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Family fascination leads to barn-found Oldsmobile Jetfire

Family fascination leads to barn-found Oldsmobile Jetfire

Search might not have happened had the bride been taller

Barn-found stories have become legend, it seems, no matter what is being discovered under ratty covers, layers of dirt and piles of discarded household items.

But in this case, if Eric Jensen’s wife had been just a bit taller, he may have never pursued his curiosity about an Oldsmobile resting in a shed in Iowa. That curiosity ultimately uncovered a rare 1963 Jetfire which looks like a smaller version of Oldsmobile’s full size 88 hardtops but is powered by a relatively tiny aluminum V8 with an equally revolutionary turbocharger.

The Jetfire had been parked in this shed in Iowa since 1976 | Eric Jensen photo

Jensen’s story starts at age 13 when his father, a diehard Oldsmobile fan, introduced his son to the wonders of the early ‘70s 442s and Rallye 350s. Jensen’s first car, a 1970 Rallye 350, stayed with him for 25 years.

In 2000, Jensen found the perfect bride who just happened to admire his Oldsmobiles as much as he did and several years later, he found her an original-paint ’72 Cutlass in North Carolina, flying there to pick up the car and drive it back to Indiana.

For a year the car did duty as her vehicle, but she admitted she wasn’t quite as comfortable driving it as she wanted, having some issues with seeing over the steering wheel. Jensen was undeterred and showed her some pictures of 1962 Cutlasses, Oldsmobile’s smallest unibody compact. 

“She fell in love with it right off,” he said, “and wanted to find one.”

The ’72 Cutlass was sold as the search began and Jensen expanded the criteria for a car to include the entire F85 model line. 

“The first car I found was a ’62 Jetfire that was an original-paint, rust-free car,” he explained. 

For Jensen the car had an added bonus because it was the performance version of the F85, but it also didn’t quite fit the couple’s budget.

“I showed it to my wife, and she loved it even more because of the special Jetfire-only side trim.” 

So, in February 2012, they purchased their first 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire and that changed the course of the Jensen family’s Cutlass love affair. 

“By the summer of 2015 we were really not interested in my other cars,” he said, “and we sold the 442 W-30 and Rallye 350.”

Today it is Oldsmobile Jetfires only and true to form of any real car nut, Jensen has not only learned all he can about these special models, but has become something of an expert within the Jetfire community.

That community networking (and his wife’s need to find something that might better fit her) eventually led to the shed in Iowa. Like many barn finds, someone sees a vehicle parked in some out of the way place and passes the information along to someone else who passes it along again.

Eric Jensen (left) and Jim Noel are the ‘go to’ guys when it comes to restoration of Oldsmobile’s 1962 and 1963 turbocharged Jetfires

Jensen explained that once he and his wife got interested in these early ‘60s Oldsmobiles, he made every effort to reach out and build a network. Within that network was Jim Noel of Bloomington, Minnesota, a longtime 3M employee and an admitted “hands-on” tinkerer who says he’s rebuilt everything from player pianos and slot machines to mechanical cash registers. But his mechanical passions blossomed when it came to cars and, like many enthusiasts, followed those passions from his youth into a longtime marriage and well into his retirement.

Noel bought his first 1962 F85 two-door brand new when he traded his “hot rod” 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 to get something a bit more economical. Noel said he fell in love with the ’62 even though it was a “plain Jane” with no power options, a column shifted three-speed (with posi-traction!) and a bench seat interior. But Noel eventually owned nine more of the ‘62s plus a 1963 among some 22 Oldsmobiles (including eight Toronados), a Pontiac Trans Am, a couple Chevy Blazers and three Cadillacs.

By 1970 the couple needed a “second car” to augment daily transportation so for Mother’s Day in 1971 he presented his wife with, what else, a 1962 F85 Cutlass of her own, something he had put together from two “well used” Cutlasses. The die was cast. From that point on the Noel family would have the small Oldsmobiles as rolling members even to this day.

Noel continued building his own network of F85 and Cutlass enthusiasts, even making the effort to travel to Oldsmobile headquarters in Lansing, Michigan to learn as much as he could about the F85 development and specifically more information on the aluminum 215cid V8 with turbocharger. 

He recounts how, when he bought that first new F85 in 1962, he had to take it into the dealer for some routine service. The dealer said they would need to keep the car overnight and would he like a loaner to use. The only thing they had to loan was a demo Jetfire with a 4-speed, one of only 50* 4-speed cars built that year by Oldsmobile with the Turbo-Rocket engine, according to the dealer (* the actual production number was 203, but still a very small number).

Original owner Phil Schildroth, with wife Dianne, pose next to the Jetfire before it leaves Iowa for its new home in Indiana | Eric Jensen photo

“I tried to be calm,” he describes, “and not show my excitement and said, yes, that would be fine!” 

He said he got away from the dealership as fast as he could fearing they might find him a different loaner. He was so impressed with the Jetfire compared to his own F85 that he decided right then “someday I will own one of these.”

Eventually the Jetfire dream became reality when Noel converted a ’62 Cutlass convertible to a 4-speed Turbo-Rocket which included finding several Jetfires in junk yards to find parts, sometimes traveling to Arizona and California and getting parts from sellers in New York and North Carolina. The convertible, once completed, was joined later by a similarly converted 1962 F85 3-seat station wagon.

Of course, during all this research, rebuilding and restoration, Noel managed to establish himself as a “go to” Jetfire expert which takes us back to that ’63 languishing in Iowa.

The son of the ’63’s owner had been wanting to sell the car, which he knew had been sitting since 1976, and began looking to see what it might take to find a buyer. During his search he ran across Jim Noel and made contact to see if Noel might have some interest. Noel really wasn’t interested in the ’63 model but he knew someone who might consider it and made a call to Eric Jensen.

He and Jensen had crossed paths at various Oldsmobile shows and gatherings. Jensen was interested in learning all he could about restoration of the Jetfires, much like what Noel had done when he first discovered them. Noel also had probably the most expertise when it came to understanding and rebuilding the little Oldsmobile’s turbocharger, so Jensen had stayed in close touch when he began tackling his own rebuilding projects.

The ’63 wasn’t really that interesting for Jensen either as he also prefers the 1962 Jetfires. But he talked with the son and had him send pictures so he could take a closer look. He also recruited Ryan Brutt, a contributing editor for Hot Rod magazine and a well-known “automotive archaeologist” to help verify the car as a true “barn find.” Jensen said the more he considered the car, its condition and rarity, the more he thought it might be worthwhile to pull it out of its resting place and get it to a new home.

Negotiations ensued and Jensen decided to make the trip to Iowa with trailer in tow to retrieve the Jetfire. He determined it would be a worthwhile investment even though he wasn’t totally certain exactly what would happen with the car once he got it back to Indiana.

Personal inspection sealed the car’s fate and Jensen yanked it out of the shed, loaded it up and headed back home. He also made a commitment to Ryan Brutt to display the car at the 2018 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals show in Rosemont, Illinois, which would be its first public viewing. It garnered a lot of attention.

Once home, Jensen dug in to find out what caused the car to be parked in the first place and discovered a malady common with these engines… two bent pushrods and a flat cam lobe. 

“The car had about 89,000 miles on it and these engines were known for having cam issues when they reached 50,000-80,000 miles.” 

He pulled the valve covers and distributor, initially to prime the oil pump and changed the oil and filter. None of the valves seemed to be stuck, but once he primed the oil pump a couple of valves were still loose and he knew then what the problem might be. Off came the intake manifold and the bent pushrod was found.

Fortunately, Jensen had a cam he had removed in a previous engine build, so he slid it in, replaced the push rods and fired it up. The engine ran, though the turbocharger was not functioning, but Jensen wasn’t real concerned about that aspect of the engine.

“Jim Noel has gathered parts to rebuild 50 of these units,” Jensen explained, “which includes finding the proper materials to make certain parts like diaphragms which simply are not available in any form.” Jensen said Noel managed to have some parts made including molds that are used to crimp valves back together once the internal parts are replaced.

Both Noel and Jensen now can rebuild a turbocharging unit. 

“Jim Noel started gathering parts and information about the turbo units in the mid-80s, making use of a couple of other Olds experts at that time and now he’s been kind enough to pass that information on to me,” said Jensen. “I really believe without Jim Noel taking on all the research about these cars, we wouldn’t have any functioning survivors today.”

The Jetfire was displayed in as-found condition at the 2018 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals | Jim Volgarino photos

At the muscle car show, Jensen was uncertain what he was going to do with the car… restore it, leave it as it was or sell it. 

“It is such a nice complete car I’m tempted to hang on to it,” he said. But Jensen has plans for more 1962 restorations, so the ’63 was put up for sale soon after the MCACN show.

“It’s gone to a collection down in Florida which eventually will be part of a museum that is being planned down there,” he said. Jensen said he may be asked to handle the engine and turbocharger rebuild once the restoration proceeds, but for now he’s taking the funds from the ’63 and applying it to his next ’62 Jetfire project.

At the time of its development, the Jetfire was a technology marvel and one of the first passenger cars offered with a turbocharger, an honor shared with Chevrolet’s 1962 Corvair Spyder Turbo. The Olds used a single-barrel carb and 10.25:1 compression in conjunction with the Garrett AiResearch turbo that produced a maximum 5 psi boost at a relatively low 2200rpm.

Hard throttle operation caused spark knock in the engine, so Oldsmobile came up with a novel water-injection using metered distilled water and methyl alcohol which was called “Turbo-Rocket Fluid”. Unfortunately, many owners failed to keep the fluid reservoir filled using the underhood bottle container and the turbos wouldn’t function properly. In many cases owners were taking the cars back to the dealers to have the fuel system replaced with a conventional 4-barrel carb and manifold.

The ’63 Jensen found in Iowa, however, still has a bottle of fluid under the hood, just waiting for use once the car is brought back to its full glory.

At the show, Jensen also displayed a fully rebuilt and restored turbocharged 1962 Jetfire engine . The aluminum V8 continues on today as the block used to power many of the British Land Rovers. GM sold the rights to the block in 1964 | Jim Volgarino photo

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6 Comments

  • Tim Householder
    February 19, 2019, 11:44 AM

    Several times in the article, you refer to the 62/63 Jetfires as Cutlass ‘ The Cutlass name didnt come until several years later. All in all, was a very interesting article as i remember these cars quite well. My father worked at a small Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealership back then. My father sold cars,was parts guy and also took care 9f the books.I was 12 in 62 and spent alot of time in that place! BTW,in 73, i owned a 1962 Starfire that had a very interesting past! Wish it hac been a 4sp Jetstar!

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  • Robert Meyerholtz
    February 19, 2019, 8:34 PM

    Thank you for introducing me to the Jetfire. I’d never heard of this model to my recollection. I also am a fan of the Oldsmobile having owned a 1982 Ciera as well as my beloved 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme which I owned for 15 years. I knew of the Starfire. I had a 1961 which I now regrettably put in a 1975 demolition derby. I must say the grille reminds me of a family car we loved, a 1965. Rambler Classic. Again, thanks for printing this great story. I’ll be looking for more on the Jetfire.

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  • Ken Dennison
    February 24, 2019, 12:32 PM

    A very nice accurate article on Jetfires. Very well done. Most web information has so many errors they are not worth reading!
    Ken

    PS: I have a Jetfire that you may want to take a look at. Bought it in 1981. Restored by my dad and I. Purchased back and restored again with my son. The blog is on Classicolds. Take a look.

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  • Rob Samson
    October 17, 2019, 12:46 PM

    I had a 1962 Cutlass (yes F85 Cutlass) with the production 4 on the floor from 1968 when I was 16 in Southern California. We moved to Arizona just before I was 18, I sold my Cutlass in 1974 after returning from Vietnam, getting married and having a son. I always dreamed of finding it, I settled for buying a 1962 Jetfire with the production 4 on the floor in 2019, It came with the 4 barrel carb, I have the turbo which will need to be rebuilt along with a few other things. These are special cars, truly ahead of their time. I will be looking for a few things for sometime to come.

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