of 202 inches (5,131 mm) and an overall width of 75.2 inches (1,910 mm) on a 119.5-inch (3,035mm) wheelbase, the 88 was hardly a small car even by American standards and it tipped the scales (in this body style) at almost 3,800 lb (1,717 kg) with Hydra-Matic, but its Rocket V8 would leave Pontiac’s elderly straight eight or Chevrolet’s Stovebolt Six for dead and the Oldsmobile name carried more prestige than Pontiac or Chevrolet.

Like the test mules, the Rocket 88 was, in the parlance of a somewhat later era, a real bomb. Even with the standard Hydra-Matic transmission, the 88 was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 12 seconds and could reach an absolute top speed of 97 mph (156 km/h). Some competitors were a bit faster all-out and a few could beat the Olds off the line, but the 88 was one of the fastest cars in America in 1949. The Rocket 88 would vacuum the chrome off V8 Fords (unless the Ford’s owner had made a substantial investment in aftermarket parts) and it took a semi-exotic like the new Jaguar XK-120 to soundly beat the Olds.

Although Oldsmobile’s official involvement in racing was limited, the Rocket 88 promptly proceeded to clean up in competition. NASCAR held nine Grand National races in 1949, of which stock Rocket 88s won six. The following year, 88s won 10 out of 19 Grand National races and set a new speed record at Daytona. An 88 also won the first grueling Carrera Panamericana, the 2,176-mile (3,500-km) Mexican Road Race. (Ten of the 13 88s that entered that race managed to finish, itself an impressive feat.) More-or-less stock Rocket 88s continued winning their classes at the drag strip well into the 1950s.

If anyone at GM had had doubts about offering the big engine in the smaller body, the sales alone would have been enough to convince them. Total Oldsmobile sales for the 1949 model year, including exports and Canadian production, were almost 294,000, a 64% improvement from the year before. Of those sales, 100,273 were the Rocket 88.

Inevitably, the 88 overshadowed Oldsmobile’s cheaper 76, which still used a 257 cu. in. (4,213 cc) L-head six. Any interest in better fuel economy was quickly forgotten; gasoline was cheap and speed sold more cars than parsimony. The 76 lingered for one more model year and then was dropped entirely; the division wouldn’t offer a six again until 1964.

1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 dashboard
This 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 has the Deluxe trim with a dashboard clock; Deluxe models cost $78 more than the standard-trim version. This car has the pushbutton radio, which cost about $96. Full instrumentation is standard — Olds had not yet succumbed to the allure of warning lights. Note the quadrant for the Hydra-Matic atop the steering column. Early Hydra-Matics had no “Park” position (although there was a parking pawl if you engaged reverse), and unlike later versions, there’s no way to keep the transmission in third gear, which can be inconvenient. This car’s turn signals may be an aftermarket addition — turn signals were originally a $15 option on this car.


Cadillac’s OHV V8, released around the same time as the new Oldsmobiles, was itself an important and influential engine that earned Motor Trend‘s first Car of the Year Award, but it was the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 that started an avalanche. One by one, every other American manufacturer brought out its own OHV V8 engine: Chrysler and Studebaker in 1951; Lincoln in 1952; Buick and Dodge in 1953; Ford and Mercury in 1954; Chevrolet, Pontiac, Plymouth, and Packard in 1955; and AMC in 1956. Each of those engines had its own peculiarities, but they were all in the mold of the Oldsmobile Rocket engine. The OHV V8 would dominate the American industry well into the 1980s, resulting in some staggeringly powerful engines whose output has only recently been surpassed.

Oldsmobile’s reign as the hottest performer in the land proved to be short-lived. By 1952, the 88 was growing inexorably bigger and although Oldsmobile engineers had little trouble getting more power out of the Rocket engine — by 1955, it boasted 202 gross horsepower (151 kW) — newer, lighter cars soon surpassed its performance. The Rocket 88 model name was dropped after 1957.

The original Oldsmobile Rocket V8 soldiered on until 1964, eventually reaching 394 cu. in. (6,460 cc), which was about the limit of the original block design. Compression ratios never approached the 12.5:1 level that Kettering had proposed, peaking at about 10.5:1. Power increased — the final Rocket was rated at 345 gross horsepower (257 kW) — but fuel economy eroded. The 1949-50 Rocket 88 was good for 15-16 miles to the gallon (15 L/100 km) overall and up to 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) if driven carefully; a 1964 Oldsmobile Starfire struggled to reach 12 mpg (20 L/100 km), a decline of around 30%.

In a 1972 interview with Michael Lamm, then editor of Special Interest Autos, former Cadillac chief engineer Jack Gordon lamented the trend to ever bigger and thirstier engines, noting that he had tried unsuccessfully to convince oil companies to develop ultra-high-octane fuels so that Cadillac could adopt more fuel-efficient high-compression, small-displacement engines. The oil industry wasn’t interested, nor was the auto industry, nor — it must be said — was the contemporary American public.

1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 rear 3q view
Until 1951, Oldsmobile offered a choice of fastback and notchback body styles, as well as the convertible. Two-door fastbacks, like this one, were known as Club Sedans; the four-doors were called Town Sedans. Base price for the Deluxe Club Sedan was $1,982 in 1950, and 16,388 were sold. The 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88s were considerably cheaper than the ’49s, although that was largely because Hydra-Matic, which had been standard equipment on all 1949 V8-powered cars, reverted to being a $185 option. Adding turn signals, backup lights, windshield washers, and heater tacked an additional $112 to the price — these items wouldn’t be standard for several more years.

We think it was probably just as well that the proposed ultra-premium fuels never materialized; as it was, increasing the octane rating of pump gasoline from the 70 RON of typical mid-forties regular fuel to the 98 RON level of later super-premium fuel increased the amount of lead in each gallon by more than 40%, with significant public health consequences. The super-fuels the engineers wanted would probably have added even more.

Concern about diminishing oil reserves is nothing new — in the twenties, some engineers feared the U.S. would be out of oil within 30 years — but it was not until the seventies that those fears entered the public consciousness. Even in markets where fuel is substantially more expensive than in the U.S., fuel efficiency is widely regarded in purely economic terms. It’s tempting to speculate what might have happened had the the U.S. industry’s push in the fifties been for efficiency rather than the (ultimately Pyrrhic) horsepower race, although that would admittedly have been unlikely. It’s taken economic downturns, the occasional oil embargo, and mounting signs of environmental calamity to get Americans to take a real interest in how much fuel they use; even then, that interest never seems to last for long after the latest crisis has passed.

Engineers today are wrestling with questions very similar to those faced by their counterparts of 70 or even 90 years ago. The difference is that many of the things earlier generations feared (such as heavy dependence on foreign oil and its associated political ramifications) are now familiar reality rather than speculation. Still, the same quandary exists that faced Gordon Burrell and Jack Gordon in the late forties: New technologies — in this case, direct injection, turbocharging, and even hybrid powertrains — can benefit both performance or fuel economy and emissions, but one still almost always wins out over the other. The means exist to do the same work while burning less fuel; the question is whether a meaningful number of American consumers will accept those means while there’s still fuel left to burn.



Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John R. Bond, “Car of the Year: The 1949 Cadillac,” Motor Trend November 1949, reprinted in Cadillac Automobiles 1949-1959, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1985), pp. 8-9; Arch Brown, “Similar But Different: 1949 Cadillac vs. 1949 Oldsmobile 98,” Special Interest Autos #149 (September-October 1995), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 34-41; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); F. Gibson Butler, “History of the Rocket Engine,” originally written 15 November 1977 and excerpted in Desert Rocket Report: Newsletter of the Oldsmobile Club of Arizona October 2004, pp. 1, 3-5; www.azoldsclub. com/ newsletter/ 2004-10_OCAZ_Newsletter.pdf, accessed 15 June 2015; 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 Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Maurice Hendry, “Hillbilly Genius: The Great ‘Boss Ket,'” Special Interest Autos #51 (June 1979), pp. 20–27; John Katz, “Racing the 88,” Special Interest Autos #145 (January-February 1995), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles, p. 88; Jamie Kitman, “The Secret History of Lead,” The Nation March 2000; Allen Hunt, “Horsepower from Detroit, Part IV: Cadillac, Oldsmobile and the horsepower race,” Car Life Vol. 9, No. 6 (July 1962), pp. 26-31; Roger Huntington, “1965 Engines,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 12 (December 1964): 36-47; William Kovarik, Ph.D., “Charles F. Kettering and the 1921 Discovery of Tetraethyl Lead In the Context of Technological Alternatives,” originally presented to the Society of American Engineers Fuels & Lubricants Conference, Baltimore, MD, 1994, revised 1999, www.radford. edu/~wkovarik/ papers/fuel.html, accessed 30 May 2008, and “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering, and the ‘Fuel of the Future,'” Automotive History Review #32 (Spring 1998), pp. 7-27; Michael Lamm, “Two Very Important Cars! 1948 & 1949 Cadillac Fastbacks,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), pp. 10-17, 56; Richard M. Langworth, “1954 Packard Pacific: Last of the Great Straight Eights,” Special Interest Autos #51 (May-June 1979), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos Magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 74-81; Bob McVay, “Oldsmobile Starfire Road Test,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 9 (September 1964), reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999), pp. 18-23; Jim Richardson, “Rocket Power: Oldsmobile’s 1950 convertibles: The rocking 88 versus the jazzier 98,” Special Interest Autos #188 (March-April 2002), pp. 46-52; “Testing the 212 HP Packard Patrician,” Science and Mechanics June 1954, reprinted in Packard Gold Portfolio 1946-1958, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1988), pp. 78-79; and Josiah Work, “1949 Rocket 88: This Is Not Your Grandpa’s Oldsmobile,” Special Interest Autos #139 (January-February 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles, pp. 26-33.

The typeface used for the labels in the author-created diagrams is Liberation Sans, one of the Liberation Fonts (version 2.00.1 or later), which are copyright © 2012 Red Hat, Inc., used under the SIL Open Font License, Version 1.1. Liberation is a trademark of Red Hat, Inc. registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and certain other jurisdictions. Red Hat is a trademark of Red Hat, Inc., registered in the United States and other countries.


Add a Comment
  1. The Super Eighty-Eight wasn’t particularly rare when it was new — Olds sold about 150,000 of them in 1951. (The basic Eighty-Eight was rarer, accounting for only about 35,000.) I don’t know what its survival rate is, though. Not a lot of people collect or preserve those cars anymore, and many succumbed to rust or the crusher a long time ago.

    What I would recommend — that I actually suggest for anyone considering a collector car — is that you join a club for that marque in your area, if you haven’t already. The other members may be able to help you decide whether a price is fair, and in some cases, they may even know the specific car (“Ike’s ’53? Hoo, boy, you better run away right now…”). They’ll also be able to suggest sources for parts, which can be a big issue. Unlike a Mustang or a later Chevy, where there’s a thriving business in replacement pieces, finding parts for an Olds of that vintage isn’t necessarily easy these days. Some things, like the Hydra-Matic, aren’t so bad, but trim pieces can be a major pain, and even the early Rocket engines can be challenging at this point. It depends on your goals. If the engine is thrashed and you just plan to swap in a later crate motor and a modern transmission, it may not matter, but if you want to restore, that’s another matter.

    Unless you’re building a rod, it’s often worth it to spend more upfront for a car that’s in better condition. Even “modest” restorations can quickly get out of control, cost-wise, so be careful that a $2,000 bargain doesn’t become a money pit. (That’s a lesson that many Jaguar and Porsche owners have learned the hard way.)

  2. You never mentioned it but the ’50 Olds in the photo has the single piece windshield. Earlier ’50’s and(I believe)all 49’s had the split windshield.

  3. I’m not sure about the early Hydramatics but later ones, ’54-’56 you put in reverse to park. It was a sliding gear like a manual and held in some fashion I can’t remember because it couldn’t lock to the engine through the torus member.

    1. Yes, the Hydra-Matic had a parking pawl, which was engaged by selecting reverse with the engine off. It didn’t have an actual Park position until the advent of the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic in MY1956. As far as I’m aware, it was basically similar to the parking pawls of Dynaflow or Ultramatic, although those transmissions had a separate position on the quadrant for it. (I’m not entirely sure why H-M did not, actually.)

  4. “wider bore provides a greater surface area on which the forces of combustion can act, improving power”
    This is incorrect, in the context of wider vs. narrower bore sizes with the same displacement.
    If you look up the concept of MEP (e.g. BMEP, IMEP), you will immediately see that bore/stroke ratio does not directly effect engine power.

  5. I never had one apart to that extent, but my understanding from the theory of operation is that there is a pivoting pawl that will engage a toothed wheel when the engine is stopped with reverse selected. When the engine is running, transmission oil pressure disengages the pawl.
    I forgot this on one occasion when I was attempting to jump start my 55 Olds; after getting the car rolling backwards, I was rewarded with nothing more than a ratcheting sound when I shifted from N to R. The engine did not rotate and the car did not start. As far as I know, the transmission was not harmed.

  6. 15-16 MPG is great even by modern standards, for a 300+ HP engine. Nice Article thank you for preserving our history.

  7. …or is that not an Avanti peeking into the frame on the right side of the last photo? And just where is this crazy car heaven where Rocket 88 Oldsmobiles and Avantis are parallel parked on the street side by side?

    1. You are correct — it’s even a Studebaker Avanti, not the later Avanti II. These photos were taken outside the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California (a few blocks south of LAX). Some of the photos in our Avanti article, and those of our story on the Packard One-Twenty, were taken at the same time.

  8. Did G M make a 1949-50 olds 88 or 98 4 door fastback ? Thanks Weldon

    1. Yes I have one

  9. [quote=Administrator]Unless you’re building a rod, it’s often worth it to spend more upfront for a car that’s in better condition. Even "modest" restorations can quickly get out of control, cost-wise, so be careful that a $2,000 bargain doesn’t become a money pit. (That’s a lesson that many Jaguar and Porsche owners have learned the hard way.)[/quote]

    “The cheap ones are expensive, and the expensive ones are cheap.” I heard it (fittingly) in connection with Jaguars, but of course it’s true in general.

  10. hi, i have a engine with thename oldsmobile rocket on it, where can i see what sizethe engine is, 305, 394 plse i need this info as i want to rebuild this engine, thanx

    1. Is there a serial number plate on the engine? If not, it may be a little more difficult, short of pulling the heads.

  11. For anyone interested the 1950 Mexican road race where 12 Old’s 88’s entered and 10 finished, eight of the 10 were beaten by a flathead Nash. The Nash finished third behind two 88’s. The Nash was driven by Roy Graham a wrestling referee at Dallas Sportatorium who also had the Nash dealership in Corsicana TX. The other Nash driver was Robert Owen, the Dad of my best friend, also from Corsicana and my neighbor on S. 16th ST.

  12. Been an Olds man a long time. Now 70 years old and giving a lot of thought to building me a 1950 Olds casket. I can see it now. Me at the age of 70 in the back seat with a 21-year-old blond.

    Man! Put the petal to the metal and go man go!

  13. 49 rocket 88 was my first car back in 1964. Owned that vehicle till 1970 and traded in due to a bad dual chamber fuel pump for $350. Biggest mistake – I still think about that automobile.
    Awesome vehicle – many great high school memory’s.
    Happy to see someone that not only mentions, but appreciates the early Olds

  14. Some consider “Rocket 88,” recorded by Jackie Brenston in 1951, to be the first rock and roll song. Presumably this says something about the car’s place in the culture.

    Ike Turner, later to be half of Ike and Tina Turner, played piano on the track and was miffed that Brenston’s name, not his, was on the record.

  15. In Brazil, OHV V8 engines are commonly known as “motores roquete” (rocket motors), no matter which producer. The real “standard of the world”.

    1. Were Oldsmobiles ever sold in Brazil in any significant numbers? I would assume a postwar Olds V-8 would have been a real high-roller’s car.

      1. Olds were very popular in Brazil but I can’ t give you any numbers. 50,000 cars were imported in 1952, US brands comprising some 90% of that total. Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Mercury were the top sellers and I believe Oldsmobile would come in 5th or 6th place. The commonest type was the Super 88 4-door sedan, Hydramatic equipped. The end of the Korean conflict sent the country in a foreign exchange crisis that lasted until the middle 90s, cutting imports and providing the basis for national production. As an aside, the Oldsmobile was bought by doctors, lawyers, bank managers, shop owners, construction entrepreneurs and the like. Millionaires would drive the few Cadillacs.

  16. The demise of Olds is yet another dreary episode in the ongoing story of GM losing it’s way. Although I often wondered why GM needed three mid-level brands, since you already have them, why not preserve them, especially since it is embarrassing and demoralizing to lose one, now two. I was aghast at the ad campaign, “This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile”. Call me a square,[I am a square], I say you don’t denigrate a proud heritage. I would have said, “Your Father knew cars” and I would have played up that heritage. The practice of keeping model names alive even though applied to a vehicle with little in common with the original seems to annoy no one but me, [example Impala], why not keep division names alive and apply them to selected models. They had long since lost genuine autonomy anyhow.

    1. Well, Oldsmobile had had a hard time finding its way once GM started trying to define the identities of each of its brands as “the _______ brand” (which, it must be said, was fast becoming the most meaningful distinction between them. (The idea of Olds as the “import-fighter” brand obviously had its own problems.) I think current brand-management logic would probably consider Oldsmobile rather hopeless. The present mindset (with which I don’t necessarily agree, mind you) is that all brands must either be Youthful or Aspirational or if possible both, so a brand whose name begins with “Old” and which is best known for decades of middle-of-the-road respectability isn’t off to a good start on either front.

      The idea of keeping the brand names on a model-specific basis is not illogical (although again it’s contrary to current brand management philosophy), but it would present all manner of practical problems, not least that it would invite the ire of people who had previously paid money for a sales franchise for that brand.

  17. I will let you know soon. Sending my 53 olds to Dallas for overhaul. Maybe. Just didn’t have any power. But I can block the blow by coming off the back of the block and it runs great. Maybe just intake or vacuum leak. This motor is blue which makes me think it’s been gone through. It’s a true barn find. All the chrome is perfect interior all original all the glass is good.all the gauges work. Park is actually a parking brake that has a red light comes on when the hand brake is out. It’s a super 88 sedan 4 door. Can’t wait to get my Wool Fedora and get it back on the road.

  18. Have a 47 98 custom cruiser. Completely restored it, all original. However not practical to drive around pittsburgh, pa. To many hills for that single chamber master cylinder.
    Oldsmobile like mine are real popular in australia. They call mine the black ace and they have a club division in the oldsmobile club of america

  19. In1953, at seventeen years old I had a 1932 Ford 5 window coupe that with the help of two uncles that ran auto repair shops installed a 1950 Oldsmobile engine that I got out of a wrecked car, into my coupe. I had been running a very healthy flat head that had several modifications such as a stroker crank, racing cam an two stromberg 97 carburetors. The Olds engine performed well and was very smooth running but didn’t have as much scat as the modified flat head. I am almost 79 now and remember that like it was yesterday. Those were the good old days.

    1. There’s a longstanding popular assumption that the OHV V-8s were dramatically more powerful than the older flatheads they replaced, but it sort of came down to, “Well, yeah, eventually.” The earliest postwar OHV V-8s didn’t start out with much higher compression than the L-heads (since premium fuel capable of supporting higher compression ratios wasn’t reliably available until much later) and weren’t THAT much more powerful. Some L-head straight-eights were MORE powerful than early OHV V-8s, although they were getting to the limit of their potential, at least in states of tune that were still reasonably streetable. So, it’s not particularly surprising that a highly tuned flathead Ford would be stronger than a stock 1950 Olds 303.

  20. A BRILLIANTLY written article! Thank you so much for further refining my understanding of my ’52 Super 88 Holiday Coupe.I love this car for its rich history, and the fact that I inherited it from a dear, tragically taken friend. Thank you!

    1. Thanks! At the risk of shameless self promotion, you might also be interested in the recently revamped article on the early Hydra-Matic, which most Oldsmobiles of that vintage had. A very significant and, at this point, often misunderstood transmission that had a big influence on the character of the cars that used it.

  21. the hydra matic trans was it used in both the OLds and Caddy of ’49 and on.I have a 1950 series 62 Caddy.

    1. Yup — Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Pontiac plus some GMC vehicles, some 1954-on Chevrolet pickups, 1950–1954 Lincolns, a bunch of independents (Hudson, Kaiser, Nash), Rolls-Royce, and Bentley, among others!

  22. Thanks for the great write up on the history of one of the most influential engines in the automobile industry! Would you be willing to share which source cites fuel mileage figures? You shared that mileage ranged from 12 MPG – 18 MPG depending on the year.

    1. Most contemporary road tests at least mentioned fuel consumption. Motor Trend (July 1950) mentioned getting 18.8 mpg at a steady 50 mph and a 1950 Olds entered in the Mobilgas Economy Run bettered 20 mpg. Even a heavier ’55 Super 88 with the later 324 (like the one tested by both Motor Trend and Motor Life — it looks to be the same car) could manage up to 19 mpg at a steady 60 mph, dropping to 12–13 mpg in mixed use. Generally, getting up to 18–19 mpg on the highway was not unusual for early ’50s Oldsmobiles even with Hydra-Matic, although that required a lot of steady-speed cruising at reasonable legal speeds.

  23. I’m currently writing a book on Yankee iron of the 1955-1973 period (the true golden age of the American Car in the modern era.) However, my research has of necessity stretched back somewhat further than that and not just to the late ’40s but, in tracing company histories, at least as far back as 1903 and the curved dash Oldsmobile.

    In any case, the early postwar period saw the emergence of the California customizing/hot rod scene; the advent of the fiberglass kit car body manufacturers such as Bill Tritt’s Glaspar (Tritt was retained briefly by GM as a consultant in 1951 when they were considering building a lightweight fiberglass-bodied sports car); and the birth of modern motorsport in the US with the founding of the SCCA and the advent of road racing as the most popular form of competition. Oh, and let’s not forget the Bonneville speed merchants.

    All of this was occurring from about 1948 thru the first half of the ’50s. What these activities have most in common was that there was an awful lot of engine-swapping going on. The Ford/Mercury flathead V8 was of course a popular choice up until the early part of the decade (and had been since it’s introduction in 1932) but the introduction of the new overhead valve V8s — Cadillac and Oldsmobile in 1949 and Chrysler and Studebaker in 1951 — were a game-changer for the performance crowd.

    Now here’s the rub vis-a-vis this article: granted that the Rocket 88 gained a reputation as something of a factory hot rod in it’s day (helped, no doubt, by Ike Turner aka Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ little ditty of the same name), nonetheless in my research I have been hard-pressed to find anyone who used it as a performance powerplant. During those few brief years, both the hot rodder and the racer’s weapon of choice was either the Cadillac 331 c.i. mill or the Chrysler Firepower hemi of the same displacement. Even the flathead Ford held up well (courtesy of the Ardun hop-up parts mail order catalogue.) Then in 1955 Chevrolet introduced their ohv V8 (as did Packard, Plymouth and Pontiac) and changed the game again.

    So my question is, was there any substance to the Olds Rocket 88 legend or has nostalgia given it a bigger place in musclecar legend than it deserves, much like the original 1936 Buick Century?

    1. Well, are you presuming that the 88’s actual career in stock car racing or road races like the Carrera Panamericana somehow don’t count? Both are well-documented, albeit relatively short-lived. I would certainly agree that the Rocket V-8 was overshadowed pretty quickly, in part because Oldsmobile didn’t pursue the competition or performance avenues to the same extent Pontiac did in the late ’50s. But it DID have a fairly illustrious season on the track and in road racing.

      The main qualities that make an engine attractive to hot-rodders are how much it costs, how easily it can be hopped up, and how much power you can get out of it without blowing it up. The popularity of the flathead Ford engines depended heavily on the first two qualities. Particularly by ’50s standards, the flathead Ford wasn’t an outstanding engine, which I think even a lot of loyalists would have readily admitted, but you could get them by the cartload and there was a huge, well-entrenched aftermarket for them. The Oldsmobile engine was then pretty new, a new 88 was expensive, and I’m guessing that getting a decent crate or junkyard engine would cost almost as much as a decent Cadillac V-8. The Cadillac engine and the Chrysler FirePower had more power out of the box and as much or more potential. A few years later, the Chevrolet engine started taking over the flathead Ford’s role as the cheap-and-easy hot-rodder choice.

      On that level, the Oldsmobile Rocket engine didn’t make it, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. In 1949, your main alternative new car choices were the bug-ridden ’49 Ford and Mercury, whose engines would need a lot of hopping up to get anywhere near the level of the 88. A new Cadillac was dramatically more expensive and also heavier, and Buicks with the big straight eight engine probably had Dynaflow. The FirePower, Buick Nailhead, and Chevrolet V-8s didn’t exist yet. It’s true Oldsmobile didn’t really maintain that position for long and didn’t try again to go for the performance market until the ’60s, but having a short season isn’t the same as being overhyped.

      You could say the same thing about the original Century, if you were so inclined, which I am. The immediate prewar Compound Carburetion cars were legitimately quick for 1941 — you might get that kind of performance out of a flathead Ford, but not without a lot of non-factory help. Unfortunately, they were also thirsty and a pain to tune, which was not at all what wartime buyers wanted, and after the war there was a gradually increasing array of cheaper alternatives. Being ahead of your time or having a short season is not the same as being overhyped, and since the “muscle car” category in general is as much about hype and point of view as substance, I think that’s an important consideration.

  24. wh wont my 56 olds rocket start?

    1. I’m not a mechanic, so I’m afraid I cannot provide any kind of repair advice. Sorry!

  25. I have an interest in the history of Camshaft design – I have a pretty good handle on Ford Design evolution, but not so much on GM, especially OHV. As part of this I ran across a very interesting 1934 paper by a GM engineer Chris H. Bouvy and would like to know more about him and whether his design method was used within GM. I received some information from Harvey Crane. Crane said Bouvy was “Engine/Camshaft designer of the 1949 Cadillac V-8”. I have read several histories of the 1949 Oldsmobile and Cadillac V-8s, but never seen Bouvy mentioned. From your research, do you have any information on Bouvy? Can you point me to any information on GM camshaft design methodology?

    Thanks, I have enjoyed reading your many excellent articles.
    Larry Young

  26. I have a 62 olds super 88. I just wanted to know if I have a rocket engine and how can I check if it’s a 394. Where is the plate located?

    1. All full-size 1962 Oldsmobiles had the 394. Assuming your car has its original engine, it’s the version Oldsmobile called the “Skyrocket,” which was differentiated from the base Rocket by its four-barrel carburetor and gross ratings of 330 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque. The Olds FAQ ( has info on where to find and how to decode the engine and body plates for different model years.

  27. Have never been an American car guy––I cut my teeth on old British roadsters––but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed your well-written, informative article on the history of the Rocket 88. I came here to pick up some information for a book I’m writing and was pleasantly surprised to find more than I bargained for. Particularly enjoyed your succinct descriptions of the engineering factors behind certain design choices. Anyway, thanks for making my visit here an enjoyable one. Will drop by again.

  28. Fabulous article. I’m wondering how many weeks of informative evening reading I can enjoy from your articles. In the spirit of trying to improve a fantastic article…….

    Your wording in the flathead section (“acts directly”) suggest the valve stem tip rides the cam lobe in a flathead. A diagram of where the hydraulic or solid lifter fits in a flathead might be helpful to readers. (Valve spring, spring seat / retainer placement too?)

    When you list the OHV Detroit engines that came along after the Rocket, the DeSoto Hemi of 1952 and Plymouth Poly of 1956 may merit mention……can’t recall if the 1955 Packard V8 got its curtain call. I’m not sure where you stop……4 more new engines in 1958 (Chevy W, Mopar B, FoMoCo FE, Lincoln M.E.L.)

    If one was trying to tally how many Rocket engines were built in Olds cars in 1949-50, do you have those numbers? (I quess that would be total Olds minus Olds 76 model.)

    1. You make a good point about the L-head lifter. I might have to find or make some kind of diagram of that.

      Regarding production tallies, in MY1949, Oldsmobile built 288,310 cars, of which 95,556 were the 76, meaning the remaining 192,754 (66.9% of production) were 88s and 98s with the new Rocket engine. In MY1950, total production was 407,889, of which only 33,257 were the 76, so 374,632 (91.8%) had V-8 power.

  29. Incidentally, the Rocket engine was not Oldsmobile’s first V8. Oldsmobile’s companion make, the Viking had a horizontal-valve V8 with two-plane crankshaft in the early thirties. Displacement was 259.5 cubic inches, with almost square bore and stroke. Power was 81 hp at 3000 rpm. The engine was designed by Charles L. McCuen, who later had a hand in approving the Rocket engine for production.

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