When one thinks of classic muscle cars, a variety of brands immediately spring to mind. Ford, Plymouth, Dodge, Pontiac, Chevrolet, and even certain AMC models recall ethereal visions of smoky burnouts, cacophonous exhaust notes, and stoplight racing glory.
One marque that rarely evokes these images though is Oldsmobile. Usually thought of as a company that built boat-sized boulevard cruisers for geriatric folks who couldn’t afford Cadillacs, even many erudite muscle car enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to point to a performance-oriented Olds beyond the venerable 4-4-2.
But I’m here to tell you, there was an Olds that was powerful and rare enough to grace the pages of this column, and the convertible version was, in fact, one of the scarcest muscle cars in history. The car? The 1969 Hurst/Olds convertible, the focus of this month’s Rare Rides.
Oldsmobile, one of the earliest car companies in the world, was founded by Ransom Olds in 1897, and until the brand’s shutdown in 2004, produced close to 40 million vehicles.
In addition to its grand success and longevity, the company was also renowned for the many firsts it brought to the American automobile industry, which included the first turbocharged engine, and the first front-wheel-drive platform.
The 1960s were the golden age for the brand, with popularity, design, and sales approaching their zenith. Olds was, however, like all the other divisions of General Motors, hamstrung in the performance department by an unusual edict that was instituted by the automaker in the early part of the decade.
The story behind it had its origins in the mid-1950s when auto racing was gaining in popularity, and the technology developed on the track began trickling down to road cars. Suddenly, the name of the game was “race on Sunday, sell on Monday,” as automakers sought to capitalize on motorsports’ success to sell more cars. Advertisements began to focus on performance, and horsepower numbers in street vehicles began to rise exponentially.
Sadly, with this steady rise in power, the number of serious accidents and fatalities on the roads of America began to mount. This, along with James Dean’s highly publicized death behind the wheel of a sports car in 1955, the demise of Bill Vukovich in that year’s Indy 500, and the death of 80 spectators at the 24 Hours of Le Mans just two weeks later, prompted concern from many figures in the auto industry. They realized that if these trends continued, it would only be a matter of time before federal authorities came down hard on the manufacturers.
For GM, in particular, the pressure reached its breaking point in 1963. Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department was eyeing the corporation for antitrust action, and in an attempt to assuage the Attorney General’s ire, a decision was made by the top GM brass. All divisions would cease their racing activities, and nothing other than full-sized cars could be equipped with an engine larger than 400 cubic inches. The lone exception to this order was the Corvette, which would be available with 427s during the decade.
The result of this was that General Motors’ performance cars, such as the Pontiac GTO, were, by and large, having their lunch eaten by their competition. By the decade’s end, Mustangs, ‘Cudas, Challengers, and Chargers were sporting massive 426, 428, 429, and 440 cubic inch monsters under the hood, with outputs exceeding 400 ponies in some. GM had no answer for these cars.
Both Chevy, in the form of the 1969 Camaro COPO ZL1, and Oldsmobile would ultimately find a way around this problem. For Olds, the journey would actually begin just a year after the 400 cubic inch ban, with the introduction of the 4-4-2.
Initially introduced in 1964 as an option package for Cutlass and F85 models, the 4-4-2 was Oldsmobile’s response to division-mate Pontiac’s success with the LeMans GTO package.
Developed by Olds engineers John Beltz, Bob Dorshimer, and Dale Smith, the 4-4-2, named for its four-barrel carb, four-speed manual, and dual exhausts, was internally known as the B09 Police Apprehender Pursuit package.
The car featured a 330 cubic-inch V8 bequeathed with a dual-snorkel intake, a hot camshaft, and an upgraded valvetrain that was good for 310 horsepower and 355 pound-feet of twist. Also included in the package was a Muncie 4-speed and a 3.36:1 rear.
Magazine tests revealed a respectable 7.5-second sprint to 60, and a 15.5-second quarter mile at 91 mph.
After four years of steady sales, the decision was made to make the 4-4-2 an independent model in the Olds lineup.
The 1968 model was an entirely new car, with a sleek exterior design and a fresh interior. Under the hood, Olds pushed the GM edict to the max, with a new 400 cubic inch, 350 horsepower, four-barrel carbureted V8 mated to a three or four-speed manual, or a Turbo Hydra-Matic slushbox. Other niceties included bucket seats, front and rear anti-roll bars, boxed rear lower control arms, and 4-4-2 badging.
Options included custom sport wheels, rally stripes, Rally Pac instruments, front power disc brakes, and the W-30 Force-Air Induction System package.
Performance was good, with 3.42:1-equipped cars capable of 0–60 times of 7.0 seconds, and a quarter-mile time of 15.1 seconds at 92 mph.
But Olds wasn’t satisfied. They wanted a car that could compete with the likes of the aforementioned muscle monsters from Dodge, Plymouth, and Ford.
At the same time, George Hurst, of heavy-duty shifter fame, was toying with the idea of building his own ultimate muscle car. Hurst had attempted to purchase a series of Pontiac Firebirds with the idea of fitting them with 428 cubic inch motors and a variety of Hurst toys, and then selling them back to Pontiac for dealer distribution. This would, in effect, enable Pontiac to circumnavigate the 400 cubic inch limit and provide George with his car.
While Pontiac’s John DeLorean was enthused by the project, General Motors’ top executives were less so. If such an endeavor was to occur, they reasoned it should happen at Oldsmobile, which desperately needed a hit with the youth market.
A deal was struck between Oldsmobile and Hurst, with Hurst’s Jack “Doc” Watson overseeing production. After some fits and starts, 515 standard 1968 model year Olds 4-4-2s were delivered to Lansing-based Demmer Engineering, which was subcontracted by Hurst to do the conversion into what would be known as the Hurst/Olds.
The cars would be powered by two versions of Oldsmobile’s massive 455 cubic inch V8 motors, with one specifically for A/C-equipped cars. To keep the GM brass happy, it was purported that Demmer would be responsible for pulling the 400s from the cars and installing the 455s, but in actuality, the reverse was true, with the cars secretly leaving the GM factory with the larger engines already installed.
Non-air-conditioned cars were fitted with the newly developed W-45 version of the 455 with a W-31 camshaft. Cylinder heads were the “D” casting units from the W-30 engine. The lump was crowned with a standard cast-iron intake manifold and a 750-CFM Rochester Quadrajet carb.
The A/C-equipped cars were given the W46 version of the 455. Significant differences included a milder cam, “C” casting cylinder heads, and a 735-CFM Rochester Quadrajet carburetor.
Both motors were given the W-30 induction system and shared the same hydraulic lifters and dual exhausts. Output on each was a healthy 390 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque.
All cars were fitted with the Turbo Hydra-Matic three-speed automatic, shifted via the famed Hurst Dual Gate “His and Hers” console-mounted system, which enabled one to manually shift gears without fear of accidentally going into neutral or reverse.
Oldsmobile’s 10-bolt, G-88 Anti-Spin differential was standard and featured a 3.91:1 gear on non-A/C cars and a 3.08:1 on the frosty ones.
The suspension was stock 4-4-2, save for modifications that allowed for a beefy anti-roll bar.
For stopping, the Hurst/Olds came with 11,” four-piston, power disc brakes up front and 9.50 x 2.00-inch drums in the rear.
Every H/O came equipped with silver and chrome 14 x 6-inch Super Stock II wheels clad with Goodyear G70-14 Polyglass whitewalls.
Inside the all-black interior were vinyl Strato bucket seats, a woodgrain three-spoke steering wheel, and the Rocket Rally-Pac cluster with a tachometer. A walnut insert and a “Hurst/Olds by Doc Watson” decal completed the dash.
A lone bespoke paint scheme was offered, consisting of Peruvian Silver with twin black hood stripes, side stripes, and a solid black decklid. Special “Hurst/Olds” badges were located on the front fenders and trunk.
Public demand for the $3,150 H/O far exceeded expectations, and Oldsmobile immediately planned changes for the 1969 version of the car.
For starters, the 455’s block was fitted with a hydraulic lifter camshaft, a nodular-iron crankshaft, and slightly dished pistons, which were again capped with D-code cylinder heads and new chromed rocker covers. A distributor that enhanced low-end response was fitted, as was a unique cast-iron intake and revised cast-iron exhaust manifolds.
The biggest change was a completely redesigned ram air induction system with a vacuum-operated flapper door that was fed by massive twin hood snorkels in lieu of the previous under-bumper design.
Interestingly, though actual output was virtually identical to the ‘68, Olds chose to publicly underrate it at 380 horsepower and 500-lbs.ft. of torque, perhaps for insurance purposes. In any case, the performance was not harmed, as the 3,855 pound, 1969 Hurst/Olds could motivate to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds, and trip the quarter in 13.9 seconds at 101 mph.
In addition to the hood snorkels, the new car was also fitted with a large, decklid-mounted airfoil, new mirrors, and unique Super Stock II 15 x 7 chrome wheels with Goodyear F60 x 15 Polyglas tires.
The silver and black paint combination of the previous year was dropped for a now-iconic scheme of Cameo White with Firefrost Gold accents consisting of hood, side, rocker panel, and decklid stripes. Matching, gold “H/O 455” callouts graced the hood scoops, and the grille was blacked out for a more aggressive look. Inside, a different wood veneer was fitted and painted gold stripes enhanced the headrests.
Demand for the new car was again strong, and this time, Olds moved just over 900 units at a base price of $4,180.
Tantalizingly, three of those cars were actually convertibles.
There was never any intention on the part of Oldsmobile or Hurst to produce a ragtop version, but at some point in the development of the ’69 car, George Hurst decided that such a car could have considerable promotional value.
Initially, two convertibles were built, one for East Coast appearances and one for events out West. The cars started life as stock 4-4-2 droptops that were sent to Demmer and subjected to the standard Hurst modifications. Aside from the convertible top which also featured a gold stripe, chrome and gold-colored Super Stock II wheels, and a large Hurst logo on the doors, the cars were otherwise identical to the hardtop H/Os.
The East Coast car made a memorable appearance at the 1969 Daytona 500, doing several slow circuits during breaks in the racing action. With George Hurst behind the wheel, Linda “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter” Vaughn waved to the fans while sharing a platform on the trunk with a nine-foot-tall Hurst Shifter replica.
That car was destroyed under unknown circumstances later that year, so a third convertible was produced to replace it. The two cars still exist today and are both in private collections.
The 1969 Hurst/Olds convertible was truly Oldsmobile’s apex predator. Never again would one of the company’s cars offer more power or performance. And as for exclusivity, the 1969 Hurst Olds convertibles are the brand’s ultimate Rare Rides.