Automobile

GM’s early turbo cars showed early birds don’t always get the worm

Nearly every carmaker has at least one turbocharged engine in its portfolio. Even Lamborghini, which swears allegiance to natural aspiration, stuffed a twin-turbo V8 in its Urus. Turbocharging has become the norm, but it was space-age stuff in the 1960s, and Oldsmobile and Chevrolet were among the first to experiment with it. The New York Times has a great retrospective on GM’s early failed efforts that is absolutely worth a read.

Keep in mind the automotive industry looked a lot different in the late 1950s than in the early 2020s; at the time, it wasn’t alarmingly unusual for General Motors to approve two engineering programs tasked with developing the same component. That’s how Oldsmobile and Chevrolet were both given the green light to build a turbo car.

Neither division invented the turbo – planes and trucks already used them – but the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (pictured) and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder were the first mass-produced American cars equipped with the technology. Both should have done well in an era when gas was cheap and horsepower still sold cars; and yet, both failed because they suffered from a diverse selection of mechanical problems.

One issue with the F-85 not mentioned in the story is that, as Hagerty noted, the model’s introduction was kept under wraps until the very last minute. Service manuals weren’t immediately available, shipping them early would have ruined the surprise, so dealers didn’t know how to keep the turbocharged V8 engine running. Oldsmobile also asked drivers to top up the Turbo Rocket Fluid (a 50/50 mix of methanol and distilled water) every 250 miles; many felt this was unnecessary and created bigger problems. User neglect has tanked the career of more than a few cars.

Oldsmobile sold 3,765 units of the Jetfire in 1962 and 5,842 in 1963; many were later converted to natural aspiration in the name of simplicity. Chevrolet had better luck kept the turbocharged Corvair around for longer. Neither car was a success, however, and General Motors consequently steered clear of turbo technology for many, many years.

Head over to the New York Times (subscription required) for the full story. Alternatively, if it’s the Oldsmobile side you’re more interested in, Hemmings has a fascinating look at the ins and outs of the Jetfire system.

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