When Oldsmobile built a Veyron
Fort Stockton, Texas — A.J. Foyt is coming in hot. Really hot. On the straights, the silver, short-tailed streamliner he’s driving is hitting speeds of close to 290 mph, heading into the banked oval at eye-blurring speed. Foyt is actually sliding the car as it reaches the banking, letting it wash up the slope a little until the tires grip. It is 1987, and the biggest Texas-born badass to win the Indy 500 is about to lay down a record that has yet to be broken.
Foyt isn’t behind the wheel of one of his Indy racers with a built and boosted Offy. Instead, he’s driving an Oldsmobile, the official car brand of hoisting the beltline of your pleated khakis nipple-high. But this thing ain’t like any Oldsmobile seen before or since: it weighs 1600 pounds, has between 800 and 1000 horsepower (depending on boost levels), and runs the quarter-mile in a hair over eight seconds at 180 mph. Super Tex set a closed-course record with an average speed of 257.123 mph over the 7.7-mile Firestone test track. Not to mention the other, even faster long-tailed variant, with which Foyt laid down a two-way flying mile average of 267.88 mph.
Talk about your Rocket 88, except that both of these scorching-fast, svelte-bodied record-setters were powered by four-cylinder engines, not V-8s. Each was called the Oldsmobile Aerotech, either ST for the two short-tail cars or LT for the single higher-speed long tail. Sketched out with a fighter-plane canopies and slippery bodywork slightly reminiscent of a Jaguar XJ220, the pair are endurance racers that never raced, a kind of tribute to Le Mans made in Lansing, Michigan.
Credit for the Aerotech’s shape goes to Ed Welburn, then assistant chief designer for Oldsmobile. The brief landed on Welburn’s desk courtesy of Oldsmobile chief engineer Ted Louckes. Louckes was the impetus behind the Quad 4, a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that featured four valves per cylinder and double overhead cams. Thirty years later, these features seem ordinary, but in the era of wood-panelled K-cars, it was hoped the Quad 4 would elevate Oldsmobile back to performance brand status.
Louckes wanted to move fast. He’d already fleshed out the basics: the Aerotech would be constructed of carbon-fiber panels laid on the bones of a modified March 84C CART chassis. The heart would be a Quad 4, one turbocharged to stratospheric power levels.
Welburn’s main task at Oldsmobile was to finalize the design of the coming Cutlass Supreme. However, like any car designer, he dreamed of working outside of the constraints of cost-cutting and practicality. The Aerotech was a dream assignment, and Welburn began sketching out slippery-looking machines, heavily influenced by the Porsche 917LH and racing Chaparrals.
Executives leaped at the very first sketch, and almost without delay Welburn was working on clay models after hours. The Cutlass was the day job, the Aerotech was the secret side project, and along with input from sculptor Kirk Jones and aerodynamics engineer Max Schenkel, it began to take its final form.
Nearly everything about the Aerotech was dictated by the wind tunnel. The cabin shape rounded out, looking even more like an F-16 Falcon, and sliding body undertrays were fitted to provide downforce at speed. Cooling needs for the planned turbocharged power plant were adjusted for minimal drag, and Welburn’s original long-tail design was eventually split into two variants, one for the lap record, one for maximum top speed.
Before that happened, the spoiler-equipped, single-turbo short-tail was taken to Mesa, Arizona, for initial tests with Foyt at the wheel. The occasionally prickly racer was not initially impressed with the Aerotech’s futuristic looks, but as the Aerotech hit 218 mph on the track and held stable, he was convinced. This wasn’t some marketing-driven concept. This was a real car, and a hellishly quick one.
Before setting out, GM engineer Bill Porterfield pressed one of Foyt Enterprises coyote racing stickers onto the nose of the Aerotech. Foyt would later joke about the lonely Fort Stockton track, with its limited safety barriers and frequent flatland crosswinds, saying that coyotes would get him first if he went off, as the safety crew would never find him.
First shakedown, and a fire. Oily smoke started seeping into the cabin and Foyt pulled back into the pits after radioing in. The problem turned out to be a small piece of insulation resting on the hot side of the turbocharger; it was removed and record-setting commenced.
However, let’s just take one quick second to have a closer look at that little hiccup. Unlike an open-cockpit car, the driver couldn’t get out of the Aerotech by himself. Foyt was then and is now a burly guy—he’s famous for his bearish strength—but the Aerotech’s hinged canopy was too heavy and awkward for quick escapes. That he went back out there is just one more piece of masonry for a Brickyard legend.
What Foyt managed with the LT car is even more impressive. The long-tail variant had never before been on a track, and assembly was only finished the day before it hit the Fort Stockton track on a warm Wednesday afternoon, and Foyt hit 275 mph over the flying mile on his third lap.
To get the record, two speeds must be recorded, one in each direction, then averaged. Both runs must be made within an hour, and there was some nervousness in the Aerotech pit crew as Foyt’s second, reverse direction run had issues first with tire setup and low fuel. Time was running out, and refuelling the car while hot was never part of the initial plan. The filler was very close to the now red-hot turbocharger.
That day, they’d miss the record by a single mile per hour. The next day, Foyt managed a 278 mph run in one direction, and 257 mph in the other, good enough for a 267.88-mph average and a place in the record books.
With the flying mile sorted, attention turned to the ST car and the closed course record. Each Aerotech had a slightly different engine, each built by a rival engineering firm. The twin-turbo LT car had proved itself, so the pressure was on for the ST to do the same.
It did, with the 257.123 mph achieved being good enough to wrest the record from Mercedes-Benz. Five years later, an additional Aerotech was built around a twin-turbocharged version of the V-8 found in the Oldsmobile Aurora. Run at a steady and unstressed 180 mph, it set a staggering 47 speed records, including those for 15,000- and 25,000-kilometer distances. The latter is the equivalent of running 31 consecutive Indy 500s.
On that warm August day in west Texas, with the sun glinting off silver paint and a pair of lasting records set, the future must have held limitless promise for those Oldsmobile engineers. A decade and a half later, Oldsmobile was gone, wound down in an ignominious end for America’s then-oldest automaker.
Still, the Aerotech taught lasting lessons. The production versions of the Quad 4 were a success, even as the brand lost its place in the market. Welburn would go on to become GM’s vice president of design, and incorporated slippery aerodynamics into the original Chevy Volt.
The cars still exist today, most of them in GM’s Heritage Collection. In the end, the Aerotech couldn’t save Oldsmobile. But with a larger-than-life hero at the wheel of a silver bullet scorching across the Texas tarmac, the future must have seemed bright.