• VIDEO: Oldsmobile’s Rolling Lab From The ’80s Was A 300 MPH Beast

The Oldsmobile Aerotech proved the worthiness of Olds’ Quad 4 turbo engine

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It’s been 16 years since the last Oldsmobile Alero rolled off the Lansing, Michigan plant’s production line thus ending the 106-year-old history of Oldsmobile. 20 years prior, nobody could predict the end was quite so near as the company was trying really hard to re-establish itself among buyers that weren’t the age of your grandfather and it was doing that through technology.

A new, compact DOHC, 16-valve four-banger named the Quad 4 was supposed to lead the offense, and Oldsmobile went to great lengths to showcase just how amazing that powerplant really was. How great? Well, they built the car that still holds to this day the world speed record on a closed course.

Oldsmobile’s clothed Indycar was a speed king

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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The last car Oldsmobile ever made was a boring, dated sedan.

It was much the same story in the mid-’80s when stuff like the Cutlass Supreme, the Delta 88, or the even larger 98 weren’t really the sort of cars that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck and the youth was staying well away from them. In a bid to shift its demographics, Oldsmobile poured money into a new engine that would help it compete not only with its home-grown rivals but with the best from Europe and Japan as well.

Ted Louckes, the Chief Engineer on the Quad 4 engine, and his team’s work focused around an inline four-cylinder unit featuring dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, pretty innovative things back then. The engine was designed to welcome a turbocharger in some applications but it was potent enough even with one.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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As the first DOHC four-pot built entirely in-house by a GM brand, the Quad 4’s initial figures were impressive for the time: in 2.3-liter guise, the Quad 4 put out 150 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque at a time when Honda’s bigger 2.5-liter V-6 was good for 151 horsepower and 154 pound-feet around that same time.

With an iron block and aluminum heads, it wasn’t that heavy either and Louckes persuaded GM’s top suits that a one-off prototype acting as "an extreme testing environment" for the Quad 4 would be an appropriate way for Oldsmobile to gain some publicity while also having its engineering prowess displayed for everyone to see.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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With the project receiving the green light, Louckes quickly drew up what he wanted: a March 84C CART single-seater chassis hidden underneath a low-drag body made out of carbon fiber that would be motivated by a 2.0-liter version of the Quad 4 equipped with a racing turbocharger that would allow it to develop anywhere between 800 and 1,000 horsepower.

Ed Welburn, then-Assistant Chief Designer at Oldsmobile and later GM’s VP of Design, was asked to find time in between shifts designing the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme to pen the body of Oldsmobile’s ultimate testbed. "I loved cars that ran at Le Mans," Welburn told Automobile Magazine back in 2010, "like the Porsche 917s, and especially the Chaparrals. I often found myself sketching such vehicles as a side while working on the W [body] cars, and the Aerotech project was my dream assignment." That would end up being the name of the car and Welburn was aided by aerodynamics engineer Max Schenkel who worked tirelessly in the wind tunnel to finalize the shape of the canopy and other parts of the body.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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But the general shape of the car had been locked in place almost since day one as Oldsmobile’s Executive Design Director Len Casillo liked Welburn’s first sketch so much he ordered clay models to be built and, eventually, the final product looked a lot like that first draft. "His initial design was very good, [as] it had a lot of potential for low drag, but we needed to refine a few aspects," remembered Schenkel who worked with clay models done by Welburn and Kirk Jones who loved going from the Cutlass Supreme to the Aerotech every evening.

While that initial design featured a long tail setup, a short tail one with a single-layer wing on top of the rear deck was also conceived as Oldsmobile was aiming for the world speed record on a closed course. Mark Donohue had done 221.16 mph around Talladega in a modified Porsche 917/30 and that was pretty much Oldsmobile’s initial benchmark although by then the record belonged to Mercedes’ +250 mph CIII-IV prototype. In the end, the long tail version (nee LT) was used to smash the flying mile record while the short tail one (nee ST) claimed the world speed record on a closed course.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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The record run was originally supposed to take place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but bureaucracy, as well as GM’s inner brand rivalries, forced Oldsmobile to relocate to Firestone’s Stockton Test Center in Texas. Before arriving there, however, Oldsmobile shook the ST down at GM’s proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona with legendary American driver A.J. Foyt at the wheel. ’Super Tex’ wasn’t too sure what to make of a car that looked rather more like an F-16 for the road than anything else but he was swept off his feet by the speed of the Aerotech. "After the first runs in Mesa, Foyt was just thrilled," Welburn recalled. "The relationship between A.J. and I shifted considerably once he saw how stable the car could be."

Both the ST and the LT were ready by the time the team arrived at Fort Stockton and the two cars looked remarkably similar. Both featured a 111.3-inch wheelbase and were 86 inches wide, and just 40 inches tall. However, the LT was powered by a twin-turbo variant developed in partnership with Fueling Engineering. Both had venturi tunnels running the length of the underbody to create downforce which was needed to keep the body nice and clean.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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As the LT had been finished literally the day before Oldsmobile and the FIA arrived at the Stockton Test Center on August 26, 1987, Foyt jumped in the ST to get a feel for the new location that was notorious for its crosswinds. In spite of a fire on the initial warm-up run that was caused by some insulation resting on the hot side of the turbocharger, Foyt was back in the car for another go soon after and reached 250 mph on his third flyer. While that wasn’t yet good enough to smash Merc’s record, Foyt jumped in the LT to put that car through its paces as well. A 275 mph one-way run resulted in no time although a two-way average was needed for the flying mile record.

This was the focus on day two, August 27, and Foyt reeled in too runs good enough for an average of 267.399 mph without much fuss.

The one-way top speed was 287 mph and Foyt stated that, given better weather conditions, a 300 mph run was fully possible.

With the flying mile record in the bag (that included an eight-second, 181 mph run across the quarter-mile), Foyt switched to the ST to set the closed course record. Before long, that record too was Oldsmobile’s as Foyt put together a 257.123 mph. To put it into perspective, CART’s fastest-ever car, Penske’s Reynard-Honda 2KI from 2000 was clocked at 241.428mph at Fontana in 2000.

VIDEO: Oldsmobile's Rolling Lab From The '80s Was A 300 MPH Beast
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Five years after setting those records, the Aerotechs were brought back to Fort Stockton, dusted off and equipped with Oldsmobile’s latest engineering wonder, the Aurora V-8 engine (on that note, a Quad 4 was also supposed to spawn an eight-cylinder engine named Quad 8).

This time, however, the name of the game was endurance and, as such, the cars were modified to run the entire length of the Le Mans race without a hitch - meaning the Aurora V-8s in the middle were, broadly speaking, stock units as ultimate velocity down the straights wasn’t needed.

On September 4, 1992, an uninterrupted eight-day run commenced during which the three Aerotechs (a third one was built specifically for this occasion) set nearly 47 different speed records, including the FIA average speed record for a 10,000-kilometer run at 170.761 mph and a 25,000-kilometer one at 158.386 mph.

At the end of the eight-day marathon, the cars had covered roughly the equivalent of 31 Indy 500s.

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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