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The Power Sensation of the Nation – Oldsmobile Rocket 88 Indy 500 Pace Car

1949 was the year that Oldsmobile unveiled its sensational and-all new 303 c.i. 135 hp Rocket V-8 overhead valve high compression engine coupled with a GM “Futurematic Hydra-Matic” transmission. When installed in the newly introduced small and lightweight 88 model built on the B-body platform the result was one of the first and most potent post-war high-performance cars.

The “88” was chosen to be the 1949 Indianapolis 500 pace car and was driven by racing driver Wilber Shaw the President of the Speedway. The photo of it at a GM Plant featured here today is courtesy of the AACA Library.

Robert “Red” Byron won the 1949 NASCAR Championship driving an Olds “88,” and  six of the ten races in NASCAR’s new professional stock car series were won that year by the new Olds. A year later  Hershel McGriff won the inaugural twenty one-hundred mile 1950 Carrera Panamericana Road Race in Mexico driving a “Rocket 88.”

Along with enlargements of the lead image (below) we have included three pages of the 1949  Oldsmobile color brochure courtesy of the Old Car Manual Project that gives more details of the new Olds “88”.


30 responses to “The Power Sensation of the Nation – Oldsmobile Rocket 88 Indy 500 Pace Car

  1. When I attended Oldsmobile’s Centennial celebration in Lansing in `97, there was a red `49 88 cvt. with that “rocket” mounted on the sides. Never found the owner to ask, but I figured it HAD to be the original Pace Car–how else would that car acquire the rockets?! The car was prestine, and by all appearances was an original–not a frame-off restoration!

    (If dealers in `49 got those “rockets” as PR material to display on a car from the showfloor, I’m not aware of it–like the peek-a-boo hoods to show off the OHV V8.)

    • I also attended the ’97 centennial in Lansing. It was a great event.
      On a different subject Under Specifications above, the series 88 states the Hydramatic transmission is listed as standard equipment. I was always told that transmission was an option but it was ordered on 95% of all Oldsmobiles. My friend in high school back in the day had a ’50 Olds 88 coupe with the 3 speed standard transmission. I’ve seen others in person. Your comment on that fender rocket is interesting as I’ve always read that the rocked was added to the photos, and never actually put on any Pace Cars.

      • In ’49: “Hydra-Matic Drive standard equipment on Series ’98’ and ’88,’ optional at extra cost on ’76′”, and, as Charlie Manes noted, in ’50: “Hydra-Matic Drive — optional at extra cost”
        ( And the H-M changed, too.

        In ’50, GM had two H-Ms for the same case: a small unit (three planets) and a large unit (four, plus additional plates.) Cadillac, Olds 8s, Lincoln, and Hudson Hornets got the large H-M . ’49 Olds 8s had full-vaned torus members (and hard shifts) and ’50s had smaller torii (and softer shifts) — plus a change in pressure modulators, so, maybe, you got what you [had to] pay for.

        And here’s an option you get for free: it was said that the engineers of Olds’ “Rocket” V8 (Burrell and Estes) would have called it “Kettering” had Alfred P. Sloan not decreed that no GM product could be named for a living person. So a Corvette “Zora” maybe?

      • A quick google of “1949 Indy pace car” shows a number of apparently period images with just that same grotesque appendage on the fender, so it likely is the real deal. I guess we can at least find solace in that it never found its way to the production models.

    • One can’t help but wonder if a designer for the Hudson Motor Car Company either saw a photograph of that car or was even present for that year’s Indy 500 event and decided to use that big rocket chrome side trim as a source of inspiration for the company’s new 1951 Hornet models that borrowed quite liberally from the 1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic Rocket 88 model.

  2. I seer from the brochure that the six cylinder “76” has a 119 inch wb. !
    Also note that convertibles (and the 76 wagon) come with larger tires.

    Also, a neat drawing of an F-80 jet fighter, a fairly new type at the time or it could be meant to represent the even newer T-33 two-year trainer which was brand new in ’49.

    • Actually, more of a stylized version of the F-80/T-33 series, not quite a copy. I didn’t realize Olds had such an OHV V-8 out that early. Really put Chevy to shame for several years!

      • I’m thought it was pretty obvious it was a stylized drawing, a bit “swooshy” compared to the real thing.

        I blues it’s to be expected given GM named a car, the Olds Starfire, after the F-94C fighter variant of the T-33.

        I wonder if the Olds Cutlass was named after the short-lived Vought F7U Cutlass Navy fighter?

        • Yes, the ORIGINAL Cutlass, a 1954 concept car, was named after the F7U Cutlass. If that aircraft’s failings had been known at the time, that concept car may have been named after something else. However, the rear-most part of the 1954 Cutlass does resemble the fighter plane and its styling was surely inspired by the futuristic appearance of the F7U. My understanding is that the F7U’s biggest problem, though not its only problem, was it was under-powered, a common malady of jet aircraft during that era.

          • You’re correct, David. Pilots who flew and survived the Cutlass generally believed it would have been a superb fighter with the right engines.

        • So then even the F102 “Delta” Dagger may have been a naming inspiration? Interesting thought. If so, is General “Dynamic”s too much of a stretch? Jetfire may have been wholly original but did it engender the Transformers character? Or are there just only so many name/combos available?

        • Right Bill, but then went back to a straight 6 until 1955 I guess. Of course, these were ‘moderne’ V-8’s, a bit more sophisticated than 1917.

          • Oldsmobile offered a flathead “8” from 1916 to 1923. An overhead valve “4” could be had
            between 1915 and 1923. Olds advertised a Super Sport model for several years in the twenties. I own one with a 43A 4 cylinder engine.

            As for modern sophistication, Wills St. Claire built a twin overhead cam V8 engine from
            1921 to 1925. It was inspired by the Hispano-Suiza aero engine. In 1921, 1,532 were built.
            The next year 2,840 joined the fleet. With these numbers, one would think that a car in
            their price bracket would be a success. However, the cars were too expensive to produce
            and management was poorly administered. One would have a rough time finding a mechanic capable to work on such a radical engine. 1925 they added an overhead cam six
            which was their only offering in ’26 and ’27, when they shut their doors. There are still
            Wills St. Claire V8’s on the road.

            The earliest overhead cam production auto I can think of is a 1907 Welch which also had a
            hemi-head. Jackson offered the public an over head cam engine in 1910. The Indy race saw
            a mostly stock one race in 1912. In 1916, Chalmers had a 6 cylinder model and in the
            twenties Stutz and Duesenberg jumped in with offerings.

  3. I thought I remembered a story about the Indy 88 pace cars where a CO2 cartridge could be lodged inside the ‘rocket’ side trim on the fender and when triggered it would produce a smoke screen like a rocket being fired. Does anybody else know of this or was I just having a dream?

    • Bob,
      In our years of digging into pace car history, we, too, were told the rockets were loaded in some fashion, and could be triggered to fire as the Olds raced down the track.
      Unfortunately (so we heard), wind vortices being what they are, no one had accounted for the smoke swirling into the cockpit, making life inside the car unpleasant.
      So (so says the anecdote), the rockets were not used on Race Day.
      Referring to the posts above, we, too, saw a ‘49 convertible marked as the pace car at an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway maybe 15 or so years ago. We looked at the rockets, and could see they appeared to be “functional”.
      We weren’t able to find out who owned the car, or if, by some chance it was the actual pace car.
      Would love to see that car again.

  4. The side mounted rocket had to have come from the very fertile mind of Harley—put another hundred pounds of chrome on it—Earl. We’ve had some very tasty automotive design from GM on Earl’s watch…but a rocket that might be suitable for NASA on a car?

  5. I know you’ll forgive me for getting picky Dave, but Wilbur Shaw did not own the Indianapolis Speedway in 1949. Shaw was instrumental in saving the track when he persuaded Tony Hulman, a wealthy businessman from Terre Haute, Indiana to buy it. (His family still owns it.) The track was in a terrible state of disrepair after going through the war years unused. Tony took a chance, bought the place, put a trainload of money into it…and the rest is history. Shaw was president of the Speedway from 1946 until his untimely death in 1954. For those of us who hold Speedway history dear, we owe Tony and Wilbur big time. (My understanding is the track property was being considered for residential development when Tony stepped up to the plate.)

    Dave also mentions La Carrera Panamericana (aka The Mexican Road Race) and Hershel McGriff . Ole Hersh is an amazing guy. It’s reported he was still racing at 90…yes, 90, no typo. His first race was with his fathers car one night when he told the guy he needed it to take Molly to the drive-in. For those not familiar with La Carrera Panamericana I would encourage them to check it out on You Tube and the web. In addition to Hersh there was another amazing guy in the 1950 race using the OHV Olds Rocket 88 powerplant: Ak Miller with his ford T bucket affectionately named El Caballo de Hierro (The Iron Horse).

    My deepest thanks to Dave for going to the trouble of bringing this really neat stuff to our attention.

  6. Oddly, Hydra-Matic was standard equipment with the Rocket V8s for 1949 but not for the ’50 editions. Probably was a ploy aimed at reducing (or at least not raising) base price.

  7. A great book about the Indianapolis 500’s history is “500 Miles to Go,” by Al Bloemker. ” Another is Wilbur Shaw’s “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.” I inherited some of Dad’s racing book collection. Both of these titles have lots of wonderful anecdotes about the race and the pace cars.

    • I read the Shaw book in about 1956 when I was in ninth grade. You mention the anecdotes, a couple of which I recall even long after reading the book. The first concerned Shaw meeting his wife Boots. He had gone to a Jordan dealer to see a guy about something other than a car and spotted Boots, who was employed there. He wanted to impress her so he bought a Playboy on the spot. The ploy may or may not have worked, but she obviously took a liking to the guy at some point. Another is Shaw telling about a night they were driving to a racetrack with a racer in tow. Boots was driving when all of a sudden a dog leapt in front of the car. In a moment she had to decide on the dog or race car and/or tow vehicle were she to avoid the canine. Boots sent the pooch to the big kennel in the sky, but had a sense of guilt about the matter for some time. Great stuff. Thanks for the memory Matt.

  8. The Rocket 88 was the subject of the song “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who actually were Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings. It reached #1 on the Billboard R & B chart.

    • Jackie Bretson recorded that song with Ike Turner’s band, the Rhythm Kings. Jackie Bretson was not a pseudonym for Ike Turner or vice versa. According to Wikipedia, “The success of the record caused friction within the group. After one further recording session, Brenston left Turner’s band to pursue a solo career.” The lyrics of “Rocket 88,”…
      You may have heard of jalopies
      You’ve heard the noise they make
      But let me introduce you to my Rocket 88
      Yes it’s great, just won’t wait
      Everybody likes my Rocket 88
      Baby we’ll ride in style
      Movin’ all along
      V-8 motor and this modern design
      Black convertible top and the gals don’t mind
      Sportin’ with me, ridin’ all around town for joy
      Blow your horn, Raymond blow your horn
      Step in my Rocket and don’t be late
      Baby we’re pullin’ out about a half-past-eight
      Goin’ on the corner and havin’ some fun
      Everybody in my car is going to take a little nip
      Ooh, goin’ out
      Oozin’ and cruisin’ along

      • damn, those are fun lyrics, far better than a lot of the stuff we get thrown our way today, especially where it concerns women. Love that “little nip” at the end. Rocket was truly appropriate at that time.

      • I think it goes:

        “Goin’ around the corner and get a Fifth
        Everybody in my car is gonna’ take a little nip
        Move on out
        Boozin’ and cruisin’ along.

  9. Not the original Pace Car, it was owned by the late Dave Holls. The Olds was displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum at the time. I was able to photograph the car extensively and it lacked for nothing in authenticity, down to the fender rockets and the custom padded leather interior.
    I have often heard the tale of the rockets being capable of emitting smoke but have never seen verification one way or the other. Probably not a good idea to lay a smokescreen while Seth Klein waves the green. 🙂

  10. My dad had a 1949 olds convertable . He was an Indy 500 fan and went to every race from 49 to 62. In 52 He convinced my Grandmother to buy a 52 Hudson Hornet 2 door. From New Jersey to Indy in the Hudson was much faster on the Penn. Turnpike. Speed limits in some states were “reasonable & Proper” back then.
    I remember the wonder bar radio, with a foot button, the electric windows and antenna, what a great car. Our Olds had little rocket ships on the fender skirts covering the rear wheels, I don’t know if that was stock. It was the most beautiful shade of dark red (Maroon). My dad always had the best car on our block. Wow this article brings back memories.

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