Car of the Week: 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 coupe

Once and Oldsmobile man, always an Oldsmobile man
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Car of the Week 2020
The Super 88 was Oldsmobile’s mid-tier model in 1954; the model line included a four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, convertible and this two-door sedan.

The Super 88 was Oldsmobile’s mid-tier model in 1954; the model line included a four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, convertible and this two-door sedan.

Jay Sletten can relate to that often-recited quote from the famous film “A Christmas Story:” “Some men are Baptists…others Catholics…My father was an Oldsmobile man.”

Sletten’s father, Norris, had a long string of Oldsmobiles starting way back in the 1950s. The last Oldsmobile to catch his eye was the 1954 Super 88 two-door sedan on these pages, and it was probably the Olds he kept the longest.

“Dad was always an Oldsmobile guy,” Sletten recalled. “He had a ’49, the first overhead-valve one — a 1949 88 two-door Club Sedan, the torpedo back one. Then he had a whole string of them every year or two or so, including another ’54 from ’56 to ’61.”

Oldsmobile created a lot of “Oldsmobile men” when it came out with its overhead-valve V-8 in 1949. Along with Cadillac, Olds made a new kind of performer by building a V-type eight-cylinder with overhead valves and an over-square design in which the bore was greater than the stroke. Oldsmobile dubbed this new engine the Rocket, and with a very responsive 135 hp in 1949, the engine earned its name.

A thorough and speedy restoration took this 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 down to its bare body shell and frame and back to like-new condition in nine months.

A thorough and speedy restoration took this 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 down to its bare body shell and frame and back to like-new condition in nine months.

The hot new 303-cid V-8 engine replaced the straight-eight engines Oldsmobile had used through 1948, although Olds also kept a straight-six available in its smaller body for 1949. When this smaller body was built with the new V-8, it was christened the 88.

The 1949 Olds 88 used the sleek, new Futuramic style that debuted on the 1948 Ninety-Eight with a lower hood that nearly met the fender tops. Colorful Oldsmobile ads sold the new 88 as “The New Thrill” and said “You’ve got to drive it to believe it!” The headlines were backed up by a tempting sales pitch: “You can always tell an Oldsmobile ‘88’— not just by the numerals on the rear fender — but also by the way it goes! The first time you see that sleek Futuramic hood sweep ahead of the field, you get a hint of that ‘Rocket’ Engine power. But to appreciate an ‘88,’ you’ve got to try it! Then — and only then — can you feel for yourself that swift-surging ‘Rocket’ response...so smoothly delivered by Hydra-Matic Drive. Only then will you experience the maneuverability that goes with the ‘88’s’ compact Body by Fisher. And only then will you know the unique ‘88’ sensation — that soaring, airborne ease of travel!”

It wasn’t just ad hyperbole; people who experienced that Rocket engine sensation formed a legion of enthusiastic Oldsmobile owners. People from race car drivers who raced 88s on the NASCAR circuit or one quarter-mile at a time to everyday drivers who loved the new thrill of a powerful car. People like Norris Sletten.

“He was a Minnesota state trooper,” Jay said. “He started out in 1955 and the first patrol car he had was a 1953 Ford so it had the Merc 255 flathead in it, but Dad was used to driving Oldsmobiles and there’s no comparison. He was a little disappointed with the performance of the Fords.

“I [currently] take care of the old Minnesota State Patrol fleet and we have a 1954 Ford and I was driving that quite a bit and thought, ‘It’s a neat old car.’ Then dad picked up this 1954 Oldsmobile and I drove that one day and I smiled and he said, ‘See, there’s just no comparison.’ There is a reason he drove Oldsmobiles at home. Just a lot more car than those old Fords were.”

In 1954, the Super 88 and Ninety-Eight Oldsmobiles used a four-barrel version of the newly bored-out Rocket engine. That year, the engine displaced 324 cubic inches, up from the previous displacement of 303 cubic inches. The dual-snorkel air cleaner was exclusive to four-barrel-equipped 1954-’56 General Motors products from Oldsmobile and Cadillac.

In 1954, the Super 88 and Ninety-Eight Oldsmobiles used a four-barrel version of the newly bored-out Rocket engine. That year, the engine displaced 324 cubic inches, up from the previous displacement of 303 cubic inches. The dual-snorkel air cleaner was exclusive to four-barrel-equipped 1954-’56 General Motors products from Oldsmobile and Cadillac.

Overhead-valve V-8s start a war

To be fair, Oldsmobile and Ford were in different price classes, making the comparison lopsided in Oldsmobile’s favor. However, the Rocket V-8 set a performance bar that even Ford tried to reach during the 1950s. So revolutionary were the Oldsmobile and Cadillac overhead-valve V-8s that they set the pace for the 1950s performance wars that they inspired among all American automakers. Those car makers that survived the era of awakening performance came out with their own V-8 engines by the end of the ’50s.

During the 1950s, especially the early part of the decade, it was hard to beat a Rocket Oldsmobile and that fact didn’t fly by John Q. Public. The new 88 helped set sales records at Oldsmobile: 288,310 new Oldsmobiles in 1949 with most sales coming from the new 88. In 1950, Oldsmobile production surged to 407,889 cars with more than a quarter-million of those sales going to the hot 88 series. Six-cylinder 76 series sales took a nose dive in 1950, so in 1951, Oldsmobile dropped the six-cylinder altogether. That model year, it added the Super 88 series, which was a better-trimmed 88 with new body styling (the 1951 88 carried over the 1950 88 sheet metal). From 1951 into the 1960s, there would be “regular” 88 and Super 88 models alongside the Ninety-Eight. More and more, the Rocket theme would become more prevalent at Oldsmobile, making its way into ads and onto the cars themselves.

The toughest part to find in the restoration was this trim piece dividing the two-tone paint. Until the trim could be located, Sletten pinstriped the point where he estimated the colors should meet. He estimated well.

The toughest part to find in the restoration was this trim piece dividing the two-tone paint. Until the trim could be located, Sletten pinstriped the point where he estimated the colors should meet. He estimated well.

Oldsmobile’s reputation continued to build into the 1950s from that first Rocket engine. Motor Trend considered the Rocket engine-powered 1953 Oldsmobile Super 88 to be the best in acceleration, top speed and in the power-to-weight ratios that it measured in the low to mid-price field. In addition to its power, the Super 88 with the Rocket engine returned the best gas mileage in its category and, perhaps the best judge of an automobile, it had one of the lowest depreciation rates in its class.

The year-ahead 1954 Oldsmobile

When the 1954 Oldsmobile came out, the company called it “The Dream that Couldn’t Wait” in its rocket-emblazoned brochure because the new design was slated for 1955, but it was “perfected a full year in advance.” The new design included the panoramic wrap-around windshield and beltline dip that was seen on the elite 1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta, Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Skylark Motorama convertibles. Overall, the ’54 Olds design looked lower and longer and it was, thanks in part to a longer wheelbase than in 1953.

The new longer wheelbases (122 in. for the 88 models, 126 in. for the Ninety-Eight) were a “superb foundation for the thrilling new ‘Rocket’ Ride.” Olds dubbed the new frame and its components the Power-Ride Chassis, and it featured a new low rear axle ratio for maximum fuel economy and engine life. The X-member, I-beam frame was heavier for greater rigidity and a smoother ride. There were also new rear spring and shock absorber locations, and new coil springs up front for better driving control.

Rocket engine improvements included 8.25:1 compression ratio, a new and more efficient “Quadri-Jet” carburetor, new intake and exhaust manifold ports, new distributor and an enlarged engine now displacing 324 cubic inches. All of these engine improvements didn’t just help performance, they also helped fuel economy. In Oldsmobile’s own test, the 1954 model provided 10% better fuel economy than its ’53 model, and also out-performed its predecessor with a faster time in a hill climb up Monarch Pass in the Colorado Rockies.

During the very late 1940s and through the 1950s, Oldsmobile used rockets to promote its engines and decked its cars in globes. The globes could be seen on the hood and deck lid and on the steering wheel. The circular pods on the instrument panel mimicked the globe theme as well. Note this Super 88 is optioned with Hydra-Matic (a three-speed manual transmission was standard).

During the very late 1940s and through the 1950s, Oldsmobile used rockets to promote its engines and decked its cars in globes. The globes could be seen on the hood and deck lid and on the steering wheel. The circular pods on the instrument panel mimicked the globe theme as well. Note this Super 88 is optioned with Hydra-Matic (a three-speed manual transmission was standard).

Motor Trend’s 1954 road test of the completely restyled Super 88 called the car a “top-notch sedan.” It also found that it performed as well or better than it had in 1953, despite added weight from the heavier frame and longer wheelbase. While its June 1954 road test couldn’t help but ignore the Super 88’s performance prowess, Motor Trend also recommended the 1954 Super 88 as a family car with plenty of room and comfort. It found the car stable and with good road manners, although it could exceed the abilities of its low-pressure tires.

“All of us were impressed with the 88’s get-up-and-go, but few of us were really impressed with the new Oldsmobile’s roadability at first; then we began putting the 88 through the paces — sidewall-scrubbing turns, slamming the handsome sedan into soft earth at highways speeds, and aiming its broad hood at some of the steepest, stomach-flipping dips this side of Coney Island — and the ‘car that couldn’t wait’ felt as though it just couldn’t wait for more of these rigors that seemed much to its liking,” wrote Jim Lodge for the magazine.

Despite Motor Trend’s praise for the 1954 Oldsmobile, it awarded its “best-handling and most roadable” 1954 car honors to Ford, which touted a new ball-joint suspension system and a new engine — an overhead-valve V-8 of a similar design used by Oldsmobile.

A ‘new’ Olds to last

Although the Minnesota State Patrol eventually received cars with modern overhead-valve V-8s, including Fords, Norris Sletten remained an Oldsmobile man. Jay said his father almost always had a reasonably new Olds as a family car. But, he occasionally picked up an additional one to tinker on and would usually sell it again. One of the first of those he recalls was a 1955 88 in the mid ’70s.

“He went to a farm sale and came home with a ’55 Olds 88 four-door and I was just getting to that point that, ‘Hey, I am getting a driver’s license soon,’ and so he and I tinkered on that one and did some engine work and front end work on it, that sort of thing — we got our fingernails dirty. That one, after about a year, it went down the road and was sold.”

Norris eventually took a break from buying old Oldsmobiles, but the rocket fire never completely burned out. In July 2011, he spotted a 1954 Super 88 coupe on a collector car lot and the fire was rekindled.

“It was sitting at a lot in Winona (Minnesota) and Dad was kind of tooling around the area there with my sister and her husband,” Sletten said. “He spotted another car on this lot that he decided to wheel in and look at. When he got there, he spotted this (1954 Oldsmobile) way in the back of the lot. He talked to the dealer and learned it was a consignment deal. He went back to my sister’s place that night and when he got up the next morning, he said, ‘We’re going to go back and buy that car.’”

Before making the deal, Norris called Jay for his opinion on the purchase. Remembering that 1955 Oldsmobile, Jay quickly enable his father’s purchase.

One of the small rust spots that needed attention.

One of the small rust spots that needed attention.

The 1954 Oldsmobile that the elder Sletten found was from the midline Super 88 series and represented the third-most-popular of four body styles in that series, the two-door sedan. Although hardtops were “in” in a big way by 1954, so was performance and the Super 88 was that year’s hottest Olds. It combined the most powerful engine offered in the lightest possible package. So while the two-barrel 1954 88 coupe with 170 hp was lighter, the Super 88’s four-barrel, 185-hp version of the 324-cid V-8 more than made up for its extra 29 lbs. However, most folks chose the Holiday coupe two-door hardtop then and even now, so a Super 88 coupe is an even rarer find today.

It was difficult to differentiate the 1954 Super 88 from the 88, but most people found it worth spending the roughly $125 extra to get the Super 88 for the added beltline molding on sedans, foam rubber seat cushions and four-barrel carburetor. The Super 88’s four-barrel engine also earned a rocket-shaped emblem on the deck lid to let slow pokes know that they’d been passed by a Rocket Oldsmobile.

Despite being found in Minnesota, Norris’ Super 88 was a rock-solid Idaho car. Some of Norris’ previous Oldsmobiles were fix and flips, but this one was a keeper to restore and drive.

Work in progress

“He didn’t have one before that he went whole hog on it and put more money in it than it was worth,” Jay said. He added that when found, the car was a running “30 footer” with faded paint, so the goal was a body-on restoration to its 1954 glory. Work began almost immediately after the Olds was purchased with a deadline of completion the following June. It would debut at the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s Back to the 50’s car show in St. Paul.

“We kind of fast-tracked it,” Jay said. “We started on it in the fall in 2011 and we were ready the day before Back to the 50’s 2012. The day before Back to the 50’s, we were at the upholstery shop getting the seats. And a few odds and ends still needed some work but for the most part, it was substantially completed in a seven- or eight-month period.”

In the six weeks that the car was in the body shop getting new paint, Sletten was allowed to help with disassembly. The body shop repaired the car’s two small rust spots — one at the bottom of each fender — and sprayed the car in its original Capri Blue and Polar White two-tone. Jay said early two-tone 1954 Oldsmobile 88s and Super 88s had the second color painted only on the roof; it wasn’t until later in the model year that the roof color was expanded to the deck lid and above the rear fender trim. Their Super 88 was an early two-tone car, but like many restorers, they repainted it to the later two-tone treatment. The later two-toning requires a small trim piece to cover the intersection of the two different paint colors at the rear quarter panel and since their car wasn’t built with that trim piece, he had to estimate its location for the body shop. He then painted a pinstripe where the colors met.

Meanwhile, the headliner and seats were being addressed by an upholstery shop, parts were being obtained from sources such as Fusick Automotive Products and the mechanical work began. The original block was cracked so another 324 V-8 was sourced from French Lake Auto Parts, a popular salvage yard in Annandale, Minn.

After just eight months, the car was done enough to cruise into Back to the 50’s. Jay said he had a few small loose ends to tie up after the show, but it was a running and driving unit. Then disaster struck.

“We put about 1500 miles on it and ground the camshaft out of (the rebuilt engine) and the guts came out of the lifters,” he said. “Our engine builder stood behind it and got it all cleaned up and repaired and about 1500 miles later, we went through the whole thing all over again.”

The third time they needed engine rebuilding, Sletten when to Ross Racing Engines, which specializes in Oldsmobiles. The 324 in the car now has a roller cam and lifters in it, “so we better not grind them up again.”

The last engine rebuild also included boring it .030 over and fitting it with a higher-performance camshaft, so Jay figures it actually puts out about 230 hp — 45 more hp than its original rating.

Another item that brought frustration was sealing the backlight. Jay figures they had it in and out of the car a dozen times while trying to stop water from leaking onto the back seat.

“Every time we thought we had it fixed, it would leak,” he said. “It was our upholstery guy who said, ‘Give me a shot,’ and he took care of it. We thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’ and we haven’t had an issue with it since. I’m not sure what he did, but it worked!”

Other than the engine and rear window seal issues, Jay said the restoration went smoothly and parts were relatively easy to find. The toughest parts to find were the small trim pieces that divide the two-tone paint. A few years ago, someone on Facebook posted pictures of a 1954 Oldsmobile parts car with those trim bits and Jay was able to purchase the pair. When he installed the trim, he was happy to discover he had accurately estimated where the trim should mount, and now they perfectly cover the paint joint.

Norris Sletten enjoyed this 1954 Super 88 — his finest example of an Oldsmobile — for about six years and 8000 miles before he passed away in 2018. Since then, Jay has taken over as its caretaker and happily keeps his father’s Oldsmobile looking and driving like new.

“It hasn’t been in the family a long, long time, but if I get tired of it, the rest of the family has first dibs. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

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