Oldsmobile Aerotech

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I've spoken before about how, sometimes, the "bones" of a vehicle are so good that nearly anything is possible.

It could be an engine, chassis, suspension system, or bodywork, but often some of the best vehicles do one thing really, really well.

I'm sad that, at least in my mind, the age of having one awesome component is over. Every parameter on a modern vehicle is planned, benchmarked, designed, tested, tracked…and then produced by (often) a supplier with a competitive price.

Modern vehicles are often so well-balanced that it's hard to pick out character. (This is part of the reason I really like my Fiat 500 Abarth, it's pretty silly to put 165 horsepower into a handbag.)

Sometimes, however, in the case of vehicles like the McLaren F1, original Mini Cooper, or Citroën 2CV, the entire vehicle is so completely perfect for its intended use that people never really think of its individual parts.

And now, let's talk about the Oldsmobile.

Setting a world speed record for promotional purposes is nothing new, and is (frankly) a pretty dangerous way to get attention. Ted Louckes, Oldsmobile's chief engineer, knew this but had a rather difficult problem to solve: How, exactly, to extoll the virtues of the division's brand new Quad 4 engine.

With 2.3-litres, 150 horsepower, and 160 lb-ft of torque, it was a match for just about any 4-cylinder engine—and even some V6s—including those from Honda and Toyota. It was a nice engine—punchy—but was introduced probably a decade or two too early (and with the wrong GM division.)

Nobody told anyone at Oldsmobile that it'd be the last engine the division would develop completely in-house, and so for its debut in 1987 it was decided to set a speed record.

This is a good time to mention: they wanted to beat the 250.919 mph record set by the turbocharged V8-powered Mercedes-Benz CIII (IV) prototype.

In light of this, the engineers had to push every aspect of the car's design, so built the Aerotech from a March 84C IndyCar chassis. (Although Adrian Newey may have had input into its design, his first complete design is said to be the 85C.)

OK, so…IndyCar chassis, 2.0-litre version of the Quad-4 with more than 900 horsepower…

That's where the project was at when Ed Welburn, then a design assistant at Oldsmobile, heard about it. According to an Automobile article, Welburn said it was a dream project because he loved the cars that ran at Le Mans, and kept sketching them.

An executive saw his first Aerotech sketch and that was it: the project went into high gear.

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After the dust had settled and the aerodynamic testing was done, it was lowered onto the pavement at the GM proving grounds for a very skeptical AJ Foyt to test. He was worried that such a low-drag shape could be stable at high speeds, so the car was tested fitted with its rear spoiler and short tail.

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Foyt hit 350 km/h (218 mph) during that first test. To get the record, the Oldsmobile team needed more time and more development dollars, which they quickly found when GM executives blessed the program. A second Aerotech was made—this time, with a twin-turbo 2.0-litre Quad-4 engine good for more than 1,000 horsepower.

In August 1987, the more prepared team convened at the Fort Stockton Test Center in Texas. With the FIA watching, his practice runs in the long tail car were hitting speeds of 442 km/h (275 mph.) The next day, he set a new flying mile record of 267.399 mph (429 km/h) in the long tail car.

The final Aerotech version, powered by a V8 engine.

The final Aerotech version, powered by a V8 engine.

Following that, he hopped into the short tail design and wiped Mercedes-Benz from the top of the closed-course speed record chart with a 257.123 mph (413 km/h) run.

Five years later, with the debut of the Aurora V8 engine (and Aurora luxury division), the two Aerotech cars were dusted off and joined by a third. 

All three were fitted with lightly-modified 4.0-litre Oldsmobile Aurora V8 engines and were tasked with setting new endurance records, specifically the 10,000 km (6213 mile) and 25,000 km (15,534 mile) speed records…which were also held by Mercedes-Benz.

But break them they did. The record attempt lasted eight days and, according to Oldsmobile, was like running 31 Indy 500 races back to back.


Sources / Recommended reading