When General Motors killed off the Oldsmobile marque in 2004 it was the
oldest name in United States automobile history and second only to Peugeot in
the world. But after its first half century, at the end of the 1940’s its image
had become staid and sales were suffering as a result. This was not a brand for
the hundreds of thousands of GI’s returning to the States after World War 2. They
wanted something new and exciting, but a new engine, and a new name changed
everything, when in 1949 Oldsmobile introduced a new 5 litre OHV motor – the”
Rocket V8”, in a new car – “the Rocket 88”
Just months before ex- US Airforce test-pilot Chuck
Yeager had taken the rocket powered experimental Bell X-1 through the sound
barrier and to the edge of space. The space age had begun and launched an
Oldsmobile resurgence with it. But the new Oldsmobile was not all sales hype – the
Rocket 88 went as well as it sounded! The performance that resulted from a large
engine in a relatively light body was soon exploited and the Rocket 88 became
the car to beat in NASCAR racing, winning for four straight years from 1949,
and winning the Carrera Panamerica outright in 1950. It was more or less
unbeaten until the arrival of the Hudson Hornet in 1953. The car, the engine
and the marketing – “make a date with a Rocket 88” did indeed attract thousands
of returning GI’s, and sales soared.
The conservative Oldsmobile image was gone,
summed up in 1951 by the recording of
“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner and the Delta Cats, now
considered to be the first ever Rock & Roll track to be released.
Oldsmobile sales - based on a range of ”88” variants
held up through the 60’s and 70’s but by the end of the 80’s the brand was
again in decline, and its performance mantle had passed to Chevrolet and
Sales of over a million in 1986 had become 400,000 by 1992, and
rumours swept through the company that it might be consolidated into another GM
division or eliminated altogether. There
was some truth in the rumours but GM relented and gave the job of saving the
Company to the brash, and larger than life General Motors veteran, John Rock.
Rock was the son of a South Dakota
Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealer and had risen through the ranks at Buick, GMC and
Holden in Australia, where, despite General Motors’ “no motorsport” policy, he had contrived to use
a dealer based racing programme to lift its faded image with great success.
Rock took over as General Manager of Oldsmobile in the
summer of 1992, but the rumours that GM was about to axe the brand persisted; he
did not have time on his hands, nor did he have the ability to make major
changes to GM’s corporate model philosophy. He did, however have a substantial
sales and marketing budget, a new model to launch, the Aurora, and relative
freedom to lift the image of the company as he saw fit.
At the same time GM was developing its Northstar 4.6
litre V8 engine, exclusively for Cadillac, designed to provide the power and
refinement to match European and Japanese premium brands, and Rock saw the
opportunity to repeat the image boost that the Rocket V8 had created four
GM had no intention of using its Northstar anywhere
but Cadillac, but as a testament to
Rock’s powers of persuasion, he acquired the engine in 4.0 litre form and
branded Aurora for the forthcoming new model, which would eventually launch (three
years late) in 1995.
Rock now had a motorsport engine and discussions
followed with Tony George about the supply of a power unit for his proposed
breakaway series (from the dominant CART single seater championship), titled
the Indy Racing League, or IRL, which would use V8 passenger car derived
engines of 4.0 litre capacity…….
Rock was on a roll.
Whilst a change in the GM range
was beyond his reach, the opportunity of an “external programme” now presented
itself. In this instance “external programme” was code for an Oldsmobile sports-car,
and John Rock already had an engine……
Meanwhile, back in the UK Ginetta Cars had been going
through a difficult time. A 1989 buy-out of the business from the Walklett
brothers by a team led by Martin Phaff had been pitched into turmoil in May 1992 when Britain was forced to leave
the ERM – the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Ginetta’s bankers, in their
wisdom, had chosen to denominate its loans into Japanese Yen as a result of
strong sales into Japan. After a day of frantic interest rises by Chancellor
Norman Lamont, the Conservative government admitted defeat and left the pound
sterling to find its own destiny. One “unexpected consequence” of this
regrettable event was that the dramatically reduced value of its yen bank loans
breached its banking covenants, and the Bank, having given the directors 48
hours to find £200,000, summarily pulled the plug on the business.
Stunned by the apparent unfairness of events, in
particular to loyal employees, Martin Phaff set out to recover as much as
possible from the receivership that followed. Whilst the vultures circled, he
convinced a number of his dealers, that Ginetta Cars should be re-started, and
so it was that the Company was acquired from the administrators at the start of
1993, and now owned by a group of disparate (sometimes desperate) sportscar
dealers from around the world. At this point the key players were Martin Phaff,
and David Tearle in the UK, Benny Smets in Belgium, and Ingmar Engstrom in
The new multi-national owners of Ginetta emerged with
stock, goodwill, jigs and fixtures and some tooling, but little else, and the
business was re-established in an old steel stock warehouse in Rotherham, South
Yorkshire. Although the company had been present at the 1992 NEC Motor Show
whilst in administration, and much interest had been shown in the longer
wheelbase and improved G33 SC, and the 4 cylinder Ford Zeta powered G33 Club,
the rear-engined G32 had already
effectively priced itself out of the market. It soon became clear that the
re-started company did not have the resources or working capital to produce and
sell complete cars, so the Board took the decision to step back to kit car
production with the G27, which was an updated version of the classic sixties G4.
The G33 was also offered briefly in kit form, after the cars already in-build
had been completed, but proved to be too expensive and complex. Production of
the “heritage” models G12 and G4, which had been destined for Japan, and which
had been the cause of the unfortunate yen bank loans two years before,
continued briefly but suffered contractural problems and was discontinued.
Some UK dealers had walked away, but others were keen
to continue. The new dealer based ownership of the company covered the UK and
Europe. Japan was only interested in the supply of the classic G4 and G12, but
the USA had great potential, but with increasingly stringent import conditions
was becoming a difficult market to
satisfy. There were however, several
candidates who had shown interest in acting as US agents for the new company,
even whilst it was in administration, and a few weeks later in January 1993 the
Company received an approach from an American consortium looking to source a
British sports car to form the basis for a low volume “image builder” for an
unidentified, but major US car manufacturer. There was an intriguing element of
history repeating itself here, as The Walklett brothers had developed the G10
in 1965 to rival the Shelby Cobra, and used the same Ford 289 V8 engine.
Lighter than the AC Ace derived Cobra, it would have become a real force in
American SCCA racing, and substantial orders were received from the US
importer. Unfortunately, reaching the production numbers for homologation was
beyond Ginetta’s resources, and with the prospect of the car being classified with
sports racing cars such as the Lola T70, the initial orders were cancelled. (The
G10 was abandoned after just six cars had been built, and re-engineered with
the MGB powertrain as the G11, but component supply problems brought production
to a halt after eleven cars had been assembled).
Despite initial scepticism, and with Martin Phaff very
much pinned down fighting fires, David Tearle, as technical director was
dispatched to the US to appoint a dealer, or dealers, and pursue, with caution,
the “ Cobra for the Nineties”
In Miami, long-time car dealer Frank Boulton revealed
the names of the other members of the consortium - designer and stylist Larry
Shinoda, famous for the Corvette Stingray, and Larry Nye, a former GM
executive, and outlined their proposals. Boulton and Shinoda had created a new
company, to develop a coupe and roadster based on the Ginetta G33 model to be
sold through selected dealers of the as-yet un-named division of the un-named
large motor corporation .However, close scrutiny of Shinoda’s initial sketches revealed
the Oldsmobile Rocket logo…..
An agreement was discussed whereby Ginetta Cars would
supply three cars – a works mule, fitted with the new Oldsmobile Quad 4 power
unit and Borg Warner manual transmission, but otherwise the vehicle was to be standard
G33, in the interests of time. Subsequently two show cars were to be built, one
coupe powered by the Quad 4 engine, and one roadster, with the “standard” Rover
Shinoda- Boulton subsequently confirmed that the”
major corporation” was, in fact General Motors, and the division was indeed
Oldsmobile, and that they were working with newly appointed General Manager,
John Rock. Rock, however, would not be formally associated with the project
until the show cars were presented at the Detroit Motor Show in January 1994.
At this point he would sign the project off, which would release the funding
and dealer credit from General Motors.
Vehicle sales would be through about 30 selected dealers, each of whom would be expected to take at least 10 units
each per annum, and participate in a motorsport program - as had been so
successful in Australia - with Bridgestone Tyres already pencilled in as title
sponsor. The new car was to designated Rocket 44 for the four cylinder and
Rocket 88 for the V8, which in time would be powered by the 4 litre Aurora
North Star engine. The close association between Rock and Rocket had not been
lost on Shinoda! Vehicles would be UK built, as rolling chassis, for shipment
to the US where the Oldsmobile powertrain would be fitted.
Back in the UK, Ginetta, still struggling to get the
company back on its feet, decided to concentrate on kit car production, a
decision that was not popular with Ingmar Engstrom, who believed that it would be possible to
manufacture the G33 in Sweden with turbo Volvo power, and he undertook to
produce a prototype, designated G34.
There was, however, a rationale behind Ingmar’s ideas; In 1992 Volvo had
been forced to shut down its new production facility at Uddevalla, near
Gothenburg, with disastrous consequences for the local area. Volvo and the
local authority were highly motivated to find other manufacturers prepared to
use this new facility, and were prepared to offer financial incentives…….
Meanwhile, technical discussions continued through the
early part of 1993 on the Rocket 44 project, although it was becoming
increasingly clear that neither Ginetta Cars nor Shinoda-Boulton had the cash
to bring the project to the level to get the support of John Rock at
Oldsmobile, and eventually of General Motors. But the potential to use the
Uddevalla factory with a Swedish development grant to fund the development of
the new car raised the real possibility of unlocking a deal, and meetings were
arranged in the UK and Sweden in September 1993 to pin down the specification
of the proposed sports-car and convince Volvo and the Development Corporation
to make factory space, tooling, and in particular, funding available.
By now the British motoring press had picked up the story, which they were able to
corroborate from US sources. In July Shinoda-Boulton outlined the heads of an
agreement, and responded to concerns about the viability of the project by
providing a copy of correspondence between them and John Rock.
Martin Phaff and David Tearle met Larry Shinoda, Frank
Boulton and Larry Nies in the UK for them to evaluate the G33 V8 and Cosworth
Turbo for the first time, and subsequently the meeting was re-convened at the
Uddevalla plant, this time with Benny Smets and Ingmar Engstrom.
The Uddevalla plant had been designed by Volvo to
break away from the traditional production line. They believed that cars built
up by individual teams would provide a better working environment and improve
productivity. The layout of the factory was therefore more informal and laid
out in bays rather than lines, and could very easily adapted to low volume car
Discussions continued during 1993 in Sweden and in the
US, but in the end it proved impossible to finalise a deal at Uddevalla since
the grants available required Swedish ownership and in particular commitments
to use a Volvo powertrain, which would not be acceptable to Oldsmobile, and as 1993
came to a close it became clear that the Rocket 44 dream had come to an end.
The Rocket 44 never happened, and remains another
footnote in motoring history; but its big brother, the Aurora V8 powered Rocket
88, planned for production once the 44 was established might have just become
the “Cobra for the nineties”………………
A year later Shelby American attempted to repeat the
process, but relations between Shelby and Rock were never easy. Shelby American
eventually took the project on themselves and the Aurora V8 Shelby Series 1 was
launched, heavily delayed, in 1997. It was not a success.
Rock’s plan for an Oldsmobile power unit for the Indy
Racing League finally materialised in 1997, but Rock himself was to lose his
job later in the year. Oldsmobile limped on for another seven years, and the
brand was finally discontinued in 2004.
Ginetta Cars recovered from the loss of the Rocket 44
project, and eventually found its niche in a one-make racing programme,
initially based around the G27, and later the G20. In 2006 the company was
acquired by Lawrence Tomlinson to form part of LNT Automotive, and is now a
major force in sports and GT racing around the world.
A Rocket 44 postscript:
Not long before his death, John Rock was interviewed in 2006
by Motor Trend magazine about his long career with General Motors. The subject of his time with
Oldsmobile was discussed. He had the following to say about the Rocket 44
project, which gives an insight to the plan from his perspective!
“GM wanted to get out of racing,
and down at Holden’s we had our own factory team; so I said, well there’s
probably a way to do this. Let’s take the race driver and about 20 or 30 Holden
dealers and come up with a car-tuning company that’ll do a special deal every
year or two, and then only those dealers can sell it. We brought that first
Holden dealer team special vehicle. It was a good looking car, and it
“When I got to Oldsmobile, I
bought Holden sales manager John Crennan over to the Townsend Hotel. And we set
up shop on one of those suites out there and invited my boss, Mr Ron Zarrella,
in. We showed him the whole concept of special vehicle. What we could do for Oldsmobile
and how I could get a rear drive car, and we could get some image and
distinctiveness out of all this, but it would take resources and doing some
things different. Zarrella got up, looked at his watch, and said “ Do you
realize you’ve just wasted three-and-a-half hours of my time? Don’t you understand
what we’re trying to do at General Motors?”
“I said to Crennan, We better go
to the bar, John. My days may be limited!”
It was probably just as well that we didn’t build the
prototypes after all – it may have been on Rock’s agenda, but it clearly wasn’t
on General Motors’, nor was it two years later when Carrol Shelby approached
Rock with the same idea. The Shelby Series 1 did make it to production, but not
as an Oldsmobile, and it was not a success.
John Rock on Shelby Series 1, again from Motor Trend, 2006:
“One Friday afternoon, I said
“Carroll, Oldsmobile’s in a helluva mess; we’ve made a deal with Tony Hullman
to get the engine north-south and go racing. If we could get that concept and
splatter it over a car, steal a few Corvette parts to keep it going, and get an
engineer who knows half-assed what he’s doing, I think we could come up with a
helluva car”. But then I said, there ain’t no money. And its all out the back
door. But if we had a prototype for the 1997 auto show, I do have a budget for
concept cars” About the time this deal was done, my ass got thrown out. I don’t
think Shelby ever paid for his engines, because I don’t think he ever got paid
for his prototype. By that time I was in Mexico watching the waves roll in”.