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.

In 1962, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile introduced the world’s first turbocharged production cars, the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire and Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we’ll discuss the origins of turbocharging, the development of the Oldsmobile Jetfire, and the turbocharged Corvair that nearly stole its thunder.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder 'Turbocharged' fender badge by Aaron Severson

IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE

This is an automotive history article, NOT a guide to repairing or modifying these cars. I AM NOT A MECHANIC. I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO PROVIDE ANY ADVICE ON TROUBLESHOOTING, REPAIRS, OR MODIFICATIONS. I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW TO TURBOCHARGE YOUR CAR. I DON’T SELL PARTS, AND I CANNOT TELL YOU WHERE TO FIND PARTS.

Oldsmobile Looks for More Power from the Rockette V-8

In the late fifties, GM’s mid-price divisions, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, developed a new line of “senior compact” cars, which became the 1961–1963 Buick Special/Skylark, Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass, and Pontiac Tempest/Le Mans. All three cars shared a new unitized “Y-body” shell, which had some structural commonality with the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair, but with front-mounted engines and a longer 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase. Each car offered a lightweight aluminum V-8 engine (in two distinct versions, discussed in greater detail in the sidebar below).

1961 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass coupe (B&W) side - 056073 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The 1961 Oldsmobile F-85 was initially available only in four-door form. Club coupes were added as a mid-year introduction, convertibles for 1962. Unlike its Pontiac Tempest cousin, the F-85 had a conventional front-engine/rear-drive powertrain layout, with double wishbone front suspension and a four-link live axle. Other than the aluminum V-8 engine, the chief mechanical novelty was a two-piece driveshaft whose front and rear halves were each angled downward (forming a wide “V” shape) and connected by a constant velocity joint, allowing a smaller, less-intrusive driveshaft tunnel. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

As we’ve previously noted, when the 1961 Buick Special, Oldsmobile F-85, and Pontiac Tempest arrived, they were clearly positioned as economy cars, offered only in four-door sedan and wagon forms. Two-door coupes, fancier trim, and (except for Pontiac) more powerful engine options arrived quite late in the model year, probably as a reaction to the popular new Monza version of the Corvair.

Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that the possibility of supercharging the Olds F-85’s aluminum “Rockette” V-8 was first broached in the fall of 1959, a full year before the 1961 F-85 went on sale and almost 18 months before the introduction of the sportier F-85 Cutlass coupe. Exactly why Oldsmobile was so interested in extracting more power from the Rockette engine at that stage is no longer entirely clear; Gilbert Burrell, Oldsmobile’s chief engine development engineer, said later that it was a response to an emerging market for sporty compacts, but at the time, the introduction of the Corvair Monza was still months away, and if Oldsmobile anticipated a demand for sportier models, there was no evidence of that in the initial merchandising of the F-85.

The more probable explanation is that Oldsmobile was concerned about the Rockette V-8’s growth potential. The 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V-8 was light and relatively economical, but its compact size left little room for bore and stroke increases, and because Buick supplied the engine blocks, Oldsmobile couldn’t increase the engine’s displacement without Buick’s cooperation. The high-compression Cutlass engine would have an additional 30 gross horsepower (22.4 kW), but most conventional means of increasing horsepower much beyond that level would come at the expense of low-end torque and driveability. In the short term, the Rockette was certainly adequate — even in regular-fuel form, its 155 gross horsepower (115.6 kW) made it one of the most powerful engines in its class — but if that changed, Oldsmobile wouldn’t have many practical options. The Y-body engine compartment was cramped enough that even the compact aluminum V-8 was a tight fit, so installing the division’s larger V-8 would likely have required major surgery.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 sedan (B&W) engine bay - gm-proving-grounds-archive-images-MPG-5165-0009 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Despite its compact exterior dimensions, the aluminum Rockette V-8, photographed in the engine bay of a 1962 F-85 four-door sedan at the GM Proving Grounds on December 26, 1961, was a tight squeeze in the engine bay of the Y-body compact. The label on the radiator bracket, next to the radiator cap, warns of the importance of using only recommended coolants. Early on, Oldsmobile had enormous problems determining which antifreeze formulations were compatible with aluminum engines, and using the wrong coolant could be disastrous, filling the water jacket and radiator core with foamy aluminum sludge one Olds engineer dubbed “frog spit.” (Photo: General Motors LLC)

As Burrell was no doubt aware, the fifties had seen a modest renaissance in mechanical supercharging: using an air compressor to force air and fuel into the cylinders of an engine at higher than atmospheric pressure. Superchargers were popular aftermarket accessories at the time, and Kaiser, Studebaker-Packard, and (briefly) Ford had all offered McCulloch centrifugal superchargers as regular production options. An engine-driven supercharger allowed big increases in power and torque using more or less bolt-on equipment that could be added to an existing engine without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, up to that point, most automotive superchargers had been expensive and rather limited in capability. They were useful in competition, to the extent racing officials were prepared to allow them, but they offered little benefit at lower engine speeds, and driving the impeller off the crankshaft via belts, gears, or chains tended to be noisy as well as consuming a significant amount of power. Their reliability had also left much to be desired, leaving them with a fairly checkered reputation in the U.S.

In considering this, Burrell recalled that the GM Research Laboratories had recently done some experimental work on turbocharging: forced induction using a centrifugal supercharger driven not by the crankshaft, but by the otherwise wasted energy of the engine’s exhaust stream.

Burrell later characterized this research as a single report that had been gathering dust for several years, but in fact a group within the Research Laboratories had recently spent about five years working on turbocharging, beginning in 1954 and continuing into early 1959. Those studies had begun with laboratory simulations and dynamometer testing of single-cylinder test engines, and progressed to include at least one Oldsmobile Rocket V-8 fitted with a turbocharger made by the Schwitzer Corporation (today part of BorgWarner) for diesel engines.

The report to which Burrell referred may have been related to a 1956 presentation by manager of Research Laboratories activities Alfred L. Boegehold, subsequently published in the trade journal Metal Progress, which examined possible directions for future automobile engines, including, among others, turbocharged aluminum Otto-cycle engines, gas turbines, and both two- and four-stroke diesels. That presentation noted that the turbocharged aluminum engine was by far the most efficient of the various engine types in terms of size and weight per horsepower, with only fractionally higher specific fuel consumption (fuel consumed per brake horsepower per hour) than a conventional cast iron engine.

1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 Holiday Coupe front 3q by John Lloyd (CC BY 2.0)

Our information did not indicate the body style of the 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 in which the Research Laboratories installed their experimental turbocharged engine. (We dimly recall reading years ago that it was a convertible, but we were unable to confirm that point.) This is the two-door hardtop model — Holiday Coupé, in Olds parlance — which combined the shorter 122.5-inch (3,112-mm) wheelbase of the base Dynamic 88 with the more powerful four-barrel V-8 found in the bigger 98. Oldsmobile sold 18,653 Super 88 Holiday Coupés for 1958, a lackluster total in a recession year. (Photo: “1958 Oldsmobile Super 88” by John Lloyd, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Although Boegehold’s presentation dismissed the idea that turbocharged gasoline engines would be worthwhile for general passenger car use, the Research Laboratories team had continued their work, assembling an experimental turbocharged, fuel-injected 371 cu. in. (6,075 cc) Oldsmobile V-8 engine, which produced 317 hp (236.4 kW) at 4,000 rpm with 5 psi (0.34 bar) boost from a single Schwitzer turbocharger. When finally installed in a car in March 1958, the engine proved powerful enough to catapult the big Oldsmobile Super 88 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds and 100 mph (161 km/h) in less than 18 seconds, albeit with significant throttle lag at low speeds. This car was tested throughout 1958, so it seems likely that Burrell would have heard about it even if he didn’t have the opportunity to drive it himself. The Research Laboratories also conducted some experiments involving turbocharged Chevrolet truck engines, using turbochargers supplied by a California company called AiResearch, a division of the Garrett Corporation.

1958 Oldsmobile 371 cu. in. Rocket V-8 engine by Herranderssvensson (CC BY-SA 3.0)

All production 1958 Oldsmobiles had 371 cu. in. (6,075 cc) Rocket V-8 engines with 10.0:1 compression and a choice of two-barrel, four-barrel, or triple two-barrel carburetors. The Research Laboratories’ experimental engine was originally from a 1957 Oldsmobile 98, with 9.5:1 compression, but the original four-barrel carburetor was replaced by an experimental Rochester throttle body fuel injection system, a Schwitzer D4U turbocharger, and water injection, raising output to 317 hp (236.4 kW) at the flywheel — an increase of more than 50 percent from the stock engine. (Photo: “18Aaan17 – Oldsmobile” by Herranderssvensson, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

We should emphasize that the Research Laboratories projects had no specific production applications in mind, and the fact that some of those experiments had used Oldsmobile engines didn’t mean that the research was conducted for Oldsmobile, or even with any meaningful divisional involvement. The role of Research Laboratories work was to conduct foundational research in interesting new areas and enable the corporation to stay abreast of noteworthy recent developments, without any particular assumptions about whether or how that research might translate into production.

Blower Background

When the Research Laboratories began that work in the mid-fifties, automotive turbocharging was still largely unexplored territory, although turbocharging (sometimes called “turbo-supercharging”) was already an old idea. A patent filed by Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi (sometimes anglicized as “Buechi”) back in 1905 had proposed combining an exhaust-driven axial turbine, an axial turbo-compressor, and a radial piston engine on a common shaft. From this initial concept, Büchi subsequently developed the now-familiar freewheeling turbo arrangement, with a turbine and centrifugal compressor sharing a common shaft, but with no direct mechanical link to the engine crankshaft. Such a turbo-compressor promised a tidy solution to a problem that had been the downfall of many early attempts to supercharge internal combustion engines: the difficulty of devising a compressor and drive arrangement that would add more power than it consumed.

Although the concept of turbocharging was fundamentally sound, it presented an array of formidable design challenges. The rotating assembly had to be precisely balanced and properly lubricated to allow very high rotational speeds while also keeping the impeller and turbine sides tightly sealed and well insulated from one another — to say nothing of the problem of manufacturing a turbine capable of withstanding exhaust temperatures that in a spark ignition engine could easily exceed the melting point of aluminum.

For those reasons, the most commercially successful early applications of turbocharging were for low-speed diesel engines, whose cooler exhaust temperatures were less of a strain on contemporary metallurgy. In 1919, Büchi succeeded in arranging a deal between SLM (Schweizerische Lokomotiv und Maschinenfabrik, Swiss Locomotive and Machinery Works) and Brown, Boveri & Company to develop his turbo-supercharger designs for large diesel engines. This venture really took off following the introduction of Büchi’s improved “pulse wave” turbocharger design, patented in 1925, which further increased power through better exhaust gas scavenging. By the late thirties, Brown, Boveri & Company was making turbochargers for two- and four-stroke diesel engines with outputs ranging from 150 to 5,500 hp (112 to 4,101 kW), used in locomotives, ships, submarines, and a very wide variety of industrial applications. (The company, which is now called ABB, continued to make turbochargers through 2022, when it spun off that business as a separate company called Accelleron Industries.)

In a 1937 technical review in the Brown, Boveri & Company in-house journal, engineer Emil Klingelfuss confidently predicted that turbo-supercharging would inevitably also find widespread use in aviation, despite the significant additional problems involved in turbocharging high-speed spark ignition engines, with their much higher exhaust temperatures.

Breguet XIV A2 biplane at Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace by Roland Turner (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Adolphe Rateau’s exhaust-driven turbo-compressor, probably the world’s first working turbocharger for a spark ignition engine, was initially tested during World War 1 on a Breguet XIV A2 biplane like this one. (Photo: “Breguet XIV A2, Musee de l’Air et de l’Espace, Le Bourget, Paris.” by Roland Turner, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license)

Indeed, by the late thirties, the aircraft turbo-supercharger’s hour was finally approaching after a protracted gestation. Back in 1916, Parisian engineer Auguste Rateau had patented an exhaust-driven turbo-compressor for high-speed aircraft engines, which was built and tested in 1917–1918 on a Breguet XIV A2 reconnaissance aircraft — probably the first working example of a turbocharger for spark ignition engines. Sanford Moss of General Electric (GE) had subsequently developed his own variation on the Rateau turbo-compressor, which was installed on a V-12 Liberty engine and tested on a truck-mounted dynamometer atop Pikes Peak, Colorado, in September and October 1918. However, the practical problems were far from resolved by the time of the armistice, and the lack of suitable high-temperature alloys greatly limited the lifespan of early aircraft turbochargers. Military officials remained ambivalent, preferring crankshaft-driven superchargers (although development of the latter had also been very troublesome). It was not until 1938 that U.S. Army Air Corps brass conceded that the performance benefits of turbocharging, particularly in altitude performance, were worth the bother.

Packard-built, Moss turbocharged Liberty 12 Model A V-12 engine - NASM-A1966004 Open Access image (CC0 1.0)

Produced in large numbers during World War 1, the Liberty-12 engine was a 45-degree V-12, with a displacement of 1,649 cu. in. (27,028 cc) and a dry weight of 844 lb (382.8 kg). This one was built by Packard, whose chief engineer, Jesse G. Vincent, was one of the engine’s chief designers. The experimental turbo-supercharger, developed by Sanford Moss of General Electric based in part on the Rateau turbo-compressor, raised sea level output to 449 hp (334.8 kW). (Photo: “Liberty 12 Model A (Packard), Moss Turbosupercharged, V-12 Engine”, Inventory No. A19660043000, transferred from the U.S. Navy, Naval Supply Center, Cheatham Annex, Williamsburg, Virginia, to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (www.si.edu); Open Access image dedicated to the public domain under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

World War 2 saw dramatic improvements in turbocharger technology, thanks in part to the availability of high-cobalt alloys better able to withstand the intense heat of a spark ignition engine’s exhaust gases. The use of turbo-supercharging — often in two-stage installations with separate exhaust-driven and crankshaft-driven compressors — allowed dramatic improvements in takeoff power, speed, and altitude. However, the metallurgical advances that made turbocharged military aircraft engines practical also hastened their end by accelerating the development of gas turbine engines. By war’s end, it was clear that jets would shortly relegate the most powerful aircraft piston engines to second-line duty, if not the scrapyard. At the same time, wartime turbo-superchargers were overkill for civil aviation (turbocharging wouldn’t become popular for light aircraft until the sixties) and were much too big and heavy to be repurposed for auto racing or hot rods.

After the war, turbochargers became increasingly common on smaller diesel engines, like those found in tractors and construction equipment. By the middle of the decade, there was also a growing number of turbocharged diesel engines for large trucks, offered by MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg, Machine Factory Augsburg-Nuremberg), Volvo, and Cummins.

Cummins had previewed its turbodiesel engine in dramatic fashion by entering a turbodiesel race car, the No. 28 Cummins Diesel Special, in the 1952 Indianapolis 500. The car was powered by an aluminum and magnesium version of the company’s 401 cu. in. (6,570 cc) diesel six, fitted with a Schwitzer-Cummins turbocharger producing up to 20 psi (1.38 bar) boost at 4,300 rpm. Driven by Freddie Agabashian, No. 28 qualified on the pole and set a one-lap speed record of 139.104 mph (223.866 km/h), but turbocharger damage from track debris took the turbodiesel car out of the running on its 71st lap, and rules changes meant that it never raced again.

1952 No. 28 Cummins Diesel Special turbodiesel race car by Jeff Hart (CC BY 2.0)

Developed specifically for the 1952 Indianapolis 500 race, the No. 28 Cummins Diesel Special provided a dramatic preview of the forthcoming Cummins JT-600 turbodiesel engine, which was launched in 1955. Even with an aluminum block, aluminum cylinder head, and magnesium crankshaft, the racing version of the big diesel six still weighed about 750 lb (340 kg), so it was mounted in the body at a 85-degree angle to keep its center of gravity as low as possible. Output was normally quoted as 380 hp (283 kW), but some sources credit the engine with as much as 430 hp (321 kW). For comparison, the production JT-600, which had the same 401 cu. in. (6,570 cc) displacement, was initially rated at 175 hp (130.5 kW). (Photo: “Cummins Engine” by Jeff Hart, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Turbodiesel light trucks and passenger cars wouldn’t arrive until the seventies, so other than the Cummins Diesel Special, the only notable attempt at automotive turbocharging during this period was an aftermarket kit designed in the late thirties by Ray Besasie of Besasie Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. First advertised around 1940 and marketed again after World War 2, it produced about 3 psi (0.21 bar) boost at 22,000 to 30,000 rpm, which Besasie claimed was good for a 25 percent increase in engine power. Few were sold, and we’re not sure how durable they were; the Besasie turbocharger was essentially a shade-tree engineering project. Nonetheless, some of Ray Besasie’s family and friends claim that GM engineers consulted with Besasie as part of the corporation’s early turbocharger research.

The Pros and Cons of Passenger Car Turbocharging

Even with high-temperature alloys to provide the necessary heat tolerance, turbocharging still had another serious limitation for automotive applications: what we now call “turbo lag.”

Because a turbocharger is driven by exhaust gases, the speed of the turbine and impeller depend less on engine rpm than on load. Under light load, the exhaust stream may not turn the turbine fast enough to produce much if any boost, and the presence of the turbine increases back pressure in the exhaust system, reducing power. When load increases, it takes some time for the rotating assembly to accelerate enough to provide useful boost, creating a noticeable delay in response. For industrial, marine, or aircraft engines that mostly operate at or near maximum load, turbo lag is seldom a significant concern. Until fairly recently, it has been much more troublesome for passenger cars and light trucks, which are frequently required to accelerate from idle and which spend much of their lives operating at less than 50 percent of maximum load, resulting in big disparities between on- and off-boost performance.

1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk Jet Stream Supercharger badge by sv1ambo (CC BY 2.0)

The “Jet Stream Supercharger” offered on some 1957–1958 Studebaker-Packard models was a McCulloch VS57 centrifugal supercharger, which Studebaker-Packard fitted to the 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) Studebaker V-8 to take the place of the bigger Packard V-8, whose production had been discontinued after the 1956 model year. (Photo: “1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk coupe” by sv1ambo, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

On the other hand, in this era, that was also true of contemporary crankshaft-driven superchargers. While we now tend to think of superchargers as offering immediate boost with no lag, that generally wasn’t the case prior to the eighties. A crankshaft-driven centrifugal supercharger of the late fifties or early sixties generally produced maximum boost at something between 25,000 and 30,000 rpm, and typically had to reach at least two-thirds of that speed to make even half its rated boost. Positive-displacement superchargers, like the Roots-type Detroit Diesel (GMC) blowers beloved of drag racers or the vane-type superchargers offered in this era by Judson and Shorrock, were a little stronger than a centrifugal supercharger at low speeds, but suffered substantial air leakage that greatly limited their volumetric efficiency at lower rpm. Moreover, with any crankshaft-driven supercharger, the need for step-up gearing forced a tradeoff between boost at lower engine speeds and the real danger of overspeeding the compressor at higher rpm. The larger Shorrock superchargers of the fifties, for instance, were redlined at only 5,000 rpm! McCulloch tried to mitigate this problem by using variable-speed or variable-ratio drive systems to provide the necessary step-up gearing, but their complexity made them maintenance-intensive and rather fragile.

1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk 289 engine with Jet Stream Supercharger by sv1ambo (CC BY 2.0)

McCulloch VS57 superchargers had a complex (and troublesome) ball bearing planetary drive system combined with a variable-speed pulley system that used boost pressure to move the outer flange of the drive pulley, varying the pulley’s effective diameter and thus the drive ratio. The object was to allow the supercharger to produce more boost at lower engine speeds without overboosting or overspeeding the compressor at higher engine rpm. Because the supercharger blows pressurized air into the carburetor, the carburetor was enclosed in a sealed air box (the silver object behind the supercharger itself) to prevent pressure leaks. (Photo: “1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk coupe” by sv1ambo, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

With a turbocharger, the relationship between engine speed and boost is more flexible. The boost generated by any centrifugal compressor depends largely on the tip speed of the impeller, which is a function of the impeller diameter and the square of its angular velocity. A larger-diameter impeller produces more boost at any given speed, so crankshaft-driven centrifugal superchargers for passenger car applications generally use relatively large impellers to keep rotational speeds (and the need for step-up gearing) within reason. Since a turbocharger has no mechanical connection to the crankshaft and no need for step-up gearing, it can produce the same maximum boost with a smaller-diameter impeller rotating at higher speeds; minimizing the diameters of the impeller and the turbine significantly reduces the polar moment of inertia of the rotating assembly, which makes the turbocharger more responsive to changes in throttle position.

Turbocharging also offers another compelling advantage over mechanically driven superchargers: It’s possible to maintain constant boost over a fairly broad range of engine speeds by controlling the flow of exhaust gas to the turbine. There are several ways to accomplish that, but the most common control system is a wastegate, a valve that allows some of the exhaust gas to bypass the turbine if manifold pressure or boost pressure exceeds a certain threshold. Using a wastegate obviously doesn’t prevent turbo lag, but once the turbine reaches the speed necessary to produce the desired maximum boost (a point known as control intercept), the wastegate will hold boost pressure at that level all the way up to the turbine’s maximum operating speed, with far less mechanical complexity than a variable-speed drive mechanism for a crankshaft-driven supercharger.

Oldsmobile and AiResearch

Gil Burrell clearly considered all these points and saw much greater potential than Boegehold had three and a half years earlier. By using a wastegate-controlled turbocharger and limiting maximum boost to a modest 5 psi (0.34 bar), it would be possible to set a very low control intercept — as low as 2,000 rpm at full throttle — and maintain that boost through almost half the engine’s useful rev range. This approach wouldn’t provide a huge gain in peak horsepower, but it would produce a healthy increase in torque at the engine speeds more commonly used in normal driving, and the relatively low boost requirements could easily be met with a small, responsive turbocharger. Better still, a turbocharger installation along these lines would impose only modest penalties in fuel economy and engine weight. In principle, therefore, a turbocharger could be made to provide many of the advantages of a larger-displacement engine in a lighter, more compact, more fuel efficient package.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire engine bay from front - C885-0004 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Most of the additional hardware for the turbocharged engine (indicated in yellow and blue in this photo) sat atop the aluminum V-8 engine — an important consideration given the cramped dimensions of the F-85 engine bay — and added only 36 lb (16.3 kg). The blue rectangular object at the right is the fluid reservoir for the fluid injection system, discussed at greater length later in this article. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Using a turbocharged engine in this way is now very common, but it was an unusual idea in 1959, although there was some precedent in Studebaker-Packard’s recent use of a 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) Studebaker V-8 equipped with a McCulloch VS57 supercharger to replace the departed Packard V-8. Unsurprisingly, none of the turbochargers then available commercially in the U.S. — all or almost all of which were intended for diesel engines — were really suitable for what Burrell had in mind. Oldsmobile therefore approached AiResearch about developing a new turbocharger for this application.

The Garrett Corporation had originally established its AiResearch Manufacturing subsidiary (styled until 1942 with a lowercase “r”) in 1939 to develop cabin pressurization systems and other related products. In 1950, the parent corporation, seeking to diversify beyond the aerospace industry, had directed AiResearch to develop turbochargers for commercial applications, beginning with Caterpillar Tractor diesels. In 1955, Garrett reorganized the turbocharger business line as the AiResearch Industrial Division, headed by Wilton E. Parker, who had previously worked on Garrett’s gas turbine program. The new division got off to a rocky start: Developing a commercially viable turbocharger turned out to have a painful learning curve, and the early Caterpillar turbos had been troublesome, requiring considerable work (and no small amount of patient client cooperation) to resolve. Turbocharger sales were modest, and the division didn’t turn a profit until late 1958. Nonetheless, AiResearch remained prominent in the field, thanks in no small part to engineers like turbine research director Werner Theodor von der Nüll (sometimes anglicized as “von der Nuell”), who was considered a leading expert on supercharging and had presented a number of much-cited papers on that subject.

We don’t know what kind of production volume the Oldsmobile proposal envisioned, but it appears it wasn’t much — Wilton Parker was dubious that the project would do much for his division’s still-shaky bottom line, even though GM was offering to underwrite the engineering and tooling costs. GM also insisted that AiResearch provide an extremely thorough breakdown of production costs, including not only the costs of parts and tooling, but also factors like the amount of machine time involved in each manufacturing operation, a level of detail AiResearch had never attempted to calculate before. However, GM was willing to pay for a comprehensive cost analysis study to develop the data they wanted (perhaps in anticipation of eventually bringing turbocharger production in-house, although that never happened), and the prospect of gaining even a small foothold in the auto industry was attractive, so Parker finally agreed.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine (right) by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

An F-85 Jetfire turbocharger housing (painted red on 1962 cars) dwarfs the turbocharger’s actual rotating assembly, which can be easily held in one hand. The larger cylindrical section is the compressor housing; the smaller dumbbell-shaped component (with the safety wire and the silver shaft) is the boost controller; and the serpentine arrangement at the left bolted to the silver exhaust pipes is the turbine housing and exhaust bypass. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

An essential step in any successful supercharger application, and one where most aftermarket superchargers are necessarily a compromise, is properly matching the blower to the engine. To give AiResearch a head start in this area, Oldsmobile arranged for the GM Engineering Staff to conduct a series of bench tests on a Rockette V-8 fitted with a Roots-type supercharger. Armed with this data, AiResearch was able to deliver the first prototype turbocharger in March 1960. Oldsmobile engineers tested the turbo on the dynamometer and in a test rig in April and May. In June, they fitted the turbocharger to an early production aluminum V-8 and installed it in an F-85 prototype for testing at the GM Proving Grounds and on the road.

The rotating assembly of the AiResearch T-5 turbocharger was quite small, with a turbine just 2.4 inches (61.0 mm) in diameter and a 2.5-inch (63.5-mm) diameter impeller. As a result, its polar moment of inertia was only about one-tenth that of the Schwitzer D4U turbocharger used on the Research Laboratories’ experimental Oldsmobile Super 88, which had a 4-inch (101.6-mm) impeller. (For comparison, the impeller of the various McCulloch and Paxton superchargers had a diameter of 5.78 inches (146.8 mm).)

To withstand exhaust gas temperatures that could reach up to 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit (843 degrees Celsius), the turbine of the AiResearch turbocharger was cast of Haynes Stellite Alloy No. 31 (HS-31), an extremely hard alloy of cobalt, chromium, nickel, and tungsten that had been used for aircraft turbo-superchargers since around 1941. The compressor impeller, whose temperature requirements were less extreme, was die-cast aluminum. Turbine and impeller were mounted on a 0.5-inch (12.7-mm) diameter shaft 5.75 inches (146 mm) long, running on two aluminum sleeve bearings, with the turbine and impeller sides separated by a cast iron housing that acted as a heat shield.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire engine bay from left - C885-0006 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

In the Oldsmobile Turbo-Rocket V-8, exhaust gas is routed to the turbocharger through the pipe at the front left of the engine. When the wastegate opens, some exhaust gas passes through the bypass (the yellow tube at the front of the turbine housing) directly into the exhaust pipe at the left. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Boost pressure was regulated by a poppet-valve wastegate, controlled by spring-loaded diaphragms in the boost control assembly that sensed compressor inlet and outlet pressures. The spring preload determined how much outlet pressure could exceed inlet pressure before the pressure on the primary diaphragm would begin to open the wastegate bypass valve, progressively reducing the amount of exhaust gas entering the turbine. This didn’t cut off boost completely; rather, the wastegate served to relieve excess boost pressure, allowing boost to equal but not exceed the desired maximum value.

While crankshaft-driven superchargers typically placed the compressor “upstream” of the carburetor(s), in what was sometimes known as a blow-through arrangement (because it blew pressurized air into the carburetor), Oldsmobile decided to position the turbocharger impeller “downstream” of the carburetor (a draw-through arrangement). In this way, the pressure drop through the carburetor would help to keep the impeller’s idle speed high, and the compressor outlet could be positioned as close as possible to the intake manifold so that pressurized air-fuel mixture would have a relatively straight shot into the intake runners. Using a draw-through impeller also avoided the need for an air box to seal the carburetor.

For the turbocharged engine, Oldsmobile eschewed the downdraft carburetors of the normally aspirated Rockette engines (and most contemporary American V-8s) in favor of a side-draft carburetor, selected mostly for packaging reasons. Existing horizontal carbs didn’t have enough venturi area, so GM’s Rochester Products Division developed an all-new 1.50-inch (38.1-mm) single-barrel side-draft carburetor, the Rochester Model RC. This was of more or less conventional design except that it had no throttle butterfly valve. Instead, there was a separate horizontal throttle body, connecting the carburetor to the compressor inlet, which contained primary and auxiliary throttle valves, the latter used under certain conditions as an additional boost limiter.

Production Approval

We should reiterate at this point that although the GM Research Laboratories had conducted the preliminary research and the corporate Engineering Staff had provided some technical support, the Oldsmobile turbocharger program, known internally as XP-200, was very much an Olds project, not some corporate initiative awarded to (or foisted on) the division. Indeed, the only reason Oldsmobile pursued the idea at all was that Gil Burrell saw promise in it and Olds chief engineer Harold Metzel agreed that it was worth investing some of the division’s not-unlimited development resources.

It eventually fell to Oldsmobile general manager Jack Wolfram to convince corporate management to approve the XP-200 program. Wolfram was not a notably progressive executive, and he bore no small responsibility for the staid character of contemporary Oldsmobile cars. However, the turbocharger project promised to expand the utility of the Rockette V-8 for a fraction of the cost of developing and tooling an all-new engine, and perhaps reclaim some divisional pride in the bargain. Oldsmobile staff and executives were apparently rather sensitive about the aluminum V-8’s Buick origins (having their own engines was an important part of each division’s identity in those days), and Oldsmobile’s reputation for advanced engineering had been slipping of late. The most recent noteworthy innovations the division had fielded were the J-2 triple-carburetor setup, discontinued in 1958 in the wake of the AMA racing ban (and wholly overshadowed by Pontiac’s similar but better-promoted Tri-Power option), and the short-lived and troublesome “New-Matic” air suspension system, which had also been dropped. Oldsmobile had some more interesting projects in development — the division’s work on front-wheel drive began in this same period — but none was ready for public airing.

Another factor was the recent debut (in May 1960) of the Corvair Monza. This sporty version of the rear-engine Corvair featured bucket seats, a novelty in those days, and was shortly offered with a higher-output engine (RPO 649) and a new four-speed gearbox. The Monza had been an immediate hit, taking even Chevrolet by surprise and demonstrating that there was a largely untapped market for sporty compacts. Oldsmobile’s immediate response would be the F-85 Cutlass, which would arrive in April 1961, with bucket seats and a four-barrel premium-fuel Rockette V-8. Judging by Burrell’s subsequent comments, we suspect that Wolfram used the popularity of the Monza to help “sell” the turbocharger project, presumably pitching it as a kind of sportier Super-Cutlass.

1961 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass color advertisement - DN592OLDS-61OLDS05P (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Added to the F-85 line in April 1961, the Cutlass featured bucket seats, fancier vinyl upholstery and interior trim, and a more powerful engine. The Cutlass was the sportiest and plushest early F-85, with prices to match: A 1961 Cutlass coupe started at $2,621, $237 more than the cheapest F-85 sedan, which was already one of the most expensive cars in its class. The high-compression Cutlass engine, which had a four-barrel carburetor rather than the base engine’s two-barrel Rochester 2GC, subsequently became optional on cheaper models. (Image: General Motors LLC)

The Oldsmobile turbocharger program received production approval in the summer of 1960, but testing of what Oldsmobile marketers dubbed the “Turbo-Rocket” V-8 continued through early 1961. Repeated full-power dynamometer runs found that the aluminum V-8 withstood the additional heat and pressure of turbocharging relatively well, but Oldsmobile made some changes for greater durability, fitting engines slated for turbocharging with heavy-duty pistons, aluminumized intake valves and valve seats, longer bolts for the main bearing caps, and Moraine M-400 aluminum inserts for the main and connecting rod bearings. (These parts were added during Oldsmobile’s engine assembly process, and were not shared by Buick, which never offered a turbocharged version of its aluminum Fireball V-8.) To deal with the greatly increased blow-by that accompanied boosted operation, Oldsmobile also equipped turbocharged V-8s with positive crankcase ventilation, not yet a universal feature on American engines (although newly required in California and shortly to be mandatory in New York as well).

Other refinements to the production turbocharged engine included a higher-capacity cross-flow radiator; a bypass fuel filter, larger fuel lines, and a fuel return line to handle the greater fuel flow requirements; a higher-voltage ignition coil; cooler spark plugs; and a revised distributor advance curve. All Turbo-Rocket engines also had a vacuum-controlled throttle stop (normally fitted only to F-85s with Hydra-Matic) and a damper on the throttle linkage to slow the closure of the primary throttle valve.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) front 3q high with X-ray view of engine - C885-0027 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Most of the unique mechanical features of the F-85 Jetfire were in the engine compartment. The turbocharged engine wasn’t accompanied by any chassis or brake upgrades, although the F-85 could have used some. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

There were also a variety of preproduction changes to the turbocharger itself, which was revised to incorporate an integral wastegate, reverse the direction of shaft rotation (mostly to allow the hot exhaust pipes to be mounted farther from the underside of the hood), and adopt a reshaped diffuser with a water jacket for better cold-start performance. AiResearch finalized the turbo design that spring.

Chevrolet Turbocharges the Corvair

By that time, news of the Oldsmobile turbocharger was beginning to spread, both in the industry and within GM. In June 1961, the project unexpectedly became a race, as Chevrolet began a crash program to add a turbocharger to the Corvair.

The ostensible rationale for turbocharging the Corvair’s air-cooled “Turbo-Air” flat six was similar to the rationale for turbocharging the F-85: There were limits to how much Chevrolet could increase the displacement of the air-cooled flat-six engine — at that time 145 cu. in. (2,372 cc) — and extracting more horsepower risked hurting driveability. As it was, the RPO 649 High Performance Turbo-Air engine had rather racy valve timing and a noticeably lumpy idle.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder turbocharged engine cutaway - 160999 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

This cutaway of the Corvair Monza Spyder turbo engine (viewed from the front) shows the components of the turbocharger installation. From left to right, the signs read: “TURBINE: Exhaust gases drive at speeds up to 70,000 rpm”; “TURBINE DRIVEN CENTRIFUGAL IMPELLER: Supercharges cylinders”; “CARBURETOR: Single-throat, side-draft with automatic choke”; “AIR CLEANER: Polyurethane, oil-wetted element”; and “FUEL FILTER: In line type with paper element.” Aside from the lack of a wastegate, note that the Spyder engine’s Thompson turbocharger has less separation between turbine and impeller than does the AiResearch turbo used by Oldsmobile, with a shaft just 3.5 inches (88.9 mm) long. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

During this period, there was a good deal of aftermarket hop-up equipment available for the Corvair, including at least three different engine-driven supercharger kits. Chevrolet engineers claimed to have considered and rejected a crankshaft-driven supercharger, saying it would have consumed too much power, taken up too much space, and coexisted too uneasily with the blower belt that drove the engine’s cooling fan. There was probably something to those arguments, but it also can’t have escaped Chevrolet that there was the possibility of a world first.

The Corvair turbo package, developed by engineers Robert E. Thoreson and James O. Brafford, bore only the broadest resemblance to its Oldsmobile rival. Chevrolet used a larger turbocharger, supplied by the Thompson Products Valve Division of Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, Inc. (later TRW, Inc.), with a 2.97-inch (75.4-mm) turbine driving a 3.00-inch (76.2-mm) centrifugal impeller, drawing through a 1.31-inch (33.33-mm) Carter Model YH side-draft carburetor and producing maximum boost of 11 psi (0.76 bar) from about 3,500 to 4,500 rpm. The turbocharger had no wastegate, boost being regulated solely by the restriction of the single-throat carburetor and dual-outlet muffler.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder turbocharged engine - C848-0172 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Because the turbocharger used on the Corvair Monza Spyder engine had no wastegate, maintaining the desired boost characteristics depended on properly matching the air cleaner, carburetor, and muffler. The carburetor selected was a Carter YH side-draft unit (essentially a re-jetted version of the carburetor used on the original six-cylinder Corvette); Chevrolet engineers then determined the optimum tailpipe length (9 inches (228.6 mm)), developed several mufflers with the desired noise level, and then selected a suitable air cleaner size through trial and error. This ad hoc approach was inelegant, but it worked reasonably well. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

The turbocharged engine combined the hotter camshaft from the RPO 649 engine with the lower 8.0:1 compression ratio of the base Corvair six, and incorporated a host of modifications to enable the air-cooled engine to survive the greatly increased temperatures and pressures that accompanied turbocharging: a nitrocarburized (Tufftrided) chromium steel forged crankshaft; exhaust valves of Nimonic 80A nickel-chromium alloy with chromium-silicon steel valve stems and aluminum bronze valve guides; reinforced pistons with chrome-plated compression rings; stronger connecting rods; and an oil separator to deal with the increased blow-by. Because prolonged periods at maximum boost could increase cylinder head temperatures precipitously, Chevrolet also opted to include a cylinder head temperature gauge as standard equipment on turbocharged cars.

Perhaps the Corvair engine’s most unusual feature was in its distributor, which provided an initial spark advance of 24 degrees before top dead center (BTDC) and replaced the usual vacuum advance with a pressure-controlled retarding device that could retard the spark timing by up to 9 degrees under boost, to prevent detonation.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder coupe (red) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

A 1962 Corvair Monza club coupe listed for $2,273; adding the Spyder package and other required equipment brought that to $2,703.55, which didn’t include extras like seat belts, radio, or other minor options. (Photo: “62 Chevrolet Corvair Spyder” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire and Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder

Oldsmobile officially announced its turbocharged engine when the 1962 models debuted in the fall of 1961, but production was delayed until spring. Chevrolet beat Oldsmobile to the punch both in offering turbocharged preview cars for the press to sample and in delivering production models in dealerships, albeit only by about two weeks. Both cars went on sale in April 1962, the world’s first turbocharged production cars.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire at the 1962 Chicago Auto Show - 246749 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Oldsmobile displayed its new turbocharged model, dubbed, F-85 Jetfire, at the 1962 Chicago Auto Show in February 1962, about two months before the car went on sale. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Oldsmobile and Chevrolet took different approaches to marketing their respective turbocharged engines. Chevrolet made the turbocharger part of a new “Spyder” option package (RPO 690) for the Corvair Monza, and initially required buyers to also order a number of other performance options. Oldsmobile initially told the automotive press the turbocharged engine would be available as an option on all F-85 models, but when it finally arrived in showrooms, it was offered only on a new top-of-the-line F-85 model, called Jetfire.

1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder (red) fender badge by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

In 1962, the RPO 690 Spyder option listed for $317.45, which didn’t include the $113.10 worth of additional equipment that was initially required but not included with the turbo package: four-speed transmission, 3.55:1 axle ratio, heavy-duty suspension, and metallic brake linings. By the end of the 1962 model year, the latter three items were no longer required, although they were well worth ordering. The heavy-duty suspension, which included a decambered rear suspension and a front anti-roll bar, wasn’t a complete fix for the handling problems of the early Corvair, but it was an improvement. (Photo: “63 Chevrolet Corvair 900 Monza Spyder” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Where the Spyder package was available on Monza coupes and convertibles, the F-85 Jetfire was sold only as a two-door hardtop — the sole pillarless hardtop in the F-85 line — with a list price of $3,049, $355 more than a Cutlass coupe. The price premium wasn’t outlandish compared to contemporary aftermarket supercharger kits, which typically cost at least $300 (not including installation, if you weren’t equipped to do it yourself), but it was still a lot of money for 1962.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire fender badge by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

The 1962 F-85 Jetfire listed for $3,049, $646 (26.9 percent) more than a basic F-85 club coupe. A base price of more than $3,000 was a substantial psychological barrier for many buyers in the early sixties, especially for what was originally supposed to be an economical compact, and probably didn’t do Jetfire sales any great favors. The same money would have bought a decently equipped ’62 Chevrolet Bel Air V-8. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Aside from its hardtop roof, the F-85 Jetfire was identified by dual wind splits on the hood, brushed aluminum side trim, distinctive emblems, and dual exhaust outlets. Inside, the Jetfire was largely similar to the F-85 Cutlass, with a deluxe interior featuring bucket seats, “Morrocceen” vinyl upholstery, full carpeting, and chrome highlights. Standard equipment included a center console, on which was mounted a “Turbo-Charger” gauge whose needle swung between green “Economy” and red “Power” quadrants to indicate when the engine was operating under boost. The gauge was more a gimmick than a useful instrument, and its position and angle made it difficult to see while driving. Unlike the Spyder package, which included a new instrument panel to accommodate the head temperature gauge and a tachometer, the Jetfire made do with the standard F-85 dashboard, which remained free of distracting instrumentation other than the speedometer and fuel gauge.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red with white roof) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Like its normally aspirated brethren, the 1962 F-85 Jetfire was 188.2 inches (4,780 mm) long, 71.6 inches (1,819 mm) wide, and 52.7 inches (1,339 mm) high on a 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase. A Jetfire with automatic, power steering, power brakes, and radio had a curb weight of 2,860 lb (1,297 kg), 110 lb (50 kg) more than a base F-85 club coupe, but only about 40 lb (18 kg) more than a similarly equipped Cutlass coupe. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

1962 Oldsmobile Starfire hardtop (red) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

The aluminum side trim of the 1962 F-85 Jetfire was probably intended to evoke the sporty full-size Oldsmobile Starfire. Introduced for 1961 as a sporty personal luxury car, the Starfire was essentially a well-equipped Olds Super 88, distinguished mainly by its brushed aluminum side trim. Note that the hood carries a single windsplit, where the F-85 Jetfire has two. A Starfire hardtop like this one started at $4,131 (although that included a longer-than-usual list of standard equipment), but it outsold the much cheaper F-85 Jetfire by about 9 to 1, accounting for 34,839 units in 1962. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile Starfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2023 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

Like any F-85, the Jetfire’s standard transmission was a column-shifted three-speed manual (a Warner Gear T-85 unit with unsynchronized low), although very few cars were so equipped — according to Jetfire expert Jim Noel, just 16 ’62 Jetfires and a further 45 ’63s had the manual three-speed. Sometime after launch, a floor-shifted four-speed manual transmission (the ubiquitous Warner Gear T-10 box with its “wide-ratio” gearset) became optional, listing for $199.80. However, most Jetfires had automatic transmission, the unloved three-speed Hydra-Matic, a $189.00 option.

(We’ve observed that there’s some argument about whether the Hydra-Matic used in the Jetfire and other Y-body Oldsmobiles had three or four speeds. The answer is “three,” although 1962 Oldsmobile brochures and factory literature described the Hydra-Matic as a four-stage (“4-S”) transmission, arguing that the small amount of additional torque multiplication the “Accel-A-Rotor” in the fluid coupling provided when starting from rest in first (or reverse) constituted an additional “stage.” By that logic, Chevrolet’s two-speed Powerglide, whose torque converter provided additional torque multiplication in both low and high gears, could also be considered a four-speed automatic!)

1961–1963 Model 5 three-speed Hydra-Matic diagram by Aaron Severson (author diagram)

This diagram, which is not to scale and has been simplified for the sake of visual coherency, shows the major moving parts of the light-duty three-speed Hydra-Matic used in the 1961–1963 Oldsmobile F-85. Perhaps its most peculiar feature, difficult to illustrate diagrammatically, was its very small “dump-and-fill” fluid coupling, which was emptied for the 1—2 shift and then refilled for the shift to third gear. This coupling included a torque multiplier, which Oldsmobile called the Accel-A-Rotor, that provided a small amount of additional torque multiplication in first and reverse. Since it was mounted on the the shaft connecting the planet carriers of the epicyclic gearbox and thus rotated with the output shaft, the Accel-A-Rotor only provided torque multiplication when accelerating from rest, and then only very briefly. For more information on this transmission, see the the second part of our history of early GM automatics. (author diagram)

The Jetfire came standard with the same 3.36:1 axle ratio used on the Cutlass, although the taller 3.08:1 “expressway” axle used on the manually shifted F-85 was theoretically optional, and an anti-spin differential was available for an extra $43.04. Standard tires were 6.50-13, although 7.00-13 and 6.00-15 tires were optional. Suspension and brakes were standard F-85 fare, and unless you talked a dealer into installing the police car chassis parts, the only heavy-duty option available was stiffer rear springs, intended for trailer towing.

Typically for this era, Jetfire buyers paid extra for features like backup lights, two-speed windshield wipers and windshield washer, and outside mirrors. There was also the usual range of options, including power steering, power brakes, power windows, tinted windows (either all around or just the windshield), air conditioning, and radio. A fully loaded Jetfire listed for almost $4,100, about as much as a well-equipped 1962 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport with a 409 cu. in. (6,702 cc) engine.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red with white roof) by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

Despite its lofty base price, the F-85 Jetfire didn’t come standard with backup lights (a $10.71 option), whitewall tires ($29.95), or wheel covers ($21.52 extra). This car’s white “Sport-Top” vinyl roof covering was an extra $75.32, although we admit the white roof contrasts attractively with the red paint (which we believe was officially called Garnet Mist). Note that although there are two exhaust outlets, the Jetfire didn’t have true dual exhausts; there was a single tailpipe ahead of the muffler. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2023 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

The Turbo-Rocket Engine

Naturally, the principal attraction of the F-85 Jetfire was not the tinsel, but the “Turbo-Rocket” engine, identified by a “T” suffix in the engine serial number and immediately recognizable thanks to its distinctive side-mounted air cleaner and the turbocharger’s prominent exhaust inlet and outlet pipes.

The Turbo-Rocket engine had the same 10.25:1 compression ratio as the four-barrel Cutlass engine and used the same camshaft as its normally aspirated siblings. However, despite the single-throat carburetor, the turbocharged Jetfire engine claimed 215 gross horsepower (160.3 kW) and 300 lb-ft (406.7 N-m) of torque. This was 30 hp (22.4 kW) more than the Cutlass engine and 65 hp (48.4 kW) more than the Corvair Monza Spyder, which claimed 150 gross horsepower (111.9 kW) and 210 lb-ft (284.7 N-m) of torque, although the Corvair engine had a modest edge in specific output: 1.036 hp/cubic inch (63.24 hp/liter), versus 0.999 hp/cubic inch (60.94 hp/liter) for the Olds.

150 hp turbocharged engine in a Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder by John Hritz (CC BY 2.0)

Chevrolet did not publish an as-installed net horsepower rating for the Corvair Monza Spyder engine, which was officially rated at 150 gross horsepower (111.9 kW), but based on its aerodynamics and observed top speed, it likely had approximately 120 to 125 horsepower (89.5 to 93.2 kW) at the flywheel, nearly double the 65 net horsepower (48.5 kW) Chevrolet reported for the base Corvair six. The Spyder engine’s as-installed net output was probably closer than most contemporary American engines to its gross rating because Chevrolet engineers discovered that removing the restrictive stock air cleaner and muffler would cause the turbocharged engine to overboost on the dynamometer. (Photo: “Corvair turbo” by John Hritz, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

With a light foot on the accelerator, it was possible to drive the Jetfire with little or no boost. At idle, engine exhaust flow was barely enough to overcome the turbine’s inertia, and at “road load” (i.e., in steady-speed top-gear cruising), the turbocharger loafed at around 3,000 rpm at 30 mph (48 km/h), only exceeding the 10,000-rpm mark above about 50 mph (80 km/h). However, the little turbine responded swiftly to a tap on the loud pedal, accelerating by as much as 30,000 rpm in less than a second. With a more aggressive throttle foot, boost pressure began to build by as little as 1,200 engine rpm. Upon achieving maximum boost — officially 5 psi (0.34 bar), “5 to 6 psi” (0.34 to 0.41 bar) according to the Jetfire service manual — the wastegate would begin to open, holding boost at a more or less constant level until the turbine reached its maximum speed, which corresponded to about 4,000 engine rpm at wide open throttle. If the wastegate controller was disabled (intentionally or not) or the bypass valve failed to open properly, boost pressure exceeding 6.5 to 7.5 psi (0.45 to 0.52 bar) would close the auxiliary throttle valve, restricting airflow to the compressor.

Above 4,000 engine rpm, boost pressure would gradually taper off as engine speed increased, limited by carburetor venturi area. Although the Jetfire engine would rev to 5,000 rpm or more, there was little to be gained by doing so, as power fell off sharply above about 4,600 rpm. This was to some extent by design; the small carburetor’s limited high-rpm breathing made it difficult to overspeed the turbocharger. (The turbine’s normal maximum speed was 96,000 rpm, but the rotating assembly was balanced for up to 100,000 rpm, and its burst speed was 150,000 rpm, providing a greater safety margin than most crankshaft-driven superchargers of the time.)

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) side - 8120-0028 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Like its normally aspirated brethren, the 1962 F-85 Jetfire was 188.2 inches (4,780 mm) long, 71.6 inches (1,819 mm) wide, and 52.7 inches (1,339 mm) high on a 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase. The Jetfire was the sole pillarless hardtop in the Y-body F-85 line. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

As we noted earlier, this boost curve was designed to emphasize midrange torque, which it did. Oldsmobile’s published torque curves (which unfortunately we don’t have in reproducible form to include here) indicate that at wide open throttle, the Turbo-Rocket engine’s gross torque output was about equal to that of the normally aspirated Rockette engines just off idle and surpassed them by about 1,400 rpm, cresting in a fat swell from the arrival of maximum boost around 2,100–2,200 rpm to the 3,200 rpm gross torque peak. Even as torque began to decline at higher rpm, the Turbo-Rocket retained a significant torque advantage over both the two-barrel and four-barrel normally aspirated engines. By contrast, the Corvair Monza Spyder engine didn’t reach 1 psi (0.07 bar) boost until 2,500 rpm, and its gross torque peak was a rather lonely spire, climbing sharply to a narrow peak between 3,200 and 3,400 rpm before dropping off almost as precariously. The Corvair engine could rev higher, but the turbocharged Oldsmobile engine had more torque over virtually the entire operating range, meaning more horsepower at all speeds.

Nonetheless, the drop-off in power at higher rpm made clear that the Jetfire’s “1 horsepower per cubic inch” gross output — at 4,600 rpm — was strictly a paper rating. In the April 1963 issue of Motor Trend, editor and engineer Roger Huntington presented the results of a revealing series of tests conducted by drag racer Dick Griffin, using a four-speed 1963 F-85 Jetfire provided by Demmer Tool & Die Company in Lansing (which would later assemble the 1968 Hurst/Olds) and taking not only acceleration times, but also accelerometer readings that enabled Huntington to calculate actual horsepower at the clutch. In stock form, Huntington estimated that the Jetfire engine had an as-installed output of 155 hp (115.6 kW) at 3,800 rpm with 5.5 psi (0.38 bar) maximum boost, the latter confirmed with a calibrated manifold pressure gauge. Griffin and Huntington subsequently learned that Oldsmobile had fitted some early 1963 Jetfires with the 2.00-inch (50.8-mm) tailpipe used with the four-barrel Cutlass engine rather than the 2.25-inch (57.2-mm) exhaust pipe used on the 1962 Jetfire, only to revert to the wider pipe as a running change after realizing that the narrow ones cost too much power. Fitting the wider tailpipe to the Demmer car added what Huntington calculated was an additional 5 hp (3.7 kW).

Based on this data, we would estimate that the net output of a healthy stock Jetfire fresh out of the showroom was between 150 and 160 horsepower (112 and 119 kW) at 3,800 to 4,000 rpm. This was not as much stronger than the Corvair Monza Spyder as the engines’ respective gross ratings would suggest; a Spyder engine in good tune had at least 120 to 125 net horsepower (89.5 to 93.2 kW). However, we would estimate that the Jetfire made at least 15 net hp (11 kW) more than the normally aspirated four-barrel Cutlass engine, and substantially more torque as well.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine on stand by artistmac (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This rather weathered display engine (which lacks the Turbo-Rocket Fluid reservoir and injection plumbing) demonstrates the compact size of the Turbo-Rocket V-8. Even with the turbocharger hardware, the aluminum V-8 weighed less than most contemporary six-cylinder engines — including the Buick Fireball V-6, which was a cast iron derivative of this engine’s Buick sibling. (Photo: “’62 Oldsmobile Jetfire Turbo #2” by artistmac, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license)

Huntington unfortunately didn’t calculate net torque curves for the engine in Griffin’s Jetfire, but 155 hp (115.6 kW) at 3,800 rpm would require 214 lb-ft (290 N-m) of torque at that speed, which was probably at least 600 to 800 rpm beyond the turbocharged engine’s torque peak. Our very tentative guess — which we must emphasize is our surmise, not Huntington’s — is that the Turbo-Rocket engine’s net torque curve was approximately the same shape as the gross torque curve, peaking at perhaps 250 lb-ft (340 N-m) at something between 2,800 and 3,000 rpm, which was the operating regime for which the turbocharger was optimized. (As a point of interest, 250 lb-ft (340 N-m) was also the nominal input torque capacity of the light-duty Hydra-Matic transmission used on the F-85, although the units used on Jetfires had a somewhat higher torque capacity.)

Oldsmobile noted that all aluminum Rockette V-8s required a longer-than-usual break-in period (a consequence of the hard iron cylinder liners), and sure enough, Griffin found that about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of wringing out provided a noticeable increase in engine power. He also tinkered with the boost controller by adding shims to the spring that controlled the wastegate bypass valve, a warranty-voiding modification that raised maximum boost pressure to 6.5 psi (0.45 bar) — as much as the system would permit without disabling all the various boost-limiting features — and increased net output at the flywheel to an estimated 175 hp (130.5 kW) at 4,000 rpm. That output would require 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) of torque at 4,000 rpm, which suggests a higher net torque peak (perhaps as much as 270 to 275 lb-ft (365 to 373 N-m)) and a commensurately fatter torque curve. However, even with that modification and running with open exhausts, the turbocharged engine was still 10 hp (7.4 kW) shy of its gross power rating.

Nevertheless, for 1962, these were quite decent figures for a mildly tuned street engine of this displacement, and the Turbo-Rocket engine remained smooth, quiet, and flexible, displaying almost none of the turbo lag that afflicted the peaky turbocharged Corvair engine. In most respects, the turbocharger installation made a 215 cu. in. (3.5-liter) engine perform like a normally aspirated 300 cu. in. (4.9-liter) V-8, while adding just 36 lb (16.3 kg) — 11 percent — to the weight of the engine. Also, even at its maximum speed, the AiResearch turbocharger consumed only 6 hp (4.4 kW), less than half as much as a Paxton-McCulloch supercharger producing about the same boost.

Turbo-Rocket Fluid Injection

Based on all that, the Jetfire’s Turbo-Rocket engine seemed like a winner, but inevitably, there was a catch.

Compressing air increases its temperature due to adiabatic heating and friction from the compressor. When compressed air is drawn into an engine’s intake valves, the pistons compress it again during the engine’s compression stroke, which heats the air even more. This added heat increases the risk that part of the mixture will explode rather than burning in a controlled manner when the spark plugs fire, an event known as either preignition or detonation, depending on whether it occurs during or after the completion of the compression stroke. The greater the heat, and the greater the danger of preignition or detonation, either of which can cause severe engine damage.

During the period when Oldsmobile developed the Jetfire, the conventional wisdom was that in a supercharged engine, adding boost pressure of 6 psi (0.41 bar) was equivalent to a 2-point increase in compression ratio. Given the octane ratings of contemporary premium fuels, a compression ratio of 11.0:1 was considered the practical upper limit for a normally aspirated street engine running on pump gasoline, so the practical limit for a mildly supercharged street engine was about 9.0:1. Even those limits could be dicey for an engine with too much carbon buildup, requiring adjustments to ignition timing to avoid engine knock. That was why when Studebaker-Packard first offered a McCulloch supercharger as a factory option in 1957–1958, the compression ratio of the Studebaker V-8 was reduced to a mere 7.5:1, making for weak performance at lower engine speeds despite seemingly robust gross ratings of 275 hp (206.1 kW) and 333 lb-ft (451 N-m) of torque.

Supercharged Studebaker R2 in a 1964 Studebaker Avanti by Robert Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

The 1963–1964 Studebaker R2 engine used a Paxton SN60 supercharger, essentially an updated version of the earlier VS57 supercharger without the variable-speed pulley system, but with a 9.0:1 compression ratio rather than the 7.5:1 ratio of the earlier Jet Stream Supercharger engines. In this form, R2 engines claimed 1 horsepower per cubic inch displacement — 290 hp (216.3 kW) from 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) — without resort to fluid injection. (Photo: “2011 Stirling Agricultural Society Fair_5065” by Robert Taylor, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Nevertheless, Oldsmobile had insisted on a 10.25:1 compression ratio for the Turbo-Rocket engine. One of the goals for the project was that the turbocharged engine’s off-boost performance should be at least as good as that of the regular-fuel two-barrel F-85 engine, and with the single-throat carburetor and the added back pressure and additional frictional and pumping losses created by the impeller, that would have been difficult to achieve without a higher compression ratio. Moreover, even under boost, a lower compression ratio would have involved greater sacrifices in fuel economy and torque than Oldsmobile engineers were prepared to accept. Oldsmobile apparently never actually built any low-compression turbocharged engines for evaluation, but it seems likely that such an engine would have been no more powerful than the four-barrel Cutlass engine, rendering the more complex turbocharger installation somewhat pointless.

The problem was that with such a high compression ratio, detonation became a risk with anything more than minimal boost. At full throttle, the compressor raised the intake charge temperature by up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), and retarding the ignition timing (as Chevrolet did with the Spyder engine’s boost-operated spark control) and/or enriching the mixture to prevent detonation would have significantly reduced torque and fuel economy. This was a dilemma that had arisen during the development of supercharged aircraft engines prior to World War 2, and the solution Oldsmobile adopted would have been familiar to military flight and maintenance crews of 20 years earlier: fluid injection, using what Oldsmobile dubbed “Turbo-Rocket Fluid.”

Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire cutaway from 1962 brochure - heritage-collection-ohc_12259.pdf (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

This brochure cutaway shows the internal arrangement of the F-85 Jetfire engine’s turbocharger and side-draft carburetor: the exhaust-driven turbocharger (A); the draw-through impeller (B); and the fluid reservoir (C), which injects antidetonant fluid into the air-fuel mixture in the throttle bore between the carburetor and the compressor. The diagram omits the primary and auxiliary throttle valves in the throttle bore, the boost controller between the compressor and the intake manifold, and the wastegate bypass in the exhaust system. (Image: General Motors LLC)

Fluid injection, more precisely known as antidetonant injection (ADI), was first tried on aircraft engines during WW1 and again in the early thirties, but the availability of higher-octane aviation fuels had delayed its widespread adoption until WW2. By 1941, however, fluid injection systems were being hastily added to many military aircraft engines as a way to extract more horsepower for takeoff and in what U.S. armed forces called “war emergency power” mode. After the war, ADI had seen some use in civilian aircraft, and there were a number of attempts to market fluid injection systems for car and truck use, the earliest of which was probably the Thompson Products Vitameter, first advertised in 1945. The GM Research Laboratories’ 1958 experimental Oldsmobile engine had also used fluid injection to control detonation.

ADI is often called “water injection,” but while pure water is effective as an internal coolant, its high freezing point makes it impractical for many ADI applications. Antidetonant fluids generally include least 30 percent ethyl or methyl alcohol, which isn’t as effective as water as a coolant, but usefully lowers the freezing point of the fluid and allows greater detonation-limited power output. During WW2, methanol was preferred over ethanol, although both were used, and it wasn’t uncommon to also add small amounts of soluble lubricants or anti-corrosion additives to help protect rubber hoses and seals from the alcohol’s corrosive effects. Despite its silly name, Oldsmobile’s Turbo-Rocket Fluid was typical of wartime antidetonant fluids: a 50–50 mixture of distilled water and methyl alcohol with a small amount of corrosion inhibitor. (For comparison, the Thompson Vitameter used “Vitol,” later renamed “Vitane,” an 15-85 water-alcohol mixture supplemented with soluble oil and a few cubic centimeters of tetraethyl lead.)

28-ounce bottle of Turbo-Rocket Fluid in the engine compartment of a 1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Our research unfortunately did not reveal how much Oldsmobile dealers charged for Turbo-Rocket Fluid when these cars were first sold, but the 1966 Olds parts catalog listed suggested retail prices of 40 cents for a 28-ounce (828-mL) bottle like this one and $1.60 for a 4-quart (3.8-liter) bottle. The latter was approximately four times the price of a gallon of premium gasoline in that period. Warnings on the label stress that the fluid is poisonous and that it should not be poured into the fuel tank rather than the fluid reservoir! (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

AiResearch was originally supposed to develop the ADI system along with the Jetfire turbocharger, but the initial version was unsatisfactory, so the final system was designed by Rochester along with the special Model RC carburetor. Boost pressure exceeding about 1.0 psi (0.07 bar) would pressurize the antidetonant fluid reservoir and the underside of a float chamber in the fluid control valve assembly. This forced fluid into the float chamber and applied boost pressure to the diaphragm under the float, unseating two diaphragm-operated check balls and allowing intake vacuum to draw a small amount of Turbo-Rocket Fluid through the fluid outlet in the throttle bore, below the primary throttle valve. (Pedants may wish to note that this is technically carburetion rather than injection, and indeed, some sources describe the Jetfire throttle bore as a “water carburetor.”)

Under boost, the metering system added antidetonant fluid to the mixture at a rate of about one-tenth the rate of fuel flow. The fluid acted as a coolant, absorbing heat to prevent detonation. Contrary to what you might assume, diluting the air-fuel mixture in this way actually added 5 or 6 hp (3.7 to 4.4 kW), which more or less equaled the power consumed by the turbocharger’s additional back pressure. Fluid injection also slightly reduced on-boost fuel consumption.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine (left) by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Turbo-Rocket Fluid for the fluid injection system comes from the 5-quart (4.7-liter) reservoir on the inner fender (the black rectangular object at the top right, to the right of the air cleaner). The gray cap with a small red button in the center is a pressure cap; overboost causes it to pop open, which closes the auxiliary throttle valve and restricts boost pressure to no more than 1 psi (0.07 bar). (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The rate at which the Turbo-Rocket Fluid was consumed varied considerably with driving style. With the 5-quart (4.7-liter) reservoir, even an aggressive driver would likely have enough fluid for at least a tank or two of fuel. In gentler driving, the fluid supply might conceivably last up to 8,000 miles (12,800 km). (By comparison, a turbo-supercharged WW2 fighter engine could consume a 15-gallon (57-liter) supply of antidetonant fluid in just five minutes of war emergency power.) A low-fluid warning light on the otherwise useless console-mounted Turbo-Charger Gauge illuminated when the reservoir fell below about 15 percent of its capacity. There was a bracket in the engine compartment for carrying an extra bottle in case you needed to top up while out of range of an Oldsmobile dealer, as the service manual warned emphatically against using substitute fluids.

If the fluid supply was exhausted, the metering float would drop to the bottom of its chamber, opening the boost limit control valve and closing the auxiliary throttle valve. This didn’t completely block airflow to the compressor, which would have stalled the engine, but it restricted airflow enough to limit boost to no more than 1.0 psi (0.07 bar), at which level Oldsmobile claimed the engine could get by indefinitely without fluid injection. As an additional precaution against overboost, the fluid reservoir pressure cap would pop open if boost pressure exceeded 6.5 to 7.5 psi (0.45 to 0.52 bar); with the pressure cap open, the fluid metering float would drop and the auxiliary throttle valve would open to restrict airflow, just as if the system were out of fluid. (The cap could be closed and reset, but doing so required opening the hood.) If the engine was shut off, a depressure valve in the throttle body was supposed to exhaust any residual pressure in the fluid reservoir within two minutes, to prevent fluid from entering the cylinders in liquid form and causing hydrostatic lock.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire Turbo-Charger Gauge - 1963_Oldsmobile_Jetfire6 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The one really useful aspect of the Turbo-Charger Gauge on the F-85 Jetfire was the amber warning light at the bottom of the gauge (below the “Charger” script), which illuminated when the Turbo-Rocket Fluid reservoir fluid level fell below 1.5 pints (710 mL). Since actually running out of fluid would result in a significant loss of power, it was unfortunate that the warning light wasn’t mounted in a more conspicuous location than the center console. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

This was all very elaborate, but it’s difficult not to see the Turbo-Rocket Fluid system as a serious miscalculation. Even a completely automated ADI system required a reasonably advanced level of knowledge; a driver or pilot didn’t necessarily need to understand the principles involved or the finer points of the system’s operation, but they did need to grasp at least generally what the fluid injection system was for, what would happen if it failed or the fluid supply was exhausted, that the fluid reservoir needed to be periodically checked and replenished, and which reservoir to fill. It was one thing to fit an ADI system to a military aircraft or race car, where the system would be refilled and inspected regularly and crews could be trained in how to properly use and maintain it, but this was a lot to ask of an average passenger car owner of no particular mechanical knowledge or aptitude.

Granted, cars of this era required far more regular maintenance than modern automobiles do, so Oldsmobile may have rationalized the ADI system as no worse than an engine requiring a quart or two of oil between changes, which was considered normal at the time. However, even an owner who had their car regularly serviced by the dealer might still run out of fluid at an unexpected moment, and we doubt the typical service station attendant of the time would have thought to ask, “Top up yer Turbo-Rocket Fluid?” while wiping the windshield and checking the oil.

Given the design parameters for the Jetfire, Oldsmobile would probably have been better off compromising a bit on the compression ratio and adding an air-to-air or air-to-water intercooler to reduce the temperature of the compressed mixture before it entered the intake manifold. Intercoolers were not new technology; they had been used for decades with other types of air compressors, and both Büchi and Rateau had noted that it might be desirable to use an additional radiator to cool the compressed intake charge. Intercoolers had been common on supercharged aircraft engines since the twenties, despite significant penalties in weight and aerodynamic drag, and were an essential feature of WW2 turbo-superchargers. AiResearch was certainly familiar with charge cooling, having built aftercoolers for cabin pressurization systems since the late thirties and intercoolers for aircraft engines since around 1941.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire center console and shifter - C885-0001 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

On the 1962 F-85 Jetfire, the Turbo-Charger Gauge was mounted face up on the center console, where it was not easy for the driver to see. This car has the optional Hydra-Matic transmission, fitted to more than four-fifths of Jetfire production. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire dash and center console - 1963_Oldsmobile_Jetfire7 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The 1963 F-85 Jetfire still mounted the Turbo-Charger Gauge on the console, but in a different position, perhaps in an effort to make it marginally more readable. Mounting the gauge in the instrument panel would have been preferable, and the Jetfire would also have benefited from a tachometer, particularly with the optional four-speed manual transmission fitted to this car. The four-speed manual was a desirable but relatively uncommon option, fitted to only about one in six Jetfires. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

As far as we’ve been able to determine, Oldsmobile either never considered the possibility of intercooling or else dismissed it at an early conceptual stage. Packaging would probably have been a concern, as Olds engineers were very keen to minimize the size and weight of the turbocharger installation (for obvious reasons, given the dimensions of the F-85 engine bay), and they wanted to keep the impeller as close as possible to the intake manifold to reduce lag. The ADI setup scored well in those respects, but for the kind of car the Jetfire was intended to be and the kind of performance it offered, the fluid injection system was a mistake — both too much of a gimmick and not enough of one. It would become the Jetfire’s Achilles’ heel.

F-85 Jetfire Performance

Published performance figures for the F-85 Jetfire fell into two general categories: preview drives of early factory demonstration cars on the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, which were encouraging, and independent tests conducted in the real world, which tended to be disappointing.

Preview tests consistently reported 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) times of about 8.5 seconds, which was brisk for this era, if not in the same league as the hottest big-engine full-size cars of the time. Probably the most complete summation of these preview drives was presented in the June 1962 issue of Car Life, whose results included the following figures for a 1962 Jetfire with Hydra-Matic, the standard 3.36:1 axle and 6.50-13 tires, a curb weight of 2,860 lb (1,297 kg), and a test weight of 3,160 lb (1,433 kg):

  • 0–30 mph [0–48 km/h]: 2.9 seconds
  • 0–60 mph [0–97 km/h]: 8.5 seconds
  • 0–100 mph [0–160 km/h]: 28.2 seconds
  • Standing quarter mile, elapsed time: 16.5 seconds
  • Standing quarter mile, trap speed: 80 mph [129 km/h]

Those figures made the Jetfire substantially quicker than the regular Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass with its normally aspirated four-barrel V-8, examples of which Oldsmobile helpfully provided for comparison. The Cutlass, which had the same transmission, gearing, and tires as the Jetfire and weighed 40 lb (18.1 kg) less, needed 10.9 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and 37.0 seconds to reach 100 mph (160 km/h).

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

When the F-85 Jetfire was first announced, Oldsmobile engineer Gibson Butler claimed that development cars with manual transmission had hit 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds, which was either a very informal stopwatch-and-speedometer estimate or involved considerably more boost than the engine was normally designed to allow. Although Dick Griffin thought the Jetfire would be competitive in the NHRA F/Stock class, his 1963 test car couldn’t break 7 seconds for the 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) sprint or 15 seconds in the quarter mile (400 meters) without completely disabling the turbocharger wastegate. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The Car Life editors didn’t record an observed top speed for the Jetfire, but asserted that it would reach 107 mph (172 km/h) “under favorable circumstances.” Unless “favorable circumstances” included different gearing, we’re skeptical, since reaching that speed with the 3.36:1 axle would have required the engine to pull to 5,100 rpm in high. Most contemporary performance tests found the Turbo-Rocket engine ran out of breath in top gear at approximately the same point as the normally aspirated Cutlass (if not sooner, given the smaller carburetor), giving the Jetfire a similar top speed: around 103–104 mph (165–167 km/h).

Subsequent tests of the production Jetfire, farther away from the ministrations of Oldsmobile engineers, found its acceleration notably less impressive, as summarized in the following table. (Note that all metric equivalencies in brackets are our calculations, not included in the original test results.)

Selected 1962–1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire Performance Figures
Magazine Issue Transmission Axle Ratio Curb Weight Test Weight 0–30 mph [0–48 km/h] 0–60 mph [0–97 km/h] Quarter Mile [400 m] Elapsed Time Quarter Mile [400 m] Trap Speed
Motor Trend Sep. 1962 Hydra-Matic 3.36:1 2,856 lb [1,295 kg] 3,250 lb [1,474 kg] 3.7 seconds 10.2 seconds 18.7 seconds 80 mph [129 km/h]
Car Life April 1963 4-speed 3.36:1 (see Note 1) 2,930 lb [1,329 kg] 3,290 lb [1,492 kg] 3.2 seconds 9.8 seconds 17.1 seconds 80 mph [129 km/h]
Motor Trend April 1963 4-speed 3.36:1 (see Note 2) 2,880 lb [1,306 kg] (see Note 2) 3,050 lb [1,384 kg] (see Note 2) 3.5 seconds 9.1 seconds 17.0 seconds 83 mph [134 km/h]
  • Note 1: This second Car Life test car had 6.50-14 tires, a $13.45 option on 1963 Jetfires without air conditioning, which should have slightly reduced (numerically) its overall gearing compared to the standard 6.50-13 tires, although that difference wasn’t reflected in the spec sheet’s calculated data.
  • Note 2: Dick Griffin tested this car with non-stock 7.00-14 tires (which also would have slightly reduced overall gearing compared to the standard 6.50-13 tires), and with only a half-tank of fuel; weights with a full tank would have been about 50 lb (22.7 kg) greater. The listed acceleration figures are for his initial test run, without additional break-in miles or the subsequent “adjustments” to the boost controller.

Both the 1962 Motor Trend and 1963 Car Life reviews complained about the disappointing acceleration and wondered if their Jetfire test cars weren’t producing their full rated power. However, it’s interesting to note that their quarter mile trap speeds (the speed at which the car crossed the quarter mile line) were identical to the earlier preview drive, which, given the cars’ similar weight and gearing, suggests that their actual horsepower was probably about the same. (Griffin’s car was 3 mph (5 km/h) faster through the quarter, but its test weight was about 200 lb (90 kg) lighter, which likely accounted for most of the difference.)

Why were the preview cars quicker? They clearly had the benefit of more thorough break-in — the subsequent road test cars all had significantly less mileage — but it’s also possible the Oldsmobile press preview cars had had some of the same kind of boost controller fiddling Dick Griffin’s car later received, which would have provided a noticeable increase in torque (and thus stronger acceleration) through most of the rev range. Any such adjustment might have still technically been within allowable specification, and in any case wouldn’t have been detectable without installing a proper manifold pressure gauge, so it would rate at least a B+ in the realm of creative road test preparation, a minor art form in this period.

Even with the preview cars, testers complained that performance was hampered by the lethargy of the optional Hydra-Matic transmission, which was fitted to more than 80 percent of F-85 Jetfire production. The units fitted to Jetfires were supposed to be recalibrated to suit the turbocharged engine, with different shift points, higher line pressure, and a different band servo, but the results don’t appear to have been any better than the standard Hydra-Matic, whose slow shifts and sluggish response were a frequent complaint among F-85 owners as well as contemporary road testers, who preferred the four-speed manual. In practice, the latter didn’t make a dramatic difference in overall performance, although it did provide better quarter mile elapsed times than did the automatic.

With either the four-speed or Hydra-Matic, the F-85 Jetfire was quicker than the Corvair Monza Spyder at most legal speeds and much easier to drive. Despite a 300 lb (135 kg) weight advantage and shorter gearing, the Spyder engine’s turbo lag and narrow power band put it at a significant disadvantage at lower speeds, although a well-tuned, competently driven stock Spyder might conceivably edge out the bigger, more powerful Jetfire through the quarter mile. The turbocharged Corvair also had a higher top speed than the Jetfire, thanks to superior aerodynamics and a higher rev limit. A 1963 Motor Trend road test of a Monza Spyder convertible found it needed 4.5 seconds to reach 30 mph (48 km/h) and 11.1 seconds to hit 60 mph (97 km/h), but went on to an observed maximum speed of 110 mph (177 km/h) at 5,500 rpm.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder convertible (red) front 3q by John Lloyd (CC BY 2.0)

The Spyder package wasn’t available on the Corvair Monza sedan or wagon, but you could order the turbocharged engine on a Monza convertible, which cost $110 more than the club coupe and weighed an additional 185 lb (83.9 kg) (Photo: “1962 Corvair Monza Spyder” by John Lloyd, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Disappointingly, while contemporary Jetfire reviews explained how the fluid injection system was designed to restrict boost if the Turbo-Rocket Fluid tank was empty, we didn’t find any published tests describing the engine’s real-world performance in that state, which seems like it would have been easy enough to arrange. Oldsmobile claimed that performance with the auxiliary throttle valve closed was similar to that of the F-85’s two-barrel regular-fuel V-8, which was adequate but uninspired. (A standard F-85 with Hydra-Matic needed 14.0 to 14.5 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h), with the standing quarter mile coming up in the mid-19-second range with quarter mile trap speeds between 68 and 70 mph (110 and 113 km/h).)

As far as we could determine, only Motor Trend bothered to measure the Jetfire’s fuel economy, reporting an average of 14.1 mpg (16.7 L/100 km), compared to the 15.8 mpg (14.9 L/100 km) they recorded for an automatic Cutlass a year later. A well-broken-in four-speed car, driven with fewer attempts to test the limits of available boost, would probably do a bit better, but the F-85 Jetfire was not outstandingly thrifty, and premium fuel was required, to say nothing of the need for Turbo-Rocket Fluid. We assume that running the engine without Turbo-Rocket Fluid would return somewhat poorer fuel economy than an F-85 with the normally aspirated two-barrel engine, due to the added back pressure of the turbocharger and the additional pumping losses imposed by the auxiliary throttle valve.

1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (red) rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Despite its pillarless hardtop roof and aluminum side trim, the 1962 F-85 Jetfire looks a lot like its Y-body cousins. From the rear, a casual observer might have trouble distinguishing it from the much cheaper Pontiac Tempest Sports Coupe, although the latter had a very different powertrain with a rear transaxle rather than the conventional front engine/live rear axle layout of the Olds F-85. (Photo: “1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Because the Jetfire package did not include any upgrades to the steering, suspension, brakes, or tires, the F-85 Jetfire handled and stopped no better than did any other F-85 or Cutlass. Unlike the swing-axle Pontiac Tempest, the F-85 was unlikely to make any unexpected moves, and it benefited from having less weight on the nose than some of its contemporaries did. However, steering was slow and vague, and the spring and damping rates were chosen for a plush ride on smooth pavement, so there just wasn’t enough body control for anything other than fairly sedate cruising. Brakes were another dynamic sore point: Y-body Oldsmobiles made do with a mere 127 square inches (819 square centimeters) of effective brake lining area, and pronounced nose dive in hard stops made it difficult for the rear brakes to do their share, resulting in long stopping distances and heavy fade even by contemporary standards.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (white) front 3q by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whether the somewhat larger dimensions and squared-off styling of the 1963 F-85 were an improvement is a matter of taste, but they robbed the F-85 Jetfire of what little visual distinction it had managed in 1962. Even the brushed aluminum side trim was easily mistaken for the chrome side spear now featured on Deluxe and Cutlass models, and all F-85s models had the same central wind split on the hood. (Photo: “1963 Oldsmobile Jetfire Turbo 2-door Hardtop, Provincial White, front left (Hershey 2019)” by Mr.choppers, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

In these respects, the F-85 Jetfire wasn’t any worse than any other F-85 or Cutlass (or for that matter the Buick Special or Skylark), but it wasn’t any better either, disappointing for an ostensibly sporty car. This was a common problem for American Supercars, whose acceleration frequently outstripped their cornering and stopping ability. Oldsmobile would do better with the subsequent A-body 4-4-2, which had a much better-sorted chassis, though not necessarily better brakes.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (brown) at GM Heritage Center rear 3q - 1963_Oldsmobile_Jetfire2 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

On the 1963 F-85 Jetfire, the Jetfire script and emblem were relocated to the trailing edge of the side spear. The revised taillights of the 1963 F-85 give the restyled car a stronger resemblance to full-size Oldsmobile models, although the big cars didn’t share the same neatly integrated backup lights. Backup lights still weren’t standard equipment on the F-85, although the list price of the option was down to $6.46. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Turbocharged and Trouble Prone

By most accounts, the principal service complaints about the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire involved running out of antidetonant fluid and complaining that the engine suddenly lost power, which was easily rectified, but spoke to the dubious wisdom of using the fluid injection system in the first place. As an ultra-performance option on a fuel-injected Corvette or other high-performance sports car, it might have added to the mystique, but Oldsmobile had been clear the Jetfire wasn’t supposed to be that kind of car. Fluid injection was just too much hassle for a softly sprung compact sedan that wasn’t ultimately that much quicker than a regular four-barrel Cutlass or Buick Skylark.

Even for owners who understood how it worked, the ADI system was a frequent source of headaches. It could leak at various points, and even if there was fluid in the reservoir, various maladies could leave you without boost: a clogged fluid filter, a stuck check ball, a blocked valve, or a broken or defective pressure cap. Also, the depressure valve didn’t always do its job, which could have expensive consequences if the engine were shut off with the fluid reservoir still pressurized; Oldsmobile issued a service bulletin in June 1964 calling for the installation of a more effective external depressurization valve.

Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine from a 1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire by artistmac (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite the somewhat sorry state of this 1962 Oldsmobile Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine, this angle gives a better view of the Model RC carburetor. The larger gray pan-like shape next to the red compressor housing is the boost limit control diaphragm, which sits atop the throttle body and forces the auxiliary throttle valve closed if the Turbo-Rocket Fluid reservoir is empty or the pressure cap pops open. The small white cap is the vacuum break diaphragm for the choke. Note the loose Turbo-Charger Gauge, which would normally be mounted on the car’s center console. (Photo: “’62 Oldsmobile Jetfire Turbo #4” by artistmac, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license)

There were other weaknesses as well. Oiling was marginal for a turbocharged engine, which depended on oil flow for cooling as well as lubrication. The shaft seals didn’t always do a great job of keeping contaminants out of the shaft housing between the compressor and turbine housings, and on startup, it could take a while for engine oil to reach the turbocharger shaft. Inadequate oil flow, oil contamination, infrequent use, and disuse could all take a toll on the shaft bearings, which were designed to float on a film of oil while spinning both on the shaft and in their housings. Also, like many early turbo engines, a combination of localized high temperatures and inadequate oil circulation could cause coking, where thermal breakdown of the oil created carbon deposits in high-temperature areas. Moreover, even the normally aspirated aluminum V-8 was still not the world’s most reliable engine, particularly with regard to cooling. In that regard, the Jetfire’s higher-capacity radiator gave it at least a slight advantage over a standard F-85 or Cutlass, although coolant aeration was still a common problem, and using an incompatible antifreeze could raise all kinds of hell.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire Turbo-Rocket V-8 engine - 1963_Oldsmobile_Jetfire8 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

1963 Oldsmobile Turbo-Rocket V-8 engines had few mechanical changes from 1963, the most important being the use of an alternator rather than the previous generator, but the turbocharger hardware was no longer brightly painted, and “AiResearch” was now etched into the right side of the compressor housing and the base of the boost controller (Photo: General Motors LLC)

It undoubtedly didn’t help that Oldsmobile dealer service technicians weren’t necessarily any more familiar with the Turbo-Rocket engine than were Jetfire buyers. Although the Jetfire went on sale in April 1962, the factory didn’t get around to publishing a service manual supplement describing the turbocharger, fluid injection system, and Model RC carburetor until June.

Missteps like that make it easier to understand why Oldsmobile’s eventual response to many Jetfire problems was to simply remove all the turbocharger equipment and install the standard Cutlass manifolds and four-barrel carburetor — a blow to historians, but a pragmatic solution that involved only a modest sacrifice of performance. (At least a few of those cars have since reacquired turbochargers in collector hands.)

A Limited Engagement

The F-85 Jetfire was a late introduction for 1962, so production was limited, with only 3,765 units built. It returned for 1963, restyled, like the rest of the F-85, with somewhat blockier lines and larger dimensions, though it still looked a lot like a scaled-down Starfire. The 4-inch (101.6-mm) increase in overall length and 2.1-inch (53.4-mm) increase in overall width added about 70 lb (32 kg) to the curb weight, but the only mechanical changes of any note were the use of an alternator rather than the previous generator and newly optional 14-inch wheels with 6.50-14 tires. The latter didn’t do much for handling or braking grip, but increased the Jetfire’s somewhat precarious tire capacity by a useful 180 lb (81.7 kg). List price for the 1963 F-85 Jetfire dropped by $1, to $3,048.

1963 was the best year for Y-body F-85 sales, which reached 121,879 units, up 25 percent from 1962. The Cutlass, which now boasted 195 gross horsepower (145.4 kW) with Hydra-Matic, was the bestseller of the line, accounting for 53,492 units. However, Jetfire sales weren’t much greater than in the abbreviated 1962 season, totaling just 5,842 units.

Sales of the turbocharged Corvair were significantly better: The Spyder option was specified by 9,468 buyers in 1962 and 19,099 in 1963. The Monza Spyder returned for 1964, promoted from option package to model series, and sold a further 10,962 units before first-generation Corvair production came to an end in mid-1964. By that time, Corvair sales were starting to skid as buyers interested in compact sporty cars turned their attention to the new Ford Mustang, a trend the attractive second-generation Corvair, introduced for 1965, failed to reverse. However, 39,529 cars in two and a half years wasn’t bad for an expensive and high-strung package that, unlike the Jetfire, wasn’t available with automatic transmission.

1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder convertible (black) by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

For 1964, the engine of the turbocharged Corvair Monza Spyder was stroked to 164 cu. in. (2,680 cc) and the compression ratio was raised slightly to 8.25:1, which didn’t increase rated horsepower, but raised the gross torque output about 10 percent, to 232 lb-ft (314.6 N-m). More importantly, all 1964 Corvair models now had a front anti-roll bar, softer rear coil springs, and a transverse rear leaf spring, which did much to tame the previous swing-axle handling eccentricities; the Corvair should have had those features from the start. (Photo: “1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The F-85 Jetfire is often characterized as a commercial debacle, but we’re not sure how many cars Olds could have built if demand had been greater. Oldsmobile didn’t represent the Jetfire as a limited edition, but we suspect that turbocharger availability effectively made it one. The AiResearch Industrial Division had built just 22,000 turbochargers between 1955 and 1960, and in 1965, after the Olds deal had wound down, the division’s total turbocharger production (for all applications) was only about 3,000 units a month, which would have supplied only a modest fraction of F-85 production.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass coupe (blue with white roof) front 3q by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA 3.0)

All 1963 Oldsmobile F-85 models were 4 inches (101.6 mm) longer and at least 30 lb (13.6 kg) heavier than the equivalent ’62s. The previous side sculpting was gone, making the ’63 F-85 2.1 inches (53.4 mm) wider than the ’62. Note the chrome side spear, which made it harder to distinguish the pricey F-85 Jetfire hardtop from the much cheaper Deluxe and Cutlass club coupes, especially with the windows up. (Photo: “1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass two-door coupe front left” by Mr.choppers, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

Admittedly, with only 9,607 cars sold in a year and a half, the Jetfire would probably have been considered a sales disappointment even if the target had been only 10,000 units a year. On the other hand, the Jetfire did have considerable publicity value, and it brought Oldsmobile more attention from the enthusiast press than the division had gotten in years, so it wasn’t a total rout.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass coupe (blue with white roof) rear 3q by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The F-85 Cutlass coupe, which started at $2,694, was by far the most popular Y-body Oldsmobile for 1963, accounting for 41,343 units, followed by the four-door Deluxe sedan, which sold 29,269 units. Neither figure was particularly impressive; Oldsmobile was disappointed with sales of the Y-body models and unhappy with their high production and warranty costs. (Photo: “1963 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass two-door coupe rear left” by Mr.choppers, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

AiResearch likely didn’t make much of a profit from the Jetfire project, as Wilton Parker had feared, but the indirect benefits of the Olds deal were substantial. Aside from providing valuable experience in dealing with Detroit, the cost analysis GM had funded, which Parker said Garrett probably wouldn’t have undertaken otherwise, enabled the division to completely overhaul its accounting practices and implement much more effective cost controls, which would make AiResearch significantly more competitive in the turbocharging renaissance to come.

From Turbocharger to Turnpike Cruiser

Whatever the pros and cons of the Oldsmobile Turbo-Rocket engine, it’s very likely that the F-85 Jetfire and its turbocharged aluminum V-8 were actually doomed from the start. By the time the Jetfire made its public debut in April 1962, the Y-body senior compacts were already slated to be replaced by the bigger body-on-frame A-body intermediates, and the aluminum V-8’s days were numbered (at least in the U.S.). The lightweight V-8 had proven to be vastly more expensive than originally anticipated, and while some of the early production problems had been resolved, it remained a source of warranty and service headaches, even without the turbocharger and ADI system. Worse, from Oldsmobile’s perspective, the aluminum V-8 was still fundamentally a Buick engine, which meant less control and higher costs. By mid-1962, Oldsmobile engineers were hard at work on the “654” engine, an in-house design that was to power the second-generation F-85 and Cutlass.

All versions of the aluminum V-8 were dropped at the end of the 1963 model year, although Buick continued to produce the 90-degree Fireball V-6, which was a bored-and-stroked six-cylinder derivative of the small V-8, using thinwall iron castings rather than aluminum. Both Buick and Oldsmobile would offer the 90-degree V-6, bored and stroked to 225 cu. in. (3,692 cc), as the base engine for their cheapest models in 1964 and 1965; Oldsmobile then switched to the 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) Chevrolet six, but Buick continued to use the V-6 through 1967, after which the engine and its tooling were sold to Kaiser Jeep. The divisions parted ways on V-8s: For 1964, Buick replaced the 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum engine with a new iron-block 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) V-8, essentially an eight-cylinder version of the cast iron V-6, while Oldsmobile offered its new cast iron V-8, initially displacing 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc).

1964 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass two-door hardtop (green) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

As with the 1964 Pontiac Tempest/Le Mans and Buick Special/Skylark that shared its new A-body shell, the 1964 Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass was a larger, more conventional car than the Y-body “senior compact” it replaced, with a perimeter frame rather than unitized construction, cast iron V-6 and V-8 engines rather than the previous aluminum V-8s, and an all-new two-speed automatic (which Oldsmobile called Jetaway and Buick dubbed Super Turbine 300) rather than the unloved three-speed Hydra-Matic. This two-door hardtop sports “Hurst-equipped” fender badges, which are not stock. (Photo: “1964 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Although Olds advertised it as the “Jetfire Rocket V-8,” the new Oldsmobile 330 had little in common with the turbocharged aluminum engine other than the number of cylinders. Constrained by the need to share basic tooling and transfer equipment with Oldsmobile’s “big” Rocket V-8, the 330 was essentially a modernized version of that engine; a tall-deck version of the 330, code-named the “657” engine during development and initially offered in 400 cu. in. (6,548 cc) and 425 cu. in. (6,946 cc) versions, would replace the “big” Rocket engine for 1965. Somewhat ironically, the 654 and 657 engines adopted a modified wedge combustion chamber layout similar to the “slanted saucer” chamber design of the Buick 215, which Oldsmobile had eschewed for its version of the aluminum V-8. Unlike Buick’s iron-block 300, which took advantage of the latest “thinwall” casting techniques and consequently was one of the lightest cast iron engines in Detroit, Oldsmobile made only limited use of hot box core casting for the new engine, which made it substantially heavier than the aluminum Rockette V-8. The new engines were much cheaper than the aluminum Rockette V-8, however, and had better breathing and features like a forged crankshaft. Even the regular-fuel two-barrel 330 was nearly as powerful as the outgoing Turbo-Rocket, with a gross output of 210 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 156.6 kW and 440.6 N-m).

1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass V-8 display engine - C1189-0081 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The new “small” V-8 in the 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 had a bore of 3.9375 inches (100.0 mm) and a stroke of 3.385 inches (86.0 mm), giving a total displacement of 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc). It weighed 567 lb (257 kg) with automatic transmission flexplate, about 240 lb (109 kg) more than the old aluminum Rockette V-8. In 1964, it was available in various states of tune ranging from 210 to 310 gross horsepower (156.6 to 231.2 kW). (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Writing in Motor Trend in December 1963, Roger Huntington suggested hopefully that a turbocharged version of the 330 might soon follow, but it was not to be. The considerations that had led Oldsmobile to develop the Turbo-Rocket engine no longer existed: Oldsmobile now had its own modern V-8 with plenty of growth potential, and the new A-body could accommodate any version of that engine the division cared to offer, limited only by corporate policy (and the subsequent Hurst/Olds demonstrated that there were ways around that as well). Oldsmobile could have turbocharged those engines, or for that matter the 90-degree V-6, but there was longer any no compelling reason to do so.

So far as Oldsmobile was concerned, we think the spiritual successor of the F-85 Jetfire was RPO L66, the Turnpike Cruising Option offered on the 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Listing for $142.18 (plus an extra $236.97 for the mandatory Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission), it featured a special version of the tall-deck 400 cu. in. (6,548 cc) V-8, with a high-compression head, dual exhausts, a two-throat carburetor, a 2.56:1 axle ratio, and a short-duration camshaft (using the same valve timing as the base 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) engine, but with more lift). While one might balk at the idea that the normally aspirated Turnpike Cruising package was any kind of successor to the old turbocharged Jetfire engine, the design objectives were quite similar: deemphasizing peak horsepower in favor of plentiful torque at the lower engine speeds used in daily driving, in pursuit of that elusive combination of performance and fuel economy.

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme two-door hardtop (beige) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Introduced for 1967, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was the plushest A-body Olds intermediate, of which the two-door hardtop (still known in brochures as “Holiday coupe”) was the most popular. Standard power was the four-barrel 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) “Jetfire Rocket V-8,” now rated at 320 gross horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 238.6 kW and 488.1 N-m), although a low-compression version was a no-cost option, sacrificing 10 hp (7.5 kW) and 20 lb-ft (27.1 n-m) of torque for the ability to run on regular fuel. Although considered a midsize car in its day, a 1967 Cutlass Supreme was 204.2 inches (5,187 mm) long and 76.0 inches (1,930 mm) wide on a 115-inch (2,921-mm) wheelbase, with a base curb weight of more than 3,500 lb (1,953 kg). (Photo: “1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The sleepy cam limited the big engine’s gross output to 300 hp (223.7 kW), nothing special for an American car in 1967 and actually 10 to 20 horsepower less than the standard 330 cu. in. (5,404 cc) Cutlass Supreme engine, but gross torque was 425 lb-ft (576.2 N-m) at 2,600 rpm, with over 90 percent of that available from as low as 1,200 rpm. Of course, the RPO L66 engine had no turbocharger or fluid injection, but it had its own trick engine air-induction system, “Climatic Combustion Control,” which enclosed the carburetor and air cleaner in a temperature-controlled tub for more consistent fuel metering.

1967 Oldsmobile 400 cu. in. V-8 display engine with Climatic Combustion Control - X51475-0011 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

A $33.70 option on the 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (and included as part of the Turnpike Cruising Option), Climatic Combustion Control was essentially a special temperature-controlled housing for the carburetor and air cleaner. Vacuum-controlled mixing doors controlled by a bimetallic temperature sensor kept the air within the tub at a constant 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), but admitted cooler, denser under-hood air to the carburetor at wider throttle openings. The idea was to allow leaner fuel mixtures for better fuel economy and to prevent carburetor icing. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

A Cutlass Supreme with the Turnpike Cruising Option matched the old F-85 Jetfire in acceleration, and its 16 to 19 mpg (12.4 to 14.7 L/100 km) fuel economy was at least as good if not better, despite the substantially greater engine displacement and over 700 lb (317 kg) of additional curb weight. The hefty lump of iron under the hood meant weight distribution was an unimpressive 57/43, but the Turnpike Cruising package included all the 4-4-2 chassis equipment, with stiffer springs and shocks and both front and rear anti-roll bars, so an L66 Cutlass Supreme handled better than its turbocharged predecessor did, and the optional front disc brakes provided much more dependable stopping power.

For all its virtues, the Turnpike Cruising package was too esoteric for most buyers in 1967, too much of an engineer’s car. It didn’t have the raw horsepower needed to attract Supercar-hungry Baby Boomers, and the prospect of up to 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) on the highway — on leaded premium — wasn’t likely to dissuade anyone from buying a Volkswagen or Datsun. The L66 package lasted only a single year, although Oldsmobile subsequently applied its basic principles to the rest of the line, which was more than could be said for the Turbo-Rocket engine in the F-85 Jetfire.

1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (B&W) rear 3q on 101 freeway in Los Angeles - X52874-0001B (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

A 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with the Turnpike Cruising Option in what was intended to be its natural habitat: the Ventura Freeway in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ironically, within just a few years, traffic along this stretch of the 101 would become far too heavy to permit the kind of relaxed steady-speed cruising for which the Oldsmobile RPO L66 engine was optimized, except perhaps late at night or on certain major holidays. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

The End of One Turbocharged Era and the Beginning of Another

At Chevrolet, the turbocharged Corvair returned for an encore among the all-new 1965 models. The turbo engine was now an option on the new top-of-the-line Corsa series, using the same TRW turbocharger as the outgoing Spyder, but with wilder valve timing and other minor changes. Chevrolet now claimed 180 gross horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque (134.2 kW and 359.2 N-m), although this still seemed a little anemic when even the most basic two-barrel 289 cu. in. (4,728) V-8 offered on the Ford Mustang boasted 200 hp (147.1 kW).

Turbocharged engine in a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa two-door hardtop by Andrew Bone (CC BY 2.0)

It appears that the 1965–1966 Corvair turbo engine’s claimed 30 hp (22.4 kW) advantage over the 1964 Spyder engine was due mostly to its new camshaft, which had less lift than other Corvair engines (only 0.3741 inches (9.5 mm)), but much longer valve duration: 336 degrees intake, 324 degrees exhaust, with 116 degrees of overlap. (Those figures are excluding ramps; with ramps, duration was 372 degrees intake and 360 degrees exhaust, with 142 degrees of overlap.) (Photo: “Chevrolet Corvair Corsa c.1968” by Andrew Bone, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

The Corsa sold only 28,644 units for 1965, of which only 7,206 had the turbocharged engine, and an additional 10,472 units for 1966, of which just 1,951 were turbocharged. Both the Corsa series and the turbo engine were dropped for 1967. Chevrolet would experiment with turbocharging on and off through the seventies, but Chevrolet wouldn’t offer another turbocharged gasoline engine as a regular production option until 1980.

1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa two-door hardtop turbo (blue) front 3q by Steve Glover, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

On the second-generation Corvair, the turbocharged engine was now an option (RPO L87) available only on the Corsa, the most expensive trim series, which was offered only in 1965 and 1966. The standard Corsa engine had a higher 9.25:1 compression ratio, the camshaft from the 110 hp (83.0 kW) RPO L62 engine (still optional on cheaper Corvair models), and four single-throat Rochester downdraft carburetors, giving 140 gross horsepower (104.4 kW) and 160 lb-ft (216.9 N-m) of torque. Unlike the turbo engine, the four-carb Corsa engine was available with automatic transmission as well as the standard three-speed or optional four-speed manual gearbox. (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; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

Around the same time the second-generation Corvair debuted, the International Harvester Company introduced an optional turbocharger for the 4-152 (2,488 cc) Comanche slant four that powered the International Harvester Scout. The Thompson turbo increased the four’s output from 93.4 hp to 111.3 hp (69.6 to 83.0 kW), although low-speed response was sluggish despite a seemingly respectable rated torque output of 166.5 lb-ft (225.7 N-m) at 3,200 rpm. Few 4-152T engines were sold, and International discontinued the option in 1967 in favor of a less-troublesome normally aspirated 196 cu. in. (3,203 cc) slant four and an available 266 cu. in. (4,355 cc) V-8.

1965 International Scout (blue and white) front 3q by Riley (CC BY 2.0)

This attractively painted ’65 Scout almost certainly doesn’t have the turbocharged 4-152T engine, which was quite rare and didn’t offer enough of a performance improvement to be worth the additional cost and headaches for many International Harvester customers. (Photo: “1965 International Scout” by Riley, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

An observer in 1967 might well have concluded that automotive turbocharging was merely a fad that had run its course, but in fact it was gearing up for Round Two.

By the late sixties, turbocharging was beginning to find wider acceptance for racing use. The first Offenhauser turbos arrived for 1968, and in 1969, BMW entered a turbocharged version of its 2002 sedan in European Touring Car Challenge (ETCC) competition. In 1972, Porsche launched its first turbocharged competition engine, for the 12-cylinder 917, and the following autumn, the 1973 Frankfurt auto show saw the debut of a limited-production BMW 2002 Turbo for the street. (Many sources, including BMW, continue to erroneously assert that the rare 2002 Turbo was the first turbocharged production car, but the Corvair Monza Spyder and F-85 Jetfire beat it to market by over a decade and outsold it by a substantial margin, although the 2002 Turbo was never officially exported to the U.S.). The turbocharged 2002 was short-lived, but it was followed in 1975 by the first Porsche 911 Turbo (930), whose turbocharged 2,994 cc (183 cu. in.) flat-six made it one of the fastest and hairiest production cars of its era.

1974 BMW 2002 Turbo (silver) front 3q by nakhon100 (CC BY 2.0)

Often misidentified as the first turbocharged production car, the BMW 2002 Turbo arrived over a decade after the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire and Corvair Monza Spyder, entering production in late 1973, and only 1,672 cars were sold before production ended in June 1975. With 170 PS DIN (125 kW), the 2002 Turbo was quick for its era — BMW claimed 0-100 km/h (0–62 mph) in 7.0 seconds and a top speed of 211 km/h (131 mph). The reversed script on the front spoiler was for the benefit of other drivers on the motorway or autobahn, letting them know what was about to overtake them. (Photo: “BMW 2002 Turbo” by nakhon1000, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Perhaps the most important turbocharging-related developments of this period, however, came in 1978, and reflected the more immediate automotive preoccupations of the day: exhaust emissions and fuel economy. 1978 saw the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz 300SD, the world’s first production turbodiesel passenger car; the Saab 99 Turbo, which combined turbocharging and Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection with a three-way catalytic converter and feedback control, perhaps the two most vitally important advances in reconciling emissions performance and driveability; and the first Buick production cars powered by the turbocharged version of the division’s reborn 90-degree V-6. (All of these cars, it’s worth noting, used AiResearch turbochargers, as did the subsequent turbocharged versions of the Ford Lima four.)

1979 Mercedes-Benz 300SD (W116) sedan (brown) front 3q by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Introduced in 1978, the 300SD version of the Mercedes-Benz W116 S-Class sedan was the world’s first turbodiesel production car, powered by a 2,998 cc (183 cu. in.) version of the Mercedes OM617 five-cylinder diesel with a Garrett AiResearch TA0301 turbocharger producing up to 11 psi (0.76 bar) boost. Its net output of 110 hp (82.0 kW) and 168 lb-ft (227.8 N-m) of torque is laughable by today’s standards, but it was enough to push the 3,885 lb (1,762 kg) federalized 300SD sedan from 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in less than 13 seconds and a top speed of 110 mph (176 km/h), which was better than quite a few contemporary American spark ignition V-8s could manage in 1978, and a vast improvement over normally aspirated diesel cars of its time. (Photo: “1979 Mercedes 300SD 116.120” by Mr.choppers, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

1978 Saab 99 Turbo CombiCoupe (red) front 3q by Jelger Groeneveld (CC BY 2.0)

Another car often erroneously described as the first turbocharged production car is the Saab 99 Turbo, launched in 1978. What made it noteworthy in a late-seventies context was not its respectable net output (135 hp (100.7 kW) and 160 lb-ft (216 N-m) of torque from 1,985 cc (121 cu.in.)), but the fact that it could produce that output on unleaded regular gasoline while meeting U.S. federal and California state emissions standards, thanks to its combination of three-way catalytic converter and Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection with closed-loop feedback control. (Photo: “Saab 99 Turbo CombiCoupe (1978)” by Jelger Groeneveld, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Development of the Buick turbo V-6 had begun in the fall of 1975, less than 18 months after GM had arranged to buy back the tooling for the old V-6. As we’ve previously recounted, less than three years after Kaiser Jeep bought the V-6 engine, it became one of the assets included in the sale of Jeep to American Motors, which had no need for the 90-degree V-6 and sold the tooling back to GM in 1974. Buick almost immediately put the V-6 back into production, boring it to 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc), and the reborn “3.8 Litre” V-6 quickly became one of GM’s most important corporate engines: a compact, relatively lightweight six offering acceptable power and decent fuel economy. Turbocharging was intended to improve the former quality without compromising the latter, helping Buick to meet the new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements that took effect for 1978.

1978 Buick 3.8 Turbo V-6 engine on the ground - 183691 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

Buick previewed the 3.8 Turbo V-6 on its 1976 Indianapolis 500 pace car, which produced 315 hp (234.9 kW) on 22 psi (1.52 bar) boost. The initial 1978 production engines were limited to 8.8 psi (0.61 bar), and had a new camshaft with less intake lift and shorter intake duration than the normally aspirated V-6 to improve low-end torque. With a four-barrel carburetor, the turbocharged V-6 produced 165 net hp (123.0 kW) for 1978, up to 185 hp (138.0 kW) for 1979–1980, and up to 180 hp (134.2 kW) from 1981 to 1983. A two-barrel version with 150 hp (111.9 kW) was available for 1978 only. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

In turbocharging the 90-degree V-6, Buick engineer Tom Wallace essentially combined the better features of the old F-85 Jetfire and Corvair Spyder engines. Like the Olds Turbo-Rocket V-8 (of which the V-6 was a first cousin), the turbo V-6 had a mild cam profile and a small wastegate-controlled turbocharger (with a 2.56-inch (65-mm) turbine driving a 2.36-inch (60-mm) impeller), designed to minimize turbo lag and reach peak boost as early as possible. Like the Spyder engine, the Buick turbo used the same relatively low compression ratio as the normally aspirated base engine (8.0:1) and relied on spark management rather than fluid injection to prevent detonation, although the electronic spark control system and electromagnetic knock sensor were considerably more sophisticated than the boost-controlled spark advance unit in the Spyder. (Buick later added an intercooler, but not until 1986.)

1978 Buick 3.8 Turbo V-6 engine - UNC1978-0022 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26326)

The 3.8 Turbo V-6 used electronic spark control to prevent detonation under boost, initially with a single magnetostrictive knock sensor; for 1983, this was replaced with a piezoelectric sensor. 1981 to 1983 engines also had a curious Electric Early Fuel Evaporative system, which used a ceramic heater under the primary carburetor bore to improve fuel vaporization. Electronic port fuel injection replaced the carburetor for 1984. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Even with its new split-pin “Even Fire” crankshaft, the Buick turbo V-6 was not nearly as smooth as its departed Oldsmobile cousin, but net output was similar: 150 hp (111.9 kW) and 245 lb-ft (332.2 N-m) of torque with a two-barrel carburetor, 165 hp (123.0 kW) and 265 lb-ft (359.3 N-m) with a four-barrel, not bad for 1978. Rated at 19 to 21 mpg (11.2 to 12.4 L/100 km) on the old EPA combined scale, depending on model, turbocharged Buicks were thriftier than the long-departed Olds Turnpike Cruising package and, unlike the Jetfire and Spyder, could run on 91 RON (87 pump octane) regular gasoline. The turbo V-6 wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough to enjoy a 10-year career under Buick hoods, with a spectacular send-off in the form of the Regal GNX.

1982 or 1983 Buick Riviera turbo coupe (red) front 3q by zombieite, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

Although most strongly associated with the Buick Regal, the turbocharged V-6 was also optional on certain other Buick models, including the 1979–1985 Buick Riviera. Although the photographer didn’t identify the model year of this Riviera, we believe it’s a 1982 or 1983 model, since an interior photo of the same car reveals that it has the four-speed overdrive automatic, which was introduced for 1982. In those cars, the turbocharged engine produced 180 hp (134.2 kW), with 270 lb-ft (366.2 N-m) of torque in 1982 and 290 lb-ft (393.2 N-m) in 1983, giving brisk performance for that era. (Photo: “Buick Riviera Turbo” by zombieite, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2023 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

These were just the first rumblings of the avalanche of turbocharged cars to come. Not all were successful, and the popularity of turbocharging (at least for gasoline engines) waxed and waned over the next 30 years, but turbos never entirely went away, and each resurgence brought worthwhile improvements. (In the eighties and nineties, there was also a minor renaissance in crankshaft-driven supercharging, in larger part as a response to the limitations of contemporary turbochargers.)

Today, approximately one-third of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. are turbocharged. Automotive water injection systems have popped up now and then as well: Throughout the eighties, Saab offered a dealer-installed kit for its turbo engines, which was standard equipment on a few limited-edition models, and in 2016 Bosch announced its new “WaterBoost” system, which made its production debut on the GTS version of the previous-generation (F82) BMW M4. Fluid injection has some potential emissions benefits (reduced carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions) as well as from preventing detonation in high-performance applications, but the inconvenience of needing to regularly replenish an additional fluid supply means that such systems are likely to remain specialist equipment. (Most modern turbocharged gasoline engines use direct fuel injection, whose charge-cooling effect helps to reduce knock even with surprisingly high compression ratios.)

Saab B201 turbocharged engine in a 1980 Saab 900 Turbo Enduro by Omaroo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This turbocharged Saab B201 engine is seen under the hood of a 1980 Saab 900 Turbo Enduro, a rare Australian homologation model with a wild-looking body kit and a standard water injection system, the same system available as a dealer-installed or parts-counter option on other Saab 99 and 900 Turbo models. For its early turbo engines, Saab opted to control the wastegate of the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger using exhaust manifold pressure rather than boost pressure, which provided a torque curve more like that of a naturally aspirated engine, at the expense of greater vulnerability to detonation. (Photo: “Saab b201 B Turbo” by Omaroo, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2023 by Aaron Severson)

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

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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.

  7. Another great article, and I thank you for it. BMW and SAAB both claiming ‘firsts” annoys me. Once again Detroit doesn’t get it’s due credit

  8. Stellar work Aaron! Thank you very much for the depth and breadth of your research and excellent explanations. I feel blessed to be able to read your work. As a warm up to another comment I might make on the Tempest article, a recycling of ideas I have about GM, don’t feel obliged to read closely.

    I find GM an interesting corporation where short term profit, and lots of it, were so important and yet long term engineering development seems only to apply to the largest and cheapest construction engines and chassis. I like the idea of turbo’s, but both applications seem suspect. The Corvair, with it’s limited cooling ability, is somewhat suspect as a turbo candidate. The Olds, with excellent cooling and a strong enough block is much better. I like the ADI concept, but I don’t understand the requirement for alcohol in the ADI in areas that don’t freeze! Certainly in the summer it’s not freezing anyway. Given the technology they had available, perhaps more development might have reduced the issues, but as a mass market engine the Jetfire seems like a significant misunderstanding of the American motoring public. Of course, that same misunderstanding would occur again with the Vega and its lack of a coolant reservoir…

    Thanks

    1. In principle, if you lived in a climate where it never dropped below freezing, you might have been fine just running distilled water, but even in desert areas, low nighttime temperatures might make that dicey. Also, trying to change the fluid type based on climate seems troublesome: For instance, if you had been running distilled water in the ADI tank, but planned a trip into the mountains to go skiing, how would you get back to a suitable water/alcohol mixture, short of draining the tank and refilling it with the recommended fluid? I’m sure Oldsmobile engineers reviewed some of the extensive wartime data on ADI systems (there were several SAE papers on that subject), which found that a 50/50 water/methanol mix offered better detonation-limited power as well as resistance to freezing, and concluded that would be the best compromise for year-round use.

      I just don’t think ADI is very practical for general-use passenger vehicles. It’s one more maintenance item to keep track of, and it requires too much knowledge for the average owner. If you use it regularly, the added cost of the fluid is a hassle (unless you throw caution to the wind and run distilled water), and using it infrequently increases the risk of something going wrong, even if that just means “not noticing when you finally run the reservoir dry.” I don’t see any real way around that; it’s a conceptual shortcoming rather than a problem of flawed execution (although in this case the execution was a bit flawed as well).

      The Vega’s lack of a coolant reservoir was the opposite problem: It was a disastrous cost-cutting measure that could (and should) have been completely avoided!

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