Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

The Futuramic 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

In 1949 Oldsmobile had a better idea. They took your daddy’s - or possibly your granddaddy’s - Oldsmobile and added more power. A simple recipe, but one that has proven successful time and time again. While this seems like an obvious solution today, it was flat out revolutionary in ’49, with Oldsmobile taking their brand new, high-compression V8 and stuffing it into their smaller 88 model, resulting in a Rocket 88

The engine was actually the same one that would normally be installed in the larger, heavier Oldsmobile 98. The reason this was so significant is that it was the first time you could buy a car off the factory floor for a relatively affordable price and challenge performance-modified cars of the time while enjoying the reliability and smoothness of a production car. The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was the very first American Muscle Car.

High-compression engines weren’t the norm in 1949 when most cars were still warmed-over models from before World War II. But GM engineering head Charles F. “Boss” Kettering wrote a paper for the Society of Automotive Engineers speculating that if there were a general increase in compression from the normal 6.25:1 to 12:1 it would boost fuel economy nationwide by 40 percent and horsepower by 25. After the war, greater availability of premium fuel also helped ignite the cause, so the Olds went ahead with its engine.

Our subject car is another prime example of someone replacing a vehicle from their earlier years with Dick Croxall’s 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 being that vehicle. Growing up in the San Gabriel valley and the emerging horsepower race among the automobile manufacturers and car enthusiasts were the perfect backdrop for the early racing rivalries between the Oldsmobiles, Ford-Mercury flathead V-8s, and Hudson Hornets The memories and thrills of owning one of the “hottest” cars of the early 50’s was too much for Dick to pass up in considering the purchase of a collector car.

As Dick’s interest in the car hobby grew with his professional career, he acquired several special interest vehicles, including a ’57 Chevrolet Station Wagon, a ‘73 E-Type Jaguar V-12 roadster, a ‘69 Camaro, a ’66 Corvette convertible, and several other cars. Always in the back of his mind though was his first car, the 1950 Olds 88. Finally, in 1998, Dick saw an add in Old Cars Weekly for a “recovered” ’50 88 fastback coupe located in Missouri After determining that “recovered” meant rescue from a 17 year barn storage and being in a flood, which stopped just above the floorboard, he decided to pursue the purchase.

Unlike Dick’s original ’50 88 this one was pretty rough but from the seller-provided photos, it appeared that he had spent time getting the engine to run, cleaning the engine compartment and interior, and applying a cheap, but original looking paint job. The entire car was original (except for the paint job), the interior looked reasonable, and the chrome was surprisingly good The car had 51,400 original miles on it. The deal was consummated and the car was shipped to El Segundo April of 1998. Since that time, Dick has spent time cleaning and making it his car, while carefully maintaining the originality.

What did Dick want this car to be? Simply put, a very clean original that could be driven weekly and shown well in local car events. He has detailed the engine compartment, cleaned up some body work and paint flaws, installed a new headliner, had the hydramatic rebuilt, “de-gunked” and tuned the engine and replaced the hydraulic lifters. The result is a very clean “survivor” that runs well and attracts a lot of attention at car events. There are very few original ’49 and ‘50 Olds 88’s left since most of them were raced, hot rodded or other wise disabled over the years.

Dick has no plans to alter or upgrade the engine, drive train, body or interior. The car is reliable and runs very strong, and is surprisingly quick, even by modern standards. It can be driven at 70+ mph on the highway all day long. Dick has had no reliability issues with engine, driveline, or chassis performance. He regularly enjoys trading stories and experiences with former rival Hudson Hornet, Ford flathead V-8 owners, and early hot rodders at various car events. Maybe even a quick 0-60 run now and then just to see how the old guys do. “It definitely keeps me thinking young and like a teenager again” says Dick

First out of the gate in '48

Actually, Oldsmobile and Cadillac were the first GM divisions with all-new styling for their cars in 1948 but Olds had to use a carry-over in-line eight cylinder engine, albeit wrapped in the “Futuramic” styling that Oldsmobile touted. While the two-door hardtop was offered in the 98 series only in ’49, it became available in the lesser 88 and 76 models for 1950. While, by today’s standard, the 88 is big and heavy, it was actually about 275 pounds lighter than the 98 yet with that high-performance engine, it was quite a coup. Er, coupe. In fact, the model preferred by racers wasn’t the fancy two-door hardtop, but the Club Coupe which weighed almost 85 pounds less and is the model Croxall found in the barn.

The Rocket 88 represented a performance image and inspired a number of popular songs of the era including 'Rocket 88' among others, and a popular 1950s slogan, ‘Make a Date with a Rocket 88.’ During the its first three years of production, the 88 was one of the best performing automobiles in the world due to its (relatively) small size, along with the lightweight and advanced over-head valve high-compression V8 engine.

Dick is delighted to witness the resurgence of the early Olds Rocket 88 as an American Milestone Car and get the credit it deserves in automobile history.

Funny how times have changed; however. In 1950 a popular automotive magazine instrument tested the Rocket 88 and found that it could get to 60 miles per hour in just 12.2 seconds - quite significant for the time. But today you can best those results with a Toyota Prius. Still, that’s not the point. In its day, the 88 set a new standard of performance and engineering - it was a rocket, no doubt. Now that’s Futuramic!

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Tony Barthel

Tony Barthel has been writing articles and blogs since 1996 with reviews of new cars, stories about old cars and the people who love them and finding the best car shows around for the Curbside car show calendar. He is also author of a book on event planning and public speaker on business and tourism marketing plus a YouTube creator of travel videos. Tony loves RVing and is the co-publisher of the StressLess Camping blog.