Not so long ago, General Motors was able to justify having at least one brand for every day of the week. In postwar America, Oldsmobile lay comfortably in the middle of GM’s brand hierarchy as the maker of cars for middle-class folks who enjoyed the latest features but wanted something more reserved than a Cadillac or a Buick. Oldsmobile’s dignified customers still appreciated horsepower, as evinced by the famous overhead-valve Rocket V-8 of 1949, but the division’s performance image was in decline by the early 1960s. In April 1964, though, just six months after the historic release of the Pontiac GTO, Olds boosted its reputation with its own big-engine package — the 442 — for its newly redesigned F-85 series, which shared its platform with the GTO as well as the Chevrolet Chevelle and the Buick Skylark.
Confusingly, the 442 (pronounced “four four two”) did not have a 442-cubic-inch engine. Instead, the numerals indicated that the car had a four-barrel carburetor (atop a 330-cubic-inch V-8), a four-speed manual, and dual exhausts. Olds was able to respond quickly to the less civilized GTO, since many of the 442’s performance add-ons came from police-spec Oldsmobiles. The $136 package (option code B09) added 20 hp and included an upgraded suspension, redline tires on wider six-inch wheels, a high-lift camshaft, and fender badges. The B09 option could be applied to any F-85 body style other than a station wagon, but no more than ten four-door 442s were built in ’64 — the package almost always adorned one of the many two-doors in Oldsmobile’s convoluted mid-size lineup: F-85 Club Coupe, Cutlass Club Coupe, Cutlass Holiday, and Cutlass convertible.
Only 2999 cars received the 442 package in 1964, but demand was high and Olds built about 25,000 units for ’65, when 442 models — now all two-doors — got a 345-hp, 400-cubic-inch version of the 425 V-8 from Oldsmobile’s full-size offerings. The first “4” now referenced the larger engine, as a three-speed manual became the base transmission and a two-speed automatic was also newly available. The 1966 model year saw a redesign and another break from the meaning of the 442 label (although Olds didn’t try to redefine it this time), since a triple two-barrel setup, known as Tri-Power in the Pontiac camp, could be enlisted for the V-8’s carburetion duty, boosting output from 350 to 360 hp.
Bob Kanas bought one of those rare L69-code six-barrel 442s, with optional front disc brakes and an electronic ignition, off the showroom floor in 1966. He frequently cruised the streets of Detroit, rarely backing down from a challenge. “When you pushed the gas pedal…yep. Killed them Goats, killed them Fairlanes,” Kanas says.
On one occasion, he was racing a Buick Gran Sport on 8 Mile Road when police from two cities arrived on the scene. Kanas somehow managed to worm his way out of a major citation. “They took that guy’s car and wrote me up for five over,” he recalls, smiling. Even though Kanas didn’t lose his ’66 442 in that memorable street race, the car was stolen shortly thereafter-when he owed the bank just a couple more payments. The Olds was recovered, but the thieves had stripped it clean and the 442 was totaled.
These days, Kanas, who worked for Chrysler for forty-two years, owns another three-carb ’66 442. However, the only vintage car from his collection of seven that he’ll subject to sharp-penciled car-show judges is the ’67 Cutlass Supreme 442 coupe pictured here. His wife, Lori, remembered Bob’s original ’66 442 but wanted a ’67 because she loved this car’s antique pewter paint and liked the styling — ’67 442s feature nonfunctional louvered hoods and a distinctive split-headlight face.
The Kanases bought this car about ten years ago. It wasn’t rusty, but it required a thorough freshening. “I tried to do this car as you could’ve bought it from the dealer in 1967,” Bob says. “It’ll run the quarter mile in 14.37 seconds.”
We don’t doubt his claim one bit. The big Olds is very peppy, even in fourth gear, thanks to its 3.90:1 final-drive ratio and antsy secondary carbs. The 400-cubic-inch V-8 wants to nudge the rear end sideways under the mildest of throttle inputs, especially with these Firestone bias-ply tires. It handles better than most of its peers, but the 442 is best suited to impromptu stoplight drags and boulevard cruising. You’ll turn the wheel plenty just trying to keep the car in its lane anyway. The steering wheel kicks back fiercely when doing U-turns for the photographer, but the big, thin-rimmed wheel provides the necessary leverage for the unassisted recirculating-ball system. The four drum brakes aren’t as bad as one might expect, but we certainly wouldn’t want to be forced to test their limits. The stiff clutch is slightly softer than the stock setup; the Hurst shifter offers longish throws but very smooth action and is topped by a black ball that feels and looks perfect in this setting. From the high, chairlike bench seat, you survey the louvered hood, whose acres of metal quiver like Santa Claus’s belly when you drive over bumps. The interior smells divinely old, and there’s a refreshing feeling of quality to the switchgear, particularly the turn-signal stalk and the window cranks. The exterior styling, typical of GM’s designs from this period, remains quite striking today.
The split-headlight grille stuck around for the 1968 model year, when the body became smaller and sleeker and the 442 became a separate model. That wouldn’t last, though — after the muscle car era peaked, the 442 was again relegated to an option package in 1972, but this time it was more show than go. The 442 name lingered until 1980 and saw two revivals before the Rocket division was euthanized in 2004.
Oldsmobile is long gone now, but the late Ransom E. Olds would certainly prefer that you remember the brand’s good times, such as when the mid-’60s 442 was advertised as “keeper of the cool” and “one of the Youngmobiles from Oldsmobile.”
Engines: 5.4L OHV V-8, 310 hp, 355 lb-ft; 6.6L OHV V-8, 345-360 hp, 440 lb-ft
Transmissions: 3- or 4-speed manual; 2-speed automatic
Suspension, front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Live axle, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Drums/drums or discs/drums
Weight: 3600 lb (est.)
Years produced: 1964-1967
Number produced: About 75,000
Original price: $2468 (1964)
It’s a very nice cruiser that has the performance to back up its look and heritage. Unlike related Pontiac GTOs, early 442s came with rear antiroll bars, so handling is surprisingly decent for a muscle car. The extradesirable W-30 option debuted in 1966, adding “Outside Air Induction” and a battery relocated to the trunk; from ’67, W-30 cars had distinctive red plastic front fender wells. All 442s from this time period have adequate space in the back seats and large trunks. Kanas’s car is a basic and pure two-door post coupe, but hardtops