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Olds W-30 was a hidden muscle-car gem

November 23, 2004|by OTTO STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

As far as deep and dark automotive secrets go, few were any deeper or darker than Oldsmobile's W-30.

It was so secret, in fact, that most of the company's dealers weren't even aware it existed.

The W-30 was meant to win races on Sunday and sell Oldsmobiles on Monday.

It was the 1960s, and the Free World was fascinated with power and speed. "Speed thrills," became a rallying cry.

Young drivers began to demand high-performance machines that could tear up a quarter-mile of dark, country road or the tarmac of the local drag strip.

Speed and styling became the raison d'etre of Detroit's car manufacturers. Every carmaker came up with a performance package and the era of the "muscle car," with big-cubic-inch engines and face-distorting torque, was under way.

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Quietly, and without fanfare, Oldsmobile became part of the movement in 1966, thanks to a little known, late-in-the-season release of the W-30 ram-air option package, which seeped out of General Motors' towers of primness. Basically, the car was an Oldsmobile F-85 equipped with a 350-horsepower, 400-cubic-inch V-8. A supercar was born.

The project actually began a couple of years earlier in 1964.

With Ford and Chevrolet banging away at each other for a bigger slice of the youth market, the General turned to its Pontiac and Oldsmobile divisions for help.

Pontiac came out with the hot-selling GTO and, six months later, Olds responded with the F-85 and its now legendary numerical designation 4-4-2, which stood for "4"-barrel carb, "4"-speed transmission and "2," or dual, exhaust. The car wasn't much to write about when compared to the stylish GTO, but it showed potential.

With its 330-cubic-inch V-8 taken from the company's 1964 Cutlass police pursuit package, the car ran well but couldn't hold its own against bigger-displacement cars, such as the 389-powered GTOs prowling the streets.

Things didn't change much until '66 when the engineers at Olds slipped in a brawny 400-cubic-inch engine topped with a four-barrel carburetor. It was a nice improvement, but still no trophies.

GTOs were still ruling the road. So, Olds changed the carb configuration to three two-barrels from a single four-barrel. The 442's power rating jumped to 360, and with it, gearheads everywhere began to take notice.

But Oldsmobile engineers weren't done, not by a long shot.

Later the same year, they quietly released the W-30. The engines received a hotter camshaft and high-tension valve springs while the components were painstakingly matched, measured and hand assembled right at the factory.

The goal was simple: become king of the drag strip. So serious, in fact, were the tech heads at Olds that they sold most of the cars in stripped-down versions only, without radios and some without heaters.

The W-30 option package was so secret that the vast majority of the general public had no clue it existed. And neither did most of the dealers. In fact, only 54 of these high-performance pavement-scorchers were produced the first year, most of which went to serious professional drag racers. (A few knowledgeable dealers converted some 442s by installing over-the-counter W-30 equipment, but they were few and far between.)

Success came quickly. That year, the Oldsmobile 442 W-30 brought home the bacon by winning the National Hot Rod Association's drag racing C/Stock category.

By 1967, the word was out about the hot, new muscle car at Oldsmobile and the company finally began to play up the W-30's existence. The result was a jump in production to 502 cars, plus a host of over-the-counter conversion kits known as the Track-Pac.

The big change for 1967 was in the carburetion. The three two-barrel setup was replaced with a Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel after GM brass mandated that only Corvettes could have the multiple-carb (known as Tri-power) setup. As well, the 442 package became available only on the Cutlass Supreme.

The next year, the 442 was named Performance Car of the Year by Cars Magazine. And that year, more 442s were built than in any other year in the muscle-car era, which generally spans 1964-'72.

The W-30 continued relatively uninterrupted until 1970 when the engine grew to 455 cubic inches and horsepower topped out at 370. The popular W-30 option (about 3,100 would make it to the street) would stick around until the end of 1972, although the 455's horsepower rating would drop to 300, more a product of a change in how engines were rated than the abandonment of any performance hardware.

But, the muscle-car bubble couldn't last forever In fact, most people believed it had already burst, due in no small part to tightening pollution laws, insurance regulations and gas shortages. The combined effect was lower engine compression and less horsepower.

As a result, Oldsmobile was no longer in the performance business, and an era had come to an end as quietly as it had begun.

Otto Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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