In a sense, Oldsmobile didn't really need to introduce dramatic new styling for the 1948-1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98. Nobody did, for World War II had left in its wake a severe shortage of new automobiles, and the industry was still struggling to catch up with demand.
The $2,973 convertible was to many eyes the most
glamorous of the 1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98s.
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True, most of the independent automakers -- Nash being the sole exception -- had already introduced new models in an effort to strengthen their competitive positions. But both Buick and Chrysler, Oldsmobile's major competitors in the medium-price bracket, continued to serve up warmed-over 1942 models, selling them as fast as they could be produced.
On the other hand, with an assist from General Motors' Fisher Body division, Cadillac was about to introduce a dramatic new "C-body" model, featuring an aircraft-inspired styling theme. Surely, Oldsmobile must have its own version of this new body, because for many years Oldsmobile had been widely regarded as General Motors' "experimental" division, positioned more often than not in the vanguard of change.
In 1924, for instance, Oldsmobile (along with Oakland) had been the first to use Duco lacquer in place of the slow-drying paint finishes of the time. A year later, Oldsmobile pioneered the use of chrome-plated radiator shells. In 1934, it became the first General Motors division to adopt hydraulic brakes.
The following year, it beat sister division Buick by a full year in offering the seamless all-steel "Turret" top. Then, in 1940, Oldsmobile was the first American automobile to offer a fully automatic transmission, Hydra-Matic Drive.
Before World War II was over, Oldsmobile engineers had begun work behind the scenes on an all-new V-8 engine. To be sure, an Oldsmobile V-8 was nothing new -- the company had built thousands of them between 1916 and 1923, not to mention the short-lived, Oldsmobile-built Viking V-8 of 1929-1930.
But this new one was to be a super-efficient powerplant, a short-stroke, high-compression, overhead-valve job based on principles established by Charles F. Kettering, the legendary "Boss Ket" who had developed, among other advancements, the electric self-starter for the 1912 Cadillac.
The target date for the new engine's introduction was to be 1949. Accordingly, construction got under way on a new $10 million factory in Lansing, Oldsmobile's home base, where it would be produced.
Ironically, for all of its progressive reputation, one could think of Oldsmobile as General Motors' hard-luck division. Its cars had consistently been stylish, sometimes -- as in 1928-1929 and again in 1935 -- much more so than comparable Buicks. They had been well engineered and solidly constructed machines. Their performance had always been competent, if less than flashy.
And with prices generally well below Buick's, they offered excellent value for money. And yet, with the exception of a three-year period during the Depression, 1934 through 1936, Oldsmobile had consistently lagged behind Buick in sales, and more often than not, behind Pontiac as well.
Take 1940, for instance, the year Olds introduced the revolutionary Hydra-Matic fully automatic transmission. The division -- still known as Olds Motor Works in those days -- offered three lines of cars. There was the A-bodied Series 60 and the B-bodied Series 70, both with six-cylinder power. There was also the upmarket Series 90 Custom Cruiser, a big, luxurious straight-eight-powered four-model line.
Oldsmobile had been building inline eights ever since 1932, but the bulk of its production had always been made up of six-cylinder models. In 1939, for example, the eight-cylinder cars, then known as the Series 80, accounted for only 13.5 percent of the division's total output.
So the introduction the following year of the 90 -- a larger, more expensive car -- was rather a bold move on Oldsmobile's part. The gamble paid off, however, for nearly a quarter of the division's 1940 production was made up of the big, new straight-eight models.
For more on the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser 90, continue on to the next page.
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Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser
The Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, forerunner of the Futuramic 98s of 1948-1949, was clearly targeted at Buick's new Series 50 Super, with which it shared General Motors' new-for-1940 C-body. The two cars make an interesting comparison:
| ||Oldsmobile 90||Buick Super 50|
|Price, 4-door sedan||$1,131||$1,109|
|Wheelbase, inches||124.0 ||121.0 |
|Length, inches||210.75||208.81 |
|Weight, pounds||3,555 ||3,790 |
|Engine, cid||257.1 ||248.0 |
|Valve configuration||L-head ||ohv |
Horsepower @ rpm||110 @ 3,600||107 @ 3,400 |
|Compression ratio||6.20:1 ||6.10:1 |
|Weight, pounds per bhp||32.32 ||35.42 |
Braking area, square inches||170.5 ||158.7 |
|Production||44,251 ||129,527 |
So here was Oldsmobile with a car that was comparable in most respects to the Buick Super, though it enjoyed a significant edge in wheelbase, power-to-weight ratio, and braking area. It sold for nearly the same price as its rival from Flint, and it offered, for a very reasonable $57 extra, the new Hydra-Matic transmission. Yet the Buick Super outsold the Oldsmobile 90 by a ratio of three-to-one.
By 1947, the Buick Super's sales advantage had grown to four-to-one, and the Oldsmobile Division badly needed something new and attractive to call attention to its forthcoming 50th Anniversary.
Even the planet-and-stars steering wheel hub
gave the Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 unique styling.
Fortunately, help was on the way, for by February 1948 there would be a stylish new C-body, scheduled for use by Cadillac and the senior Oldsmobile, but not by Buick. Oldsmobile called its version "Futuramic," and it was obviously on target with the public.
For the first time since its introduction eight years earlier -- and despite a price handicap of several hundred dollars compared to the six-cylinder models -- the Series 90 was Oldsmobile's bestseller! It was still outsold by the Buick Super, but this time the ratio was reduced to something like five-to-three.
The copywriters waxed ecstatic. The opening page of the 98 brochure made the point: "Presenting ... the Futuramic Oldsmobile! Here is a car that marks a milestone in automotive history -- a car specially designed to commemorate the Golden Anniversary of America's oldest motor car manufacturer. The Futuramic Oldsmobile stands as the first of a whole new cycle of 'motor cars of tomorrow.' Ahead of the times in dramatic styling ... ahead of the times in Hydra-Matic driving ... the Futuramic Oldsmobile heralds the dawn of a new Golden Era in Oldsmobile history!"
And that wasn't all, as the ads pointed out: "This entirely new 1948 model captures the tempo of the big things happening at Oldsmobile today, and heralds the dawn of a new Golden Era for America's oldest motor car manufacturer. Only a brand new word -- 'Futuramic' -- can describe this new type of automobile. ... There's a new conception of automotive styling -- a sharp departure from the commonplace in this dramatic design of tomorrow ..."
To learn more about the 1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98, continue on to the next page.
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1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98
Though it didn't have a new engine, the 1948
Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 had a sleek new style.
Tom McCahill, writing in Mechanix Illustrated, called Oldsmobile's flathead straight-eight a "product of the Dark Ages." The criticism was not altogether unjustified, although in fairness it must be noted that the 1948 Oldsmobile engine was no more out of date than similar powerplants offered by other makers, such as Pontiac and Packard.
In any case, Olds put the best face it could on its old engine: "You'll marvel at the satin-smooth, surging performance you receive from Oldsmobile's powerful 8-cylinder engine. Its new high-compression head adds that extra measure of getaway power that keeps you out ahead ... that extra measure of smoothness that makes all driving more enjoyable. It's economical to operate, too! Every gallon of gas goes farther in this beautifully engineered Oldsmobile power plant."
Styling, however, was another matter. Under the leadership of Art Ross, head of the division's design studio, Oldsmobile developed its own version of the new C-body. Up front, a simplified version of the grille seen since 1946 provided an Oldsmobile identity, now with only two upside-down "U" chrome bars (instead of four).
A two-piece curved glass windshield was fitted, a first for Oldsmobile -- and a feature that Buick wouldn't see for another year. Front fenders blended smoothly into the doors, instead of being "tacked on," as had formerly been the case, and rear fenders were no longer detachable, although they still carried a prominent bulge.
Taillights on the lesser 1948 models were redesigned to look similar to those on the new 98, though they weren't interchangeable. The 98's wheelbase was reduced by two inches, overall length by three (with the turning radius shortened correspondingly), yet thanks to its sleek lines the car looked longer than the 1947 model.
Height was reduced only fractionally, but the car was a couple of inches wider than the preceding model, which contributed to the illusion of lowness and length.
Aside from the Futuramic styling, some of the Oldsmobile 98's talking points in 1948-1949 were its "New Airborne Ride of the Future," accomplished via the "solid foundation" of a rigid X-member frame and low center of gravity, not to mention the "Quadri-Coil Springing" with "Heavy Coil Springs" at the solid rear axle and double-action hydraulic shock absorbers at all four corners.
"Dual Center Control Steering" had a worm and double roller design, for which Olds claimed added ease and safety of control. And then there was the "Unisteel Turret Top Body" by Fisher, "completely bonderized and sound-proofed," plus "Self-Energizing Super Hydraulic Brakes" and "Safety Glass All Around."
Five 98 models were offered in three body styles. Notchback four-door sedans and two-door fastback Club Sedans were available in either standard or DeLuxe trim, with the latter outselling the former six times over. The convertible, meanwhile, came only as a DeLuxe.
All were "Tailored in the mode of the moment," with the fastback combining "... the dashing styling of a two-door model with the comfort of a four-door sedan." The convertible was of course even more alluring: "Here is the car that, in many ways, goes farthest in carrying out the Futuramic idea. So gay, so modern, so youthful in style ... the Futuramic Convertible also brings you a hint of the future in its many automatic features."
Even the four-door sedan received credit as the "Fulfillment of the Futu-ramic idea." For an extra $105 over the base model, the DeLuxe sedan buyer received premium two-tone broadcloth upholstery fitted over foam rubber cushions, rear center armrest, special front and rear floor mats, clock, DeLuxe steering wheel, stainless steel wheel trim rings, rear fender skirts, 8.20-15 low-pressure tires, and even a glovebox light.
Convertibles also came equipped with hydraulically powered windows, seat, and top. Ragtop buyers could choose between two-tone Bedford cord upholstery, or a combination of leather and Bedford cord. The exterior finish came in a choice of 17 solid colors and 10 two-tone combinations, though the latter were supplied only on the four-door sedans.
Ceiling prices were established by the government in those days, and in response to inflationary pressures, all the American automakers were posting increases as fast as the Office of Price Administration would permit. Evidently, Oldsmobile was successful in persuading the authorities that the division should be compensated for the cost of tooling the all-new C-body, for between 1947 and 1948 the price of a 98 sedan was increased by 12.2 percent. In contrast, prices of the Series 70 Oldsmobiles were permitted to rise by just 8.2 percent.
The usual options were available at extra cost. Among the most popular were radio ($84 or $94), heater/defroster ($58), turn signals ($16), back-up light ($9), and of course Hydra-Matic, whose price had risen to $175.
In terms of styling, the 1948 Oldsmobile 98 proved to be a trendsetter, and by 1949 the entire Oldsmobile line featured Futuramic design.
Only minor trim differences distinguished the 1949 luxury Oldsmobile, visually, from its 1948 counterpart. Among them were a ring-around-the-planet medallion on the hood, jet fighter-inspired air scoops (incorporating the parking lights) under the headlights, reshuffled side trim, and small chrome fins above the taillights.
A large "Futuramic" emblem now rode at the very bottom of the front fenders just behind the wheels, but curiously there was no "98" badge to be found. It wasn't until 1952 that exterior nameplates identified the "Ninety Eight" (spelled out at this point). In 1948, a simple "8" badge had ridden on the decklid of the 98, and "Hydra-Matic" was part of the trunklid handle assembly.
For more on the 1949 Oldsmobile, continue on to the next page.
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The 1949 Oldsmobile was powered by the
V-8 Rocket engine.
Oldsmobile engineers reportedly wanted to call it the Kettering engine, but General Motors chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., decreed that it could not be named for a living individual, so they called it the "Rocket." At first, the V-8 was employed exclusively in the 98 series.
Departing from the customary practice of the day, the Rocket engine -- designed by Gilbert Burrell, Oldsmobile's chief engineer, with an assist from "Pete" Estes, who would later go on to become president of General Motors -- was of over-square design. That is to say, the bore was greater than the stroke.
Thus, breathing was enhanced through the use of larger valves, while reduced piston travel led to decreased friction. "Slipper" pistons nestled between the crankshaft throws, hydraulic valve lifters were employed in the interest of quieter operation, and five main bearings promoted smoothness.
Experiments had been conducted using both L-head and overhead-valve configurations, and with eight-in-line as well as V-8 layouts. However, Oldsmobile engineers determined that the practical limit of the division's traditional flathead design was a compression ratio of about 8.0:1. Beyond that, they believed, the engine would be rough and noisy.
Looking toward the time when high-octane fuels would become available, Burrell and his staff were aiming for much higher ratios, hence the decision to go with the overhead-valve design. At the same time, a big-bore straight-eight was found to require an engine block that would be both unacceptably heavy and excessively long.
(Parenthetically, one is compelled to recall that by 1954 Packard was able to raise the compression ratio of its nine-main-bearing, L-head straight-eight as high as 8.7:1 without interfering with the silken smoothness for which that company's engines had long been noted. This implies no criticism of Oldsmobile engineering, but it does suggest that the Packard staff was doing some rather remarkable work.)
Oldsmobile's new engine plant came on line during September 1948, and production was soon proceeding full-bore (pun intended). The new Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 line was announced, along with the six-cylinder 76, on November 27,1948, and appeared in Oldsmobile showrooms during December, about a month behind the new Cadillac.
The coming of the Rocket engine meant an increase in displacement from 257.1 to 303.7 cubic inches, while the compression ratio edged up from 7.0:1 to 7.25:1. Oldsmobile engineers echoed Charles Kettering's declaration that as better fuels became available, ratios as high as 12.5:1 would be obtainable, and would provide "35 to 40 percent more mileage per gallon." They never did actually reach that figure, but by 1968 the ratio rose to as high as 10.75:1.
In the meantime, horsepower was increased from 115 in the old flathead straight-eight to 135 in the 1949 V-8, while torque was raised from 218 to 263 pounds/feet, an increase of more than 21 percent. At the same time, remarkably enough, fuel economy was substantially enhanced.
Oldsmobile hyped its new engine this way: "But the design of the 'Rocket' Engine itself is exclusively Oldsmobile's. And its many advanced features and high-compression advantages are available today. In all 8-cylinder Oldsmobiles for 1949, you will find an engine that is practically vibrationless. You will find a power plant that is so quiet that you don't even hear it from the driver's seat. You will experience no sensation of effort when the engine goes to work ... The car leaps into action as if it were 'air-borne' ... You feel as if you were propelled by some magic force, instead of by the engine under the hood. That's the 'New Thrill' of 'Rocket' Engine power."
Other improvements for 1949 included larger brakes and a new carburetor designed to minimize the problem of vapor lock. Hydra-Matic became standard equipment on all eight-cylinder models, and a downshift device, appropriately called "Whirlaway," contributed to blazing acceleration.
With an eye, perhaps, to competition from Buick's upstart Dynaflow, Olds noted that "Literally billions of miles of Hydra-Matic driving -- billions of miles of tested dependability -- represent concrete proof of Oldsmobile's nine years of experience in the automatic transmission field. ... Hydra-Matic's safety downshift, Whirlaway, is more thrilling than ever with the ... spectacular action of the new 'Rocket' eight-cylinder Engine."
There was another substantial price increase for 1949 -- $349 this time -- but half of that was accounted for by the now-standard Hydra-Matic.
During February, several months into the 1949 model year, General Motors introduced three highly styled "hardtop convertible" coupes, the first of their type to be offered on a regular production basis (Chrysler had made seven prototype Town & Country hardtops in 1947).
The Oldsmobile version, called Holiday, was exclusive to the 98 series that first year. Available in four special Holiday colors, as well as four two-tone combinations, it was priced the same as the convertible at $2,973, and like the rag-top it came equipped with hydraulically operated windows and seat.
Concurrent with the Holiday coupe's debut, the Buick and Cadillac Divisions introduced hardtops of their own. Buick's version, the first to bear the Riviera name, appeared on the Roadmaster chassis, while Cadillac's Coupe de Ville was an upscale member of its Sixty-Two series. Of the three, the Olds was by far the least expensive. The Buick sold for $3,203, the Cadillac for $3,496.
Reportedly, the original intent had been to use the new Rocket engine only in the 98 models. But Sherrod E. Skinner, Oldsmobile's canny general manager, conceived the idea of stuffing the V-8 into the smaller, A-bodied series, some 350 pounds lighter than the larger car.
Evidently, the General Motors high command accepted this radical notion with some reluctance, but a couple of months after the 98 and the 76 appeared, the fabulous "Rocket 88" was introduced. It promptly replaced the 98 as Oldsmobile's bestseller.
The 88 was chosen as the Pace Car for the 1949 Indianapolis 500 Memorial Day Race, and was soon setting stock car records all over the country. "Of the nine races staged by the NASCAR [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing] Grand National division in 1949," according to Olds historian Dennis Casteele, "Oldsmobile took the checkered cloth in six of them."
It is reasonable to assume that the sensationally popular 88 may have stolen some sales from the larger and more profitable 98, for the latter's share of Oldsmobile's total slipped from 37.6 percent in 1948 to 34.4 percent in 1949. But in terms of raw numbers, the big Oldsmobile enjoyed its best year to date, with sales numbering 93,478 cars, a 43-percent increase over 1948.
It was a well-deserved success, for in the new 98 Oldsmobile offered a big, luxurious automobile, powered by an engine whose advanced design was rivaled only by that of the Cadillac. Accommodations were equal to Cadillac's, and styling was entirely contemporary. And yet this fine automobile could be purchased for as little as $2,426 with Hydra-Matic.
It is true, of course, that the Buick Super, even when equipped with optional Dynaflow, cost only $2,252. But Oldsmobile's Rocket engine produced 12.5 percent more horsepower and 24.1 percent more torque than Buick's aging straight-eight. Or to look at it another way, the Oldsmobile 98 cost $536 less than the cheapest Hydra-Matic-equipped Cadillac -- a difference of 18 percent, though the cars were comparable in many respects. And it was, just as the brochure boasted, "Dashing in design, flashing in performance...."
These were good times for Oldsmobile -- good times, in fact, for the entire industry. Yet, in a sense, hard luck continued to dog the division. Oldsmobile ranked seventh in production during 1949, turning out 29 percent fewer automobiles than fourth-place Buick. Not until 1958 would Oldsmobile sales surpass those of its principal intra-corporate rival.
To learn how Oldsmobile gained an advantage over Buick with the development of the C-body, continue on to the next page.
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Why Oldsmobile Got a Leg Up on Buick
We've often wondered why Oldsmobile got a leg up on Buick in terms of body styling. Buick retained General Motors' 1942-1947 C-body for its 1948 Super and Road-master models, while Oldsmobile and Cadillac adopted the fresh styling of the corporation's first all-new postwar body.
The stylish new C-body formed the 1948-1949
Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 design.
Was it because the 1947 Buicks, with their massive grille and front fenders that swept the entire length of the body, were so attractive that Buick officials were reluctant to change? Or -- was General Motors seeking to give Oldsmobile a boost in order to help close the historic sales gap between its two oldest divisions?
Recently, we put the question to Richard H. Stout, who was a Buick stylist when these cars were built -- as well as a close personal friend of Ned Nickles, Buick's chief designer. Here's the story, as Dick Stout told it to us in a recent letter:
"Actually, a 1948 [Buick] version with the all new C-body was tooled and ready for production. It was very rounded at the front, especially the hood, which was somewhat like the first postwar Chevrolet truck. Fenders, too, were rounded near the headlights. Harlow Curtice, so the story goes, had a nightmare in which he dreamt this looked like an Airflow Chrysler, so wham -- cancel production for 1948!
"Story true or not, the reason for the postponement was the soft front end. Nick [Ned Nickles] had just been appointed Buick chief designer and his first job was to fix this for 1949. Only the hood panel was retooled -- much more bold like previous Buicks ...
"Incidentally, this 1948 C-body was originally designated the 1948 B-body. This is why wheelbases on the new jobs were the same as the old B-body and three inches shorter than the previous ones. GM simply did not have time to get a C-body done, so this was rechristened 'C' from 'B.' Cadillac had to be first with some all-new stuff."
Continue on to the next page for Oldsmobile specifications from this era.
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1948-1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 Specifications
Oldsmobile rocked the postwar market with a three-pronged attack: all-new "Futuramic" styling in 1948, plus a modern overhead-valve V-8 and a sleek new Holiday "hardtop convertible" for 1949. Here are the specifications for the 1948-1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98:
Even the dash of the 1948-1949 Oldsmobile was
treated to Futuramic styling.
1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 Models, Prices, Production
|Model||Weight ||Price ||Production |
|2-door Club Sedan ||3,645 ||$2,078 ||2,311 |
|2-door DeLuxe Club Sedan ||3,685 ||$2,182 ||11,949 |
|4-door sedan ||3,705 ||$2,151 ||5,605 |
|4-door DeLuxe sedan ||3,745 ||$2,256 ||32,456 |
|DeLuxe convertible coupe ||4,035 ||$2,624 ||12,914 |
|Total 1948 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 || || ||65,235 |
1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 Models, Prices, Production
|Model||Weight ||Pride ||Production |
|2-door Club Sedan||3,835||$2,426||3,849|
|2-door DeLuxe Club Sedan||3,840||$2,520||16,200|
|4-door DeLuxe sedan||3,925||$2,594||49,001|
|DeLuxe Holiday hardtop coupe||4,000||$2,973||3,006|
|DeLuxe convertible coupe||4,200||$2,973||12,602|
|Total 1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98|| || ||93,478|
1948-1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic 98 Specifications
|Engine||1948 ||1949 |
|Type ||straight-8 ||ohv V-8 |
|Bore × stroke, inches ||3.25 × 3.88 ||3.75 × 3.44 |
|Displacement, cid||257.1 ||303.7 |
|Valve lifters ||mechanical ||hydraulic |
|Horsepower @ rpm ||115 @ 3,600 ||135 @ 3,600 |
|SAE (taxable) horsepower||33.8 ||45.0 |
|Torque, pounds/feet @ rpm ||218 @ 2,000 ||263 @ 1,800 |
|Compression ratio||7.00:1 ||7.25:1 |
|Main bearings ||5 ||5 |
|Carburetor ||2-bbl ||2-bbl |
|Choke ||automatic ||automatic |
|Cooling system, quarts ||20.5 ||21.5 |
|General||1948 ||1949 |
|Wheelbase, inches ||125.0 ||125.0 |
|Overall length, inches ||213.0 ||213.0 |
|Tread, front/rear, inches ||57.0/59.0 ||57.0/59.0 |
|Braking area, square inches ||181.1 ||191.7 |
|Turning circle, diameter, feet ||42.0 ||42.0 |
|Transmission ||All-Silent Synchromesh 3-speed manual* ||Hydra-Matic |
|Final drive ratio ||3.78:1** ||3.63:1** |
|Tire size ||6.50-16*** ||7.60-15*** |
|Electrical system ||6-volt ||6-volt |
|Fuel tank, gallons ||19.0 ||18.0 |
**With Hydra-Matic transmission
***8.20-15 on DeLuxe models
|Calculated data (DeLuxe 4-door sedan)||1948 ||1949 |
|Crankshaft rpm per mile ||3,096 ||2,617 |
|Stroke/bore ratio ||1.192:1 ||0.917:1 |
|Horsepower per cid ||.447 ||.445 |
|Weight (pounds) per cid ||32.6 ||29.1 |
|Weight per cid ||14.6 ||12.9 |
|Weight per square inch (brakes) ||20.7 ||20.5 |
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