The great mid-Fifties boom period for medium-priced cars -- a time that saw phenomenal sales for most manufacturers in the segment, inspired bigger, plusher cars from the "Low-priced Three," and tempted Ford to create the Edsel -- got something of a late start at Oldsmobile, after the 1954 Oldsmobile designs were scrapped.
The 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 and other models were
originally slated to be 1955s. See more pictures of Oldsmobiles.
The 1954 Oldsmobile 88, Super 88, and Ninety-Eight were introduced on January 20, 1954. That was strange, because General Motors usually announced its new cars in the autumn of the previous calendar year, not after the first of January. At a press conference, Oldsmobile General Manager Jack Wolfram offered what may have been a partial explanation for the postponement: "The new 1954 Oldsmobile models were originally planned for release in 1955. But original plans were scrapped early in 1953 when it was found possible to move the 1955 models up to 1954."
Wolfram's statement began a controversy among motoring historians that continues to this day. For example, Dennis Casteele wrote in his book, The Cars of Oldsmobile, "This was probably just an advertising claim as General Motors, with its interdivisional sharing of body design, didn't operate that way."
However, automotive journalists Jan E. Norbye and Jim Dunne were convinced it happened with the 1954s. As they stated in their history Oldsmobile 1946-1980: The Classic Postwar Years, "[T]he cars that were first designed for 1954 were shown to the top management of GM in November 1952. [GM President Harlow] Red Curtice blew his stack. The cars were lumpy, warmed-over, unimaginative -- worse than the '53 models, he is supposed to have said."
As for who suggested junking the original 1954s and putting the 1955s into production a year earlier than intended, Norbye and Dunne speculated about several possibilities and finally picked the most likely.
"One story has it that Louis C. Goad, then executive vice-president with overall responsibility for the Car and Truck Group, simply asked the question in a meeting: 'The designs for the 1955 cars are pretty well finished. Would it be possible to get them into production sooner?' No matter how it came about, it was possible. And it was done."
The 1953 Oldsmobile got a slighty longer lease
on life until the belated 1954s arrived.
Actually, Oldsmobile wasn't alone at GM in terms of late starts and new bodies. The 1954 Chevrolet and Pontiac didn't hit showrooms until December 1953, with the Cadillac and Buick arriving the following month.
The latter two makes featured new styling that had been in the works since 1950. A new C-body was fitted to the Caddy and Buick Super and Roadmaster. However, the "junior" Buick Special and Century were dressed in a redone B-body, which was to be shared by all Oldsmobiles. The need to have this body ready for the 1954 Buicks likely could have had a hand in helping the planners in Lansing move up their timetables.
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1954 Oldsmobile Design
As the 1954 models were being readied for the assembly line, Art Ross, Olds' chief stylist, was putting the finishing touches on two convertible show cars for the 1953 GM Motorama -- the Fiesta and the Starfire -- that would influence the 1954 Oldsmobile design.
The 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Starfire picked up
a name from a concept car that inspired that year's line.
The Fiesta was a modified Ninety-Eight soft-top that went into limited production for 1953 as the Olds counterpart to the Buick Skylark and Cadillac Eldorado. The Starfire was a sleek, low-slung concept car that borrowed the name of an advanced fighter aircraft of the day, the Lockheed F94B.
Both of these cars previewed features of the 1954-1956 models, including wrap-around windshields and dipped beltlines, along with three-bladed-spinner wheel covers that would become favorites of "kustom kar" buffs.
They also shared a trim detail Ross had first used on the 1951 Super 88, an angular chrome slash that defined the leading edge of the rear fender area. On the Fiesta, the slash dropped from the dip in the beltline to a little more than halfway down the fender panel, then turned rearward as a horizontal strip. There was also a stone guard ahead of the rear wheel well, which served no apparent purpose and gave the assembly a cluttered look. On the Starfire, the stone guard was eliminated and the slash dropped almost to the bottom of the fender panel before turning to the rear, for a much cleaner overall effect.
Another Starfire touch that would grace production Oldsmobiles -- albeit not until 1956 -- was a front bumper incorporating a horizontal oval air intake that historian Richard M. Langworth wittily referred to as "largemouth bass" grillework.
The B-body used by the 1954-1956 Oldsmobiles was easily distinguished from the larger C-body by the pillars of the wraparound windshield. On the B-body, they were sloped; on the C-body they were upright.
Generally, the 1954 Oldsmobiles were three inches lower than the 1953s, giving them much sleeker profiles. Indeed the bodywork had been lowered so much that the beltline and fender line were no longer separate; they had converged. Nonetheless, the new styling retained a clear Oldsmobile identity, reinforced in part with essentially the same grille design as in 1953.
The influences of the Fiesta and, even more so, the Starfire were evident in the windshield, beltline and side trim. However, on the 1954s, the slash came only halfway down the fender panel before bending rearward, leaving room under it for a square-cut rear wheel well. The panel outlined by the slash and its horizontal extension looked a little like stylized saddlebags on the car's rear flanks.
Two-door hardtop and convertible bodies in the Ninety-Eight series had a different side trim, with a chrome strip starting just ahead of the front wheel well and tapering downward slightly as it went to the rear. Just ahead of the rear wheel well, that strip met an angular slash coming down from the dip in the beltline. The two-door Ninety-Eights also had rakish, semi-teardrop-shaped front and rear wheel wells that gave the cars a speedy look even when parked.
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1954 Oldsmobile Components
The 1954 Oldsmobile 88 and Super 88 rode a 122-inch wheelbase (as did the Buick Special and Century), but the Ninety-Eight's wheel centers were stretched to 126 inches. In overall length, the 1954 88 and Super 88 measured 205.3 inches and the Ninety-Eight was 214.3 inches. (In addition to its longer wheelbase, the Ninety-Eight's rear deck was stretched another five inches.) Annual changes in bumper designs would cost all Oldsmobiles two inches in total length by 1956; but for the most part, 1954 Oldsmobile components would be used through 1956.
The 1954 Super 88 offered a convertible option,
while the base 88 did not.
Body types in the base 88 series were two- and four-door sedans and a two-door Holiday hardtop coupe. The Super 88 was available in those same styles, plus a convertible. Finally, the Ninety-Eight came as a four-door sedan, two-door standard and Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupes and a convertible. The 98 softtop took more than just styling cues from the Starfire; it adopted the concept car's very name to become the Starfire convertible. The Fiesta convertible did not make the lineup for 1954, but its name would be revived for a new Olds station wagon three years later.
The best-selling body types in all three series for 1954 were the four-door sedans.
The symmetrical dashboard layout picked up on a theme begun in 1953. Round speedometer and clock dials sat directly in front of the driver and front-seat passenger, respectively. However, for 1954, new wing-like extensions bore auxiliary gauges around the speedometer and the radio speaker above the clock. Grey, green, or blue fabric interiors graced closed models. Colorful leather upholstery was used in Super 88 and Ninety-Eight convertibles and hardtops.
Among engineering changes for 1954, the Rocket V-8 underwent its first increase in displacement. However, that had been planned for. When the Rocket was originally developed in the late Forties, Wolfram (then Olds' chief engineer; he became general manager in 1951) urged the powerplant's designer, Gilbert Burrell, to allow for bigger displacements. Burrell did so with such features as widely spaced bore centers and a generally heavy block structure.
One consequence of the latter was that the block, in lower displacement form, was very lightly stressed.
The 1954 Super 88 had 15 more horsepower
than the base -- and 20 more than the 1953 model.
For 1954, the cylinders were bored 0.125 inch over, up to 3 7/8 from 3 3/4 inches, while the stroke remained 3 7/16 inches. That raised displacement from 303.7 cubic inches to 324.3 cubic inches. Along with the greater displacement, there was a higher compression ratio, up to 8.25:1 from 8.0:1.
For the standard 88, the engine had a two-barrel carburetor and an output of 170 gross horsepower at 4,000 rpm. The Super 88 and Ninety-Eight used a four-barrel carb that boosted horsepower to 185 at 4,000 rpm. Both versions had 20 horsepower more than their 1953 counterparts. Torque for both 1954 Rockets was rated at 300 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm.
Oldsmobile made annual increases in horsepower and torque throughout the mid-Fifties. Generally, they were the result of higher compression ratios, along with higher-lift camshaft grinds and bigger valves, especially for exhaust. Compression ratio hikes hinged on the availability of higher octane fuel, while the cam and valve modifications provided better breathing to take advantage of increases in compression ratio.
A three-speed synchromesh transmission was considered standard on all lines, but the automatic four-speed Hydra-Matic "Super Drive" unit continued to grow in popularity. With the lower body design, a problem developed in clearance for the Hydra-Matic, which was resolved by tilting the unit 22 degrees to the left. That had the added advantage of easing service access to the side cover and pressure regulator.
Oldsmobile produced 354,001 cars during the 1954 model year. That was below the division's model year record of 407,889 in 1950. However, the 1954 figure moved Olds from sixth place in the industry in 1953 to fourth place behind Chevrolet, Ford, and a stunningly strong Buick. It was Oldsmobile's best showing within the industry since 1905, when it completed a three-year run as America's best-selling make.
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The 1955 Oldsmobile had a revised grille, joining the oval outline of the Starfire concept car's air intake with a horizontal crossbar and twin bumper "bombs" like those used on the 1953 and 1954 production cars.
With cars like the 98 Starfire convertible,
1955 was one of Oldsmobile's best years.
There was new side trim, too. A strip of chrome similar to that used on the previous year's Ninety-Eight started ahead of the front wheel well and tapered back to meet an elongated S-curve snaking down from the beltline. "Everywhere you look, there's the magic touch of Oldsmobile's unmistakable and exclusive 'flying color' styling!" enthused that year's sales brochure.
The semi-teardrop wheel wells, previously exclusive to the Ninety-Eight, were now also used on the 88 and Super 88, and seemed to blend well with the new trim. However, on the junior cars the effect was achieved with a skirt that fit the rectangular outline of the opening as introduced in 1954.
The most significant innovation in Olds design for 1955 was a brand-new body type -- not an everyday occurrence in the Motor City -- that appeared in March 1955. It was a four-door hardtop sedan, and Olds was the first manufacturer to offer it in all of its lines, reaffirming its reputation as GM's innovator.
The idea was previewed at the 1953 Motorama with the Cadillac Orleans, a forerunner of that division's Sedan de Ville. However, initial production of the four-door hardtop was restricted to the B-body. Olds offered it as the Holiday sedan in its 88, Super 88, and Ninety-Eight series, and Buick included it as the four-door Riviera for the Special and Century. The following year, it became available on all three GM platforms, from the A-bodied Chevrolet and Pontiac to the C-bodied big Buick and Cadillac.
The four-door sedan remained the favorite style in the Super 88 and Ninety-Eight ranges, while the Holiday coupe was the best-seller among base 88s. But the new Holiday sedan would soon make its mark. Despite its mid-season introduction, almost 120,000 of the sporty Olds four-doors were produced for 1955.
Under the hood, combustion chamber volume was reduced, raising the Rocket's compression ratio another quarter of a point to 8.5:1.
Output of the four-barrel carb version was boosted to 202 gross horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 332 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm, while the two-barrel version in the 88 went up to 185 gross horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 320 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm. The four-barrel engine also became available as an option for the 88, a tempting combination for those who might like the hotter Super 88/Ninety-Eight engine in a lighter 88 body.
Some terse observations on how the 1955 Super 88 compared with the 1954 were offered by Al Kidd in the April 1955 issue of Motor Trend: "Acceleration: Olds accelerates with the best; '55 Super 88 nicks a little off '54 times in every department. Exceptional in 50-80 runs: 11.3 average is almost 4 full seconds less than last year. Covers 1/4-mile in only about 1/2 second less than in '54, but it's going 5 1/2 mph faster when it gets there. Has the feel that it wants to go at all speeds right up to its top of 109.7 mph."
Kidd might wonder today, "Who needs ABS?" As he reported on the Super 88 four decades ago, "Braking: Stops just as well as it accelerates. Power brakes operate from low-hung pendular pedal; locked all wheels of test car evenly and pulled car to straight stops."
The 1955 Oldsmbile 98 still had semi-teardrop wheel wells,
but now it was not alone.
And, considering the wallowing road behavior of many full-size cars of the Fifties, Kidd had kind things to say about the 1955 Super 88's suspension:
"Readability: Good compromise between road-ability and soft riding quality. Directional stability generally good, but you'll have to correct in a crosswind. On tight, fast turns, car will drift a little and rear end will break loose if you really push it. Here again, excellent road feel thru power steering makes correction easy and power available at speeds over 50 mph makes you master of just about any situation. Moderate amount of lean on turns, and tubeless tires (new this year) protest even conservative cornering with a squeal. ... Ride: Ride end of compromise is better than average. Olds front end now has direct-acting shock absorbers mounted vertically within springs -- result is smoother ride. ... At top speeds comfort is exceptional: absolutely no vibration or front-end oscillation. With as good a ride as all but softest-sprung cars, Olds is a safe bet for comfort."
Despite its locking brakes and squealing tires, the 1955 Oldsmobile was a stunning success, with production for the model year of 583,179 units. That was the highest in the division's history and a record that would stand for 10 years.
To put that achievement in perspective, in July 1955, Olds produced its 5 millionth car since Ransom E. opened up shop in 1896. More than 11 percent of that 59-year total were 1955 models.
Yet, despite the record output. Olds slipped a notch in the industry standings, dropping to fifth place behind a resurgent Plymouth.
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For the 1956 Oldsmobile line, styling changes included an oval front air intake without a horizontal crossbar, nearly identical to the "large-mouth bass" design of the original Starfire.
Oldsmobile's new grille for 1956, seen here
on a Super 88, had no horizontal crossbar.
As for side trim, on the 88 and Super 88 there was a chrome strip down the side from the trailing edge of the front wheel well all the way to the rear of the car. The rear fender slash was back, but this time it was slightly bowed, not straight, as it dropped from the beltline dip to the strip down the side. The trim on the Ninety-Eight formed a torpedo-like outline along the side of the car -- or would it be more appropriate to say a rocket-like outline?
The Holiday hardtops had arrived. The Holiday sedan became the best-selling body type in the Super 88 and Ninety-Eight series, while the Holiday coupe was the favorite 88.
Dash design changed slightly. The round speedometer and clock faces were replaced by large oval units. The auxiliary gauges disappeared, however, giving way to "idiot lights" at either end of the speedometer pod.
In the engine, thinner head gaskets were combined with a further reduction in combustion chamber volume to raise compression ratio to a new high of 9.25:1. That boosted the four-barrel-carb engine's output to 240 gross horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 350 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm, while the two-barrel variant now made 230 gross horsepower at 4,400 and 340 pound-feet at 2,400. The two powerplants were known as the T-350 and T-340, respectively, after their torque ratings. Dual exhausts were an option for the first time and were said to increase horsepower up to 7 percent and torque 6 percent.
Manual transmissions were still standard in the 88 and Super 88 ranges, but for the first time, Ninety-Eights were fitted with the Hydra-Matic as standard equipment. It was a new version of GM's famed autobox, which Motor Trend's Al Kidd described in a "Drivescription" in the December 1955 issue:
"The biggest engineering feature is the entirely new Jetaway Hydra-Matic transmission on 98s and Super 88s. This new unit retains the desirable flexibility of last year's Dual Range H-M but with almost unheard of smoothness. Basically, the new Hydra-Matic differs from the 1955 version in that the front bands and clutches have been replaced with a 2nd small fluid coupling and 2 sprag clutches (one-way "clutches" that permit free-wheeling at speeds from 5 to 14 mph, depending on the range). This new 2nd coupling fills and empties with fluid to literally blend ratio changes ...
"Altho we were unable to make any timed runs, it is safe to say that the new Hydra-Matic is contributing considerably to added Olds punch ...
"Service problems should be reduced since the new transmission eliminates the formerly necessary band adjustments and is designed to be generally more durable."
The 1956s also featured a chrome stripe down the side.
Kidd wrote a more detailed road test of the 1956 Super 88 for the April 1956 Motor Trend, in which he found the performance somewhat disappointing.
"The Rocket still has enough punch, but virtually all phases of acceleration times turned in by the '56 4-door hardtop were either just about the same or a few tenths of a second slower than the figures we got last year," he wrote. "With an increase of 38 horsepower we expected an improvement. Oldsmobile engineers say that they have turned in better times than the ones we recorded. Our '56 test car was some 140 pounds heavier than the '55 4-door we tested last year and of even more importance was the fact that the '55 test was conducted in placid California weather, while the current test took place on an extremely cold Michigan day."
That's less an explanation of the differences -- or lack of them -- in the acceleration of the 1955 and 1956 Olds Super 88s than it is an admission of the inconsistencies of road test conditions in the early days of the auto magazines.
For 1956, Olds production dropped nearly 100,000 units, to 485,458, but because of sales slumps elsewhere, Olds was able to hold on to its fifth place ranking in the industry
The 1954-1956 Oldsmobiles were good cars -- by mid-Fifties standards, in fact, very good cars. They were powerful, readable, comfortable and stylish. Oldsmobile Division had every right to be proud of them then; collectors still can be today.
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1954-1956 Oldsmobile Weight, Price, and ProductionThe 1954-1956 Oldsmobile models may have been pushed ahead a bit faster than usual, but they were no less a success for it. Find weights, prices, and production for the 1954-1956 Oldsmobiles in the following chart.
1954-1956 Oldsmobile: Weight, Price, and Production
|1954 88||Weight (lbs.)||Price||Production|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,721||2,449||25,820|
|1954 Super 88||Weight||Price||Production|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,775||2,688||42,155|
|Total Super 88||187,815|
|Deluxe 4d sedan||3,895||2,806||2,367|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,851||2,826||8,865|
|Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe||3,938||3,042||29,688|
|Starfire convertible coupe||4,193||3,249||6,800|
|Total 1954 Oldsmobile||354,001|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,705||2,474||85,767|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||3,768||2,548||41,310|
|1955 Super 88||Weight||Price||Production|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,765||2,714||62,534|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||3,825||2,788||47,385|
|Total Super 88||242,192|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,924||3,069||38,363|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||3,976||3,140||31,267|
|Starfire convertible coupe||4,159||3,276||9,149|
|Total 1955 Oldsmobile||583,179|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||3,741||2,599||74,739|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||3,797||2,971||52,239|
|1956 Super 88||Weight||Price||Production|
|HOliday hardtop coupe||3,771||2,808||43,054|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||3,869||2,881||61,192|
|Total Super 88||179,000|
|Holiday hardtop coupe||4,080||3,480||19,433|
|Holiday hardtop sedan||4,167||3,551||42,320|
|Starfire convertible coupe||4,325||3,740||8,581|
|Total 1956 Oldsmobile||485,458|
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