Its top speed was just 97 mph, and it took a full 13 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph from a standing start. Still, it was arguably America’s first muscle car. The 1949 Oldsmobile 88 combined a new overhead valve Rocket V8 engine with a lighter, more streamlined design to offer a truly exhilarating ride. Compared to the big 98 series cars of the time, the 88’s proportions were decidedly more modest. America’s first muscle car was just 202-in long and 75.2-in wide.

The engine design for the Rocket 88 came from GM’s chief researcher, Charles Kettering. He saw the potential in an engine design offering increased compression. For the Rocket 88, Oldsmobile came up with a 303 cubic inch V8 capable of a maximum 135 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque. The overhead valve engine concept offered both power and efficiency, with an improvement in fuel economy (estimated at about 10 percent better than prior engine designs). 

The Rocket 88 could be purchased with a deluxe trim package that added chrome and a clock to the interior. However, a buyer had to come up with even more cash to get a radio… a lot more. Adjusted for inflation, the $100 radio would cost $980 today.

Some at GM wanted to see Kettering honored by having the car named after him. However, top execs would have none of it, as the company had a strict policy against naming anything after an individual that was still alive, and Kettering was very much so at the time. The “Rocket” name was rumored to be hated by many GM executives at the time. Little did they know how successful the name and the car would  become, with the 88 produced by Oldsmobile until 1999!

By the mid-fifties, other overhead valve entries from Dodge, Pontiac, Plymouth and Lincoln would kick the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 to the curb in the performance category. However, by then, the Rocket had secured its place in history, as America’s very first muscle car.

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Photo Credit: 1949 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 Sedan by Sicnag (CC BY 2.0).