|1957-1958 J2 Golden Rocket
There's no doubt about it; you have to
have a good imagination to see the 1957 Oldsmobile 88 as a NASCAR
racer. With its 1950s American styling and tipping the scales at something approaching two
tons, this Olds is very different from today's aerodynamic,
workshop fabricated race machines. However, it was so effective
with its new engine as an oval track race car that US stock car racing's controlling body quickly
banned it from competition.
This NASCAR Oldsmobile was no ordinary 88; it was built for speed, courtesy of the
new 371 CID J2 engine. The J2 engine was a further development of Oldsmobile's original high compression
Rocket V8 that came to life in 1949 with a displacement of 303 and later
324 cubic inches. The original was a good motor, detailed elsewhere, but
lacked the punch to move the big GM sedans on the street. The 371 J2 was
a different story. During the early to mid 1950s, the single carbureted Rocket
V8 was a regular winner in NASCAR, but by 1957 competition had caught up
and surpassed Oldsmobile. It was time to even the score.
The factory performance race was in full swing, and the track was the place to prove who was king. Showroom sales depended on racetrack
success; Chrysler had the 300, Chevrolet had its new 283 small block, and Ford was experimenting with
supercharging on the 312. Oldsmobile's solution was to increase the
Rocket's displacement to 371, raise the compression from 9.5:1 to 10:1,
add three Rochester 2 barrel carburetors, and dual exhaust. The new
engine was known as the J2 Golden Rocket and now packed enough
horsepower and torque to do some real damage.
Under normal driving road conditions, the center choke equipped 280 cfm Rochester
2G two barrel carburetor fed the big V8. When the accelerator was
floored, two more Rochester 2Gs, each flowing 290cfm, opened
up, giving the engine the benefit of 860cfm.
The J2's extras bumped the 371's power from its normal 277 bhp up to an
impressive 300 bhp and 415 ft/lbs of torque. These were very good
numbers for 1957.
Oldsmobile now went in search a of driving heavyweight and came up with Lee Petty,
father of NASCAR legend Richard Petty and winner of the 1954 Grand National Championship.
Eager to showcase its new
engine's power, Oldsmobile made a deal that took place prior to the AMA racing ban.
After initial preparation, which included
an engine blueprint, solid cam, and adjustable rocker arms to distinguish
it from the factory stock version, the J2 hit the track.
Petty took the J2 powered Olds down the beach in the 1957 Daytona speed week
contest at 144.9 miles an hour.
Bill France took one look at the numbers and promptly banned the engine in that configuration. He was correct in citing that it was not a regular production engine when it was initially introduced. Olds quickly changed
that by offering the J2 to the public, but by then the ban was in place and France's ruling would
remain. That put Oldsmobile's participation in Petty's racing activities
at a standstill.
Below, a photo of one of Lee's Oldsmobiles in the Petty junkyard
in Level Cross. (No, it isn't there any more, they closed it) Petty
raced the 1957 models for 2 years, winning his second NASCAR title.
Oldsmobile did not provide any cars or help in 1958.
More changes were to come. Due to the AMA racing ban and pressure from
the public because of the mounting highway death toll, Oldsmobile
pulled the J2 from the option list after the 1958 model year.
After that, if you wanted to go fast you had to order parts and get
under the hood. The J2 Tri Power setup will NOT fit the 303, 324 or 394.
Offenhauser made a 3 x 2 manifold for the 371, shown below.
Oldsmobile produced 49,187 hardtops in 1957, making it the second most
popular 88 body variant. Approximately 2500 were fitted with J2
packages during the 1957 and 1958 model years. Countless others were
made at home by enterprising mechanics who knew what parts to order from
The 1957 and 1958 J2 Golden Rocket engines had three two barrel carburetors with
vacuum operated progressive linkage. Only the center carburetor was mechanically connected to the throttle pedal, and it was the only one equipped with a choke. When the center carburetor was opened
60° or more, engine vacuum drawn from the windshield wiper pump would simultaneously open the front and rear carburetors.
I suppose it still worked when it was raining. These carburetors did not open progressively; they were either open or closed.
The J2 engine also had a thinner head gasket, raising compression to 10.0:1. It was advertised with
very conservative gross power and torque ratings of 312 hp @ 4600 rpm and 415 ft·lbs
@ 2800 rpm. Oldsmobile charged a mere $83 for the J2 option. A special
competition J-2 package was available also, but it cost $385 and had
enough internal modifications that it was recommended only for
competition and off road use.
In practice, owners who did not regularly drive hard enough to engage the front and rear carburetors experienced problems with the linkage and carburetor throats becoming clogged, and some
J2 equipped cars had the front and rear carburetors removed and blocked off. The package was expensive to produce, and Oldsmobile discontinued it after 1958.
Typical times for the 3700 lb car in street trim ran 0-60 in just under
8 seconds with the quarter mile in the high 15 second range. Top end was
These were good running cars,
although not in the same league as the 300. They were Oldsmobile's
first real foray into street performance, and it worked out well. The
tradition would resurface from time to time, particularly with the
Starfire, and culminating in the 442.