Oldsmobile V-8 History

Submit corrections and additions to this information to The Olds FAQ Compiler.

[ Oldsmobile Centennial ] Oldsmobile is the oldest continuing car marque in the U.S. The Olds Motor Co. was incorporated in 1897 with an initial capital investment of $50,000.00! In 1897 the company produced 4 automobiles. On September 21, 1997, Oldsmobile celebrated it's 100th birthday! Were you there in Lansing?

The full name "Oldsmobile" was first used in 1900. Prior to that, the automobiles were known simply as "Olds", built by the Olds Motor Works of Lansing.

In 1903 the Olds "Pirate" sets a World record at Daytona Beach covering 5 miles in 6.5 minutes. In 1905 two Oldsmobiles complete the first transcontinental race from New York, NY to Portland, Oregon in 44 days.

In 1922 an Oldsmobile establishes another record, traveling 1000 miles in 15 hours. Cannonball Baker drives a 6 cylinder Model 30 from New York to LA in 12 ½ days.

Total car vehicle production:

Ransom Eli Olds also put his name on a line of trucks: REO's.

Rocket Era 1949 - 1990

The Oldsmobile Over-Head-Valve (OHV) Rocket V-8 was first produced in 1949. Originally named for its principal designer, Charles Kettering, as "Kettering Power". Corporate GM policy disallowed that, so the powers that be, opted for "Rocket Power". The plant where these engines were built was named "The Kettering Engine Plant". The Olds OHV V-8 was the first to be produced in a sustainable quantity.

It was the second mass produced OHV V-8. In 1917 to 1919, Chevrolet produced a 265 CID OHV V-8, but production ceased. In 1955, Chevrolet introduced another, the 265 CID OHV V-8. The first Ford OHV V-8 was produced in 1954.

The first serious attempt at a commercially viable V-8 was by De Dion around 1910. Cadillac examined this design as well as the Hall-Scott aero engine, and released their vastly superior engine in September 1914. Cadillac is generally regarded as having the first successful production V-8 engine. They were also the first to introduce an inherently balanced V-8 (quartered crankshaft with integral counterweights vs. a flat 4 cylinder crank). However, none of these were OHV designs.

Oldsmobile produced an "L" head or flat head V-8 from 1916 to 1918 and from 1919 to 1921, but it was a side valve engine, not OHV.

Oldsmobile also built the Viking V-8 in 1929 and 1930. A 90 degree, 81 bhp 260 CID V-8. It used a horizontal valve design with triangular type combustion chambers. The block is a mono-block casting.

Some of the early V-8 engines are of fairly unusual design, beyond the early connecting rods. I believe the 1917-18 Chevrolet Model "D" V-8 was made up of two castings, basically split down the Center line of the crank. They were identical castings that were simply bolted together. Mono-block V-8's didn't hit until much later. Ford said they were the first to make a 'low cost' mono-block V-8, with their inception in 1932. This indicates that one or some of the higher priced V-8s must have been mono-block prior to 1932.

The Rocket engine debuted in 1949. It was termed the Rocket 88 engine. This engine was big in NASCAR, in fact with the automatic (no manual trans available early on), the Rocket won 8 out of 10 races in 1950. This engine had a number of interesting features: overhead valvetrain, hydraulic lifters, oversquare bore-stroke ratio, forged crank with counterweights, aluminum pistons, full-floating wrist-pins, and a dual plane intake manifold.

In 1957 Olds released the J-2 Golden Rocket. This was a 371 inch engine with a six-pack (it only came with a six-pack) that put out 312 horses.

I guess that once Olds hooked onto the Rocket name in '49 and people associated it with Oldsmobile, they continued to use it for many years because of that association. You could say that any Olds built V-8 from 1949 up is a Rocket engine.

The word "Rocket" on the air cleaner decals was dropped in in the mid 1970's, maybe with the 1977 model year.

All Olds V-8 pushrod engines produced between 1949 and 1990 are considered "Rocket" engines. The "Rocket" designation comes from the general design of these engines, not the HP rating. Super 88's with Rocket V-8s won many races in 1949 and through the 1950's. The Rocket V-8 has been credited with starting the quest for more power and hot rodding.

You may notice different variations of Rocket on air cleaner housings. Here are some:

Name Years CID Notes
Golden Rocket 1957 - 1958 371 3x2
Rocket 88 1949 303
Sky Rocket 1961-1963 394
Super Rocket 1965-1967 425
4-4-2 Rocket 1967 400
Jetfire Rocket 1967 330
Starfire 1967 425
Tornado Rocket 1967 425
Ultra High Compression

The Musclecar War started when Oldsmobile introduced the first overhead valve V-8 in a relatively light body in the 1949. The war became hot when Pontiac brought out the GTO and Olds countered with the 442. As the decade of the sixties ended, more of the corporate limits were removed until they were building almost all out race cars. From 1968 to 1971, the 442 was a separate line that could be identified by it's VIN. The 1970 model year had more "trick parts" than almost any other year.

General differences among the power ratings of Rocket V-8s produced between 1949 to 1964, and 1964 to 1990 are in the manifold, carb, and air cleaner. Some small bracketry and the like is also different, of course. The distributor is slightly different in terms of either vacuum or mechanical advance, but nothing major. The main internal difference is in the pistons, with the 4-barrel hi-compression pistons having a more shallow dish than the 2-barrel ones. Heads and camshafts are pretty much the same, with W machines and 442's (hi-performance applications) using different heads and camshafts.

[ Thanks to Joe Padavano, Kevin Wong, Mike Van Auken, Cliff Feiler, Bob Barry, Greg Beaulieu, Mark Cornea, Kurt Heinrich for this information ]


Oldsmobile engines can be basically broken into the following generations:

First Year Items

Oldsmobile starts using chrome plating.
Starts using a synchromesh transmission.
The complete Olds line changes from 6 volts to 12 volts.
Disposable spin on oil filter?
PCV system in use on all Oldsmobiles, no more down draft tubes for crankcase ventilation.
Disc brakes are an option on full size Oldsmobiles. Ultra High Voltage (UHV) system available. This was the forerunner of HEI.
First year for the windshield antenna.
First year for induction hardened valve seats in heads.
First year for a factory coolant recovery bottle.
EGR is added to Olds engines.
HEI was offered as an option in 1974 Oldsmobiles and became standard in 1975.
Catalytic Converters are added to all Olds exhaust systems.
[ Thanks to Graham Stewart, Joe Padavano others for this information ]

Indy Pace Cars

Oldsmobile automobiles have paced the Indianapolis 500 more than any other car manufacturer.

Year Car Driver Winner Comments
1949 88 Conv. Wilbur Shaw Last time he drove the Pace Car, w/Olds chief engineer Jack Wolfram riding shotgun. Same as available at dealership.
1960 Ninety-Eight Conv. Sam Hanks Last pace car delivered from dealership. Same as available at dealership.
1970 442 Conv. Roger Ward Same as available at dealership, but engine tweaked.
1972 H/O Conv. Jim Rathmann Same as available at dealership, but engine tweaked. 50 88 conv. done as parade cars.
1974 H/O Targa Jim Rathmann Targa not available, but sunroof was.
1977 Delta 88 Targa James Garner A.J. Foyt Targa not available, but sunroof was. Modified 403 w/dual exhaust.
1985 Calais Conv. James Garner Convertible not available, nor Centerline wheels, headlight cover, lowered suspension, rear spoiler w/lights or 215 hp 4 cylinder engine.
1988 Cutlass Supreme Conv. Chuck Yeager Replicas did not come from Oldsmobile, but from Cars & Concepts. Produced 50 conv. & 200 coupes for local distribution. Quad 4 Turbo not available.
1997 Aurora Johnny Rutherford No replicas planned. First FWD 4 door to pace the race.

[ Thanks to Brad Nicholson for this information ]

Table of ContentsIndexAcknowledgements

History • EnginesBlocksHeadsCranksIntakesExhaustPistons
Best BBBest SB260303307324330350371394400403425455Diesel
RebuildingBuildupSwapRestoreOption CodesWheelsIgnitionComp Ratio
The W'sThe H/O'sThe 442'sToronado88 / 98 / StarfireCutlassJetfireWagons
Basic Tech How ToMiscellAll VehiclesAdditional Information

 Rocketeers have navigated these pages (since April 10, 2000).

© 1996 - 2000 by the members of the Oldsmobile Mail List Server Community. All rights reserved.

Submit corrections and additions to this information to The Olds FAQ Compiler.