1950-1953 Oldsmobile


Many of the innovations for which Oldsmobile had become known over the years were calculated to advance motoring. But the arrival of Oldsmobile's hot little V-8 engine for 1949 had the unexpected effect of turning Detroit into a haven for horsepower, and served as the origin of the 1950-1953 Oldsmobile rocket. Once the fuse was lit, there was little that could slow the ascent of that "Rocket."

Classic Cars Image Gallery

4 millionth Oldsmobile
The four millionth Oldsmobile was built in 1953,
during the era of the Rocket engine. See more classic car pictures.

It's hard to believe that the venerable Oldsmobile name has passed into history. The idea would have seemed dubious as recently as the 1990s and unthinkable in now-distant 1950. For, at the middle of the 20th Century, Oldsmobile was a force to be reckoned with -- a V-8, Rocket-powered force.

The early Fifties were important transition years for the U.S. auto industry, bridging the gap between the red-hot seller's market of 1946-1950 and the next big sales spurt in 1955. Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Kaiser-Frazer all made big mistakes in this period and wouldn't live to see 1960 (though Nash and Hudson would successfully morph into American Motors). Studebaker also fumbled badly, but managed to survive by drastic means.

Oldsmobile was far different. Though a resurgent Ford Motor Company reclaimed the title from Chrysler Corporation as Detroit's No. 2 producer by 1952, giant General Motors remained the unassailable industry leader in design, engineering, and sales. In those days, wherever GM went, Ford and Chrysler were bound to follow. But, besides having security within fortress GM, Oldsmobile, long the company's "innovator" division, took on a timely new role as performance standard-bearer, its Rocket V-8 helping touch off a "horsepower war" that would engage all Detroit by mid decade.

So although Buick sold more upper-medium cars in the early Fifties and Pontiac achieved higher volume with its lower-priced wares, Oldsmobile prospered more than medium-priced rivals by turning sooner from conservative dependability to fast, flashy cars that perfectly matched buyers' aspirations. Oldsmobile might have flown even higher had not the Korean War depressed the entire market in 1951-1952.

The foundation for Oldsmobile's early-Fifties success was laid with the 1949 models. The previous year had introduced sleek new postwar styling for GM's senior C-body cars, including "Futuramic" Olds 98s. Junior A-body models followed suit for 1949, but Oldsmobile and Cadillac went further that year with all-new V-8s, the first of the efficient, short-stroke, high-compression engines that became synonymous with Fifties American cars.

Cadillac developed its engine independently, both divisions having been encouraged to outdo each other. As GM's flagship make, Cadillac ultimately raised displacement from 309 to 331 cubic inches to maintain a "proper distance" from Oldsmobile's Rocket, which emerged at 303.7 cubic inches. Both V-8s were oversquare designs. Bore and stoke measured 3.75 × 3.44 inches for the Rocket, 3.81 × 3.63 for the Caddy.

On the next page, learn more about how the Oldsmobile Rocket was developed.

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Oldsmobile Rocket Development

Jack Wolfram was chief engineer during the Oldsmobile Rocket's development, but the actual design was largely the work of Gilbert Burrell, based on principles devised by legendary GM research chief Charles Kettering.

Arriving with 135 horsepower, the Rocket was first intended only for the big 98s, but Oldsmobile general manager Sherrod Skinner had the bright idea of slotting it into the lighter bodies of the six-cylinder Series 76. The resulting Futuramic 88s boasted a weight-to-power ratio of about 22.5 pounds horsepower -- excellent for the time. Torque was also impressive at 263 pound-feet.

1950 Oldsmobile 98 model
The Oldsmobile 98 got the Rocket for 1949 and new
styling for 1950; this model is close to final form.

With that, an 88 could run 0-60 mph in 12-13.5 seconds, depending on model and whether the transmission was manual or Hydra-Matic automatic. Initial compression was a mild 7.25:1, but the Rocket was designed to go as high as 12:1; engineers had anticipated postwar fuels with ultra-high octane, but gas never became so rich that such lofty ratios were practical.

Oldsmobile played another trump card for 1949: the 98 Holiday that bowed alongside the Buick Roadmaster Riviera and Cadillac Series 62 Coupe de Ville as America's first volume-produced "hardtop convertibles." Presaging yet another trend was Lansing's first all-steel station wagon, offered in 76 and 88 guise. As at Chevrolet and Pontiac, this looked much like the part-wood wagon it replaced at midyear. Not predictive at all were the fastback Town Sedan four-doors in the 76 and 88 lines. They didn't sell well and would be dropped after this one year.

Overall, though, Oldsmobile had a terrific 1949, model-year volume jumping from near 179,000 to almost 294,000, a new record. Not surprisingly, most were Rockets. The premium Series 98 alone scored a healthy 93,500, while the new 88 posted more than 99,000 to slightly best the Series 76 despite model-for-model prices some $300-$400 higher. Interestingly, Oldsmobile enlarged its veteran straight six for 1949 to the same 257.1 cubic inches as its discontinued straight eight. But with just 105 horsepower, a 76 paled beside an 88. The public agreed, and Oldsmobile would offer nothing but V-8s after 1950.

To Skinner's undoubted delight, the potent 88 quickly proved itself in competition. Oldsmobile won NASCAR's inaugural 1949 season by taking six of nine "Strictly Stock" races and giving Robert "Red" Byron the driver's championship. That same year, an 88 convertible paced the field at the 33rd Indianapolis 500. Suddenly, Oldsmobile was hot on the track and in showrooms alike, and there seemed nowhere to go but up.

On the next page, learn more about how the 1950 Oldsmobile benefited from its predecessor's success.

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1950 Oldsmobile

Demand for the 1950 Oldsmobile, as expected, went up from 1949's solid performance -- way up, rocketing past 416,000, a gain of 42 percent. Leading that year's lineup were restyled 98s with a new one-piece windshield and a more massive lower body that managed to look longer even though wheelbase was trimmed three inches to 122. Some Buicks and Cadillacs shared the 98's new B-body, but looked quite different. This was, after all, the heyday of GM styling czar Harley Earl, who knew all about "brand identity" long before the term was coined. Lansing's two A-body series received a mild update of their 1949 styling and, as planned, Holiday hardtops.

Other offerings remained mostly as before. The 98 listed standard and Deluxe Holidays, fastback two-door club sedans, notchback four-doors, fastback Town Sedan four-doors (new to the 98 line but not destined to last long), and a lone convertible. The 76 and 88 lost their four-door fastbacks, but otherwise offered the same choices as 98, plus new standard and Deluxe notchback two-door sedans and all-steel four-door wagons.

Oddly, all three ragtops came only in standard trim. The differences between standard and Deluxe models centered on higher-grade upholstery and interior fittings and a little more chrome. The price differential was about $60-$75. Speaking of prices, Oldsmobile covered a broad spread for 1950, running from $1,735 for the 76 club coupe to $2,793 for the 98 convertible.

For its second season, NASCAR ran an expanded schedule under the new name "Grand National." Oldsmobile, as in 1949, was again the star, with 88s winning 10 of that year's 19 contests versus four for Plymouth, two each for Lincoln and Mercury and one for Ford. Bill Rexford, who scored one of the Oldsmobile victories, was the season points champion. That same year, an 88 piloted by Joe Littlejohn broke a class record on the sands of Daytona with a two-way average of 100.28 mph. Capping the year's exploits, Hershel McGriff, a 22-year-old Oregon truck driver with little competition experience, teamed with Ray Elliott to win the inaugural Carrera Panamericana across Mexico in a near-stock 88 two-door sedan with Cadillac manual transmission.

Their car, dubbed "The City of Roses" to honor Portland, Oregon, finished the gruelling 2,178 miles ahead of 131 other entries at an average speed of 79 mph. Oldsmobile had done little to help secure this victory, but promptly provided McGriff with a new 88 Holiday and put him and the car on tour.

1950 Olds 98s club sedan
The club sedan, like this 1950 Oldsmobile 98, had a
122-inch wheelbase and the plushest interior fittings.


December 1950 ushered in new leadership at Oldsmobile, as Jack Wolfram took over the general manager position from Sherrod Skinner and Harold Metzel moved to replace Wolfram as chief engineer. Wolfram had already earned the nickname "Black Jack," and not without reason. Skinner was an amiable factory veteran, and as general manager he liked to show up at the plant unannounced -- to the chagrin of some supervisors.

Wolfram, on the other hand, was a dyed-in-the-wool engineer who never visited the plant unless he had to. He was also somewhat of a dictator, so staff meetings during his tenure became stiff, formal affairs, subordinates always addressing him as "Mister Wolfram."

Metzel supervised a staff of about 175 salaried employees and 170 hourly workers. Key figures included assistant chief engineer Lowell Kintigh, experimental engineer Don Perkins, executive engineer James Dykstra, standards engineer John Alfes, and body engineer S. Landall. Also on board were three men bound for even bigger things. John Beltz, a project engineer in the experimental department, would become Oldsmobile general manager in 1969, and Bob Dorshimer, a project engineer in the body group, became division chief engineer in 1972.

Most successful of all was one Elliot M. "Pete" Estes, then a chassis engineer under Dykstra, who went on to become general manager of Pontiac and Chevrolet in the Sixties, then served seven years as GM president starting in 1974.

Wolfram might have been a taskmaster, but he wasn't always a grinch. According to engineer Dick Steele, the new general manager would often test Rocket V-8 refinements by using the streets of Lansing as a "proving ground." Wolfram would pair with Metzel in one prototype, Steele with Kintigh in a second, and the two cars would go roaring off down South Logan Street -- side-by-side. Wolfram always stayed right for safety, leaving Steele and Kintigh to dodge oncoming traffic in the left lane. Wolfram always chuckled about that, but Steele also remembered a few close calls.

On the next page, find out why the 1950 Oldsmobile's successor didn't fare as well.

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1951-1952 Oldsmobile

By 1951, America was embroiled in the Korean "police action," prompting government restrictions on civilian production that blunted car sales industry-wide. As a result, 1951-1952 Oldsmobile production was artificially low; 1951 model-year volume dropped 30 percent to 291,553.

1952 Oldsmobile Super 88
The Super 88 remained Oldsmobile's top seller
in 1952, a down year.


The cars themselves, though, were better than ever. All were V-8 powered, as the old six was dropped along with Futuramic nameplates, fastbacks, and -- a bit surprisingly -- wagons. The 88 was now the low-end series, replacing the 76 with just a two- and four-door sedan, still with basic 1949 styling. One step up were new Super 88s comprising two sedans, club coupe, Holiday hardtop, and convertible. All used a new "OB" body with one-piece windshield, fractionally longer 120-inch wheelbase (88s stayed at 119.5), and styling much like that of 98s. Sheetmetal on top-line Oldsmobiles changed little, but trim was redone, especially on the bodysides and around the grille.

Overall length shrank an inch to 208 (Supers measured 204) and offerings were pared to Deluxe convertible, Holiday, and four-door sedan, plus a standard-trim Holiday. Reflecting Lansing's optimism and GM planning, the price spread was narrowed and pushed slightly higher, running from $1,922 for a two-door 88 to $2,795 for a 98 ragtop.

Back on the then mostly dirt tracks of NASCAR, Oldsmobile claimed 20 of 41 events in 1951. But tellingly, all the victories came with low-line 88s, not the heavier new Supers. Oldsmobiles were slowly but surely bulking up into posh luxury cars that might be quick, but were closer to Buicks than Pontiacs in market appeal.

With that and the rise of Hudson's amazing six-cylinder Hornets, 1951 was the last year that Olds dominated NASCAR. Even so, 88s continued to show their mettle for several years. Paul Frere, for example, drove one to victory in a 1952 stock-car race at Spa in Belgium, and a 1950 model named "Roarin' Relic" was still winning the occasional modified race as late as 1959.

1951 Oldsmobile 88 deluxe
The bright rear-fender stone shields give away
this 1951 Oldsmobile 88 as a deluxe model.


Production was again artificially limited for 1952, and lower at 219,532 units. But the Korean War hadn't stopped Detroit's horsepower war, and Oldsmobile was on the front line with a more potent Rocket-two. Super 88s and Ninety-Eights (as the premium series was now being described in print) got a new 160-horsepower version with high-lift camshaft and a new four-barrel "Quadri-Jet" carburetor.

A two-barrel engine with 145 horsepower was reserved for a pair of Deluxe 88 sedans with the same 120-inch-wheel-base B-body as Supers, thus ousting the 1949 shells at last. These price-leaders weren't that much more "deluxe" than the previous year's 88s, though they cost some $300 more. Supers and Ninety-Eights received detail styling changes, and the top-liners added two inches to their wheelbase, which now measured 124. Prices spanned a $2,246-$3,207 range; an Oldsmobile hadn't cost more than $3,000 since the make's earliest days.

Oldsmobile had pioneered the fully automatic transmission in 1940, but it wasn't until the postwar period that its Hydra-Matic Drive became really popular. For 1952, Oldsmobile gave it a "Super" range that was geared for better hillclimbing power and stronger downhill engine braking than the conventional Drive and Low ranges provided.

Also new for 1952 was GM Saginaw power steering, a $185 option that would soon be as popular as Hydra-Matic. Two other new extras didn't go over nearly as well: a 15-jewel, self-winding Marr watch mounted on the steering wheel, yours for $35; and GM's gimmicky "Autronic Eye" automatic headlamp dimmer. Still available at extra cost were oil filter (you read right), heavy-duty air cleaner, turn signals, full wheel covers, radio, and a compass.

On the next page, find out how the 1953 Oldsmobile bounced back after production curbs were lifted due to the Korean War.

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1953 Oldsmobile

By the time the 1953 Oldsmobile model year rolled around, Oldsmobile had been doing its part for the Korean War. The company turned out bazooka rockets, 90mm cannon, and, as a subcontractor to Buick, components for the new Curtiss-Wright J-65 jet aircraft engine, a job that prompted construction of a new Lansing factory simply called the Jet Plant. Interestingly, the engines with Oldsmobile-supplied components outperformed other J-65s by several hundred pounds of thrust.

1953 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight convertible
The 1953 Ninety-Eight ragtop offered
plush open-air motoring.


General Douglas MacArthur, though recently relieved of his command in Korea, visited the Jet Plant and other Oldsmobile facilities on May 15, 1952. He received a hero's welcome from a good many former GIs who'd served under him in World War II.

Production curbs were gradually lifted in 1953, allowing Oldsmobile to build more than 341,000 cars for the model year. Though the entire lineup was being redesigned for 1954, the 1953s sported a fair number of changes. For starters, a half-point compression boost (to 8.0:1) added five horsepower to both Rocket V-8s, and an even tighter squeeze yielded 170 horsepower for a flashy new top-line convertible, the Ninety-Eight Fiesta, which also came with Hydra-Matic, power everything, and modern-as-tomorrow wraparound windshield. The Fiesta would be a one-year wonder with only 458 produced, mainly due to a towering $5,715 price, but it was a great showroom draw.

Options for the rest of the line expanded again, the list now showing power brakes ($33) and factory air conditioning from GM's Frigidaire division (a stiff $550). All 1953s switched from six- to 12-volt electrical systems, got a shiny new symmetrical dashboard with room for the Hydra-Matic shift quadrant (moved from the steering column), and large oval outriggers on the horizontal grille bar, a preview of 1954.

Oldsmobile was still winning in NASCAR, just not as often. The 1953 season brought nine victories (after just three in 1952), highlighted by Buck Baker's triumph in the Southern 500.

1953 Oldsmobile Super 88 Holiday
A Super 88 Holiday shows off the bumper/grille motif
that was Oldmobile's biggest style change for 1953.

A major setback occurred on August 12, 1953, when a fire destroyed the Hydra-Matic plant at Livonia, Michigan. As a result, some 23,000 Oldsmobiles were built with Buick's Dynaflow transmission, the only other automatic in the GM stable that could handle the Rocket engine's torque. Sherrod Skinner, who'd moved over to head GM's accessory divisions, soon got production going again in the former Kaiser Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, in time for the 1954 models, but not before the $30 million blaze cost GM an estimated 100,000 sales company-wide.

Despite that calamity the early Fifties were a great time for Oldsmobile, and even better times lay ahead. But it's all over now, and that's a shame. After more than 100 years, the automotive world just won't seem the same without Oldsmobile.

On the next page, read about Oldsmobile specifications during this time period.

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1950-1953 Oldsmobile Models, Prices, Production

The 1950-1953 era was a significant one for Oldsmobile. Sales were artificially low in 1951 and 1952 due to government restrictions in place for the Korean War, but at the end of this stretch, Oldsmobile saw large increases in sales fueled mostly by the popular Rocket engine. Here are specifications for the 1950-1953 Oldsmobile:

1951 Oldsmobile Super 88 two-door sedan
The $2,084 base price of a 1951 Super 88 two-door
sedan included a 135-horsepower "Rocket" V-8.

1950 Oldsmobile 76 Models, Prices, Production

76
(wheelbase 119.5 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
club coupe
3,412
$1,735
2,499
Deluxe club coupe
3,424
1,803
1,126
2-door club sedan
3,432
1,761
4,654
Deluxe 2-door club sedan
3,444
1,8291,919
2-door sedan
3,434
1,777
3,865
Deluxe 2-door sedan
3,446
1,845
2,489
4-door sedan
3,464
1,835
10,871
Deluxe 4-door sedan
3,476
1,903
9,159
Holiday hardtop coupe
3,493
2,019
144
Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe
3,505
2,124
394
convertible coupe
3,726
2,151
973
4-door station wagon
3,762
--
121
Deluxe 4-door station wagon
3,774
2,520
247
Chassis
--
--
169
Total 76


38,630

1950 Oldsmobile 88 Models, Prices, Production

88 (wheelbase 119.5 inches)WeightPrice
Production

club coupe

3,616 $1,899
10,684
Deluxe club coupe
3,627
1,977 10,772
2-door club sedan
3,640 1,925 15,144
Deluxe 2-door club sedan
3,651 2,003 16,388
2-door sedan
3,644 1,941 23,889
Deluxe 2-door sedan
3,655 2,019 26,672
4-door sedan
3,672 1,999 42,882
Deluxe 4-door sedan
3,683 2,077 100,810
Holiday hardtop coupe
3,697 2,183 1,366
Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe
3,708
2,288
11,316
convertible coupe
3,915
2,315
9,127
4-door station wagon
3,951
--
1,830
Deluxe 4-door station wagon
3,962
2,683
552
Chassis
--
--
2
Total 88

271,434

1950 Oldsmobile 98 Models, Prices, Production

98
(wheelbase 122.0 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
2-door club sedan 3,854 $2,246 2,270 
Deluxe 2-door club sedan 3,881 2,340 9,719 
4-door Town Sedan 3,889 2,288 255 
Deluxe 4-door Town Sedan 3,926 2,382 1,523 
4-door sedan 3,925 2,320 7,499 
Deluxe 4-door sedan 3,952 2,414 72,766 
Holiday hardtop coupe 3,955 2,404 317 
Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe 3,982 2,404 7,946 
convertible coupe 4,332 2,7933,925 
Chassis  ---- 
Total 88   106,222
Total 1950 Oldsmobile   416,286 

1951 Oldsmobile 88 Models, Prices, Production

88
(wheelbase 119.5 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
2-door sedan
3,649
$1,922
11,792
4-door sedan
3,676
1,982
22,848
Total 88


34,640

1951 Oldsmobile Super 88 Models, Prices, Production

Super 88 (wheelbase 119.5 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
club coupe 3,718
$2,041
7,328
2-door sedan 3,731
2,084
35,898
4-door sedan 3,773
2,143
94,822
Holiday hardtop coupe 3,796
2,359
144,911
convertible coupe 3,986
2,468
38,542
Chassis -- -- 1
Total Super 88


156,394

1951 Oldsmobile 98 Models, Prices, Production

98
(wheelbase 122 inches)

Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
3,930
$2,408
78,122
Holiday hardtop coupe
3,916
2,398
17,292
convertible coupe
4,274
2,795
4,468
Total 98
  100,519
Total 1951 Oldsmobile
  291,553

1952 Oldsmobile Deluxe 88 Models, Prices, Production

Deluxe 88
(wheelbase 120.0 inches)
Weight
Price
Number built
2-door sedan
3,716
$2,246
6,402
4-door sedan
3,777
2,311
12,215
Total Deluxe 88


18,617

1952 Oldsmobile Super 88 Models, Prices, Production

Super 88 (wheelbase 120.0 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
club coupe
3,748
$2,329
2,050
2-door sedan
3,755
2,379
25,442
4-door sedan
3,809
2,445
75,599
Holiday hardtop coupe
3,802
2,655
16,417
convertible coupe
4,028
2,83316,417
Total Super 88

124,670

1952 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Models, Prices, Production

Ninety-Eight (wheelbase 124.0 inches)
Weight
Price 
Production
4-door sedan
3,920
2,767
58,550
Holiday hardtop coupe
4,035
3,001
14,150
convertible coupe
4,271
3,207
3,544
Chassis
--
--
1
Total Ninety-Eight
  76,245
Total 1952 Oldsmobile
  219,532 

1953 Oldsmobile Deluxe 88 Models, Prices, Production

Deluxe 88 (wheelbase 120.0 inches)Weight
Price
Number built
2-door sedan
3,768
$2,262
12,400
4-door sedan
3,803
2,327
20,400
Total Deluxe 88


32,800

1953 Oldsmobile Super 88 Models, Prices, Production

Super 88 (wheelbase 120.0 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
2-door sedan
3,794
$2,395
37,342
4-door sedan
3,841
2,462
124,787
Holiday hardtop coupe
3,830
2,673
37,693
convertible coupe
4,072
2,853
8,310
Chassis
--
--
2
Total Super 88
  208,134 

1953 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Models, Prices, Production

Ninety-Eight (wheelbase 124.0 inches)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
3,958
$2,756
64,431
Holiday hardtop coupe
4,066
2,992
27,920
convertible coupe
4,283
3,199
7,521
Fiesta convertible coupe
4,619
5,715
458
Total Ninety-Eight
  100,330
Total 1953 Oldsmobile
  341,264

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