The Legendary 1969 Hurst/Olds
April 23, 2016, By C.L. Miller
The 1969 Hurst/Olds is proof that even the most conservative manufactuers could get a little giddy where muscle cars were concerned.
That and even now, it could easily be argued that General Motors did in fact shoot itself in the foot during the mid-Sixties when the company officially imposed a 400-cu.in. engine displacement restriction on the hot A-body intermediates--but that didn't mean there weren't efforts made internally to circumvent the rules.
GEORGE HURST AND THE HURST/OLDS
No history of American muscle cars would be complete without at least a passing mention of George Hurst, who became one of the era’s most successful aftermarket manufacturers.
Hurst was originally from New York, but after a stint in the Navy, he resettled in eastern Pennsylvania in 1954 and became very active in the local drag racing scene. In the mid-fifties, he and his friend Bill Campbell started a garage in Abington, Pennsylvania, where they built aftermarket engine mounts for performance cars. Although Hurst’s formal mechanical training was limited, he had an intuitive knack for automotive engineering and, more importantly, was a natural showman with a flair for clever promotions.
After some early setbacks, Hurst and Campbell formed a partnership with Jonas Anchel and Ed Almquist, founders of the speed shop Anco Industries. Together, they developed and launched several new products, including a revised engine mount design called Adjusta-Torque and a floor-mounted shift linkage for three-speed manual transmissions.
At that time, manual transmissions were at low ebb in America. Since the advent of Hydra-Matic in late 1939, American buyers had shown a marked preference for fully automatic transmissions, so development of stick-shift technology had languished. In the fifties, many automatics were still too inefficient and sometimes too fragile for serious hot-rodders, but the available manual gearboxes left much to be desired. The typical “three on the tree” was clunky and cumbersome, with a vague, ropy linkage that was rarely sturdy enough for aggressive driving.
The Hurst linkage, which George Hurst first installed in his own 1956 Chevrolet, was a vast improvement. Although rather stiff by modern standards, the linkage allowed clean, fast, accurate shifts and was very durable.
Since Almquist and Anchel were neither willing nor able to put up the substantial amount of capital needed to market the new linkage, Hurst and Campbell obtained a $20,000 loan and established their own company, Hurst-Campbell, Inc., in Warminster, Pennsylvania. It opened for business in 1959.
The hot-rodding and drag racing scene was booming in the late fifties and early sixties and Hurst-Campbell found a ready market for their shifters and shift linkages. Whatever Hurst’s mechanical abilities, his greatest talent was concocting stunts and gimmicks to market Hurst-Campbell products. Hurst sponsored drag racers; offered new cars as prizes for race winners who used Hurst products; and hired a buxom beauty queen named Linda Vaughn as “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter,” paying her to attend racing events in her gold bikini, suggestively caressing giant replicas of Hurst’s signature product. Some of Hurst’s promotional stunts were in dubious taste, but they were undeniably effective. By the mid-sixties, Hurst-Campbell revenues were more than $20 million a year and Hurst shifters had become almost de rigueur among serious enthusiasts.
This month's subject is the sophomore version of the Hurst/Olds, presented for the 1969 model year and available under the $683.94 W-46 option code. The example before you is owned by Oxford, Connecticut, resident David Steeves; it's one of 914 produced, all of them--with the exception of two known convertibles--based on the 4-4-2 Holiday hardtop coupe. Also packing a 455-cu.in. heart, the '69 edition is so vastly different from its predecessor both visually and mechanically that we've opted to detail the 1968's specifics in a future issue. Here are the details behind one of the most desirable Oldsmobiles ever to leave Lansing.
THE SHIFTY DOCTOR
One of the key selling points of Hurst products was their lifetime warranty. In the early sixties, Hurst hired a young man named Jack Watson, who had previously worked at General Motors. At first, Watson’s role was very minor, but he subsequently became Hurst’s roving repair technician. Armed with a portable machine shop, he traveled to various drag racing events to perform on-site repairs and adjustments for Hurst products. The role eventually earned him the nickname “Shifty Doc,” or just “Doc.”
Watson still had connections at GM and in 1961, he helped Hurst get a meeting with Pontiac general manager Bunkie Knudsen and chief engineer Pete Estes. Estes had seen a favorable write-up on the Hurst shifter in Hot Rod magazine and had been impressed. He was also impressed with Hurst and Hurst’s obvious marketing acumen. Hurst, Estes, and Knudsen struck a deal to use a Hurst linkage and shifter in Pontiac’s new limited-production Super Duty Catalina.
The deal was a great achievement for Hurst-Campbell; Detroit in those days tended to ignore or disdain the aftermarket. It was also the beginning of a long and mutually profitable association between Hurst and Pontiac. Over the next few years, many high-performance Pontiac models would carry Hurst shifters as standard equipment, including the highly successful Pontiac GTO. Pontiac’s association with Hurst did great things for its credibility with hardcore performance cognoscenti, helping to cement the division’s status as the hot American car.
To cultivate more relationships with the major automakers, Hurst opened the Hurst Performance Center in Detroit in 1965, appointing Doc Watson to run it. Much of Watson’s business was with Pontiac, where Hurst now had a strong relationship, but he eventually made deals with other many automakers, including Plymouth, Dodge, AMC, and Oldsmobile.
THE 1969 HURST OLDS IS BORN
If anyone thought the first Hurst Olds wasn’t conspicuous enough, the 1969 model comprehensively solved that problem. The second H/O traded Peruvian Silver for Cameo White with dramatic Firefrost Gold stripes, this time embellished with black rather than white pinstripes. In case the local traffic cops were color-blind or unusually inattentive, Hurst helpfully added a pair of enormous scoops on the hood and a fiberglass rear wing on the rear deck.
Although air conditioning was still optional on the H/O, there was now only one engine. It was called W-46, but it was essentially a hybrid of the previous W-45 and W-46 versions with the “D” heads and a milder cam. The new W-46 was rated at 380 gross horsepower (283 kW) and 500 lb-ft (675 N-m) of torque, but despite its power was rather mildly tuned, more akin to the engines in the Toronado or big Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight sedans than the previous W-45. The W-46 was less racy than the 442’s optional W-30 engine and not nearly as high strung as dealer-created special editions like the Baldwin Motion Camaros. Except for its cop-baiting decor, the Hurst Olds was really quite civilized.
JOHN BELTZ’S PERFORMANCE AMBITIONS
Watson already knew John Beltz quite well; Ed Cole, then GM’s executive vice president, had introduced them back in 1965. Beltz, who turned 40 in 1966, was then on the corporate fast track. As Oldsmobile’s assistant chief engineer, he had been one of the principal architects of the innovative front-wheel-drive Toronado. He became chief engineer in July 1964 and Cole was already grooming him to succeed Harold Metzel as the division’s general manager.
Beltz was unusual for a GM executive: witty, outspoken, and fearless, with a reputation for saying whatever was on his mind, however impolitic. Beltz and Watson hit it off immediately, in part because Beltz was eager to cultivate the kind of sporty image that was making Pontiac such a success with younger buyers.
By mid-1967, Beltz had been campaigning for about a year for an Oldsmobile pony car to match the new Camaro and Firebird, knowing that Oldsmobile still had a long way to go in shaking off the conservative image the division had cultivated under former general manager Jack Wolfram. Cole, concerned about the likelihood of cannibalizing Camaro and Firebird sales, repeatedly refused, but Beltz was not one to take no for an answer.
Part of the reason Beltz was so determined was that Oldsmobile’s 442, a performance-oriented version of the A-body Cutlass, was still struggling to find its place in the sporty car firmament. Despite good reviews and steadily improving performance, 442 sales still hovered around 25,000 units a year, well short of the popular and aggressively merchandised GTO.
At the time of Hurst and DeLorean’s meeting with Pete Estes, Oldsmobile was preparing to roll out a restyled 1968 A-body with sleek fastback styling that made the Cutlass look rather like an overinflated Firebird. The problem, from a performance standpoint, was that for 1968, Oldsmobile had opted to lengthen the stroke of its big V8 engines in search of more torque. That was fine for the full-size cars and Toronado, which would now have a 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine, second-largest in the industry, but the displacement limit for the A-bodies meant the 442 would be stuck with a de-bored 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) version with at best mid-pack muscle. As was the case at Pontiac, Oldsmobile’s bigger engine had the same exterior dimensions as the 400 (and actually weighed a bit less), so it would be straightforward to install the 455 in the 442, but corporate policy expressly forbade doing so.
Watson and Hurst met with Beltz and Oldsmobile engineer Bob Dorshimer in November and laid out the latest version of the engine swap idea: Hurst would install the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engine in a limited number of specially trimmed Cutlasses, which would be sold through Oldsmobile dealers. The sales would be minimal by GM standards, but the Hurst-modified cars would generate a lot of buzz in the enthusiast press and give Oldsmobile’s image a much-needed boost.
Of course, this proposal presented the same logistical problems for Oldsmobile that it had at Pontiac. The difference this time was that senior management, having already shot down Beltz’s requests for an F-body, was in more of a mood to make concessions — or at least look the other way.
THE EXECUTIVE HOT ROD
Beltz was amenable to the Hurst proposal, particularly since the cost to Oldsmobile would be relatively modest. However, neither Metzel nor assistant chief engineer Howard Kehrl saw the point, so the project stalled for months while Beltz maneuvered his way through the internal politics. In the meantime, Watson left Hurst-Campbell, although he agreed to remain involved with the Oldsmobile project on a consulting basis.
The Hurst deal finally went forward in March 1968, with divisional authorization for a limited run of 500 455-powered Cutlasses. Since the modified cars would inevitably be more expensive than a standard 442, Watson proposed marketing them as “executive hot rods,” aimed not at teenagers, but at affluent enthusiasts who didn’t want to sacrifice comfort for performance. Rather than being a stripped-out drag-racing special, like the new Plymouth Road Runner, the Hurst car would have a full load of convenience options, including air conditioning — a rare feature for serious performance cars of the era.
There would actually be two engines for the special cars, which were eventually christened “Hurst Olds.” Cars with air conditioning got the W-46 engine, which used the same “C” cylinder heads as the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) engines in the Olds Eighty-Eight and Toronado and with the camshaft specified for 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) 442s with automatic transmission. Cars without air had the W-45 engine, which used the freer-breathing “D” heads from the 442’s optional W-30 engine along with a hotter camshaft and modifications to the carburetor and distributor. Both the W-45 and W-46 used the W-30’s cold air intake system, breathing through snorkels below the front bumper, and had heavy-duty cooling systems. Oldsmobile quoted the same rated output for both engines — 390 gross horsepower (291 kW) and 500 lb-ft (675 N-m) of torque — but the W-45 was clearly more powerful.
All but one of the original cars had GM’s three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, which was fitted for the purpose with Hurst’s Dual-Gate shifter. W-46 cars had a 3.91 axle for better dragstrip performance while air conditioned cars had a 3.08 axle to keep revs down and give the A/C compressor a fighting chance of survival. The chassis, meanwhile, was the same as the 442’s, with a heavy-duty frame, stiffer springs and shocks, and anti-roll bars both front and rear.
Aside from the engines and 442 equipment, the H/O was distinguished from lesser Cutlasses with unique paint and trim. The original plan was for the cars to be painted Firefrost Gold, Hurst’s signature color, but Oldsmobile was initially unable to replicate the color to George Hurst’s satisfaction, so he opted instead for a Toronado color called Peruvian Silver, complemented with black stripes and white pinstripes. The H/O’s interior was basically stock Cutlass, but the dash got walnut trim along with the tachometer/clock combination that was optional on the 442.
DATA, OVERALL SPECIFICATIONS, & MODEL FACTS
Contrary to some rumors, each 4-4-2 that left the Lansing assembly plant for Hurst conversion at Demmer Engineering was already equipped with the 455-cu.in. engine bolted into place, thanks to the federal VIN mandates that have since led to the "matching numbers" conditions many gearheads love to see in their cars today. In base configuration, the big V-8 started life as the same 390hp, 10.25:1 compression L-32 engine that, according to Oldsmobile factory literature, was offered as an option on the Delta 88--although period and contemporary publications (including club periodicals) list the engine as originating from the Toronado (coded W-34), as well as police specials. Regardless, the 4.125 x 4.250-inch bore and stroke was unaltered, while the rest of the engine specs were tweaked.
Bestowed with the QE designation, the block was fitted with a milder hydraulic lifter camshaft than the (360hp, 400-cu.in.) W-30 engine; period sales literature listed the cam specs as having an intake/exhaust valve duration of 285/287 degrees, with a valve overlap of 57 degrees and a lift of 0.472. A nodular-iron crankshaft was installed together with slightly dished pistons, which were then capped with D-code cylinder heads--also used on 1968-'69 W-30 engines--and chromed rocker covers. Notable head specifics included a 69.75cc volume and 2.072/1.625-inch intake/exhaust valves.
Other changes included the use of a unique cast-iron intake manifold (number 405233, reportedly the forerunner of the 1970 aluminum W-30 intake), as well as a distributor that increased low-end response (listed as part number 1111973 or 1111989). On top of the intake sat a Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor, and perhaps most strikingly, a redesigned ram air induction system, the top plate and vacuum-operated flapper door of which was more or less a direct copy of Ford's arrangement, used on its Cobra Jet equipment; it was also used on the same-year AMC Hurst/Scrambler. Rather than link the air cleaner assembly to Oldsmobile's under-bumper air scoops, a massive two-snorkel fiberglass hood scoop was bolted over the associated hole cut into the hood by Demmer.
In total, an internal Hurst memo outlined 18 visual and mechanical changes (not including the ram air system) to the 455 that resulted in a 10.50:1 compression V-8 officially rated for 380hp at 5,000 RPM and 500-lbs.ft. of torque at 3,200 RPM; naturally, it breathed through a dual exhaust system with slightly revamped cast-iron exhaust manifolds.
Although the 455 as a whole is an engine that can be easily rebuilt by a competent machinist/builder, there are two components that are considered the Holy Grails of the powerplant: the D-code heads and one-year-only intake manifold. If the Hurst/Olds you find for sale is missing these two key ingredients, the search for replacements can be time-consuming and costly.
'69 H/O TRANSMISSION
Only one transmission was available in the Hurst/Olds, and that was the console-shifted Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 three-speed automatic (code OH). Listed as having a 2.30:1 drive ratio, the H/O's torque converter worked with transmission ratios from first through third of 2.48, 1.48 and 1.00:1; reverse was 2.08:1. It was also conveniently equipped with the famous Hurst Dual/Gate shifter.
If you're unfamiliar with this shifter, the left gate permitted conventional P-R-N-D-S-L shifting, while the right gate was essentially the performance side--allowing for faster, more accurate sequential manual upshifts through the D-S-L range while preventing inadvertent moves to the reverse and park positions. Accessing the second gate was done via the neutral position. The Dual/Gate was similar to the Hurst unit already used in GTOs and occasionally marketed as the "His/Hers" shifter. While it was a legitimate benefit at the drag strip, its drive-in cool factor was just as much a part of its appeal.
The Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 is still considered one of the strongest transmissions of its day, and is a unit that is completely serviceable today. In addition, rebuild kits for the Dual/Gate are also still available.
Every Hurst/Olds left the assembly line with the Anti-Spin differential as standard equipment. Rather than use established 4-4-2 codes, Oldsmobile mixed it up for the Hurst editions: SJ for the standard 3.42:1 final drive ratio; SH for the 3.23:1 ratio for air-conditioned cars; or optional SL for 3.91:1 non-air H/Os.
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks with the Oldsmobile differential, namely its outward facade, which shows 12 bolts in the cover, misleading some into thinking this is a 12-bolt Chevy-type axle. When you remove the smooth cover, you'll find that only 10 bolts hold the ring gear into place (the Chevy has 12), because this is actually an Olds-specific axle design. It's also known to be a slightly weaker unit than the 12-bolt Chevy or even the later corporate 10-bolt differential.
Also be aware that a common wear issue with this design lies with the axle bearings; modern replacement bearings alleviate the problem. Because they were produced for only a handful of years, the number of replacement cases is limited. Overall, a few performance ring and pinion gearsets are available, as are master rebuild kits. FRAME & SUSPENSION
In typical GM fashion, the H/O was constructed on a full perimeter frame with rigid torque boxes, as well as an A-body standard 112-inch wheelbase measurement and an independent front coil spring/hydraulic shock suspension. A four-link coil-sprung rear suspension complemented the front system. It should be noted that because the H/O started life as a 4-4-2, engineers felt no need to make an adjustment to the already heavy-duty components, including the front and rear springs rated at 435 and 109.4 pounds/inch respectively; the platform also already boasted hydraulic shock absorbers and front and rear anti-roll bars that measured 15â.