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1949 Oldsmobile 88 – The Early Muscle Car

Oldsmobile resumed production of civilian vehicles after World War II by picking up in 1946 where it had left off in 1942, the standard practice across the industry. Like its competitors, Olds knew that the quickest way to get vehicles into the market was to make a few minor modifications to the pre-war car and place it on sale.

The 1942 Oldsmobile line, according to Motor’s Handbook, comprised five models spread over three wheelbases and despite the fact that three of the models were sixes and two were eights, differences in sizes and trim levels were the most important distinctions.

1942 OldsmobileThe Series 66 and 68 were the entry-level cars, rode the 119-inch wheelbase and were distinguished by their six- and eight-cylinder engines, respectively. A step up was the Series 68 and 78, which were better-equipped as the mid-level Oldsmobiles and used the same engines and wheelbases as the less costly cars. At the top, the eight-cylinder Oldsmobile 98 shared its 127-inch wheelbase with no other model.

Oldsmobile Straight Six and Straight Eight Were Dependable Flatheads

The 1942 Oldsmobile six-cylinder engine displaced 238 cubic inches and provided 100 horsepower while the 257-cubic-inch eight produced just 110 horsepower. In cars weighing 3200 to 3800 pounds, those numbers were adequate, and the eight’s additional ten horsepower did little to change that.

They didn’t make for fast cars, and while flathead inline engines such as Oldsmobile’s were far from state-of-the-art in 1942, they were available in everything from low-priced Plymouths to high-end Packards. Even Ford – long dedicated to the V-8 – had introduced a flathead straight six in 1941, according to the Standard Catalog, but the design would soon begin to fade.

1946 Oldsmobile Offered Little Hint at Future

Oldsmobile entered 1946 with the same two 1942 engines, although it was down to four models after dropping the eight-cylinder 119-inch Series 68. The engines were unchanged, according to Motor’s Handbook, and would go on into 1948, but that year brought a new development that had nothing to do with engines.

The 1948 Oldsmobile looked almost identical to the 1947 Oldsmobile which, of course, seemed nearly identical to the 1946 Oldsmobile, but several months into the model year, according to Setting the Pace, a very different car arrived. The Futuramic 98 was an Oldsmobile, but it was fresh with a look less bulky and far cleaner than the rest of the 1948 Olds line. It stood apart from the cars using the older design in another way, too, as it did predict the future.

1949 Oldsmobile Receives a New V-8

The 1949 OldsmobileThe 1949 Oldsmobile line adopted the 1948 Futuramic 98’s styling across the board, according to Special Interest American Cars, but that now meant just three models. The 98 remained at the top on a 125-inch wheelbase, according to Motor’s Manual, while the 119.5-inch 76 was now the basic series.

It was part of what amounted to a General Motors look, as Cadillac – like Oldsmobile – had introduced its version in 1948. The 1949 Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick were just as closely related, so all of the GM cars now had an unmistakable visual connection. The new body was striking and might well have been enough by itself, but a significant development at Olds created an opportunity.

The Oldsmobile 76 continued to use the six – now with 105 horsepower – and although the Oldsmobile 98 again relied on an eight, that eight was so far from the previous 98’s engine that it can be placed somewhere between radical and revolutionary. Olds had gone from a flathead straight eight whose valves were in the block to an overhead-valve V-8, and besides the changes in configuration, the new design also revised a critical relationship.

The straight eight had been engineered with a 3.25-inch bore and a 3.875-inch stroke, but the V-8 was “oversquare” with its 3.75-inch bore and 3.4375-inch stroke. At 303 cubic inches and 135 horsepower, the Rocket V-8’s superiority over the 257-cubic-inch 115-horsepower flathead doesn’t seem especially real, but its proportions gave it a number of advantages, not the least of which were lighter weight and reduced piston-travel for longer life and higher speeds.

V-8 Plus 76 Equals Oldsmobile 88

Nowhere were those advantages more easily seen than in a new Oldsmobile, the Futuramic 88. In retrospect, it was a brilliantly elegant move, as Special Interest American Cars explain that the 88 was nothing more than a 76 body with a Rocket V-8 in place of that model’s six. It looked like the 98 that Setting the Pace lists as 5.5 inches long and as much as 350 pounds heavier.

The 88 wasn’t the first example of the big-engine-in-a-small-body concept – Buick had done the same thing before World War II with its Century and would soon do so again – but performance was now poised to take off. The 1949 Cadillac also introduced an unrelated modern V-8 for that division and combined with the Olds 88 hastened the end for American flathead straight eights; the 1954 Pontiac and 1954 Packard closed out the era.

By the time the 1955 Oldsmobiles arrived, a Rocket V-8 translated to as much as 185 horsepower from 320 cubic inches, according to Chilton’s Manual; in the muscle car era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a 1970 Rallye 350 was one of Oldsmobile’s less-outrageous entries with its base 310-horsepower 350-cubic-inch V-8.