The first domestic performance car to be introduced after World War II was the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. This hot-running “small” Olds came about as the result of an afterthought, rather than a master plan.
Oldsmobile developed its 303-cid overhead-valve “Rocket” V-8 for its top-of-the-line Series 98 models. The powerful engine was supposed to cap off the new “Futuramic” B-body styling that was first seen on the 1948 Oldsmobile models.
Not long before the introduction of the ’49 models, the decision was made to put the Rocket V-8 engine in the smaller “A” body cars as well. The General Motors A body—shared with Chevrolet and Pontiac—was normally the home of the trusty, but slow, flathead six. Cars in this line formed Oldsmobile Motor Division’s Series 76 offerings.
When the 135-hp V-8 went into the 119 1/2-inch wheelbase, the Futuramic Series 88 was born. It shared the same six body styles of the 76, but it rode on a 5 1/2-inch shorter wheelbase and weighed 250 lbs. less than the 98. Hydra-Matic drive was standard on both.
“The Series 88 combines Oldsmobile’s new-high compression (7:25:1) Rocket engine with a new medium-weight body . . . the result is a highly favorable power-to-weight ratio,” a news release dated February 6, 1949 stated.
The high-performance implications of such a power-to-weight ratio weren’t lost on members of the new breed of racecar drivers, those who piloted late model stock cars in NASCAR events. These contests were being held in some areas of the country and the Olds Rocket 88 was an instant success.
There was no factory backing of stock car racing at the time. If a driver wanted to race in such an event, he went down and bought his own car, put masking tape over the chrome and headlights, took the wheel covers off and raced it. The Rocket 88 proved to be just that and five of the first eight NASCAR Grand National races held in the initial 1949 season went to Olds 88s with the big engine. Series champion Red Byron was an Oldsmobile driver.
An Oldsmobile 88 convertible served as the Official Pace Car at the Indianapolis 500 that year and got the attention of even more race fans. It was dressed up with large rocketships and had a see-through hood panel to show off the hot V-8 engine.
Production cars and stock car racing would undergo many changes in coming years, but beating the Oldsmobile 88 became the target for both.