Our youngish readers might find it hard to believe that in the early 1960s the idea of a turbocharged production car was only slightly less fantastic than that of a pocket-size wireless flip phone. But in 1962, General Motors (Yes, there was a time when GM was a real innovator) rolled out not one but two such production passenger vehicles: the Corvair Monza Spyder, and the Oldsmobile Jetfire, America’s first turbocharged volume-production cars.
The Jetfire was essentially a 1962 F-85 Cutlass hardtop coupe (Holiday Coupe, in Olds-speak) with specific interior and exterior trim and, of course, a big surprise under the hood. Oldsmobile partnered with the Garrett Corporation – then, a leading manufacturer of industrial turbochargers – and began working alongside engineers in Garrett’s newly-formed AiResearch department, a specialist division set up to develop turbochargers for the automotive industry. Together they developed a small diameter turbo and associated system exclusively for the Jetfire.
Weighing some 35 lbs., Jetfire’s bolt-on kit was based around a Garrett T05 turbocharger, which attached to the engine’s intake manifold as a carburettor normally would. A specially developed, single-barrel Rochester sidedraft carb sat ahead of the turbo in a draw-through configuration. Oldsmobile then fitted its higher-compression (10.25:1) 215ci V8 with beefed-up pistons, connecting rods and main bearings, as well as specially modified distributor, coil, fuel pump, and radiator. The transmission was also reinforced.
Remember, these were the days before electronic knock sensors; to counteract detonation, Oldsmobile employed a novel fluid injection system using “Turbo Rocket Fluid” (Best. Accessory. Name. Ever.), a cocktail of distilled water, methanol, and rust inhibitor. When the turbo operated it pressurized the system’s tank, which caused Turbo-Rocket Fluid to squirt into the intake system between the carb and the turbocharger, thus cooling the intake charge through heat absorption. While the system did work, however crudely, the contents of the 5-quart (4.7 L) reservoir lasted about 225 miles in average driving. When it ran low, an ‘Add Fluid’ light illuminated on the car’s console-mounted boost gauge, whose needle swung between Economy and Power modes just like a fuel-economy vacuum gauge. When it ran out completely, a float-and-valve assembly in the system would shut to bypass the turbo and help preserve the engine. The setup also included redundant protection: The wastegate itself, for instance, had twin diaphragms. If those failed, the fluid-reservoir cap would pop off as a final measure to prevent an overboost situation.
The Jetfire’s Turbo Rocket V-8 was rated 215 horsepower–30 more than the naturally aspirated version and an impressive one horsepower per cubic inch–and developed a solid 300 lbs-ft. of torque at 3,200 RPM. Contemporary road tests revealed zero-to-60 times of approximately nine seconds, and a top speed of 110 MPH.
Oldsmobile sold 3,765 Jetfires in 1962 and 5,842 in 1963, but problems plagued the car. Ironically, a frequent owner complaint was “lack of power”. How could this be? Well, more than a few owners simply let the Turbo Rocket Fluid tank run dry, thus negating the turbo’s benefits. Other owners didn’t drive the car hard enough to generate boost (and thus lubricate the turbo’s compressor shaft), eventually leading to frozen turbocharger assemblies. The Turbo Rocket V-8 engine ran hot and experienced the same cooling issues as other Oldsmobile 215-cu.in. V-8s. Ultimately, however, the complexity of safety mechanisms tied to the fluid injection system helped seal the Jetfire’s fate.
Although based on the Cutlass coupe, the 1962 Jetfire was the only true hardtop in the F-85 line. Inside, it was pure Cutlass (with the exception of a standard console that featured the boost gauge). Jetfire exterior trim comprised an aluminum-inset side panel, dual chrome hood spears, and specific badging. A three-speed, column-shifted manual transmission was standard; for less than $200, buyers could choose either an optional four-speed manual or Hydra-Matic, both console-shifted. Also optional were power steering and power brakes, at $86 and $42.50, respectively.
Oddly, Oldsmobile made no significant alterations to the Jetfire’s suspension and chassis, which meant it handled like a regular Cutlass–which is to say, not terribly well. Standard rubber was 6.50 x 13, although 15-inch wheels were available at extra cost.
Like its Pontiac and Buick cousins, Jetfire grew for 1963: A restyling added four inches of length and two inches of width, and gave the Jetfire and its F-85 siblings a close family resemblance to the full-size 88s. Unfortunately, handling had not improved, and most contemporary reviews were less than kind.
While 1963 would be the Jetfire’s final year, Oldsmobile did not abandon the idea of a high-performance intermediate. The following year saw the debut of a larger F-85 — now a true intermediate — that would spawn the muscular and legendary 4-4-2.
The Jetfire story, however, was not yet over. In 1965, in response to myriad problems, General Motors offered Jetfire owners a deal: At no charge to them, Oldsmobile dealers would remove the troublesome fluid-injected turbocharging system and replace it with a four-barrel carburetor and conventional intake and exhaust manifolds. Most owners jumped at this opportunity, making a Jetfire with its original Turbo Rocket V-8 and turbocharger assembly a unicorn among unicorns today.
Like many visionaries, the 1962-63 Jetfire had the right idea too soon.