If there is a single race known to most American drivers, it’s the Indianapolis 500. When it started in 1911, it was a laboratory where automobile manufacturers developed their products. After World War II, though the race cars had long since diverged from road cars, the Memorial Day pageantry of Indy was still America’s national showcase of automotive prowess.
That nationwide familiarity with the 500 long meant that an invitation to provide a pace car for the race was the best free advertising available to any manufacturer that wanted to promote a performance image. From 1949 to 1970, the list is loaded with Detroit’s sportiest machines: Oldsmobile 88 (with the brand-new Rocket V-8), Mercury Eight, Chrysler New Yorker (with the first-year FirePower hemi V-8), Ford Crestline, Studebaker Commander (with its nearly new OHV V-8), Dodge Royal 500 (with the new Red Ram hemi V-8), Chevrolet Bel Air (in the first year of the legendary small-block V-8), De Soto Adventurer, Pontiac Bonneville, Chrysler 300, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Sport Fury, and so on.
It was still true in 1974, when Olds introduced the latest iteration of the Hurst/Olds with the proclamation “Guess who’s leading the pack at Indy again?” The 1974 race would be the fifth time an Oldsmobile had paced the event since World War II, a streak started by the 1949 88. That new “Rocket 88” was arguably the instigator of the first postwar horsepower wars, thanks to its new OHV V-8 and relatively lightweight A-body platform. By ’74, the 88 had long since moved to the B-body platform and the A-body, now an intermediate, underpinned the Cutlass series.
At that point, nearly halfway through “The Me Decade,” street performance had been steadily diminishing since the highs hit only a couple years earlier. Even in the intermediate segment, once the stronghold of pure muscle, personal luxury had taken hold as a replacement. Nevertheless, Oldsmobile had successfully blended performance with style in the 1950s and ’60s and wanted to do it again in the ’70s — even if insurance companies, government regulators, and OPEC had put the kibosh on the high-compression, high-rpm V-8 engines of the late ’60s
The H/O started out in the 1968 model year, when George Hurst and Jack “Doc” Watson shoehorned an Oldsmobile Toronado 455, tuned up to 390 horsepower, into a regular 4-4-2 (replacing its 400-cu.in. engine) and treated it to special paint and graphics. The result, built for Oldsmobile in quantity by Lansing, Michigan-based Demmer Engineering, allowed General Motors to maintain the fiction that it did not permit engines in excess of 400-cu.in. in its intermediate line, while simultaneously permitting Olds dealers to sell what the public really wanted.
Thanks to its origin via back-door shenanigans and immensely respectable performance, the 1968-’69 H/O is remembered as one of the top-tier muscle cars of its era, ranked by enthusiasts alongside Chevrolet COPOs, Pontiac Royal Bobcats, Holman-Moody Fords, and the unrestrained triple-carbureted and Hemi-powered machinery from Plymouth and Dodge. The advantage the Oldsmobile had over most of that specialist performance, however, was that you could get one virtually anywhere.
Oldsmobile had revived the Hurst/Olds concept for 1972, when it was invited to provide the pace car for that year’s Indy 500 (see HMM #181, September 2018) and discovered that the then-current iteration of the 4-4-2 (really just a handling-and-appearance package on the Cutlass S) wasn’t quite exciting enough for the job. That’s somewhat ironic, as the Hurst/Olds had originally been discontinued after 1969 because the massive Oldsmobile 455-cu.in. V-8 had become available as a regular production option, meaning the ’70 4-4-2 had been perfectly suited to its own pace-car duties.
The Cutlass was a hit in the ’70s and into the ’80s, surpassing the Delta 88 as the best-selling Olds for the 1975 model year and then becoming America’s best-selling car, period, for 1976 and again for 1978 to 1981. The Hurst/Olds wasn’t around that whole time, but in its periodic revivals, it served as the Cutlass line’s halo car. If Oldsmobile and the Cutlass were still around, we might even have one today on that Alpha platform shared with the Chevy Camaro and Cadillac CTS.