When it comes to a vehicle with a top speed of 97 mph and a 0-60 time of 13 seconds, what do you visualize? The latest EV? Perhaps a vehicle with just three wheels instead of four? Not even close. These are just two of the stats associated with a very special automobile produced just a few years after the conclusion of World War II, the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
Long before the Mustang began to carve out a reputation as America’s muscle car, the Olds Rocket 88 was actually the very first of its kind (Sorry, Ford). When the Rocket 88 made its debut, some cars had a higher top speed, and some could get to 60 mph faster, but this car could perform like no other. It offered a truly exhilarating experience for its day.
Until this revolutionary design made its debut, GM’s big V8s were largely designed to lug around the massive, lumbering 98 series Cadillacs. The 88 represented a dramatic departure from the status quo; mate a big ol’ V8 engine with a lighter, sleeker (for its day!) “rocket-like” body. For an Oldsmobile, it was indeed on the small side, “only” 202 inches long and 75.2 inches wide.
A New Engine
This new 88 series Olds required a brand new engine, and it got one. The designers built upon the earlier work of Charles Kettering, who had been developing a higher compression, overhead cam powerplant for GM. The result was a 303 cu-in V8 rated at 135 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque. With an increased compression ratio came improved fuel economy as well. Efficiency was improved by about 10 percent.
The dynamic new powerplant excited some at General Motors so much that they wanted to name the engine after Kettering himself. Unfortunately, GM’s chief researcher was still very much alive, and the company had a firm policy prohibiting the naming of anything after a living person. Hence, the Rocket 88 was born.
Interior on the 1949 Rocket 88
Adding the deluxe trim package got the buyer a clock, but not a radio. That was an option that would run about $100. Adjust for inflation, and that would be a $1,000 radio today. The transmission selector included no setting for “park.” Only a hand brake separated the driver from oblivion. The rear drum brakes were not all that effective, and there’s no telling how long it would have taken to stop from speeds in the 90 mph range.
The revolutionary OHV V8 had no rivals as the 40s gave way to the 50s. However, by the middle part of the decade, the competition had arrived, and in force. Dodge, Pontiac, Plymouth, Lincoln and even AMC overtook the Rocket in the performance category. Nonetheless, purists and enthusiasts alike must acknowledge that the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was in fact America’s very first muscle car.
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