By on November 17, 2009

Your taxi to the pastNo one’s going to accuse me of not having a nostalgic streak, especially when it comes to cars. That’s what motivated me to write the Auto-biography, my time travel through words. How about the real thing, in steel, glass, rubber and wool? One of my main motivations for starting Curbside Classics was to document and re-experience the cars from those early years, and few were as influential as the original Olds 88. Most of the time, the reliving is somewhat vicarious, but once in a while, I get lucky, and it’s the real thing. So let’s literally open the door to the past, and hop in for a ride with me in this beautiful 1951 Super 88. And if it gets a bit crowded, good; that’ll make it all the more authentic.

are we going soon?Exactly fifty years ago, a big black Olds 88 rolled up in front of our apartment building in Innsbruck, Austria. I was already waiting out front, eagerly anticipating the appearance of one of my favorite cars in town (I pretty much knew them all). Herr Miller’s Olds was THE taxi to hire for special family outings, thanks to its roominess compared to the Mercedes 180 Diesels it shared with the downtown taxi stand. Well, that was the parents’ reason; mine was because of its burbling Rocket V8.

It was my sister and my cousin’s Confirmation, so a family outing with sponsors, aunt, and Grandma to some now-forgotten destination in the Alps was on order. The total party was eleven; my parents are not in the picture. If it wasn’t obvious, that’s me in the front looking very anxious to get going.

Since we were car-less and normally walked everywhere, we were trim and somehow all fit into the Olds. I got the best seat in the house: on my aunt’s lap (she’s the giant in the picture), in the middle of the front seat, right up against Herr Miller. In my mind, as I looked through the wing fins of the rocket-ship hood ornament, I was driving the big yank tank, making that Rocket V8 purr as it effortlessly glided us up into the mountains.

Fast forward a half century, and now I really am sliding behind that big steering wheel thanks to TTAC reader Oregon Sage. He and his wife picked up this well cared-for Super 88 a while back, and offered its services to me. I was sorely tempted to round up nine other folks, to really re-create the Confirmation outing, but since my host wasn’t charging a fare, I decided that might be pushing things a bit, literally.

behind the big Olds wheel

My first impression upon entering is that highly familiar and distinctive old car smell, the polar opposite of today’s polymeric factory air. Understandable too, as almost all the interior ingredients other than steel and glass are organic: wool fabrics on the seat, headliner and doors; horse-hair stuffing; and over half a century’s of boogers stuck under the seat. Between the odors they’ve absorbed and those created by their subtle decay, it’s a mélange that induces nostalgia, melancholy and the desire to crack one of the vent windows.

The 303 cubic inch V8 quickly springs to life after a burst from the chrome starter button on the dash. And while it warms its fluids for a minute or so, I had better talk about this ground-breaking engine, especially since I got (rightly) razzed for omitting any reference to it in my story on the ’50 hot-rod Caddy. Hey, I just got carried away by that awesome beast.


Contrary to its late-stage geriatric image, Oldsmobile once was the innovation division at GM (here’s my Olds bio). As such, it got the green light (along with Caddy) to develop the first new modern ohv V8 engines. It was a friendly sort of inter-divisional competition, and the Caddy appeared six months before the Olds, but both engines were big-time winners. Except for a couple of very minor teething issues, these engines quickly developed reputations for bulletproof reliability and longevity.

Originally, the plan was to only put the Rocket V8 in the big 98-series cars, but a late decision to drop it into the smaller and lighter 76-series created the legendary 1949 Futuramic 88, the first modern affordable muscle car. Of course, that title is highly relative, since with 135 horsepower, the early versions of the V8 weren’t exactly Rockets. With a stick-shift on a good day, it might scoot from 0-60 in about twelve seconds. But the competition all had pokey old-school sixes and straight eights, so the 88 was in a class of its own. It took a NASCAR title in ’49, and a class speed record at Daytona of 100.28 mph. And it inspired the rock and roll classic, penned by Ike Turner:

My Rocket 88You may have heard of jalopies,
You heard the noise they make,
Let me introduce you to my Rocket ‘88.
Yes it’s great, just won’t wait,
Everybody likes my Rocket ‘88.
Gals will ride in style,
Movin’ all along…

Have I given the Rocket its due props? Oh, I forgot; from its modest 303 cubic inch, 135 hp beginnings, its muscles swelled through the years to 455 cubes (7.4 liters) and 400 horsepower. And then terminal atrophy set in; by 1980 it was back to 307 cubes (5 liters) and 150 hp; by 1988, 140 hp. Circular development, or just old age?

I’d say we’ve duly warmed up this motor, so let’s drop her into gear. Now we have to give the Hydramatic equal time. That granddaddy of all automatics was developed in the thirties and first appeared on the 1940 Oldsmobile. It operates quite differently from its modern namesakes. Because it uses a fluid coupling, which doesn’t amplify torque like a torque converter, it needs plenty of gears, four of them actually. And they’re mighty anxious: with a gentle take-off, we were well into third before reaching the far side of a small downtown intersection.

The Hydramatic, with its busy and bumpy shifting, doesn’t really feel like a “slush box” at all, but more like the sequential auto-shifters today (the dumber ones, that is, like the Smart). Well, there’s a lot going on down there, especially in the 2-3 shift, which involves the simultaneous operation of two bands and two clutches. Synchronizing their dance perfectly was hard enough when new; after almost sixty years you have to cut them some slack.

But it’s an efficient box; in high gear, only 25% of the engine torque flows through the fluid coupling, so it feels directly coupled, like a stick shift, and very unlike the Buick’s Dynaflow propeller-in-a-bucket-of-water sensations. And contrary to some of GM’s later innovations, the original Hydramatic was a durable collection of gears, clutches, bands and tireless little gnomes that worked them all, right from the get-go.

Rocket away

These old tanks are perfect cars for tooling around on a quiet Sunday morning in Eugene, which probably best replicates the traffic conditions of Innsbruck back then. One feels more like a helmsman than a driver, as the giant steering wheel dominates the manual tasks at hand, thanks to the automatic. Ponderous and slow at first, the unassisted tiller lightens with speed, but only relatively so. Handling? It hadn’t been invented yet, at least not in Detroit. The tired springs and shocks don’t help either.

But the engine is responsive and distinctly feels like the most modern component in this car. If you dropped it into a 1988 Cutlass Supreme Classic Brougham Coupe (whew; what a mouthful) you’d probably never notice the difference from the 140 hp 307 in that. Or maybe you would; the ’51 303 probably has better throttle response.

These Rocket 88s are for the open road, and this one is still quite happy to purr along at seventy on the highway. That universally abused old Driver’s Ed invocation about keeping a car’s length distance for every ten miles per hour suddenly pops in my head, and for a good reason: old drum brakes. I can see that venerable graphic from the textbook in my mind’s eye, with the spaces laid out in front of the represented car, which I swear was an old Oldsmobile like this.

welcome, all eleven of you

The Rocket 88’s influence is monumental, and not just from a hot-rodding perspective. Just like the ’32 Ford V8 spoiled Americans with a step up in everyday performance, so again did the 88. And the whole industry followed its lead; the 88 is the prototype of the quintessential American car: a responsive and torquey V8, automatic transmission, and room for…eleven skinny and car-starved Austrians. Most Americans quickly settled for nothing less. But what about places like Austria in the fifties?

In its time, cars like this Olds were living on an exulted plain in the Old Country. The choice of many affluent Europeans then, they were desirable and highly respected. A 30 hp VW was still a distant aspiration of the middle class. My father, a doctor, and all six of my aunts and uncles were still car-less when we emigrated in 1960. Within a few years, that all changed; all the aunts and uncles had wheels. And when I went back for the first time in 1969, Herr Miller was driving a new W114 Mercedes 200 diesel, with bucket seats. No six-year olds were going to be sidled up next to him in that taxi, making vivid memories worth writing about fifty years later.

let's go

Thanks to OregonSage for the memorable time behind the wheel of your Olds

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classic Review: 1951 Oldsmobile Super 88...”

  • avatar

    And then terminal atrophy set in; by 1980 it was back to 307 cubes (5 liters) and 150 hp; by 1988, 140 hp. Circular development, or just old age?

    Smog controls were the culprit. My first car was a ’75 Olds Custom Cruiser that I inherited from my mom; it had a 455 four-barrel, but it was emasculated by smog gear to about 180 hp. But something wonderful happened: the smog gear failed, so my dad had it removed versus fixing it (you didn’t need a smog inspection back then, and we paid the guy at the shop $50 to have it pass). It was like automotive Viagra.

    Loved your review…we were an Olds family too (the aforementioned wagon, plus a ’70 Ninety-Eight, and a ’74 Toronado), and thinking of those old cars brings up all kinds of great memories.

    Too short a season and too bad, as the last Olds were quite nice.

    • 0 avatar

      Keep in mind also that 400 gross horsepower is NOT the same as 400 hp DIN or in modern net ratings. Gross ratings were taken with no accessories or mufflers, running on a test stand, and their relationship to actual as-installed output was purely anecdotal. See:
      A 1980 307 with 150 net horsepower would probably have been rated something like 250 SAE gross hp.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    Very nice story Paul.
    I am happy we were able to contribute something other than my rare ‘erudite’ comments to the TTAC community.
    We do drive the car on nice days or to entertain visitors and guests or as a backup commuter vehicle. As far as I know it is original with around 98k miles and a new battery and fuel sender by us and fresh paint (of rather ill repute) by the prior owner who did it himself in a barn behind his house. It starts right up on the 6 volt system and makes wonderful sounds that my ’08 5.4 powered Ford pickup can only dream of replicating.

  • avatar

    These cars are priceless, made during the Golden days of GM.
    Don’t GM wish she had been suspended on time?
    many thanks for doing this.

  • avatar

    I thought most of the V8 engines sold by Oldsmobile in the 80’s were actually Chevy small blocks (at least the gasoline ones).

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      In ’78, ’79’ and ’80 the Chevy V8 engine was used to augment, due to a shortage of Olds production capacity. From  ’81 on, the Olds 307 and 260 were used until the end in 1988.

  • avatar

    and over half a century’s of boogers stuck under the seat

  • avatar

    This was a precious time in car design: the vehicles were attractive and the design had flair.  Other than that rear roof slope, the best part was that the long’n’low’n’obnoxious tanks that would dominate the landscape through to the end of the 70s hadn’t made their appearance yet.
    Just dwell on the nice, high roof that you didn’t need to duck under, reasonably simple controls, bumpers that were reasonably stylish while still being useful.  Even the sides, angled away from your pant legs.

  • avatar

    Some family friends left their nearly-new 1955 98 sedan in our driveway while they and my parents went on a weekend trip. Needless to say I took out the Olds for a ride around the neighborhood. Even at 17 and with only my 1947 Chevy and my parents’ 1950 Packard for comparison, I realized that this thing didn’t have any handling qualities, but loved the acceleration.

  • avatar

    “My first impression upon entering is that highly familiar and distinctive old car smell, the polar opposite of today’s polymeric factory air.”
    Old British cars generally smell the best. Must be the Conolly Leather, thick felts, and fine woods. I was pleasantly surprised when in 1998 I climbed into the front cockpit of a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane and was welcomed by that very same, distinctly British “old car smell”, which I guess in this context was an “old aeroplane odour”.
    I told the pilot that it smelled exactly like my Dad’s old 1950 MG TD.

  • avatar

    My father, a doctor, and all six of my aunts and uncles were still car-less when we emigrated in 1960.

    Welcome home. And you all decided to leave at the same time ? I suspect that made the transition much easier.

  • avatar

    Great Article
    Never had the Olds vehicle  but rebuilt and installed its engine in a 50 Ford pickup (F-1)
    With that engine and the light pickup and gearing that thing with it’s two solid axles would fly.(or so it seemed) Today I am sure it would scare me to death. But then it was great.
    keep ’em coming Paul.

  • avatar

    Another great “Curbside Classics”. It really is a joy to read.
    Memories, memories… Austria in the 1950s was an El Dorado for car freaks. You had them all (on the road, not in the museum): American, British, French, German, Russian, pre-war cars of all makes.  In our back yard there was a scrap yard, where all those cars ended  that were no longer deemed useful by their owners. Rough times, then. In this yard, even a Hispano-Suiza cabriolet got sledge-hammered and sold by its scrap weight. But before this sad moment I had the chance to seat in this car.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    … actually I have had the seats out … no real boogers under there  :-)

  • avatar

    Very, very, VERY nice.
    It put me into the Way Back Machine and I was suddenly lying on the back sill of the Blue 1953 Hudson Hornet.
    There eight of us and it was a long 24 hour drive along 12/20 from Chicago to Auburn NewYork!
    Through all those small towns!
    You had to put the kids wherever they would fit!
    Thanks for the memory.

    I was one of the few who understood the message from the animation film, CARS.

  • avatar

    Awesome look back, Paul.  And you’re right: nothing smells quite like a car from this era. The only thing missing from your description is the scent of cigar smoke trapped in the wool to make my memory complete.

    I should have guessed the clue, though. The first car I recall my dad drove was a 1953 Olds 88, white on green. His dad had a baby blue 1950 Olds fastback at that same time. Two generations of long-time GM buyers moving up Sloan’s ladder to Cadillac. 

    I don’t know if it was the globe logo, the Futuramic name, or the “Rocket 88” emblem, but Oldsmobiles always fascinated me as being forward-thinking.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Thanks  Paul.  It was  a sad portent  of  things  to come  when GM discontinued Oldsmobile.

  • avatar

    Darn it.  A year and a trim line off. ..

  • avatar

    A wonderful trip back in the Olds time machine. GM really knew what it was about back in the 50’s.
    Note that the car has four vent windows–for the rear passengers as well as those in front. Young people who have no experience with vent windows just don’t realize how well those devices worked.  Nor do they know that well before they were born, cars could be remarkably quiet, smooth riding, and sumptuous. Sure, there have been many improvements in safety, handling, emission controls and performance. But a ’51 Olds, DeSoto, Mercury, Hudson or Clipper sure had their good points.

  • avatar

    I was born in ’66, so by the time I got into cars when I was about 10, the really good D3 cars were history.  My personal experience with Olds were with my dad’s ’69 Olds 442 convertible and my moms ’76 Olds Vista Cruiser station wagon.  The 442 had a 400 4bbl w/auto and the Vista Cruiser a 350 4bbl w/auto.  The 442 was much more  powerful – the only smog controls were a PCV valve and a solenoid that retarded the ignition timing in 3rd gear during cruise to cut back on NOx emissions.  It was rated at 325 gross HP.  The ’76 Vista Cruiser had a full array of mid seventies emission controls, including lower compression ratio, EGR valve, and catalytic converter – the older two stage type with lots of back pressure.  It was rated at (I think) 150 net HP, a dog, but at least with the HEI ignition system it started on cold damp mornings – more than I can say for the ’69 442 with breaker point ignition.  Both cars had quadrajunks and put out a loud carburater honk when floored, but the 442 had the best exhaust note with dual exhaust (no cross-over pipe).

  • avatar

    Fluid coupling autos are an interesting bit of tech that never took off. Mercedes used them into the 70s (maybe later? someone chime in). It’s a unique feeling to drive one- it snaps into gear eagerly and quickly. TOO quickly. They are jerky as sin, probably the main reason they never caught on (there is no such thing as a sporty automatic, in my book). On a bad day it’s like being in a car with someone dropping the clutch with every upshift. Except there is no clutch so you can’t do anything to smooth it out.

    • 0 avatar

      Daimler (not Daimler-Benz, but the British firm later purchased by Jaguar) introduced the fluid coupling in 1939 or thereabouts, and some Chrysler semi-automatics had them, as well. Mercedes used its four-speed fluid coupling automatic from about 1961 to 1972, when it was phased out in favor of the new three-speed torque converter box.
      An important detail here is that a torque converter is a fluid coupling (although not all fluid couplings are torque converters). The difference is that a torque converter adds a third member, the stator, which changes the direction of the fluid as it leaves the driven torus, so it reenters the impeller in the same direction the impeller is turning — it would otherwise be the opposite, with the returning fluid trying to slow down the impeller. That’s part of the reason for the jerkiness.
      Also, the old Hydra-Matic was just jerky. As Paul says, the shift action was mechanically complicated, which means there’s a lot of monkey motion going on, especially on the 2-3 shift. If it’s not in perfect adjustment, it gets worse. This is why Buick and Chevy developed torque converter automatics instead; Buick engineers called the H-M “Hydra-Jerk,” and were quite contemptuous of it. Buick and Chevy until well into the 50s used torque tube rear suspensions, so with a Hydra-Matic, each shift would have sent a pronounced jerk through the torque tube into the body. Cadillac, Olds, and Pontiac, which used Hydra-Matic, had Hotchkiss drive, with the rear axle carried on leaf springs; that absorbed some of the jerk, so it was tolerable as long as the transmission was adjusted reasonably well.

  • avatar

    One of the true pleasures of my life after 50 is any opportunity to connect with a” four wheels and a steering wheel” time machine from the past. I felt like I was along for the ride in your story. Thanks Paul. 

  • avatar

    Mr. Niedermeyer, I’m curious as to why your father brought your family to the US. Many came to America for a better living, but a neurologist should have been pretty prosperous in Austria. One of my g-g-grandfathers left Prussia, we suspect to escape becoming Bismarck’s cannon fodder. Did your Dad ever have any regrets about emigrating? So many people here seem to have a low opinion of this country.
    It must be fun for you to visit Europe and see all the automotive exotica they have over there.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      He specialized in EEG (electroencephalography), and was recruited in 1960 to come to the U of Iowa, which had a pioneering EEG lab. In 1965, he was recruited to become the head of the EEG lab at Johns Hopkins, and went on to become one of the world’s most renowned EEG and the author/chief editor of “Electroencephalography” the primary text book on the subject. It was never a money thing for him, but the opportunity to work (relatively) unfettered in his field. The politics of academia in Austria are/were very onerous, depending on which party is in power and which party you belong to. He was in the wrong party at the time, and saw no prospects for advancement. My father have regrets? none. My mother; that’s a different story.

  • avatar

    See also this for more on the Rocket V8, including how the Rocket ended up in the smaller Eighty-Eight body; it was originally only supposed to be in the big Ninety-Eight, but putting it in the smaller B-body Seventy-Six body created what some will still tell you was the first postwar muscle car.
    The tank references are appropriate, because the Hydra-Matic was indeed used in tanks during World War 2. The M-5 Stuart and M-24 Chaffee light tanks were powered by a pair of Cadillac flathead V8s and two Hydra-Matics, one for each tread. The same system was used for M-8 howitzer carriages and M-19 AA guns. Part of the reason the postwar Hydra-Matics worked pretty well (the early ones were inevitably buggy) is that they had gotten a pretty thorough baptism of fire.

  • avatar

    My guess was close….. the critter IS built akin to a battleship, though not quite capable of shedding an armor piercing round weighing a ton moving at the speed of a high-powered rifle slug.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    We know what happened to GM. We just don’t know why.

  • avatar

    I was still winning stock class drag races well into the late 50s with my father’s 1950 98. It had the lightweight (rusted) body. All it ever needed was new seals for the hydramatic.

  • avatar

    “Have I given the Rocket its due props? Oh, I forgot; from its modest 303 cubic inch, 135 hp beginnings, its muscles swelled through the years to 455 cubes (7.4 liters) and 400 horsepower. And then terminal atrophy set in; by 1980 it was back to 307 cubes (5 liters) and 150 hp; by 1988, 140 hp. Circular development, or just old age?”

    …………..Neither. That backwards automotive evolution happened because the politicians in Washington wanted it that way. We should have voted them out of office immediately!!!!!!

  • avatar

    This one brought back some childhood memories. My parents had the same car but as a two door sedan. It was painted metallic green with a vanilla custard roof. One object of fascination for me was the rocket hood ornament. And the radio that took so long to warm up. Oh the joy of vacuum tubes.
    It must have been a good cruiser as my father refused to stop driving for rest stops. (“I just did and he didn’t have to go!”) The trauma of being forced as a young child to urinate into empty bottles in the back seat have scared me for life for mayonnaise.
    In 1956 we moved to Japan and shipped it over with us. I recall vividly my mother driving around extremely narrow Toyko streets with rickshaws and tricycle trucks swirling around us. With less than an inch of clearance and her hand firmly on the horn we went where few westerners would dare. (As they drove on the left I was sitting up front in the “driver’s seat” and had a most excellent view.) After a year there the car was painted black, as all large cars in Japan were at that epoch.
    It came back with us when we moved to Kansas and replaced with a forgettable ’59 green 88. We had a white one when we lived in Europe in the ‘60s but that is another story.

  • avatar

    Another gem of an article. Keep ’em coming, Paul!

  • avatar

    “Have I given the Rocket its due props? Oh, I forgot; from its modest 303 cubic inch, 135 hp beginnings, its muscles swelled through the years to 455 cubes (7.4 liters) and 400 horsepower.”

    I am may be wrong, but I believe the 303’s descendants stopped at the 394. The subseequent big blocks were a different design.

    BTW, what did actually enter production first, the 303 Olds or the 331 Cadillac? I know they both came out in ’49, but I am curious as to who hit the ground running first.

    The 303 Olds is wicked hot rod engine…there’s a youtube video with a vintage 4x2bbl carb set up. Sweeeet.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The big 425 and 455 Olds engine simply had a taller deck height, to allow a longer stroke. Other than that it was the same basic engine, obviously with improvements. The Olds V8 is the only one of the original V8s that was never replaced by a clean-sheet new engine.

  • avatar

    NickR……The 303, 324, 371 & 394 are of one design.  The 260, 330, 350, both 400s, 425 & 455 & are another.
    The 303 & the 331 Cadillac went on the market at the same time, for the 1949 model year.

  • avatar

    Thanks Paul for another good article.
    Ike and Tina Turner’s “Rocket 88” is considered by many to be the birth of Rock and Roll.

  • avatar

    Grandpa had a ’54 Olds 98, pretty much the same car as this but with a bigger back seat and trunk. We kids loved it!  This, despite the 0-guage clear plastic over the rear upholstery. You could play “army” or “cars” on the huge rear floor.

    The ’58 Olds 98 he traded it on was bigger and chromier, but not roomier. And the lack of rear vents was felt back there, as, like the ’54, it didn’t have AC.

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