1949 Oldsmobile 88: A Muscle Car and NASCAR Legend That’s Surprisingly Cheap Today

One of the most influential American vehicles of the 20th Century, the 1949 Olds 88 has the pedigree to be one of the most desirable US-built classics, but instead, it’s sometimes cheaper than a ten-year-old Toyota Camry.

For many gearheads, owning a classic car is the ultimate dream. However, if that dream revolves around a popular American-built model originally introduced before the mid-1970s, turning it into reality is everything but easy.

Apart from the desirability and rarity of such rides, their ever-increasing value is the biggest hurdle that enthusiasts have to overcome.

A 426 HEMI-powered Mopar, a 454 Chevy Chevelle, or virtually any first-gen Mustang fastback with a V8 under the hood demand huge sums, particularly if they’re well-kept and highly original.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of prestigious American classics whose values haven’t skyrocketed in recent years.

Quite possibly the most prestigious American four-wheel legend that’s still affordable in today’s classic car market is the 1949 Oldsmobile “Rocket” 88, a model that laid the groundwork for NASCAR’s rise in popularity as well as for the muscle car golden age of the 1960s and 1970s.

A brief history of the Olds “Rocket” 88

Photo: Mecum

 

During the 1940s, Oldsmobile established itself as a brand that prioritized engineering breakthroughs, like the first-ever mass-produced, fully-automatic transmission (the Hydra-Matic) co-developed with Cadillac.

However, by the end of the decade, its products were seen as more conservative, which didn’t attract many young buyers.

For the 1949 model year, Oldsmobile decided to change that by replacing the mid-range, straight-six-powered 78 with an improved model called 88.

Based on the new A-body platform, like its entry-level 76 siblings, the 88 distinguished itself by offering a powerful V8 in combination with a relatively light, low-slung body, which made it far more exciting than the previous 78.

Beautiful, somewhat affordable, and, more importantly, fast, the 88 was the factory-built hot rod America lacked since Buick discontinued the Century in 1942.

Naturally, the new model was an instant hit, and just a couple of years after its introduction, it became Oldsmobile’s best-selling car.

Widely considered the first muscle car

Photo: Mecum

 

Although the recipe of equipping a relatively light car with a powerful engine was pioneered by fellow GM stablemates Buick in 1936 with the 120-hp, straight-eight-powered Century, the 1949 Olds 88 was the first model to add a V8 to the list of ingredients.

Dubbed Rocket, which became the 88’s nickname, the new-for-1949 engine was an oversquare, overhead-valve (OHV) V8 that offered more power and efficiency than the typical flathead.

Designed by GM’s chief engineer, Charles Kettering, the 1949 Rocket V8 was an all-cast-iron unit with a displacement of 303 cubic inches (5.0 liters).

Initially equipped with a two-barrel carb, it produced 135 hp and 253 lb-ft (343 Nm), which, in terms of horsepower per cubic inch, made it around seven percent better than Ford’s 100-hp Flathead V8 available in 1949 passenger cars.

More importantly, it made the 88 – particularly the two-door versions – much faster than the competition. According to independent tests conducted at the time, the new Olds could accelerate to 60 mph (97 kph) from a standstill in 13 seconds and reach a top speed of 97 mph (156 kph).

For 1949, those figures threaded into sports car territory, but the 88, even in two-door coupe or convertible guises, was cheaper and more practical than a sports car.

So, while the 1936 Buick Century is regarded as the grandfather of muscle cars, many consider the Rocket 88 to be the first muscle car as it had a direct impact on the segment that became hugely popular from the 1960s onwards.

The first four-wheeled NASCAR superstar

Photo: NASCAR Hall of Fame

 

Apart from becoming a sensation on the street, the 88 helped revitalize Oldsmobile’s image in motorsport, mainly in the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division (the current Cup Series).

During the early years of the competition, the 88 was driven to victory by future Hall of Famers like Robert “Red” Byron, Curtis Turner, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Tim Flock, and Herb Thomas.

In 1949, the first year of the Strictly Stock Division, the 88 helped Red Byron win five of eight and get his hands on the trophy.

A year later, Bill Rexford won the championship, driving an 88, and Oldsmobile grabbed the NASCAR’s Manufacturers’ Championship, a feat that the carmaker would repeat in 1951 thanks to the same unbeatable car.

Though subsequently eclipsed by the Fabulous Hudson Hornet in the years that followed, the Olds 88 cemented its place as a NASCAR legend and helped make the competition popular nationwide.

Moreover, in 1950, a Rocket 88 driven by Hershel McGriff and Ray Elliot made waves across the border by beating Cadillac and Alfa Romeo in the debut edition of the Carrera Panamericana cross-country race. In fact, four of the first seven cars that crossed the finish line were all 88s.

A cultural icon

Photo: Mecum

 

Shortly after its introduction, the Oldsmobile 88 became an icon of the American post-war culture.

Associated with youthful rebellion and power in the hands of the masses, it was much more than a lump of metal that could get someone from point A to point B.

Perhaps the best proof of that was the popular “Rocket 88” song by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Considered the first rock and roll record by many historians, the song’s lyrics glorify the 88’s prowess.

Grossly underrated in the current classic car market

Photo: Bring A Trialer

 

The Rocket 88 enjoyed great success until 1953, when it was discontinued. Oldsmobile continued using the nameplate for the next 46 years, but none of the subsequent nine generations ever came close to the initial model in terms of popularity.

Despite being one of the most legendary American cars of all time, the 1949 Oldsmobile is currently forgotten by a large part of the classic car-loving public.

Consequently, the current value for a surviving example in great shape is incredibly low. According to classic.com, the average figure for one stands at $32,215, which, in most cases, is nearly twice as low as the value of a popular 1960s muscle car.

Earlier this year, the slightly modified maroon 88 Club Sedan pictured above sold for a mere $15,300 through the Bring a Trailer platform. That’s the kind of money you would expect to pay for a low-mileage 2014 Camry, but not for a classic American legend.

Is it worth owning one?

Photo: Mecum

 

The short answer is yes, especially if you’re a classic car enthusiast who doesn’t have a six-figure budget to make his (or her) dream come true.

Sure, the Olds 88 isn’t as powerful and doesn’t have the same appeal as a golden-age muscle car, but it’s still a head-turner with an impressive history.

You have to consider that finding a highly original example in pristine shape will be extremely hard, particularly if you’re on a tight budget, but if you don’t mind a few mods, you’ll find a cheap one relatively easily.

Last but not least, you should also keep in mind that, while not extremely rare, replacement parts for the 88 are harder to source than those for something like a mid-1960s Chevelle. Nevertheless, the car is uncomplicated and mostly reliable, so you shouldn’t have trouble keeping it in roadworthy condition.

In conclusion, the 1948 Oldsmobile 88 is an underappreciated and undervalued American classic that’s worth serious consideration. A four-wheeled muscle car and NASCAR legend, as well as a cultural icon, it’s a classic that any enthusiast should be proud to own.

For a virtual tour of a rare, highly original two-door coupe survivor, we recommend watching the YouTube video below by Mr Motorama.

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