When World War II interrupted production of civilian vehicles, those that in normal times would have been replaced as they wore out were instead patched and repatched as owners squeezed the last bits of useful life out of them. Many could barely be kept on the road by the war’s end and that created a sellers’ market with a buyer for nearly any new car or truck, so automakers quickly reintroduced their 1942 models with mild updates and called them their 1946 lines. It couldn’t go on forever, of course, and the manufacturers soon launched up-to-date designs. At Oldsmobile, that provided a rare occurrence in which one car helped to bring in the future as it phased out the past.
Oldsmobile by 1924 had settled into building straight six- and eight-cylinder flatheads exclusively, but the industry’s wartime experience created an awareness of the possibilities for engines able to take advantage of the high-octane gas expected to be widely available. Flatheads could not do so, but overhead-valve engines could and Oldsmobile began working in that direction. The first production Rocket V-8 was built on September 8, 1948 and – with Cadillac’s unrelated OHV V-8 introduced at about the same time – was notable for pointing to the future. The 90-degree Olds engine developed 135 horsepower from its 303-cubic-inch displacement, but did so with oversquare dimensions; its pistons’ stroke was shorter than its cylinders’ diameter and that meant more rpms, less piston-travel and -wear, better cooling and a smaller, lighter design.
The straight eight was gone and that might have been enough, but Olds had unveiled its first new postwar car during the 1948 model year and the Futuramic 98 bore only the slightest family resemblance to the other Oldsmobiles with their prewar styling. Smoother sides and cleaner lines helped the 98 look long, low and modern, meaning it was only natural that the new style would be extended to the entire Olds catalog in 1949. That included the 76, which still relied on the flathead six. That car weighed less and rode a shorter wheelbase, making it the perfect candidate for the V-8.
The result was the 88 and while Olds advertised that it was the “lowest-priced car with ‘Rocket’ engine,” it also emphasized “the way it goes” and promised “that swift-surging Rocket response … that soaring, air-borne ease of travel.” The ad told prospects that “to appreciate an 88, you’ve got to try it … Only then will you experience the maneuverability that goes with the 88’s compact Body by Fisher.” The public did appreciate the 88, but among the 100,274 sold in that first year were a mere 1355 wood-and-steel station wagons. It was the last year for the Fisher-bodied woody at Olds and although steel was now used for the roof and the lower door panels, the overall effect remains pleasing.
This car has received a ground-up professional restoration by Penn-Dutch Restoration Services, and was completed in October 2015. The wood’s light framing and dark paneling contrast nicely with the metallic green exterior as do the new chrome and wide whitewalls. Inside, fresh red leather upholstery and red carpet compliment the wood side panels and window-framing while the dashboard blends a red surround with a metallic bronze panel and chrome dressing on the gauges and controls. Chrome skid strips protect the carpeting in the cargo area and on the rear of the back seat, which folds forward and flat to increase carrying capacity. If the car must be driven with the tailgate down to accommodate an oversize load, pushrods automatically flip the taillights as the gate is lowered so that they remain visible.
Under the hood, the bronze “Oldsmobile Rocket” valve covers with their guides to hold the spark plug wires adorn the V-8. New wiring and detailing make the engine look like it did in 1949 when Oldsmobile felt it was a good idea to send demonstrators equipped with see-through Plexiglas hoods to help its dealers promote what was then the state of the art.
Given its unusual position as a first-year example of the 88 and a last-year example of an Oldsmobile woody, the car is both uncommon and desirable. With the V-8, the Hydra-Matic Drive and such conveniences as the AM pushbutton radio and the clock mounted atop the dashboard, this station wagon is one that presents an opportunity for a collector who appreciates comfortable touring as much as appearance and history.
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