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How Oldsmobile Cars Work


Oldsmobile Super 88 and Oldsmobile Fiesta
Oldsmobile's 98 was renamed "Ninety-Eight" -- this one is from 1953.

Weighing 300-500 pounds less than a comparable 98, the Rocket-engine 88 wowed race-goers in 1949. Oldsmobile was the most winning make in NASCAR that year, taking five of eight races. Red Byron won the '49 NASCAR "Strictly Stock" title by driving an 88. In 1950, an 88 broke the class speed record at Daytona with a two-way average of 100.28 mph.

That same year, an 88 won the first Mexican Road Race, besting such formidable competitors as Alfa Romeo, Cadillac, and Lincoln. Back on the stock-car ovals, Olds won 10 of 19 NASCAR contests in 1950 (when young Olds pilot Bill Rexford copped the driving title) and 20 of 41 in '51.

Though displaced by Hudson's amazing six-cylinder Hornets in 1952-54, 88s continued to show their mettle. Paul Frere, for example, drove one to victory in a 1952 stock-car race at Spa in Belgium, and a 1950 model nicknamed "Roarin' Relic" was still winning the occasional modified race as late as 1959.

Such goings-on kept sales going strong even after the postwar seller's market went bust around 1950. Olds tapered off to 213,500 orders for '52, but was back up to 354,000 by 1954, when it finished fifth in the model-year production race. Inter­est­ingly, Olds managed these triumphs with only three basic series and no station wagons for 1951-56.

Not content to rest on its styling laurels, Olds took advantage of GM's new 1950 B-body to give 98s a one-piece windshield, plus a general look that was again lower and more massive despite another wheelbase cut, this time to 122 inches.

The ­junior 88 and 76 lines received a mild update of their new '49 styling and were granted Holiday hardtops of their own. Fast­back sedans were in their final year. Curiously, the lower level ragtops -- 76 and 88 -- were now offered in standard trim only.

The b­ig event of 1951 was the Super 88 with a new 120-inch wheelbase and a styling resemblance to that year's face-lifted 98. Prices were in the $2200-$2700 bracket. Canceling the 76 left the 88 as the entry-level Olds, with models pared to just two- and four-door sedans, each around $2000. Those repeated as Super 88s along with a notch-back club coupe, convertible, and Holiday hardtop.

The 98 was trimmed to a Deluxe sedan and convertible and standard/Deluxe Holidays. The Futuramic label was abandoned as styling became more "important," though the grille was formed by simple bars and side decoration was minimal. This basic appearance continued for '52, when the 88 became a detrimmed Super with a retuned 145-bhp Rocket V-8; horsepower on other models moved up to 160. Also, the 98 now had its name spelled out: "Ninety-Eight."

Along with the Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Skylark, 1953 brought a limited-production Olds convertible, the Fiesta, a $5717 midyear addition to the Ninety-Eight line. Custom leather interior, wraparound "panoramic" windshield, and a special 170-bhp V-8 distinguished it from the normal Ninety-Eight ragtop. Hydra-Matic, power brakes and steering, and hydraulic servos for windows and seat were all standard. So were distinctive "spinner" wheel covers soon copied by most every accessory house, appearing on scores of hot rods and custom cars. Though only 458 were built for this one model year, the Fiesta did serve as a styling preview of the next-generation Olds.

That duly arrived for 1954 with a new B-body bearing squared-up below-the-belt sheet metal, fully wrapped windshields, curved back windows, and distinctive L-shaped bodyside moldings that delineated contrast color areas on some two-tone models. This was arguably the most-attractive Olds of the decade. Happily, its basic look would persist through 1956.

So would body styles: 88 and Super 88 two- and four-door sedans and hardtop coupe; Super 88 convertible; Ninety-Eight Holiday, Deluxe Holiday, Deluxe sedan, and Starfire convertible. Holiday four-door hardtops bowed in all three lines in mid-1955, half a year ahead of other make's offerings save the Buick Special and Century (introduced along with Oldsmobile's). Wheel­bases shifted to 122 inches for 88/Super 88 and to 126 for Ninety-Eight.

The Rocket was bored out for '54 to 324 cid, good for 170 bhp in 88s, 185 in Super 88s and Ninety-Eights. But the "horsepower race" was escalating throughout Detroit, so power was bumped to 185 and 202 for 1955, then to 230 and 240 for '56.

Olds set another record by building about 40 percent more cars for '55 than '54 -- some 583,000 -- and held onto fifth in a booming industry. A substantial facelift gave the '55s a bold oval grille and jazzier two-toning. The '56s gained a large "fish mouth" front like that of the 1953 Starfire show car. Despite a general industry sales retreat, the division did quite well to turn out some 485,000 of its '56s.

For more on defunct American cars, see: