1957 Oldsmobile 88 Convertible
Olds turned 60 years old in ’57 and celebrated by introducing a convertible to the Golden Rocket 88 series for the first time. Of the 384,390 total Oldsmobile’s produced in 1957 only 6,423 were 88 convertibles. It is believed that fewer than 750 convertibles were equipped the 3 two-barrel carburetor J-2 engine option* and fewer still with factory air conditioning, making this documented 3 owner car exceptionally rare. The tri-power set up was only offered for two years, ’57-’58.
Ken’s gleaming Charcoal black 88 had undergone a complete restoration by the time he bought it but was showing some age. He commissioned Bob Baker of Old Car Restorations in nearby Yorkville, IL to conduct a body on major refresh. To find a concours quality 88 convertible with both the J-2 engine option and factory air conditioning today is exceedingly rare. Made in Lansing MI., It was delivered to its first owner, Joseph Allen in Sanford Lee North Carolina in 1957. With contrasting red and white leather seats the interior is further highlighted by the sparkling chrome dash gauges, the first to feature a printed circuit board, sandwiched between red and white accents.
Perhaps “Substance over style with performance muscle without being a ‘muscle car’” best describes the 1957 Oldsmobile 88 Convertible. There is no outward hint to the immense amount of power available. Under the hood, framed by the gleaming copper air conditioning lines, lurks the famous gold painted 371 cu in “Rocket V-8” with the J-2 option. The J-2 features three two-barrel carburetors, high compression heads and a low restriction air cleaner. Under light loads only the middle carburetor was used. Under heavier loads a vacuum operated system opened up the other two. The system proved to be problematic requiring frequent tuning especially if the front and back carbs clogged due to infrequent use (hence the phrase “blowing out the cobs”). The set up was discontinued after 1958. When tuned correctly, however, it cranked out an impressive 300 HP and pushed the Olds from 0-60 mph in something under 8 seconds.
While automobile styling in the late 50’s was all about flamboyant fins and gaudy chrome Oldsmobile’s style was more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In addition to the new mechanical innovations, Oldsmobile designed a new body for 1957 that displayed a wide, “open maw” grille, suggestive of a jet intake with rockets above the headlights and twin rocket-pod styled rear skirted fenders accentuating the “Rocket” theme. Wheelbases remained the same as 1954-56, but bodies were longer and two inches lower (due somewhat to switching from 15 in to14” rims), so the look was a bit more rakish. For 1957 only, the basic 88 was officially named Golden Rocket 88, taken from Olds’ 1956 Motorama two-passenger show car. However, the only badging was an “88” underneath each rocket exhaust styled taillight. The gas tank filler cap was cleverly hidden in a compartment blow the left rear taillight just above the bumper that featured dual integrated exhaust outlets.
As impressive looking as the understated elegance of the all new 88 convertible was it looked dated when compared side by side to the finned 50’s flamboyance of the DeSoto’s “Forward Look” design introduced by Virgil Exner. In the end, however, De Soto was discontinued three years later on November 30, 1960 while Oldsmobile was a successful brand for the next 44 years. Oldsmobile eventually succumbed to financial pressures too and ended manufacture in 2004.
The Petty connection:
Eager to showcase its power, Oldsmobile made a deal with Lee Petty (Richards dad) to go racing. Lee raced the strictly stock J-2 powered Olds down Daytona Beach at a blistering 144.9 miles an hour. The multiple carburetor J-2 setup was subsequently banned from racing. That year Lee ran in all 51 races sponsored by NASCAR. He ended up winning his second Grand National Championship in the 1957 Oldsmobile. When Lee’s son Richard Petty turned 21 he started his race career. On July 12, 1958, Richard raced his fathers old 1957 Olds convertible on a dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina, where he won $200 for a 6th place finish. Although capable of “blow your doors off” performance, Ken is content to preserve and display his exceptional 88 convertible for its historical significance and the enjoyment of those who remember when and who are just discovering now. The cliché “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” certainly applies to Ken’s beautiful piece of automotive historical art.
Oldsmobile was founded by Ransom E Olds in 1897. The brand became part of GM in 1908. In its 107-year history, it produced 35.2 million cars, including at least 14 million built at its Lansing, Michigan factory. When it was phased out in 2004, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving American automobile marque and one of the oldest in the world after Daimler and Peugeot.
Oldsmobile introduced the 88 badge in 1949. It was named to complement the already-existing 76 and 98. The new car used the six-cylinder 76’s new Futuramic B-body platform with a powerful new Rocket V8 engine. This combination of a relatively small light body and large, powerful engine made it a precursor to the muscle car. The Rocket 88 vaulted Oldsmobile from a somewhat staid, conservative car to a performer that became the one to beat on the NASCAR circuits. It won six of the nine NASCAR late-model division races in 1949, 10 of 19 in 1950, 20 of 41 in 1952. It was the first real “King of NASCAR.” This led to increased sales to the public. There was a pent up demand for new cars in the fast-expanding post World War II economy, and the 88 appealed to many young ex-military personnel.
Both before and after acquisition by General Motors, Oldsmobile’s were known for their technical sophistication. The list of “firsts” is quite extensive:
1957 Oldsmobile 88 Convertible
Cost New: $3182.00
* RM Auctions January 26, 2016