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Called the "Rocket," Oldsmobile's new 303 cu. in V8 "rocked" the auto world with its sophistication and HP.

"Win on Sunday - Sell on Monday" Dominated the emergence of high horsepower cars in the 50s.
1949 - Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage for Performance –

The decade of the 1950’s started off full of promise for the performance car and performance car industry. The venerable flathead Ford & Mercury engines were mainstays of virtually every form of motorsport and the choice of street builders. 

The modern overhead valve engine introduced in 1949 by Oldsmobile and Cadillac and the first generation Chrysler Hemi introduced in 1951 heralded a sea of change in US auto performance. By 1955 every major US manufacturer had an overhead valve V8 engine in their lineup.

Back then, America was in love with horsepower, and as such, two major forms of competitive Autosport were beginning to dominate the country – organized ¼ mile drag racing and "stock cars" is a truly American pastime - circle track racing. 

In drag racing, there were three major sanctioning bodies - the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) founded in 1951, the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) founded in 1956 and the Automobile Timing Association of America (ATAA) founded in 1953. These three sanctioning bodies vied with each other to promote the sport and tried to "sign-up" as many drag strips as possible.

In the "stock car" racing arena you had the "big two"; the United States Auto Club (USAC) founded in 1955 – which sanctioned both stock car races and open wheel races, and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing which we know as NASCAR, which was founded in 1947.

The early USAC and NASCAR races were held on smaller and mostly dirt tracks, primarily in the southeastern United States. Initially any year "stock car" was eligible to race. But in June of 1948, NASCAR instituted the "Strictly Stock" series that (as the name implies) permitted only current year or previous model year cars. Key was that the cars had to be EXACTLY as they came from the factory. This class quickly became a fan favorite and by 1950 NASCAR changed the name of this class to the "NASCAR Grand National" circuit.

Right away, the  more "modern" automobiles began to dominate. The Oldsmobile with its new OHV V8 and Hudson with its great handling chassis and its fantastic "Twin H" 308 cu. in. flathead straight 6 power plant. Its low slung chassis may have been the first US car with a made for racing series of options called the  "Severe Usage Kit".

Those two brands dominated the first few years of the 50’s. But by 1955, all of the US auto manufacturers (even Studebaker, Rambler and Packard) had developed and offered overhead valve V8 engines – and many had a performance package option. For example, Ford introduced its first OHV V8 in 1954, called the "Y" block at 239 cu. in.; Chevrolet introduced its famous small block in 1955 at 265 cu. in.; and Pontiac also introduced its V8 in 1955 at 287 cu.in.

The factories were "all in" at this point.  A significant and unique aspect of early 50’s motorsports was that a competitor could race in one sanctioning body and also race in a competitor‘s series without reprisals from the former. Thus, the cars developed and used in NASCAR’s Grand National Series would also show up at USAC Stock Car events. Likewise, drag cars running at NHRA strips could also run at AHRA or ATAA strips. Obviously, the opportunity for the factories to "show off" their product was immense. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" became the watchword for all the manufacturers – even Rambler!

Over in organized drag racing, hot rods, modified stockers and all-out dragsters (nothing more than an engine, frame and suspension with the driver hanging out back) were the norm in the early 50’s. There were few classes for "stock cars". But all that changed in 1955 when the NHRA held their first National Championship Drags in Great Bend Kansas. At this meet, NHRA unveiled 4 "Stock classes" A thru D Stock broken down by factory advertised horsepower to weight. A & B Stock were the home to Olds, Ford and Chevys. C  Stock had heavier cars such as Pontiacs, Cadillacs, and even convertibles and station wagons! D Stock was for flatheads, straight 6 and straight 8 engine cars. All had to be "factory stock".

Meanwhile, the top drag category; "rails or pure dragsters" were divided between cars that ran gasoline and those that ran nitro methane "nitro" as fuel. Nitro was the "elixir of the gods" for a top dragster. Using mixtures of 90% nitro and some benzene (to permit starting) drag racers were consistently running speeds of 150 MPH+ in the quarter mile.

So it was the activities in these sanctioning bodies that had enormous fan support and recognition – particularly among the young generation. The factories soon realized that the "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" had a huge following - and what we now call "the horsepower race" was on.

 

While not as sophisticated as the Olds - Hudson's better handling & the torque of the 308 cu. in. I-6 did the job

The minute that Chevrolet introduced their 265 cu. in V8 - they went racing!

Chrysler took over where Hudson left off and dominated Stock car racing in 1955-56.

Not to be outdone - Pontiac wanted everyone to know their V8 was a hot number.

In 1955 Don Garlits was already making history with his Ford Flathead Dragster. Shortly after, he switched to Olds and Chrysler power.