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Curator's Corner / NASCAR 75th Anniversary

Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88

In the first years of NASCAR, Oldsmobile’s powerful 88 Coupe was the car to beat.

In the earliest days of NASCAR racing, if a driver was winning races, chances are good that he was behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile 88 Coupe, arguably the first true American muscle car. And we have two of them on display here at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Introduced in 1949, the Oldsmobile 88 was the automaker’s mid-range model, nicer and more powerful than the base Olds 76, but not as elegant as the top-of-the-line Olds 98. The 88 represented a sweet spot – it came equipped with the powerful 303-cubic-inch Rocket 88 engine, one of the first modern V-8s with overhead valves, and a whopping 135 horsepower. The Olds 76 had a less powerful six-cylinder motor, while the 98 was bigger and heavier, making the 88 the car of choice for those who wanted to go fast, because it had the automaker’s best engine without all the weight of the top model.

Hall of Famer Buck Baker competed in the first Southern 500 in 1950 in an Oldsmobile 88 Coupe just like this one in our "Glory Road: 75 Years" exhibit. NASCAR Hall of Fame photo

In 1949, the first year of the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division (now Cup Series), Oldsmobile 88 Coupes won five of eight races on the series schedule, propelling Hall of Famer Red Byron (NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018) to the first series championship.

In 1950, Oldsmobile driver Bill Rexford won the championship, as 88 Coupes delivered victories in 10 of 19 races, giving the automaker NASCAR’s first Manufacturers’ Championship. Oldsmobile would earn its second Manufacturers’ Championship in 1951, winning 20 of 41 races.

The Oldsmobile 88 that Buck Baker raced in the 1950 Southern 500 was driven around the area to promote the race. NASCAR founder William H.G. France is pictured here standing behind the car. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

From 1949-51, future Hall of Famers Red Byron (Class of 2018), Curtis Turner (Class of 2016), Fireball Roberts (Class of 2014), Tim Flock (Class of 2014) and Herb Thomas (Class of 2013) all drove Oldsmobiles to victory in what is now the Cup Series.

The speed and power of the Olds 88 made it a favorite of racers. It was also the vehicle of choice for some in the illegal liquor industry too, as it was faster than most anything else on the road and had ample space for gallon jugs of moonshine. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (Class of 2010) once said the Olds 88 was his favorite car to take whiskey trippin’, as there was nothing on the road that could catch it.

Curtis Turner (right) started on the pole for the 1950 Southern 500, with fellow Oldsmobile driver Gober Sosebee (right) starting on the outside of Row 1. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center /CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Here at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, two 1950 Oldsmobile 88 Coupes have recently been added to our exhibits. Both are exact recreations of the cars that competed in the first Southern 500 at Darlington International Raceway (now Darlington Raceway) on Labor Day in 1950.

The first of the two is part of our “Glory Road: 75 Years” exhibit, which opened in January and will be in place until early 2026. This 1950 Olds 88 was the first entry in the inaugural Southern 500, where it was raced by Hall of Famer Buck Baker (Class of 2013). It was owned by Florence, South Carolina, Oldsmobile dealer Robert “Bob” Griffin, who drove it all around the state in the weeks prior to the race to draw fans to Darlington. NASCAR chairman and Hall of Famer William H. G. France (class of 2010) also made promotional appearances with the car.

The gleaming maroon and cream Olds 88 helped draw a sellout crowd of 25,000 race fans to the first Southern 500. Alas, it did not fare especially well in the race, as Baker was caught up in an early crash and finished 69th in the 75-car field.

Hershel McGriff drove his Oldsmobile 88 Coupe from his home in Oregon to compete in the first Southern 500. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

The other 1950 Olds 88 Coupe in the NASCAR Hall of Fame had considerably better fortune, as it was driven to a ninth-place finish in the Southern 500 by Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff (Class of 2023). McGriff drove the car from his home in Oregon to Darlington, raced it and then drove it home again, covering about 5,700 miles in the process.

And that was the second of McGriff’s big adventures in this car in 1950. In May of that year, McGriff drove from Oregon to Mexico to compete in the first Carrera Panamericana, a grueling and dangerous 2,178-mile race across Mexico.

Just 22 years old at the time, McGriff and co-driver Ray Elliott defeated a 132-car field to claim victory in the race, which featured some of the world’s best drivers. During the trip, McGriff met Bill France, beginning a lifelong friendship between the two men.

At France’s invitation, McGriff would later move East and race in the Cup Series in 1954, posting four victories before deciding to return to Oregon at the end of the season.

The first Southern 500 in 1950 took more than six hours to complete. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

McGriff’s 1950 Oldsmobile is on display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Hall of Honor, where it will remain until January 2024.

The Oldsmobile 88 and its Rocket 88 V-8 motor are legendary performers. In fact, they were immortalized in the 1951 hit record, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who cut the tune that has been called the first rock ‘n’ roll recording.

We encourage you to make plans to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame and see these two cars and the others on display that helped shape the history and heritage of out sport over the last 75 years.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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