The Olds 98’s Rocket V-8 turns over lazily and starts up not with an AC/DC snarl but with a Bing Crosby burble. It seems to be mulling over something as it idles. Perhaps it wonders if it has brought enough tobacco and matches to keep its briar pipe going. A blip of the throttle produces an agreeable tremolo from the deflector-tipped exhaust, and we shift from neutral into drive. (The shift quadrant offers no “park.”) Releasing the parking brake, we amble away. Our preference would have been to blast off, as suggested by the rocket-plane hood ornament and the planet and stars on the steering-wheel hub, but our reticence to bluntly mash the pedal to the floor invites quick, clunky upshifts into second, hey!, third, whoa!, fourth, wait a minute! And the toe that usually elicits quick downshifts from today’s electronically controlled, adaptive, multimode transmissions can’t seem to persuade this Hydra-Matic to come back out of the barn. Oh, well. In addition to the satisfied engine, we hear the creaking of thick leather upholstery and the folded convertible top. We’re borne along on foam-rubber seat cushions (new in ’48) like Coronado surveying a Peruvian harbor. But the smile fades along with the need to change direction. The steering wheel is as big as a galleon’s, and the time to start turning it is now. Might the small, round brake pedal be adequate for the task of slowing and stopping? Yes, by golly! Our short drive has ended; our quest for perspective has begun.
In 1936, the small Buick Century received an in-line eight that made it one spicy meatball. (Buick advertised a 100-mph top speed.) In 1947, GM’s great research chief, Charles “Boss” Kettering, introduced the concept of a high-compression, short-stroke V-8. Until then, flathead Fords ruled the V-8 world. A movie telling the flathead’s story would have featured a cast of lovable bumpkins engaging in much commotion, with the score provided exclusively by Harpo Marx’s bulb horn. On the other hand, overhead valves operated by hydraulic lifters allowed the Rocket V-8 to debut with a compression ratio of 7.25:1. It could use high-octane gasoline to good advantage. And from 303 cubic inches, it derived 135 hp at 3600 rpm. Even more impressive was the torque: 283 lb-ft at 1800 rpm. First offered in the large Olds 98, it soon was available in the smaller and lighter 88. When a song was written about this, it wasn’t Bing Crosby’s. Instead, Ike Turner’s jumpin’ band recorded “Rocket 88,” which equated flathead-powered jalopies with nothing but noise. Rock ‘n’ roll was born. Meanwhile, an Olds 88 paced the 1949 Indianapolis 500. And that same year, Olds claimed the first of three consecutive NASCAR championships. With superhighway construction looming, a production car was now ready for 75-mph cruising. Dowdy before WWII, Olds had just told the world, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”