Oldsmobile 442 1968-72 (2nd Generation)

How many times have you wondered how a car get its name? Well, believe it or not, carmakers maintain departments and databases that are devoted to just names. Indeed, they go out and market test names to see how people like them and if the tests are positive, the new name is born. Maybe that’s what happened when Oldsmobile first named its Cutlass 442, but it wasn’t long until the first half of the name disappeared and it became known simply as the 442. Indeed, about the only people who know now about the real name of the 442 are auto historians who spend more time with their noses in their research and not enough time close to a garage.

Indeed, the 442 designation was even changed before the final version was settled on. At first, the designation stood for four-speed shift, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. The lasting designation, though, keyed on the engine size when Olds offered the 400-cubic-inch powerplant as standard. So, the final designation of the 442 stood for 400-cubic-inch engine, four-speed Hurst shift and dual exhaust. That’s quite a number of shifts for a model that actually began its life as an outlaw of sorts under General Motors roof.

Let’s do a fast-back to the early 60s, when the Pontiac folks decided they wanted a muscle car. By 1965, they had developed the GTO on the Tempest chassis and had introduced it into the product mix. In doing so, they violated GM’s prime directive – no mid-sized cars will have engines larger than 350-cubic-inches – the Tempest with its 112-inch wheelbase, was a mid-sized. It also a 383-cubic-inch mill that cranked out about 300-horsepower. It was, as they say in the thrillers, a fait accompli, there was nothing GM management could do about it, especially since it became an overnight success.

The Olds design crowd, who knew a thing or two about performance themselves, didn’t want to be left out of this lucrative market, so they decided to dovetail their own performance machine on the back of the GTO, using the mid-sized Cutlass chassis, and they took the plunge. Olds designers dove into the deep end of the performance pool in 1965-66 and presented the first 442s to the world. Like the GTO, the powerplant was a 383, but it wasn’t going to stay that way for long.

The performance crew at Oldsmobile knew how to design performance machines, especially when they hitched their transmissions to the Hurst bandwagon. At once, they knew the 383 had to be redesigned into a new, larger engine and so the 383 was scrapped and bored and stroked to 400-cubic-inches. Hurst was happy with the choice of engine size and they designed two four-speeds for it, a closed-spaced shifter and a wide-spaced. This was the situation as Olds entered the year 1967 when it began more serious development of the 442.

Historians like to say “past is prolog” and in this case it was because the 1967 and 68 442s were definitely leading up to the 1969, when Olds almost had it right on all counts. The real crescendo to this symphony of development was the 1970 – it defined the 442 – the 1971 was, for all intents and purposes a 1970 with minor changes. The later models tailed away and eventually the real muscle cars were buried under a mound of red tape, emissions strangulation and Olds double-talk.

Building on the 1967, the Olds development team made the first real changes to the 442. They cut the size of the wheelbase by about three inches to 112 and the vehicle was 201 inches overall. The 1968 Cutlass lineup, of which the 442 was a major, defining part, was all-new and fresh. The new lineup featured a new, more rounded shape that was very contemporary. It used quad headlights that were fared quite nicely into the blacked-out grille. The hood swept back up to the windshield wiper cowl and on through a sloping windshield and rounded roof. The roofline than swept into a fast-back style rear end that featured integrated taillights and chromed bumper. The 442 had a major part in defining this line and added a feature that was to mark its march to performance history, the dual hump that featured louvers that were supposed to bring air into the carburetor. Actually, the real Force Air Induction System that debuted in 1968 – the W-30 option – used air collected by induction at the bumper and that was forced-fed into the carburetor. This system alone added 10 horsepower to the published 350-horsepower of the standard 442. Indeed, by this time the 442 line had sprung off the Cutlass into a separate line of its own. And while the Cutlass did benefit from the overall changes that the 442 brought, it was the 442 that people remember.

Indeed, when all of the goodies were included with the W-30 option, drivers found they had a hotter set of cams, as well as a special engine head. The result was the most powerful powerplant in the 442 lineup. The Cutlass crowd tried to horn in with a detuned 442 called the Turnpike Cruiser that put out 290 horsepower, but that effort lasted only a year. The key to this tamer version was a lowered compression ratio 9:1 that allowed it to burn regular gas, as well as a two-barrel carb, instead of a four.

Development continued through the 1968 lineup as the standard 400-cubic-inch powerplant of the 442 suffered from some shortcomings in bore and stroke and the standard cast heads were not as reliable as the changes that were to come with the 1969 model. The key problem was the engine ran out of steam at 5,700 rpm and that effectively limited the horsepower to the 370 offered by the W-30. So, some change was obviously in order. Style-wise the 68 and 69 were essentially the same vehicle, although the 68 offered dual vertical taillights that were fared nicely into the sweeping trunklid and bumper. And, while the W-30 option offered the claimed 10-horsepower increase (it was 20, really) the standard 442 still put out a respectable 350, even with its breathing problems.

Buyers had the choice of the wide-spaced four-speed or close-spaced four-speed Hurst manual, as well as the standard corporate three-speed and a three-speed TurboHydramatic 400 automatic.

In 1969, when Olds announced the changes made to the 442, the automotive press went wild. The ride and handling department added some tweaks to the handling to make it a better overall vehicle by using heavy duty coils all around and heavy duty shocks. They added a rear stabilizer bar and re-calibrated the handling so that the 442 was far more precise and the addition of low-aspect ratio tires (wide) gave drivers more rubber to play with.

Styling remained essentially the although the blacked-out eggcrate grille left the scene and was replaced by a bright vertical grille. The dual humped hood remained – it would be the mark of the 442 until it was phased out as a performance machine in 1973, although the name remained.

Serious changes happened in 1969 when the Forced Air Induction System was modified to use larger hood louvers to forced-feed more to the carburetor. The louvers were 26-square-inches and the biggest non-race (street) louvers used on any performance vehicle. The other key change to the W-30 (442) option was the addition of low-restriction dual exhausts so the engine breathed more freely. Indeed, the engine tweaks from the 68 to the 69 made a huge difference. The 68 engine choices ranged from the anemic 290 horsepower detuned model (pushed by people who wanted to use the F-85 chassis as the basis for the vehicle) to a top of 360 HP (really 370) with a variety of rear ends that ranged from 3.87:1 to 4.25:1.

In addition, 1969 cleaned out the deadwood so that the engine choices boiled down to the standard 325 horsepower and the 360/370 top end engine. The transmission choices were the Hurst four-speeds, the three-speed and the automatic. In addition, there were some serious suspension changes. The front end now supported upper and lower A-arm control arms with some changes to the coil spring rates and new stabilizer bars. The rear suspension was a live axle with coil springs and heavy duty shocks. Just the breathing changes from 68 to 69 meant increased performance. Zero to 60 clocks in 68 were about 7 seconds, while 69 showed a .3-second gain in the 0 to 60 run. The top end for the 1968 was 108 and 122 mpg for the 1969.

As you can see the changes were having an effect. There was one other change that pointed the way to the future in that while the brakes (binders) were all metallic finned drums all around for maximum cooling, disc brakes appeared on the option list. This was another of those small changes that meant a lot. Drums fade (act as if they are not there) if they are hit hard, while disc brakes can be hit many times without fading. This is the setup used on many cars today.

Still, there were problems that had to be overcome and the 1970s model was the model where it all came together. Like a symphony, the 1970 442 was definitely the heart of crescendo of the symphony. Until the 1970 changes, the engine had a problem it couldn’t overcome – it ran out of breath at 5,700 rpm and while there was still yards of torque to play with, the top-end performance limit was troubling. One change that helped 68s and 69s was the use of transistorized ignition systems for vehicles with high mileage, but that still hadn’t solved the basic bore/stroke problem with the 400-cubic-inch powerplant.

That was until the 1970 changes occurred. The 1970 442 W-30 (even the designator took on a life of its own that year) fixed the problems that had been endemic to the 442’s powerplant. One of the earlier problems was trouble even meeting the rudimentary emissions standards of the late 1960s because of the limited top-end and the other problem was plain durability. The 400 was not the most reliable of powerplants. Enter the W-30 option package (442) which used freer breathing heads and engine blueprinting. Just those changes alone enabled the engine to easily meet the top performance of its earlier kin for 66 and 67.

The 1970 engine showed Olds had its act together. First of all, the engine size was increased to 455-cubic-inches. The 455 was the Olds “big port” engine which meant that its input and output ports allowed for freer breathing. The powerplant never worked as hard as the older 400. The new engine also put out 365 horsepower in standard trim and though it was a bigger powerplant, it was also lighter than the engine it replaced thanks to the use of an aluminum intake manifold that cut weight but kept the size the same. Using a calibrated four-barrel with a freer breathing exhaust, Olds was able to keep the power up and it cut nearly a second off the 0 to 60 at 5.7 with a quarter-mile run of 14.2 seconds at 100 mph.

The 1970, whose lines were still essentially the same as the 69, had a few differences such as a new rear end with the dual taillights fared within the bumper and trunk space. Essentially, the 442 looked like the 1969 with minor changes, such as the blacked out grille was gone and was replaced by a bright vertical bar grille, saved weight in another key area, the hood. The large hood scoops were still there and still ramming cold air into the carburetor from the outside anyway, but – and it’s a big but – the hood was 18 pounds lighter as it was a molded fiberglass unit that fit in place of the steel hood used earlier and they also saved another 20 or so pounds by using an aluminum differential cover. Also, disc brakes up front were standard with the W-30 package with drums at the rear and wider tires put more rubber on the road. It was the “baddest” 442 ever made and the high-water mark of the marque itself.

The 1971 model, other than being squeezed more by the tightening emissions standards, was a mechanical twin of the 1970, but featured a major restyle as the pillared coupe was dropped from the lineup and a the blacked-out grille reappeared along with refinements to the taillights.

In order to meet emissions and mileage standards, GM ordered the 455 detuned by dropping the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to 8.5:1. This meant the engine could run on regular gas and did increase mileage a bit, but the engine’s power – now given in net figures (more in tune with real world performance) was now down to 340 horsepower standard. The engine was still blueprinted and a low restriction air cleaner was put in place, but the cam profile was made milder and that helped to cut the engine’s output. The standard – non W-30 – powerplant’s output was 320 horsepower.

With the 1971 442 the inevitable was happening – a vehicle, which just a year before defined performance – was being detuned out of existence so that by the end of the 1972 model year, the W-30 option (Force Induction) was gone from the option sheet.

The name 442 would continue to appear on various vehicles through the 1970s and 80s but they never really matched the real muscle cars of the late 1960s and their big engines.