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Sales Ad Saturday- Oldsmobile Rocket 8- The New Thrill

Taking a look at “The New Thrill” for this week’s ‘Sales Ad Saturday’. 74 years ago this week, on June 4th, 1947, Oldsmobile’s revolutionary new overhead valve V8 engine was first shown at the summer meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Nineteen months later, the very first 303 ci. “Rocket” engines would roll off the line. Initially offered only in the Oldsmobile 98 when introduced in January of ’49, Oldsmobile almost immediately decided to offer the same engine in their new smaller and lighter “88” models which hit showrooms the following month. Overhead valve engines had been invented and perfected decades before, but there is no question of the significance of the Rocket engine in automotive history. The engine was developed under the direction of a draftsman named Gilbert Burrell, who had been recently promoted to Chief Motor Engineer at Oldsmobile. The work of Burrell and his team resulted in the culmination of a decades-long study of the practicality of high compression engines, a pet project led by GM’s long-time Head of Research, Charles Kettering.

Few men had more opportunity to participate in the development of the automobile than Charles Kettering. A talented engineer and inventor with over 180 patents to his name, Kettering was responsible for many notable advancements in automotive technology. His first major achievement in the automotive field was the development of the first practical self-starter for the automobile, which he developed at the behest of Cadillac President, Henry Leland way back in 1911. Kettering’s contributions to the evolution of the automobile are diverse, and one advancement Kettering developed in fuels helped make high-compression engines a practical idea. Kettering had been working on developing a viable high-compression engine for the automobile since the end of WWI. Kettering had proven that there were substantial gains to be made in fuel economy through increased engine compression. There were two major challenges to overcome. The first was in the design of the engine itself, as engineers found it difficult to produce a smooth-running, durable high compression conventional L-head engine. For a variety of reasons, the basic design of these engines is generally relatively inefficient and does not lend itself well to higher compression specifications. The engineers would find that an engine with overhead valves, a concept first conceived in the early 1900s, could be made to run smoothly and reliably with increased compression compared to an L-head.

The other issue was fuel quality. Automotive fuel in the 20s and 30s was relatively low octane, far too low to run in higher compression engines without excessive knocking. Kettering and his team had discovered in the 1920s that adding lead to fuel would increase octane ratings and reduce engine knocking. With this discovery, over time more and more lead would be added to gasoline. By the end of the 1930s, the average octane rating for automotive fuel reached a high of around 72, a notable improvement over the 60-octane fuel used in the late 20s and early 30s. After the war, average octane ratings continued to increase, and by the time the Rocket engine was introduced, the average octane rating for automotive fuel in the US was 78. Octane ratings, compression ratios, and engine displacement would increase throughout the 1950s and beyond, enabling automakers to build more and more powerful engines, gains which would not have been so easily realized with the inherent inefficiencies of the L-head engine.

While valid arguments have persisted among enthusiasts for years about whether the Rocket 88 should be classified as the first-ever ‘muscle car’, the contributions of the Rocket engine to the overall evolution of the automobile are more significant than the muscle car debate. This is the engine that helped mold the basic mechanical outline behind which most American automobiles would be powered for basically the next two decades; an efficient and comparatively lightweight V8 engine with high compression, short stroke, and overhead valves. Packard and Pontiac would soldier on a little longer with their straight-eight engines, but by 1955 both carmakers had adopted their own OHV V8 engine design and the straight-eight engine in the American automobile was permanently retired. With a fair amount of infighting between the divisions, Cadillac managed to beat Oldsmobile to market with their own slightly more powerful OHV V8 by a few months, earning the carmaker Motor Trend’s first-ever ‘Car of the Year’ award in 1949. However, it was the Rocket engine and by extension its availability in the affordable mid-size 88 that showed the world that this advanced engine design would provide affordable, reliable, and efficient power to the masses, and not just well-heeled luxury car buyers. That said, the competition bonafides of the early Rocket 88’s are undeniable. In the early ’50s, the Rocket 88 was among the hottest American production cars on the road, racking up wins at 16 of 28 NASCAR Grand National races run in ’49 and ’50 while setting a new speed record at Daytona. An Oldsmobile 88 driven by Hershel McGriff and Ray Elliott finished first in the grueling 1950 Carrera Panamericana race with 10 of the 13 Oldsmobile entrants reaching the finish, four of them in the top ten. A ’49 Rocket 88 convertible was selected as the pace car for that year’s Indy 500, and years before Mike Love would sing about Chevrolet’s 409, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner recorded the iconic hit ‘Rocket 88’. Whether you believe it to be the ‘first’ muscle car or not, the Oldsmobile 88 has earned its esteemed place in automotive history and all because of the Rocket 8.

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