There’s something extra under this hood

Oldsmobile’s first-ever turbocharged engine packed extra Rocket Fluid, for extra Jet Age optimism.

Welcome to the future! Add Turbo Rocket Fluid to your Jetfire by Olds! There’s nothing like it on the road today! John Glenn is an American hero, the Minuteman missile keeps the Russkies in check, our food will soon be ingested in pill form, and we’ll have hovercars to the moon by 1980 – and with America’s only fluid-injected, turbocharged V-8, General Motors is shooting for the Space Age!

Leave it to midcentury GM to try anything interesting before scrapping it entirely. From Sputnik’s launch through Apollo’s last splashdown, General Motors was like a attention span-devoid child in a playroom. During that period it released a rear-engined, air-cooled flat-six lineup (the Corvair, of course), a mid-sized sedan with a transaxle (1961 Pontiac Tempest), a mid-engined Corvette (Aerovette, plus a dozen magazine covers), a rear-engined Corvette (XP-819), a hydrogen car (Electrovan), a plug-in hybrid city car (XP-883), a self-driving car that could interact with “smart roads” (Cadillac Cyclone), the beginnings of a rotary engine (for the 1973 Chevrolet Vega), and even genuine turbine power (the Firebird concepts) that, if built, would have truly given the Rocket Division a boost.

Precious few of these free-thinking ideas made it into production, in one guise or another—none of which we’d ever associate with a corporate behemoth from Detroit.

But who cared. The largest car company led the world, and they could afford to sit on kooky inventions, and decades later, what seems new never quite was. Case in point: in 1962, Oldsmobile rolled out the Jetfire and Chevrolet the Corvair Monza Spyder with an engine option that was revolutionary. The first production turbocharger! Before Porsche, before Saab, before any of the Europeans! From a company that gave us the 18-foot-long 1962 Cadillac Series 62 Town Sedan! Why would GM need to build a small, efficient, groundbreaking turbocharger? Answer: because it could.

The Oldsmobile division is of particular note, for two reasons: First, because it was, after all, the so-called Rocket Division, with a performance bent that captured pure jet-age optimism, and second, because of Turbo Rocket Fluid—the greatest name for any automotive accessory ever created.

It worked like this. Turbo Rocket Fluid was a 50:50 mix of distilled water and methanol, with a little rust inhibitor thrown in. Every couple hundred miles or so, you’d squirt it into a special tank right by the engine. The Turbo Rocket Fluid served to cool the engine and allow the turbocharger to run at its peak performance. 215 horsepower, 0-60 times in 8.5 seconds, and a top speed of 110 miles per hour were the result—along with a healthy dose of headrest-squishing torque. (300 lb-ft of torque, in fact, as low as 3,200 RPM.) “One hustling horsepower for every inch of displacement!” Oldsmobile bragged in its print ads. A simple turbocharger gauge had just two positions: ECONOMY and POWER. (Again, Oldsmobile: “When the needle moves—SO DO YOU!”) When the fluid ran out, as quickly as 225 miles by one estimate, a double-redundancy mechanical assembly would activate to bypass the turbocharger, thereby preserving the engine. The turbocharger itself was supplied by Garrett’s newly-formed AiResearch department. There was no intercooler.

For the 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire, a trim level of the perennial Cutlass that only lasted one year, the turbo engine could outgun the 215-cid Cutlass 185 V-8 with 30 more horsepower and 70 lb-ft of torque. “There has never been an engine like Jetfire’s spectacular V-8—” said the brochure, “the Turbo Rocket!”

And yet, the biggest complaint was, “lack of power.” Turns out, the same sort of owners who don’t check their oil for entire presidential administrations aren’t the sort of refill the Turbo Rocket Fluid—and so the turbocharger stayed off. Those who did were likely to drive conservatively, never reaching the boost, which led to seized turbochargers. Like the naturally-aspirated V-8s, Oldsmobile’s Turbo Rocket overheated more often than not.

By 1965, Oldsmobile offered owners a deal—at no charge, it would scrap the entire turbocharger and fluid injection system and replace it with a good ol’, tried-and-true, four-barrel carburetor.

Good luck finding a Turbo Jetfire today, or especially its Corvair counterpart. Oldsmobile sold 3,765 Jetfires in 1962 and 5,842 in 1963, according to Hemmings, and it’s safe to say that the ones that survived were probably converted, as per marching orders. A garage-find survivor recently sold on eBay Motors, Turbo Rocket reservoir intact, for $42,100. Even the “Turbo Rocket Fluid” system worked.

At the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW introduced a turbocharged variant of its 2002. Two years later, Porsche brought turbocharged potential to its ultimate conclusion in the 930 Turbo. And Saab’s 99 Turbo, a system that would eventually define the company, debuted in 1978, bringing turbocharged power to the near-masses.

So perhaps it’s irksome for hoary, dullard historians like yours truly to quantify such achievements with caveats: the 99 Turbo was not the first turbocharged production car, as Hemmings puts it, but merely the first successful one. But nothing is ever clean-cut in history. For Oldsmobile, which went out of business with the Aurora in 2004, there was nothing in the world that’s more representative of an idea ahead of its time.

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