Curbside Classic: 1949 Oldsmobile 88 – Ghost Of The Future, Legend of the Past

I first spotted this CC on my way to work one morning. Bellingham was covered in pea soup fog and I could only make out the bulbous shape of this old ghost of a car as it blended anonymously into the gray mist.  I made a note to come back.  When I returned later, I saw this old beauty more clearly and made out the obvious: Oldsmobile, 88, Futuramic. That’s it.  I also knew my parents owned a 1964 Olds Jetstar 88 when I was kid. We called it the Tan Tank.

Dad was always proud of the “Rocket 88” motor, and rightly so. The 88 legend started with this ’49, which was nothing less than the first post-war factory muscle car, never mind just being the best car in the world at the time for the money.

Dad’s was just like this Jet. In 1964, the numbers “88” still stood for something, not just something cooked up by the marketing department whizz kids.


I was curious about the 88 lineage and found out that this CC sitting before me was the progenitor of my Dad’s pride and joy. This here was the original 1949 Olds 88 that started the, can I say, 88 dynasty?

Turns out that after the war, Olds was looking to push a more forward looking car with some real punch for returning vets who had a head for machine-driven might. The future was now, as evidenced by the awesome “Futuramic” (Why didn’t that word stick harder in our lexicon?) badging on the fender. Heck they even had a push button starter with a key switch override, pretty hi-tech at the time.

The new 88 series was a brilliant stroke: take the all-new ohv V8 intended for the large, heavier and more expensive 98 series, an install it in the smaller, lighter A-Body 76 series.

One would say it was almost, “Futuramic”!

I didn’t get to look under the hood, but here’s a shot of the engine from the web. They ditched the straight six from the 76 line and put in the a new 303 cubic inch Rocket 88, cranking out a mighty (for the time) 135hp . I’m no gearhead but I do know when you combine lighter car with more powerful engine, you get “Muscle Car”, which is why the 1949 88 is deemed by many to be the very first such thing, at least of the post-war era.

Motor Trend tested a ’50 88 sedan like this one, and pulled off a 0-60 time of 12.2 seconds; that was hot stuff back then. And it could easily exceed ninety. The 88 was the fastest car for the money, and by a healthy margin. No wonder it became an instant classic.

And just like the 88 was the first muscle car, the song it inspired is widely acknowledged to be the first rock and roll song. Ike Turner was as far ahead of the pack as was the 88.

The hood ornament is screaming toward the future at full force, and the sleek lines give it a zephyr-like quality.

Not so good shot of the interior, but lots of buttons! And the shift quadrant for the Hydramatic is just visible on the column. Olds had of course pioneered the automatic transmission too, back in ’38. By this time, it was old hat, although some of its competition still didn’t have a proper automatic, never mind a modern V8 in front of it. “Futuramic” wasn’t just an empty claim; this 88 was the most advanced car in its class by a quarter mile, and outgunned most of the luxury class too.

The only other car with a comparable engine and transmission was Cadillac; the 88 was essentially a budget Caddy, and faster too. In 1949, the Olds 88 was absolutely world-class; nothing anywhere could remotely touch its features at its price.

After chasing the 88 legacy down, I got a better understanding of why my dad was so darn proud of his Rocket. The 88’s sure have earned their place in automotive history.  As for this Gray Ghost, she’s weathered a bit, but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t still appear bold, distinctive and ready to launch into the world of tomorrow.