Saturday, June 18, 2011

Oldsmobile F-88 Dream Cars

The 1954-57 F-88s
Text by David W. Temple
Photos from author's collection except as noted
The original 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 on display at the Waldorf Astoria
The General Motors Motorama was launched to bring attention to the products of the corporation which included not only its automobiles from Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet, and GMC, but also auto parts and non-automotive divisions. More notably, it featured experimental or dream cars to test public reaction to new ideas. These cars also exposed the public to advanced concepts so as to acclimate them to features that would be found on automobiles in the near future as well as what might be seen in the distant future.
In 1954, Oldsmobile was represented with two experimental prototypes both of which were sporty two-seaters dubbed the F-88 (XP-20, Shop Order 1939) and Cutlass. Incidentally, prior to its formal naming, the latter was known inside GM Styling as the long wheelbase F-88 because it shared some of the XP-20’s features, but sat atop a stretched Corvette frame giving it an eight-inch longer wheelbase. The subject of our story, however, is the F-88 series of experimental cars.
Upholstery and color samples for F-88 show car
The styling of the 1954 F-88 is credited to Art Ross who headed the Olds studio. (All the stylists of GM were under the leadership of the legendary Harley Earl who brought the concept of styling to the mass-produced automobile.) This two-seater experimental sports car could easily have gone from dream car to production car with assembly being done on the Corvette line. Unfortunately for Chevrolet, their Corvette was not selling well and a divisional competitor made no sense by the time the F-88 arrived on the show circuit. Ironically, Oldsmobile was better suited to offering the sports car at the time as they already had a powerful V-8; Chevrolet would not offer a V-8 (the 265) until the following model year.
Oldsmobile’s 324 Rocket V-8 with a single four-barrel carburetor was boosted to 250 horsepower for the F-88; the engine was mated to a Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. The engine’s compression ratio was pushed higher (to 10:1) than the stock 185hp 324 that came in an Olds Eighty-Eight or Ninety-Eight and a label on the fuel filler cap specified that 94-to-100-octane fuel be used. Writers for Motor Life magazine (April 1954) speculated that the top speed of the experimental car would be approximately 150mph. Regardless of the horsepower rating attributed to the F-88, it reportedly did not run during the time of the GM Motorama tour and only after the show circuit ended was its electrical system needed to make the car run connected. During the summer of 1955, this car was used in a Shriners Parade in downtown Lansing, Michigan. It was used in other parades as well. In fact, thanks to auto restorer Ed Lucas (FEL Enterprises) the fate of the original F-88 is now known. This car was damaged by an engine fire shortly before or just after a parade in 1956. He has seen photos of the car on fire.
The fiberglass body of the Motorama F-88 was painted metallic gold with dark green wheel wells; the green paint even extended to the floor pans. A minimal of chrome trim – at least by fifties standards – decorated the F-88. A simple chrome molding ran from the tail light pod to the dip in the beltline at the door then swept back and down before turning rearward and terminating at the rear wheel opening. The outline of the molding resembled the shape of a hockey stick. Large chrome “88” numerals cleverly disguised engine heat vents on the front fenders and an “around the world” emblem was affixed to the nose and deck lid for product identity. An oval-shaped honeycomb grille filled the opening of the combination bumper/grille surround and in back a thin molding bordered the recessed license plate mounting. The oval exhaust openings at the rear of the quarters also got a chrome-plated surround. Furthermore, seven chromed bumper guards were mounted to the body-colored bumper. Long conical tail lights were mounted to the upper quarter panel extensions; a similarly shaped tail light would later be used for the ’59 Cadillac. The wheel cover design for the 13-inch wheels resembled a turbine with a three-blade spinner or “flipper.” During the Motorama tour, the wheels were fitted with black sidewall tires though these were later changed to wide whites.
Spare tire compartment
The F-88’s convertible top folded into a well which was covered with a hinged lid just as on the Corvette. Its fuel filler was mounted just behind the top well and along the fore/aft center line of the car; the deck lid opening was cut around it. The trunk, as one would expect, was not spacious, but having the spare mounted under the trunk floor and accessed with a drop-down integral bumper guard did help maximize the usefulness of the volume provided. (The drop-down bumper section would show up on other GM dream cars before being adopted for production vehicles – the Chevrolet Cameo and GMC Suburban pickups.) Of course the show car likely never had to carry any luggage anyway. Even so, the trunk was as well finished as the rest of the vehicle.
A Corvette frame was used, though provisions certainly had to be made to adapt the “Rocket” V-8 in place of the Corvette’s “Blue Flame” six-cylinder. Wheelbase remained the same as the Vette’s at 102 inches while the overall length of the car measured 167.25 inches. Overall height with the top down was just 45 inches.
Amateur's photo of the Motorama F-88 interior
The interior of the F-88 was quite dissimilar to that of the Corvette. Though it featured bucket seats, they were of a different design than those in the Vette. A bulkhead behind the seats had openings formed around the seats’ backrests to provide recesses for their adjustment in the fore/aft direction. Between the seats and positioned on the bulkhead was a radio speaker grille. The seats and steering wheel were covered in pigskin. A set of competition-style instruments was arranged vertically in three round housings beginning at the top center of the F-88’s dash. Its upper instrumentation housing contained an odometer along with a 150mph speedometer and a 6,000rpm tachometer laid out concentrically; the center one was divided into the amp (above) and temperature gauges; the bottom housing did double duty, too, with the fuel gauge in the top half and the oil pressure gauge occupying the lower half. Fresh air vents sat atop the dash along the cowl edge and in the kick panels. The console which was finished in chrome and textured metallic gold carried a chronometer, shifter, radio and radio controls. Initially, the dash, upper door panels, instrumentation stack, and carpeting were a golden color. At some point, the dash color was changed to dark green then later the dark color was extended to the upper door panels, center instrument pods, forward console, and carpeting. The steering wheel was replaced with a production type as well.
Multiple XP-20 F-88s were built. Harley Earl drove one (Shop Order 2292) which underwent numerous modifications during 1955 and 1956. GM vice president (and the former head of the Olds division) Sherrod Skinner had another F-88 (Shop Order 2264).
Sherrod Skinner's F-88

Many more details of the F-88s are available in my new book, "Motorama: GM's Legendary Show & Concept Cars."
Harley Earl had his F-88 updated more than once.

One more Olds F-88 – a completely different car except for being a two-seater – was built specifically for Harley Earl, but that is another story.


  1. cars that are vintage is one of my favorite. i love it specially they've got the great style and i know many still prefer to use these cars

  2. The 1957 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk.II, its beautiful! I would feel proud to just sit in it and take a photo! Looks elegant and strong too!

  3. Great work. that was pretty interesting. Inspiring, as well. Thanks for sharing such inspiring experience with us. Great blog, congrats!

  4. Great work. that was pretty interesting. Inspiring, as well. Thanks for sharing such inspiring experience with us. Great blog, congrats!