Oldsmobile’s Jetfire Was A World First Turbo Car With A Fatal Flaw

As the big American auto makers battled US consumer desire for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles in the 1960s, Oldsmobile figured out a way to keep its V8s: turbocharging

Remind me later
Oldsmobile’s Jetfire Was A World First Turbo Car With A Fatal Flaw - Car History

In the early 1960s American buyers were increasingly being swayed by the idea of a smaller, lighter, more efficient car from Europe, like the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle. They were cheap, easily available and used vastly less fuel than the thirsty US V8s of the era.

The US was hardly about to turn its back on big ol’ eight-bangers, though, so to combat this troublesome invasion of frugal small cars Oldsmobile looked to its F85 Cutlass. As big as a small Belgian province, it was nonetheless one of the American firm’s smaller offerings and it came with a positively minuscule 3.5-litre V8 as a more efficient option.

Image: Wikimedia/Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA
Image: Wikimedia/Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA

To improve fuel economy without sacrificing the performance of a ‘big’ V8, Oldsmobile struck up an interesting partnership with Garrett Corporation, which at the time only made industrial turbochargers that definitely would not fit on your Honda. Together, the two giants developed automotive-suitable blowers with a smaller diameter and internal combustion-focused pipework to make it run.

This T5 turbocharger was simply a bolt-on design that was installed onto a special version of the F85 Cutlass called the Jetfire. It remains one of the best names ever given to a car. Some people say it was the first turbocharged production car in the world. Others say the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Syder Turbo emerged a couple of weeks sooner, and still others say they came out so close together that to give either one the honour would be disingenuous. Both were General Motors, after all.

The 215bhp ‘Turbo-Rocket’ engine was a revelation in performance. It added 30 per cent torque to the non-turbocharged version’s output, delivering 300lb ft by 3200rpm with 280lb ft said to be on tap from just 2000rpm. Thus equipped the F85 could reach 100mph some 10 seconds faster than its most powerful non-turbo sibling and hit 60mph almost twice as quickly as the entry-level 155bhp model.

Unfortunately there were two problems with it. Firstly the suspension was still the same wobbly, uncomfortable, unresponsive and downright unstable setup fitted to the common-or-garden Cutlass. Secondly, the Jetfire engine needed a special solution to avoid detonation, or engine knock, and owners just could handle it.

Oldsmobile’s Jetfire Was A World First Turbo Car With A Fatal Flaw - Car History

It used a special tank filled with ‘rocket fluid’, a mix of methyl alcohol and water. The system needed to spray it into the intake air stream to cool it and keep combustion temperatures lower. Let the tank run dry and the Jetfire protected itself by entering into a low-power mode where the boost pressure was limited by a butterfly valve. Guess what everyone did? Yup; forget to top-up the tank.

Oldsmobile’s Jetfire Was A World First Turbo Car With A Fatal Flaw - Car History

Scores of owners took their Jetfires back to their dealers complaining about loss of power. Sure enough, it was just that they hadn’t filled the rocket fluid tank. Doing so proved too much of a hassle for people and buyers turned off the idea. The fuel injection system was reportedly erratic, too, causing many problems of its own. Plenty of Jetfire owners lost patience with Oldsmobile and the company actually ended up retro-fiting a four-barrel carburettor to fix it. Oops.

The idea was short-lived, anyway. By 1964 the US had become a bit bored of small European cars and turned back to big V8s en masse. The day of the turbocharged engine was done for a few years. The next car to use it? The BMW 2002 in 1970.