American Muscle: Oldsmobile 442

Classic Cars

Living in the shadow of the Pontiac GTO wasn't easy but for a few years after 1965, the Olds 442 more than held its own.

Many people with a keen interest in muscle cars and an extensive knowledge of automotive history consider the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 to be the first example of muscle car thinking, having a big V8 in a midsize car. So the muscle car era wouldn't have been the same if Oldsmobile didn't have a muscle car to offer, and that car was the 442. Before we get into the 442, we would like to clear up the name. It is a very common misconception that the 442 was so named because of the displacement of its engine, but this is not the case.

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A number of different engines were offered for the car, but not one of them displaced 442cu-in. The name refers to the 4-barrel carburetor, 4-speed transmission and 2 exhaust pipes, which is why the name is often written as "4-4-2" in Oldsmobile literature. It is pronounced "four-four-two", and you would give yourself away as a muscle car novice by saying "four-forty-two". The 442 was a performance package offered for the Cutlass starting in 1964. It was built as a response to competition, but weirdly, this competition was coming from inside GM, rather than an actual outside rival.

In this case, the car which Oldsmobile set their sights on was the Pontiac GTO, a performance version of the mid-level Tempest. The desire to compete with the GTO put the engineers at Oldsmobile in an uncomfortable position. The Cutlass was built on the same platform as the Tempest, so they would be starting on equal footing, but GM had a rule in place at the time that mid-level cars could not be equipped with engines over 330cu-in in displacement. The GTO blatantly broke this rule, but Olds was unwilling to do so, and the first 4-4-2 Package was seemingly mild when compared to the GTO.

This actually seemed worse than it was, although the 330 engine in the 442 was noticeably smaller than the 389 engine in the GTO, Oldsmobile had reworked the 330 Police Apprehender Pursuit to make it more powerful, and in the end it produced 310 horsepower to the GTO's 325, not a huge gap. But this setup, along with the original meaning of the 442 name, would only last one year. GM would give in in 1965, and dropped its 330 cubic inch rule, and with that the 442 got a new 400cu-in V8 for '65. This produced 345 horsepower and 440lb-ft of torque, and Olds now said that 442 stood for 400 cubic inches, 4 barrel carburetor and 2 exhaust pipes.

Pontiac would naturally escalate things on their side as well, but we'll cover that later in this series in the piece about the GTO. 1965 also saw the introduction of the Hurst shifter in the 442, now considered a must-have accessory by 442 collectors. Sales of the 442 still trailed those of the GTO, and in 1966 Oldsmobile introduced a version of the 400 engine with triple two-barrel carbs to replace the single four-barrel on the standard version of the engine. This bumped horsepower up to 360, but was destined to last for only year. In 1967 GM made a new rule that the Corvette was to be the only car in the whole of GM's lineup to make use of multiple carburetors.

Sales still managed to pick up a bit, but it must have been a frustrating year to be an Oldsmobile executive. The 400 engine was redesigned for 1968, with a longer stroke but smaller bore. Displacement and horsepower would remain the same with this new setup, but peak torque would now become available at lower revs. The thinking was that this would help 0-60 and quarter-mile times, but in the end it doesn't seem to have. This was also the first year of the Hurst/Olds 442s, a proper special edition, rather than just a 442 with some Hurst performance parts.

These are the most coveted of all the 442 models, and the 390 horsepower models for 1968 were built in very small numbers, coming to just 515 units total. The competition in the muscle car segment was near its peak in 1969, and Oldsmobile answered this by introducing a 455cu-in V8. This started as an option, but would become the standard 442 engine by the following year. It was rated at 365 horsepower and 500lb-ft of torque, but the horsepower number is likely to have been underrated. This was the norm for most big-block V8s at the time, since the high insurance rates which came with high horsepower were feared to drive away prospective buyers.

This was essentially the peak of the 442, and it would last through 1971 before the inevitable decline. The 442 had been made a separate model in 1968, something which didn't actually happen to that many muscle cars, but it went back to being an option package for the Cutlass in 1972. Making matters worse, this package was just a handling and appearance package, with the big power figures disappearing even faster than they had come. The package stayed on with the Cutlass until 1980. It was revived again for '85-'87 for a version of the Cutlass Supreme which history sometimes forgets was actually pretty decent.

The badge lost all respectability in 1990 and 1991, when it was applied to a version of the Cutlass Calais, a 180 horsepower, four-cylinder front-wheel-drive sad attempt to claim sportiness. How far the name had fallen.