Car of the Week: 1959 Olds F-88 Mk. III concept

Harley J. Earl’s retirement gift: The 1959 Olds F-88 Mk. III
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Car of the Week 2020
Harley Earl, GM VP of Design, received this vermilion 1959 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk. III reportedly as a retirement gift. Its many interesting features included a retractable stainless steel top, cast aluminum wheels, exhaust exiting ahead of the front wheels (note the exhaust pipes were painted to match the car), a 394 V-8, etc.

Harley Earl, GM VP of Design, received this vermilion 1959 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk. III reportedly as a retirement gift. Its many interesting features included a retractable stainless steel top, cast aluminum wheels, exhaust exiting ahead of the front wheels (note the exhaust pipes were painted to match the car), a 394 V-8, etc.

There is a very old adage that says, “Rank has its privileges.” While true, having had a decades-long record of success helps to amplify the privileges of rank.

Harley J. Earl, the founder of General Motors’ Styling Section, enjoyed many privileges through his rank as vice-president of GM Styling. He earned his rank and privileges through his ability to direct his team of designers to create automobiles the public craved. Under his direction, GM rose to the top spot among automotive manufacturers with a 52 percent market share by the mid 1950s. Styling was a major consideration of buyers (behind only affordability), and GM led the industry with trend-setting features such as tailfins and wraparound windshields.

Full-scale mockups were built before proceeding to the construction of the final product. Note the level of detail included in this mockup of the F-88-III.

Full-scale mockups were built before proceeding to the construction of the final product. Note the level of detail included in this mockup of the F-88-III.

Harley J. Earl’s (HJE) background included operating the shop his father began as a carriage-building business in the Hollywood area of California. As the automobile gained acceptance as transportation, The Earl Carriage Works transformed into The Earl Automobile Works. HJE built many custom cars for the VIPs of the growing Hollywood movie industry. His work ultimately attracted the attention of Cadillac executives and, finally, GM President Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan asked Harley to design a new car that was to serve as a companion make of Cadillac, dubbed “LaSalle.” The resulting 1927 LaSalle was such a great success that Sloan offered HJE the job of establishing a styling department at GM. Sloan recognized the value of styling as an important sales tool and was convinced Earl was the right man to lead the styling of the company’s cars. HJE led GM’s styling department for three decades. Upon reaching GM’s mandatory retirement age of 65, Earl retired from the company, but did not simply receive the standard gold watch for his years of service. Instead, he was gifted an Oldsmobile concept car built especially for him: The 1959 F-88 Mk. III.

This full-scale clay model of the F-88-III was close to completion in early 1958. Design work on this concept car began in 1957.

This full-scale clay model of the F-88-III was close to completion in early 1958. Design work on this concept car began in 1957.

The Three Marks of the F-88

The Mk. III was the ultimate version of the F-88 series that has its origins in the XP-20 concept car, formally named F-88 at some point during or upon completion of the first example, which was shown at the 1954 GM Motorama. The “F-88” moniker was probably derived from Oldsmobile’s “88” series of cars and possibly the old F-series Oldsmobiles of the past. Another explanation for the “F” in the name is that it had connotations of jet-propelled fighter planes of the U.S. Air Force.

A rear-mounted transmission was installed in the one-off F-88-III. Originally, the transmission was an experimental unit made by GM’s Detroit Transmission Division. It was soon replaced with a Hydra-Matic. Later, a Corvette 4-speed was installed.

A rear-mounted transmission was installed in the one-off F-88-III. Originally, the transmission was an experimental unit made by GM’s Detroit Transmission Division. It was soon replaced with a Hydra-Matic. Later, a Corvette 4-speed was installed.

A look at the rear-mounted transmission installed.

A look at the rear-mounted transmission installed.

F-88 must have seemed like the perfect label for a two-passenger sports car to be shown at the GM Motorama, a traveling show spotlighting the company’s products. The GM Motorama included a plethora of dream cars, or concept cars as we refer to them today, with styling ideas and other features that at times appeared on future production cars.

The original F-88 of 1954 was followed by the F-88 Mk. II of 1957, which was actually the original F-88 updated with modifications.

Incidentally, the 1959 F-88 Mk. III (aka F-88-III) was not shown at the 1959 GM Motorama despite an occasional statement that it was. The car was not completed in time.

Building the 1959 F-88 Mk. III

The F-88 Mk. III, which began as XP-88/Shop Order 90388, was built to HJE’s specifications. At first, consideration was given to using an existing F-88 as the basis for the car. In the end, an all-new car was instead built. Proof of this is in a GM Tech Center inter-organizational letter dated Sept. 27, 1957, stating, “This letter supersedes the minutes of the August 27, 1957 XP-88 program since at the September 10, 1957, meeting it was established that the original F-88 would remain intact and that a completely new XP-88 is to be designed and fabricated.” (The phrase “original F-88” presumably referred to the F-88 displayed at the 1954 GM Motorama or Earl’s 1957 F-88 Mk. II.) The letter laid out the areas of responsibility for staff members with Bob Lauer being assigned to oversee all engineering; Dr. Peter Kyropoulos serving as a technical advisor; D.D. Hoagg assigned to exterior and surface detail; J.S. McDaniel in charge of interior design; W. Hess heading the interior engineering portion; C. Whittlesey responsible for fabrication; and Leonard McLay overseeing the car’s assembly and advising on maintenance and service considerations.

Profile view of the F-88-III shows the inner structure nearly complete in this photo dated June 20, 1958.

Profile view of the F-88-III shows the inner structure nearly complete in this photo dated June 20, 1958.

The all-new F-88 Mk. III design included a fiberglass and steel body, tubular frame combined with off-the-shelf ’58 Olds front suspension components, retractable brushed stainless-steel top, wraparound windshield, cast-aluminum integral wheel and brake drum assemblies crafted by the Fabricast Division and — in the beginning — an experimental fuel-injected Olds 394-cid V-8 along with an experimental Hydra-Matic transmission. Styling somewhat resembled that of the 1958-1960 Corvette, though it was easily distinguishable from Chevy’s fiberglass-bodied sports car.

During the early planning stages, the F-88 Mk. III was to be painted “lucite gunmetal,” but later the color choice was vermilion (bright red). Original specifications had the mufflers placed in the conventional rear location with exhausts existing through the lower portion of the taillamp bezels. In the end, the exhaust system was placed ahead of the front wheels. Mufflers were to have a special ceramic coating; presumably this detail was maintained. A rear-mounted Pontiac transmission was also specified, but the minutes of the meeting held on Feb. 12, 1958, show this was changed to one built by GM’s Detroit Transmission Division. Early documentation shows that both a soft top as well as the retractable hardtop were in development, but it’s not currently known whether or not a soft top was ever actually installed. No photos seem to exist of the F-88-III with the soft top in place. The February 1958 inter-organizational letter says this about the tops: “The soft top will use the same deck lid (shorter) as the convertible hardtop. The problem of elevating the deck lid with luggage and luggage carrier in place was discussed and will be pursued. The luggage rack will interfere with the soft top well lid when rain switch automatically raises top. This must be resolved. Mr. Earl requested that the luggage rack capacity be 150 lbs.”

An aluminum cross-flow radiator with twin fans kept the 394 V-8 cooled.

An Oldsmobile 394 V-8 (from the 1958 model year) powered the F-88 Mk. III. It was topped with an experimental fuel-injection system designed by GM’s Rochester Division, but it was unreliable. The low hood-line meant typical carburetion could not be used. A pair of Solex two-barrel side-draft carbs replaced the FI setup. Later a Latham supercharger was installed.

Flirting with fuel injection

The low hood line of the F-88 Mk. III meant conventional carburetion could not be employed. Because of this, and also due to a desire to test more advanced systems on this car, the Olds 394-cid V-8, with a compression ratio of 9.75:1, was initially fed through an experimental fuel-injection system designed by GM’s Rochester Division. (Chevrolet and Pontiac began offering fuel-injected V-8 engines for 1957.)

GM President Harlow Curtice knew at least as far back as 1955 that the federal government would eventually pass regulations regarding air pollution. A working fuel-injection system would contribute to more complete combustion of gasoline, thus reducing polluting emissions. That was perhaps his main motivation for funding the research while others in the company were more interested in the higher performance offered by fuel injection.

By about mid-fall of 1959, a Latham axial flow supercharger was installed.

By about mid-fall of 1959, a Latham axial flow supercharger was installed.

Chevrolet continued refining the system, which initially had some problems, making it available for the full-size models through 1959 and the Corvette into 1965. Pontiac gave up on its differing fuel-injection system after 1958 even though the division was given approval to offer it for 1959.

The Rochester fuel-injection equipment in Earl’s one-off sports car was intended to be an improved version via the use of higher fuel pressure within the system. This setup utilized two fuel pumps, one of which was a Delco “Brougham-type” low-pressure unit installed within the 25-gallon tank that delivered fuel at about seven pounds per square inch to the high-pressure pump located below the rear cross-member aft the seat back partition. The high-pressure fuel pump forced the fuel through a pipe along the left-side chassis rail to the fuel meter installed on the engine at a pressure of approximately 80 psi. The fuel meter then distributed the fuel through individual lines to the nozzles set into the induction manifold to the inlet valves. A compressed air reservoir supplied the air to drive the high-pressure pump located behind the passenger’s seat and below the rear cross member. On the inlet side of this air reservoir was a solenoid valve to open when the air compressor was operating. Another solenoid valve installed on the outlet side of the reservoir opened via a pressure-operated switch located in the engine oil gallery. This switch closed only when the engine’s speed was high enough to provide a gallery oil pressure exceeding five psi so that when the engine was not running, or being cranked, the high-pressure air was shut off. With this arrangement, there was no high-pressure fuel in the system. The outlet solenoid valve also had a bleed port to allow high-pressure air to be vented from the fuel system when the ignition was turned off. In the event of a serious reduction in the high-pressure air supply, a warning lamp on the instrument panel would glow “Air Pres.” With the system discharged, cranking the engine for a few seconds was required to completely recharge the air reservoir. If the battery was low, then the system could be recharged with an air compressor at a service station through an emergency valve projecting through the vertical wall of the rear under-body inside the top compartment and just above the battery.

An Oldsmobile 394 V-8 (from the 1958 model year) powered the F-88 Mk. III. It was topped with an experimental fuel-injection system designed by GM’s Rochester Division, but it was unreliable. The low hood-line meant typical carburetion could not be used. A pair of Solex two-barrel side-draft carbs replaced the FI setup. Later a Latham supercharger was installed.

An Oldsmobile 394 V-8 (from the 1958 model year) powered the F-88 Mk. III. It was topped with an experimental fuel-injection system designed by GM’s Rochester Division, but it was unreliable. The low hood-line meant typical carburetion could not be used. A pair of Solex two-barrel side-draft carbs replaced the FI setup. Later a Latham supercharger was installed.

This experimental Rochester fuel-injection system in the F-88-III was a product of some suave engineering. Regrettably, it had too many problems. It was a valiant effort, though, and surely contributed to the advancement of fuel injection technology, which has long since become commonplace. At the time, though, a fuel-injected engine was considered almost as exotic as an earth-orbiting satellite.

By the time the July 1959 issue of Hot Rod Magazine appeared with a short photo essay about Harley Earl’s dream roadster, titled “Private Rocket,” the induction system had already been replaced with a pair of Solex twin-barrel side-draft carburetors mounted on a special water-heated aluminum intake manifold; there was no mention of the previous experimental fuel-injection setup. Also not mentioned was the car’s Latham axial-flow supercharger, simply because it was installed at a later date (October 1959). The exact same situation applied to the full story published by Speed Age in its July 1959 issue. Speed Age’s more in-depth story described the F-88-III as a “rolling lab to test advanced styling and engineering features….” (This was true, though, of every concept car driven by HJE since his first, the 1938 Buick Y-Job.) The Speed Age story said the F-88-III’s “Ferrari-type airscoop grille points to a high-styled automotive future.” Dimensions were given as 177.6 inches in length, 46.2 inches in height and 73.2 inches wide. Wheelbase was 102 inches, the same as a Corvette of the era.

Ventilated bucket seats and chromed driveshaft tunnel were part of the package of the F-88-III. Note headrests. The interior color matched the bright red exterior.

Ventilated bucket seats and chromed driveshaft tunnel were part of the package of the F-88-III. Note headrests. The interior color matched the bright red exterior.

More mechanical woes

The dual-fuel-pump fuel-injection setup was not the only trouble-plagued equipment aboard the F-88-III. Its experimental rear-mounted three-speed with overdrive X-10A Hydra-Matic, built by GM’s Detroit Transmission Division, was a completely new automatic transmission with an integral two-speed axle ratio feature. Its gear selector was located on the left side of the console. A solenoid-operated clutch in the overdrive casing was actuated by lateral movement of the small lever contained within the gearshift lever. Movement toward the left of this lever provided a high axle ratio and movement to the right provided a low axle ratio. The X-10A proved troublesome and was later replaced with a conventional Hydra-Matic. At some point, a Corvette four-speed transmission replaced the Hydra-Matic.

Additional experimental systems on the Mk. III included a Saginaw variable-ratio power steering gear and cast-aluminum integral wheel/brake drum assemblies. Cast-aluminum technology was advancing in the late 1950s in part from research at GM’s laboratories. In addition to being lightweight, cast aluminum offered faster heat dissipation — a characteristic ideal for brakes. The F-88-III’s cast-aluminum wheels with integrated cast-iron brake liners offered an opportunity for further development of improved braking systems.

Virtually every instrument anyone could need was installed on the F-88-III. Gauges kept Harley Earl well-informed of oil pressure, fuel level, amps, coolant temperature, vacuum, and outside temperature. Even a USAF 8-day clock was provided.

Virtually every instrument anyone could need was installed on the F-88-III. Gauges kept Harley Earl well-informed of oil pressure, fuel level, amps, coolant temperature, vacuum, and outside temperature. Even a USAF 8-day clock was provided.

A full set of gauges occupied the driver’s side of the instrument panel. At top were rotating dials for the speedometer and the engine revolutions. In the center of the steering wheel hub was the “speed sentinel” which alerted the driver via a buzzing sound that a preset speed had been exceeded.

A full set of gauges occupied the driver’s side of the instrument panel. At top were rotating dials for the speedometer and the engine revolutions. In the center of the steering wheel hub was the “speed sentinel” which alerted the driver via a buzzing sound that a preset speed had been exceeded.

There was a plethora of instrumentation and accessories aboard Harley Earl’s sports car. Among them were air conditioning; 150-mph “rotating disc” speedometer; cruise control; power windows; bucket seats with a driver’s side power adjustment; retractable rear window; 7000-rpm tachometer (with a 5,500-rpm redline); U.S. Air Force-style eight-day clock; signal-seeking “Wonder Bar” radio; manual radio antenna hidden within the outside rear-view mirror support; compass; left and right side fuel fillers; electrically opened doors (with a mechanical backup); two-speed windshield wipers with washers; and gauges monitoring oil pressure, fuel level, coolant temperature, amps, as well as one for inside and outside air temperature.

In addition, the F-88-III featured an “easy entrance” switch that utilized the power top motors to raise the top away from the windshield for additional clearance to facilitate entry/egress. The operations manual (which exists in photographic form at the GM Design Center) explained that the toggle switch for the easy entrance feature was positioned on the driver’s side door panel. Pushing it upward lifted the top away from the windshield header; pressing the toggle switch down reversed the procedure.

The presence of a clutch pedal reveals the Corvette four-speed transmission was in place by early November of 1960 (date of photo). GM carefully maintained the F-88-III for Harley Earl.

The presence of a clutch pedal reveals the Corvette four-speed transmission was in place by early November of 1960 (date of photo). GM carefully maintained the F-88-III for Harley Earl.

The F-88-III also featured a rain sensor, placed on the console glove box, to automatically raise the top with the car in neutral in the event the top was left down and rain began to fall while the car was unattended. This was a feature of Harley Earl’s experimental 1951 GM Le Sabre which served as a show car and as personal transportation for Earl for many years.

Finally, the F-88-III’s novel speed sentinel feature allowed the driver to set a speed beyond which a buzzer alarm would sound as a warning. If the preset speed was exceeded by 10-15 mph, the alarm ceased.

The convertible top was of brushed stainless steel and retracted into the trunk compartment of the F-88-III. Note cast aluminum integral wheel/brake drum combination.

The convertible top was of brushed stainless steel and retracted into the trunk compartment of the F-88-III. Note cast aluminum integral wheel/brake drum combination.

F-88-III: A Postscript

GM maintained the F-88-III for Earl over the next decade. The final pages of a notebook at the GM Heritage Center filled with documentation on the F-88-III include an extensive list of maintenance and repairs to be performed; the inter-organizational letters related to this final work are dated in June and July of 1967. The estimated cost of the work was $12,939. This appears to be the last work performed by GM for Harley Earl on the F-88-III.

What became of the F-88-III? All we have to answer that question, for the most part, is anecdotal evidence. After Harley Earl died on April 10, 1969, following a stroke a couple of months earlier, the F-88-III was reportedly meant to become a part of a new NASCAR museum. (Earl and NASCAR founder Bill France were friends. Since 1959, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Daytona 500 has been named the “Harley J. Earl trophy.” Earl was appointed by France as NASCAR commissioner in 1960.) Unfortunately, the construction of the new museum was delayed. According to the story, during the delay, Earl’s successor at GM Design, Bill Mitchell, asked NASCAR officials to return the F-88-III to GM. If this story is true, which it probably is, then the car was apparently not actually owned by Earl. Rather, Earl was able to use it with GM retaining ownership. Otherwise, the car would seemingly have been included in Earl’s estate.

A convertible top fully hidden under a pivoting panel was a hallmark of the concept cars designed under Harley Earl. The top for the F-88-III was of stainless steel. Note the headrest fairings on the deck of the car.

A convertible top fully hidden under a pivoting panel was a hallmark of the concept cars designed under Harley Earl. The top for the F-88-III was of stainless steel. Note the headrest fairings on the deck of the car.

Some time after the F-88-III was sent back to Warren, Mich., the car was ordered to be scrapped. Supposedly and plausibly, Earl’s F-88-III was seriously damaged by rodents while in storage awaiting construction of the museum and GM officials were not interested in providing the funds necessary to restore the car, thus the reasoning for scrapping the unique F-88-III. A copy of the scrap order, issued in 1976, is in the files of the GM Heritage Center. The F-88-III may have been in a GM warehouse for up to five or even six years before the order was issued.

Despite the scrap order, speculation persists that the car still exists. There is ample precedent for the survival of concept cars such the F-88-III, some of which were ordered to be scrapped by GM yet were later discovered in a junkyard or elsewhere. In some instances, the cars were found in pieces although not beyond restoration. Hopefully, the F-88-III escaped total destruction and sits in a protective environment, though hopes for that grow dimmer as time passes.

Harley Earl’s bright red 1959 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk. III was posed with the 1951 GM Le Sabre, which served as both a show car and Earl’s personal transportation, and the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone.

Harley Earl’s bright red 1959 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk. III was posed with the 1951 GM Le Sabre, which served as both a show car and Earl’s personal transportation, and the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone.

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