GM's early turbo cars showed early birds don't always get the worm
Almost every automobile manufacturer has at least one turbo engine in its portfolio. Even Lamborghini, which swears allegiance to the natural claim, stuffed its Urus with a twin-turbo V8. Turbocharging has become the norm, but it was space-age stuff in the 1960s, and Oldsmobile and Chevrolet were among the first to experiment with it. The New York Times has a great look back at GM's early failed efforts that is well worth reading.
Remember that the automotive industry looked very different in the late 1950s than it did in the early 2020s; At the time, it was not uncommon for General Motors to approve two engineering programs tasked with developing the same component. Oldsmobile and Chevrolet received the green light to build a turbo car.
Neither division invented the turbo - planes and trucks already used it - but the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire (pictured) and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder were the first mass-produced American cars to feature this technology. Both should have done well at a time when gasoline was cheap and HP was still selling cars; yet both failed because they suffered from a variety of mechanical problems.
One problem with the F-85 that is not mentioned in history is that, as Hagerty noted, the introduction of the model was kept under wraps until the very last minute. Service manuals weren't immediately available, shipping early would have ruined the surprise so dealers didn't know how to keep the V8 turbo engine running. Oldsmobile also told drivers to top up the Turbo Rocket Fluid (a 50/50 mixture of methanol and distilled water) every 250 miles; many felt this was unnecessary and created greater problems. User neglect has slowed the careers of more than a few cars.
Oldsmobile sold 3,765 units of the Jetfire in 1962 and 5,842 in 1963; many were later converted to natural pursuit in the name of simplicity. Chevrolet was luckier to keep the turbocharged Corvair longer. Both cars were unsuccessful, however, and as a result General Motors abandoned turbo technology for many, many years.
Visit the New York Times (subscription required) for the full story. Alternatively, if you're more interested in the Oldsmobile side, Hemmings has an intriguing glimpse into the pros and cons of the Jetfire system.
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