Many of the innovations for which Oldsmobile had become known over the years were calculated to advance motoring. But the arrival of Oldsmobile's hot little V-8 engine for 1949 had the unexpected effect of turning Detroit into a haven for horsepower, and served as the origin of the 1950-1953 Oldsmobile rocket. Once the fuse was lit, there was little that could slow the ascent of that "Rocket."

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4 millionth Oldsmobile
The four millionth Oldsmobile was built in 1953,
during the era of the Rocket engine. See more classic car pictures.

It's hard to believe that the venerable Oldsmobile name has passed into history. The idea would have seemed dubious as recently as the 1990s and unthinkable in now-distant 1950. For, at the middle of the 20th Century, Oldsmobile was a force to be reckoned with -- a V-8, Rocket-powered force.

The early Fifties were important transition years for the U.S. auto industry, bridging the gap between the red-hot seller's market of 1946-1950 and the next big sales spurt in 1955. Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Kaiser-Frazer all made big mistakes in this period and wouldn't live to see 1960 (though Nash and Hudson would successfully morph into American Motors). Studebaker also fumbled badly, but managed to survive by drastic means.

Oldsmobile was far different. Though a resurgent Ford Motor Company reclaimed the title from Chrysler Corporation as Detroit's No. 2 producer by 1952, giant General Motors remained the unassailable industry leader in design, engineering, and sales. In those days, wherever GM went, Ford and Chrysler were bound to follow. But, besides having security within fortress GM, Oldsmobile, long the company's "innovator" division, took on a timely new role as performance standard-bearer, its Rocket V-8 helping touch off a "horsepower war" that would engage all Detroit by mid decade.

So although Buick sold more upper-medium cars in the early Fifties and Pontiac achieved higher volume with its lower-priced wares, Oldsmobile prospered more than medium-priced rivals by turning sooner from conservative dependability to fast, flashy cars that perfectly matched buyers' aspirations. Oldsmobile might have flown even higher had not the Korean War depressed the entire market in 1951-1952.

The foundation for Oldsmobile's early-Fifties success was laid with the 1949 models. The previous year had introduced sleek new postwar styling for GM's senior C-body cars, including "Futuramic" Olds 98s. Junior A-body models followed suit for 1949, but Oldsmobile and Cadillac went further that year with all-new V-8s, the first of the efficient, short-stroke, high-compression engines that became synonymous with Fifties American cars.

Cadillac developed its engine independently, both divisions having been encouraged to outdo each other. As GM's flagship make, Cadillac ultimately raised displacement from 309 to 331 cubic inches to maintain a "proper distance" from Oldsmobile's Rocket, which emerged at 303.7 cubic inches. Both V-8s were oversquare designs. Bore and stoke measured 3.75 × 3.44 inches for the Rocket, 3.81 × 3.63 for the Caddy.

On the next page, learn more about how the Oldsmobile Rocket was developed.

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