Turbos for the Turnpike: The Turbocharged Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire

Summary

In 1962 and 1963, Oldsmobile offered a short-lived turbocharged version of the compact F-85. Called F-85 Jetfire, it used a high-compression aluminum V-8 engine with a complex, troublesome fluid injection system. Chevrolet also developed a simpler turbocharger installation for the air-cooled flat-six engine of the rear-engined Corvair. The Corvair offered turbocharged engines from 1962 to 1966.

Jetfire Revisited

With turbocharging now so common, it’s tempting to look at the Oldsmobile Jetfire and turbocharged Corvair as cars ahead of their time, and ask whether their early demise was a mistake.

In the short term, the turbocharged Corvair was probably the more prescient of the two, foreshadowing the host of modestly priced turbocharged four- and six-cylinder coupes that appeared in the eighties, many of which were almost as crude and just as peaky. That it didn’t survive that long was due more to the failure of the second-generation Corvair to effectively compete with the Mustang than with the merits of the turbocharged engine itself. Had the Corvair survived into the seventies, it’s not unlikely that a turbocharged version would have resurfaced eventually, even if it had been dropped for a time in the late sixties.

1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa two-door hardtop turbo (blue) rear 3q by Steve Glover (CC BY 2.0)

The second-generation (1965–1969) Chevrolet Corvair had a lovely shape and a vastly improved fully independent suspension, but neither did it much good against the new Ford Mustang, which quickly became the car to beat in the sporty compact market the Corvair Monza had previously dominated (and had to some extent created). Turbocharged Corsa hardtops like this one were rare. (Photo: “Chevrolet Corvair Corsa Turbo (1965)” by Steve Glover, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Evaluating the F-85 Jetfire in this light is more difficult. In concept, the Jetfire wasn’t far removed from modern turbocharged cars — not high-performance models, but family cars and luxury sedans using turbochargers to make smaller engines do the work of larger ones. However, we don’t believe it would have ever really succeeded in that role. Its complex fluid injection system would likely have been an insuperable handicap even if it had worked flawlessly, and the obvious alternatives would either have been too costly or would have sacrificed too much performance for Oldsmobile to consider them worthwhile.

Was Oldsmobile wrong to drop the turbocharged engine rather than continuing to develop it? Perhaps, but in the early sixties, the factors have since driven the move to downsized turbocharged engines had only begun to emerge. California imposed the first automotive emissions requirements (for the recirculation of crankcase vapor) for 1961, subsequently adding limits for hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions that took effect five years after that, but the first federal emissions standard didn’t take effect until 1968, and those early standards (measured in parts per million or percentage of exhaust volume) didn’t necessarily favor smaller engines. Concern about carbon dioxide emissions did not enter the public consciousness until many years later, and as for fuel economy, even the most tight-fisted American consumers of this era had rather generous ideas of what constituted “good gas mileage.” Moreover, U.S. buyers, unlike their counterparts in many other markets, didn’t have (and still don’t have) any overriding financial reason to prefer smaller-displacement engines. In other words, Oldsmobile had no obvious reason to continue refining its turbocharger technology past the 1963 model year. The division’s normally aspirated cast iron V-8s better suited Oldsmobile’s contemporary priorities in nearly every respect, including fuel economy.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 convertible (blue) with Jetfire badge by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

While this looks to be an authentic Jetfire badge (or at least a good replica), the blue car whose fender it adorns is an F-85 convertible; the F-85 Jetfire was never offered as a convertible. (Photo: “DSC00143” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Although Oldsmobile didn’t try to revive the turbocharged Jetfire in the seventies, instead betting on its ill-fated diesel V-8 to boost its fleet average fuel economy, the turbocharged Buick V-6 could reasonably be regarded as a Jetfire successor. If it wasn’t exactly a direct descendant, the turbo V-6 did clearly take some worthwhile lessons from the earlier Oldsmobile and Chevrolet turbos, a rare example (like the V-6 itself) of GM promptly reviving a previously discarded innovation as soon as it had a stronger use case.

Buick's Exclusive Turbocharged V-6 Engine display, 1978 - B3847-R42-0001 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The 3.8 Turbo V-6 did not remain a Buick exclusive throughout its 11-year production life, finding its way into other makes and models like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, although it never approached the ubiquity of the normally aspirated Buick V-6. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Thus, while the Jetfire was a failure in its own time and on its own terms — a technological novelty item, simultaneously over-elaborate and undercooked, and too expensive relative to its benefits — it was not an entirely Pyrrhic effort. Rather, it was an early, imperfect, slightly off-kilter rough draft of a more practical (if no less complicated) future.

FIN

NOTES ON SOURCES

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Please note that any exchange rate equivalencies or inflation estimates cited in this article are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. Pleased to see this. Impressive, as usual.

  2. There may have been an antidetonant for other applications at the time. If so, I’m betting that the manufacturer never explicitly marketed it to Jetfire owners.

    1. I’m not sure if Thompson was still selling Vitane by this point, but it wouldn’t have been ideal for the Turbo-Rocket V-8 anyway. At any rate, Oldsmobile literature most emphatically discouraged using substitute fluids, which was understandable, since using a different fluid risked either diminishing the effectiveness of the system or risking it freezing in cold weather.

      There were a number of technical papers published toward the end of WW2 summing up wartime experience and best practices with regard to fluid injection, which I suspect the engineers at Oldsmobile (or perhaps Rochester, who designed the final injection system) read and took to heart, as they followed those recommendations quite assiduously.

  3. I remember reading that the F85 – in its earliest development stage – was to have a transverse 60 degree V6, and an automatic transaxle that used the hardware from the Roto-5 automatic but with three chains to connect engine to gearbox to wheels. It was killed early in the development stage – due to cost, of course – but we did get something useful from that project. The 60 degree V6 developed by Olds engineers sat on the shelf until the late 1970s when a narrow V6 was needed for the upcoming X car. The Olds design was handed to Chevrolet to get them started and then they finalized the engine for production. But if you look carefully at the 2.8/3.1 V6 from the early 80s, you can see details in the block – notably timing chain area – that look a lot like the small block Olds V8. In fact, it looks a lot more like an Olds motor than a Chevy.

    What hit the showrooms in late 1960 was fairly conventional, but looking at the MSRP that would be in the high $20k in 2023 dollars, there wasn’t much engineering magic they could include without pricing the car out of the market or losing a lot of money on every one they sell.

    1. It’s true that Oldsmobile did experiments with FWD for a car the size of the F-85, but the timetable makes it unlikely it would have been for 1961. The first FWD test mule wasn’t built until early 1960, when the initial production F-85 was very close to pre-production. At that point, the FWD project was at a rather nascent stage (the test mule weighed about 600 lb more than a RWD F-85, the chain drive was still quite crude, they were still evaluating whether they needed two CV joints per side, and I think it was using pieces of an older four-speed Hydra-Matic), so even if the division had been enthusiastic and corporate management had signed off on it for production, I think it would likely have been for a second-generation F-85. There simply wouldn’t have been time to get it into producible shape for 1961.

      (There is some confusion on the timeline, stemming in part from the fact that both Oldsmobile Advanced Design Group and the corporate Engineering Staff were working on the project concurrently in different ways. (Oldsmobile asked Engineering Staff to develop a gear-drive transfer unit, which involved a Buick Dual Path Turbine Drive two-speed automatic.) However, Andy Watt, who was head of Advanced, said unequivocally that until early 1960, Oldsmobile FWD prototype development was still only at the stationary test rig stage.)

      I have seen Oldsmobile engineers attribute the Chevrolet 2.8-liter V-6 to the abortive Oldsmobile FWD project. However, I’m very skeptical of the idea that it “sat on the shelf” until the seventies or that an almost 20-year-old design for an unproduced Oldsmobile experimental engine would be “handed” to Chevrolet. Weird things happen sometimes, so I suppose it’s not outside the realm of possibility, but it seems more like a piece of internal folklore born of old divisional rivalries. I’ve never found any substantive details about the V-6 used in the FWD mules (neither the SAE paper nor the GM Engineering Journal articles about Oldsmobile FWD development even mention its displacement), and since that engine never got close to production, it’s not a claim that seems particularly verifiable. Also, the “small block” Oldsmobile V-8 — by which I assume you mean the 330/350/307 rather than the aluminum Rockette engine — didn’t yet exist as such in 1960 (the bulk of its initial development was in 1962 and early 1963), although it’s possible that the experimental V-6 previewed certain details later used on that engine. To the extent that the 2.8-liter V-6 looks “like an Olds motor,” it seems more plausible that the source of inspiration was the smaller Oldsmobile V-8, which WAS a production engine, and a very familiar one by the time the FWD X-body cars were in development.

      (At a glance, the most obvious resemblance between the 2.8-liter V-6 and the Oldsmobile V-8 is the way the block forms a kind of integral shroud for the timing chain. Oldsmobile said they did that because they wanted to be able to use a flat timing chain cover, while Chevrolet’s explanation was that it allowed them to avoid using a steel backing plate for the cam drive.)

  4. Aaron,

    Great article as usual! Thanks.

  5. Not only did turbocharged Corvairs have a cylinder head temperature gauge, there was also an under-dash buzzer that alarmed if the head temp get too high. I’ve read that Chevrolet engineers were worried about sustained high loads like pulling a trailer or climbing a long, steep mountain pass and wanted an audible alarm to get the driver’s attention to back off the throttle.

    1. Some of the period testers noted that while there was a cylinder head temperature gauge, the gauge didn’t provide any specific indication of how high was too high, so supplementing it with a buzzer was prudent. That notwithstanding, adding the new instruments rather than simply an amber “HEAD TEMP” light in the existing panel was a worthwhile move, and suggested that despite the comparative simplicity of the Spyder package, Chevrolet engineers had a clearer idea of its potential market and what those buyers might want.

      1. I think it had all three: a gauge, an idiot light, and a buzzer. I’ve never driven a Corvair turbo but I’ve had several Corvairs and all had a combination head temp/oil pressure idiot light. As far as I know the turbo kept that and added the gauge and buzzer.

        Your extensive follow up on later turbocharged cars was fascinating, especially the point about Porsche not producing a 911 turbo until 1975, 13 years after the Corvair turbo. It seems as if the Corvair wasn’t so much a poor man’s Porsche, rather, the 911 turbo should rightly be considered a rich man’s Spyder.

        1. Porsche’s 1978 SAE paper on their turbocharging development makes clear that they were aware of the Spyder and Jetfire (as one would expect), but were not terribly familiar with them, asserting, for example, that they were made only in 1964 and 1965.

          At any rate, what’s distinct about how Porsche approached turbocharging was that it was an offshoot of their racing efforts; their first turbocharged 917 was for the 1972–73 Can-Am series, and the development of the 930 and 935 followed that. Competition has shaped a lot of automotive turbocharging development, and so it’s notable that it WASN’T a factor in the creation of the Jetfire or Spyder. Oldsmobile didn’t develop the Jetfire as an homologation special, and while Chevrolet created the Spyder in large part to try to bolster the credibility of the Corvair Monza as a sporty car, it was neither developed for or as a street version of any racing project.

  6. Marvelous. As usual.

    I am–again–impressed with both your research and your ability to write about it.

    Thank you.

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