Friday, October 2, 2009

1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire - The First Mass Produced US Turbo

This car was high-tech back in the early sixties. GM was adventurous back then.

The Oldsmobile Jetfire was an intermediate size car with an all aluminum V8 and a turbocharger. Turbos were not new, their history dates back to 1905, but they weren't often seen on American cars, especially American cars coming from a major manufacturer. The Jetfire was the the first mass produced turbo car, beating the introduction of the Corvair Spyder by about a month.

The turbo was co-developed by GM and Garrett AiResearch. Oldsmobile engineers chose a small-diameter turbo unit to speed up the turbo's response and to limit turbo-lag. They used a waste-gate and the turbo pressure was kept at 5 PSI. With a 3 speed automatic transmission, the car got to 60 MPH in under 10 seconds.

One of the more interesting features of this car was the "Turbo-Rocket Fluid" reservoir. "Turbo-Rocket Fluid" (gotta love those 1960s terms) was a mix of equal-parts distilled water and methyl alcohol, along with a bit of rust inhibitor. Whenever the driver stepped on the gas pedal, the reservoir was pressurized, causing a small amount of fluid to be injected into the air-fuel mix just before it reached the intake-side impeller. As the fluid evaporated, it absorbed heat from the intake air, holding down combustion-chamber temperatures and preventing pinging. A novel idea, but one that caused problems for the car's image. According to Jetfire fans, a reservoir full of fluid lasts between 200 and 2000 miles, depending how the car is driven. If the car runs out of fluid, a throttle-body valve closed to prevent full-power acceleration. Many people let the reservoir run dry and then complained about the car's lack of performance. The 1960s American consumer was not used to doing any maintenance on their cars, let alone having to buy special fluid from the dealer. This became such a problem that in 1965 General Motors offered to convert turbocharged engines into conventional four-barrel carbureted versions at no cost.

Other than the engine and some special trim, the Jetfire was standard issue Oldsmobile F-85 / Cutlass. The suspension was built for comfort, not for handling and the steering was numb.

Less than 10,000 Jetfires were build between 1962 and 1963. A minuscule number by GM standards. The car and the turbo were considered a failure. Chevy built turbo versions of the Corvair (the Spyder and Corsa) until the end of the 1966 model year. GM would not use a turbocharged engine again until 1978 (this time on a Buick).

Also of note is the 215ci aluminum engine itself. This engine is credited to Buick and Buick used it (in non-turbo form) in their Special and Skylark models. After only a few years of use, GM decided it was too small. They sold the design, tooling and manufacturing rights for the engine to Rover. The engine was ultimately used in Rover automobiles, the Triumph TR8, Morgans, TVRs, the MGB GT V8, MG RV8, and until just recently, Land Rovers and Range Rovers (it was used in many other small volume cars, too). It may be one of the Top 10 great engines of all time. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, GM, then seeing the need for a lightweight V8, tried to buy the engine back from Rover. Rover said "thanks, but no thanks."

The car being offered on eBay is a very nice restored car. It comes with a spare engine. It's one of those cars that if I had unlimited funds and storage space I'd buy just for its uniqueness and historical value.

Click here to see the eBay listing.

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