Us hot rodders and gearheads can come up with all kinds of tall tales and controversies within our hobby, though this one might not quite rise to the level of “who built the best all around engine in the 1950s”.
When we think of muscle cars we immediately go to 1964 and the Pontiac GTO as the first true muscle car. No? Maybe the big Fords and Chevys of the early 60s that managed to dominate both drag and circle track racing? Depending on your perspective (and what the car manufacturers were trying to achieve), the muscle car era might have started clear back in the early 1950s when public interest in speed and power was just beginning to take hold.
Would you believe Oldsmobile actually produced the first true muscle car in 1949? That was the year the public got it’s first taste of the Rocket 88, the industry’s first high compression V-8 engine, born out of research that also brought us high octane leaded fuel.
Charles Kettering was an inventor who spent the majority of his career developing ideas using electricity including the storage-battery powered electric ignition that is still in use today. After selling his company to General Motors in 1916, Kettering became the head of GM’s research lab and eventually he retired from that position after 31 years.
But Kettering didn’t just tinker with electrical devices and ideas. He wondered why higher compressions weren’t being used to produce more power in gasoline engines, though he discovered that when compression was increased, engines would literally shake themselves apart because of the low octane fuel that was available.
Kettering didn’t accept that an engine couldn’t produce high compressions and went to work to not only develop a new engine, but also develop the necessary high-octane gasoline to make it function. The result was the Oldsmobile Rocket, introduced just after Kettering’s retirement, with 7.25:1 compression, a 90-degree design single cast iron block and overhead valves mated to lightweight pistons. The Rocket engine became the standard for all American V-8 engines for the next 30+ years and even today’s engines still carry much of the same design philosophy Kettering introduced back in the mid 1940s.
The new Rocket V-8 had a 303ci displacement pumping out 135 horsepower at 3600 rpm which by today’s standards seems paltry. But at the time the Ford flat-head V-8 was producing just 130 horsepower and was considered the hottest engine available from any manufacturer.
At the time Oldsmobile had two models in its lineup, the luxury 98 and the mid-range 76, which used a much lighter chassis and shorter wheelbase. It only made sense to not limit the new Rocket V-8 to the higher end models and Oldsmobile created what later became a legend…the Rocket 88.
The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 won eight of 10 races in the 1950 NASCAR season and used only an automatic transmission because the available manual trans couldn’t handle the torque of the new powerplant. Overhead valve engines eventually took over all competition, pushing the long running Ford flathead off the top of the heap and beginning an era where high compression engines became the norm for virtually every automobile built for the next 30 years.
Yes, it can be argued that true muscle cars were the product of inserting a big engine in a small body. But just imagine if Charles Kettering had simply decided it was impossible to overcome the issues related to high compression engine design. Muscle cars may never have shown up in our automotive landscape at all!
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