In some ways, the Oldsmobile V-8s produced in the '50s and early '60s period we've been examining in this series have been the opposite of the Buick nailheads in their connection to hot rodding, then and now. We're seeing more nailheads in street rods today than ever before, while the Oldsmobile motors were very popular with hot rodders and racers from their very introduction, yet we don't see that many powering modern-built hot rods. Sit down sometime and peruse a stack of old enthusiast magazines and you'll notice that Olds V-8s were perhaps the most popular upgrade for a Flathead rod or custom, and during the same decade, say 1953-1963, Hot Rod magazine drag results could give you insight into the competition utilization of Rockets.

When Charles F. Kettering developed the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission for the 1940 Olds, this was just the beginning for this genius engineer who spent some 31 very productive years in GM Research. The introduction of the "Rocket 8" V-8 for the 1949 Oldsmobiles was perhaps the pinnacle of his achievements, incorporating in its overhead-valve design such features as five main bearings, hydraulic lifters, electric starter (he founded Delco, by the way), modern ignition system, floating piston pins, and high compression. He even helped develop the higher-octane gasoline his engines would need.

Starting with that 1949 "Rocket 88" model, Oldsmobile highlighted the image of performance at a time when their body designs were very similar to low-priced Chevrolets and other GM models. By the mid-'50s and later, Oldsmobile had proven its reputation for power, and switched to touting their ever-advancing styling and comfort in an effort to stay in the rough Detroit competition for the rising middle class. Rodders were the one group who accepted the Olds V-8 for racing and hot rod use from early on, and rode the Rocket right up until the early '60s, when small-block Chevys took over for fast-and-cheap motive power.

The century-long Oldsmobile lineage of car-building has come to a close, but not without some great product. That first Rocket was the Pace Car for the 1949 Indy 500, but Oldsmobile had some racing success long before that. With the OHV V8s of the '50s, they won the NASCAR Manufacturer's Championship in '49, '50, and '51, and great drivers such as Curtis Turner and the three Flock brothers (Bob, Tim, and ex-moonshiner Fonty) were successful throughout the early '50s. Veteran Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 with an Olds, but other marques had bigger engines later on and Oldsmobile wasn't that interested in trying to stay in the racing game as a manufacturer.

The Olds V-8 engines can be considered as three progressive groups: the early '49-56 engines; the late '57-63, and the "new" '64 and later. We'll concentrate on the two former groups, larger "new" Olds engines are great, make no mistake, but the '49-63 are considered to be prime nostalgia-build material. The Rockets debuted with 303 inches and 135 horsepower, then inched up over the years in displacement, with a number of variations in power due to carburetion (2bbl or 4bbl), cam profiles and compression ratio. In each model year, the base 88 models were eclipsed by the "Super 88" and 98 models in horsepower. From '54-56, the standard Olds V-8 was 324 inches (170 to 230 hp), then the 371-incher was brought in for the '57 to '60 "Golden Rocket" model period (270 to 305 hp). Of interest to most hot rodders was the fabled J-2 option of three Rochester deuces and a hotter cam to achieve 325 ponies. For racing use in drags and NASCAR, Oldsmobile offered an "export" package for the J-2, consisting of an Isky E-4 cam, solid lifters, adjustable rockers and forged pistons. And you thought the adoption of aftermarket speed equipment with over-the-counter factory part numbers was new? Such engines had dimpled valve covers to clear the adjustable rockers. Isky obtained a pile of these covers, had them chromed and sold them to hot rodders, so finding these covers on an engine today is no guarantee the rest of the goodies are inside. These Rocket engines were heavier than a SBC, but they stood on some serious pounds-feet of torque. One last displacement increase in 1959 to 394 cubes and a top power rating of 330 horsepower, the "Sky Rocket" rounded out what we're calling the vintage years of Olds engines.