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Here's What Made Every Generation Of The Oldsmobile 442 Special

Dec 09, 2023Dec 09, 2023

The Oldsmobile 442 blended graceful styling with pure American muscle between 1965 and 1991

Like much of its muscle car ilk, the Oldsmobile 442 was created out of a rivalry but forged its own path to become one of the most lauded muscle cars of its generation. The 442, pronounced "four, four, two," earned its moniker for its four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission, and dual exhausts. Blending these attributes with styling that was both graceful and butch with seriously powerful V-8s proved to be a recipe for success, with the 442 spanning six generations from 1965 to 1991, each with their own distinct personalities and looks.

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The 442, originally an options package for the 1964 Olds F-85 and Cutlass, came into its own right in 1965 and was aimed directly at the Pontiac GTO as a GM in-house rivalry bout. For its debut year, the 442 was fitted with a 400-cubic-inch V-8 and a three-speed manual transmission (a two-speed Jetaway automatic was optional), thus changing the 442 designation to describe its displacement rather than its number of gears. The output for the 6.6-liter V-8 was 345 horsepower and 440 pound-feet of torque, good enough to zip the 442 from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, a figure that is still notable today.

The first-year model was no slouch in the corners, however. The 1965 model included upgraded shock absorbers and clutch, stabilizer bars at the front and rear, and larger tires to harness its extra power.

Leveraged by success among both critics and sales figures, the 1968 Oldsmobile 442 was the first to be a stand-alone model and remains the most iconic of all generations of the muscle car. The 1968 model's wheelbase was reduced by three inches, but more notably, it featured revamped styling that was more aggressive than that of prior years.

The 1968 442 also marked the introduction of the Hurst/Olds 442, a collaboration between the two OEMs that significantly boosted power and performance. The versions are extremely rare collectible cars today, with just 515 models produced that year. The Hurst/Olds 442 was fitted with the "Rocket" 455-cubic-inch V-8 taken from the Oldsmobile Toronado, which of course, upped the power, along with a W-30 Turbo automatic transmission. The W-45 versions (non-air-conditioned) of the Hursts/Olds 442 featured free-breathing valve heads, an upgraded cam and distributor, and a re-jetted carburetor. Both the W-45 and W-46 engines pumped out 390 horsepower with upgrades like a walnut dash, bucket seats, a Hurst dual-gate shifter, and a bevy of options from the standard 442, including upgraded suspension. All Hurst/Olds 442s wore Peruvian Silver paint with black accent stripes.

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The 442 received refreshed styling in 1969 with the hood dividing the front grille, bigger "442" badging, updated trunk lid inlets, and the deletion of wing windows. The Hurst/Olds 442 also returned with a White and Fire Frost Gold paint scheme sporting notable mail-slot hood intakes. However, the engine was detuned slightly to pump out 385 horsepower.

The 1969 442 opened more avenues to the model with the additions of the W-31 and W-32 options. The W-32 replaced the "Turnpike Cruiser" option and included Forced Air induction engine. The W-31 was a less powerful option with a 350-cubic-inch V-8 offering 325 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque.

The 1970 442 effectively marked the end of the great muscle car age. Not long after its debut, emissions regulations, an oil crisis, and changing public perception of muscle cars would put a stranglehold on the segment. Still, the 442 would go out with a bang.

That year, GM dropped its ban on engines surpassing 400 cubic inches, which had originally led to the Hursts/Olds partnership in which Olds argued that Hursts was actually fitting the engine, thus allowing its production. As such, the Hursts/Olds model was dropped with the W-30 taking over the reins as the most powerful option. The 455 V-8 was further detuned in 1970, however, to 375-horsepower, a 15-pony loss in the two years since its introduction. It still offered 500 pound-feet of torque and could complete the quarter-mile in just over 14 seconds. The W-30 was also fitted with a fiberglass hood with air scoops, an aluminum intake manifold and upgrades to the camshaft, cylinder heads, carburetor and distributor.

The 1970 442 also stood out with vertical bars in the grille, updated, vertical taillights, and the addition of rectangular parking lights at the front. The 350 cubic-inch version was dubbed the Rallye 350 and was only offered wearing all-yellow exterior paint.

Though the 442 remained in Oldsmobile's lineup after the end of peak muscle car era, it was effectively neutered, and by 1981, it was no longer available. In 1984 the nameplate was revived for its fifth generation, and the 1987 model would serve as the last 442 to be powered by a bulky V-8. Though the ’87 442 was still motivated by eight cylinders, its displacement was 307 cubic-inches, and it offered 170-horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, a far cry from the much more powerful engines of the model's heyday. By the late ‘80s, the 442 designation then referred to a four-speed automatic transmission, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhausts.

The 1987 442 was based on the Cutlass Supreme, and therefore wore the boxy styling emblematic of GM's cars of the 1980s. The 1987 442 stands out with an upgraded suspension, a stronger drivetrain, rear air shocks, and its iconic paint scheme. All models had silver paint along the bumpers and lower portions of the car with a dual-snorkel air cleaner, and, of course, plenty of 442 badging.

Joe Parker is a nationally award-winning journalist and columnist from the Atlanta area. He has served as an automotive journalist for the past four years alongside extensive sports, business, government, and column writing. His favorite modern car feature is ventilated seats to combat the Southeast U.S. climate, and his heel-toe shifting attempts usually end in disappointment.

TOPSPEED VIDEO OF THE DAY SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT The 1965 Oldsmobile 442 Marks The Model's True Debut The 1968 442 Becomes A Standalone Model The 1969 442 Builds On The Muscle Car's Success The 1970 442 Marks The End Of An Era 1987 Ends The 442's V-8 Era