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Rocket Bomb: The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Dawn of the American Horsepower Race

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Rocket Bomb: The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Dawn of the American Horsepower Race

In the mid-1950s, American automakers were engaged in a ferocious horsepower race. By the time the battle reached a temporary ceasefire at decade's end, the average power of the typical passenger car had (at least on paper) more than doubled. The starting gun of that race was sounded by Oldsmobile, with its advanced new overhead-valve V8 and the new mid-size model that shared its name: the Rocket.


Oldsmobile's first postwar engine was born during the UAW strike that shut down GM production from November 1945 to April 1946. During that period, Oldsmobile Motor Group engineer Gilbert Burrell began working privately on new engine concepts. He had no specific assignment; he was simply exploring ideas for his own interest. Burrell examined a wide range of layouts, but the one to which he continually returned was a 90-degree V8, which he judged as offering the best combination of power and packaging efficiency.

About six weeks after he started work, Burrell showed his designs to senior engineer Jack Wolfram and Oldsmobile general manager Sherrod Skinner. Wolfram and Skinner were impressed by Burrell's work, and they put him in charge of an advanced design group to develop a new overhead-valve (OHV) V8 engine.

Coincidentally, Cadillac had been working on a very similar engine since 1936, intended to replace its familiar monobloc flathead V8. Exactly how much the Oldsmobile design team knew about the Cadillac engine is the subject of considerable debate. Authors Helen Jones Earley and James Walkinshaw insist that Burrell's group knew nothing of the Cadillac engine until quite late in the development process. In 1985, however, former Cadillac engineer Harry Barr told Special Interest Autos writer Arch Brown that GM's engineer VP, C.L. McCuen -- a former Oldsmobile general manager -- had ordered Cadillac chief engineer Jack Gordon to show his engine design to Oldsmobile, which inspired Burrell's design. Barr did concede that the Olds engineers made a number of important contributions, but he insisted that it was primarily a Cadillac design.

In any event, Burrell's team had four development engines running in relatively short order, but GM's Executive Committee hemmed and hawed about approving the V8 for production, briefly terminating development funding. To make matters worse, in 1946, Ford Motor Company poached several senior Oldsmobile engineers. In April 1947, Wolfram and Skinner finally persuaded Charlie Wilson, GM's president, to approve the new engine for production. The first production V8s went on sale a few days before Christmas 1948, in Oldsmobile's 1949 Ninety-Eight models.



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