The definition of a muscle car is subjective and highly debated, but most enthusiasts agree that it has to feature a large, powerful V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. It also has to be affordable. More importantly, many claim that muscle cars were born when automakers began advertising cars using performance figures such as acceleration, top speed, and quarter-mile ETs.
This is why the Pontiac GTO is often considered the first muscle car, but Chrysler also marketed the C-300 through ads with track numbers. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that vehicles built before 1955 can’t be muscle cars. Because Oldsmobile might have taken a head start in 1949 when it introduced the 88.
Developed to fill the gap between the 76 and the 98, the 88 featured GM’s then-new B-body platform and came in at 202 inches (5,131 mm) long. Similar in size to the 76, the 88 was only 10 inches shorter than the 98. Oldsmobile was basically offering three full-size vehicles in 1949, but the 88 was a little bit special.
Unlike the 76, powered by a straight-six engine, the 88 came with a V8 under the hood. The V8 was shared with the 98, but the 88 was a tad more compact and had less weight to move around. In short, the 88 was the first American car to combine a relatively smaller, lighter body with a powerful V8 engine. Something Chrysler didn’t do until six years later.
The engine in question was a brand-new design and it was called the Rocket. Engineered by Charles Kettering, the first-gen Rocket originally displaced 303 cubic inches (5.0 liters) and featured hydraulic lifters, an oversquare bore:stroke ratio, a counterweighted forged crankshaft, aluminum pistons, and a dual-plane intake manifold.
The mill debuted with a two-barrel carburetor and 135 horsepower. While it might not sound like much nowadays, it was quite a peppy unit back in 1949. For reference, Ford’s extremely popular flathead V8 was generating only 100 horses in stock form. The Rocket V8 was also good for a healthy 253 pound-feet (343 Nm) of torque.”Make a Date with a Rocket 88″
So how quick was the Rocket 88? Well, it needed around 13 seconds to hit 60 mph (97 kph) from a standing start on its way to a top speed of 97 mph (156 kph). It covered the quarter-mile in about 18 seconds with a trap speed of 70 mph (113 kph).
Not exactly mind-blowing, but it was enough to turn the 88 into the car to beat on the NASCAR circuit. Red Byron won the inaugural edition of the Strictly Stock division with a factory-stock Rocket 88 in 1949. The sleek coupe returned to claim its second championship in 1950, this time around with Herb Thomas behind the wheel.
The Rocket 88 remained successful throughout 1951 and 1952, but it was eventually eclipsed by the low-slung Hudson Hornet. Overall, the 88 won more than half of the races it entered from 1949 to 1951, becoming the first “King of NASCAR.”
The car’s success on the track quickly translated into spectacular sales at the dealership. The 88 enjoyed great success in the growing post-WWII economy, mostly due to its popularity among ex-military personnel and hot-rodders.
The Rocket-powered Olds also inspired the popular 1950s slogan “Make a Date with a Rocket 88”, as well as the song “Rocket 88.” Recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who were actually Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, the single reached number-one on the Billboard R&B chart and it’s often considered the first rock and roll record.
On top of dominating the first two seasons of the NASCAR series, the Rocket 88 also won the inaugural Carrera Panamericana in 1950. While Hershel McGriff won the grueling race ahead of a pair of Cadillac Series 62s, three more 88s finished in the top 10. Not just fast, the 88 was reliable too.
The first-gen Oldsmobile 88 remained in production until 1953. In 1952, Oldsmobile introduced a Super 88 model with a four-barrel carburetor version of the Rocket 88, rated at 160 horsepower.A long-lasting legacy
Even though the early 1950s put an end to the 88’s success on the oval track, the nameplate soldiered on for a whopping five decades. The final 88 (renamed Eighty Eight in 1989) was built in 1999, just five years before General Motors retired the Oldsmobile brand.
Likewise, the Rocket V8 engine survived in various forms until 1990 (even though the “Rocket” name disappeared from the air cleaner in 1975). Turbocharged in the early 1960s and redesigned in 1964, the Rocket V8 powered every Oldsmobile nameplate out there and eventually found its way into Cadillac, Buick, and Pontiac vehicles.
Although it wasn’t advertised as a performance car, the first-gen Oldsmobile 88 is, without doubt, the car that pioneered the formula that led to the birth of the muscle car. It was a breakthrough design and it introduced one of the first post-WWII overhead valve V8 engines. It prompted other American carmakers to join NASCAR, also forcing them to up the ante in the V8 performance department. Which they did, giving us legends like the Ford Thunderbolt, Plymouth Barracuda, and the Dodge Charger.
But just like the Hudson Hornet, the Oldsmobile 88 doesn’t get as much love as it should. But that’s why we’re here: to celebrate the greatest American cars of all time. And the Olds 88 is definitely one of them.