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This or That: 1969 Hurst/Olds 455 versus 1970 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler

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1969 Hurst/Olds 455 (top); 1970 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler (bottom). Images by the author.

Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.

This episode of This or That explores the mid-priced muscle car market via the choice between a 1969 Hurst/Olds 455 versus a 1970 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler. Both of these hot performers were former features in our Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine.

Can you really feel sorry for an automobile company that imposed engine restrictions upon their intermediate car fleet, while the rest of the industry dove full throttle into the their big-block parts bins? Both Chrysler Corporation and Ford Motor Company were offering to strap 426 and 428-cube V-8s (respectively) to the front crossmembers of their intermediates during the late Sixties. Not so at GM. However, as history has proven, some efforts were made to correct what some would call a critic displacement mistake. Specifically, Oldsmobile.

As mentioning in the original article,

If you’re even remotely familiar with muscle car lore, you’ve likely heard the tale of how George Hurst approached Pontiac about creating the ultimate Firebird. That initial effort was eventually rejected, but GM also knew that Oldsmobile needed a fresh shot of youthful adrenaline. The result of that injection was the Hurst/Olds. First appearing in 1968, its most appealing attribute for performance enthusiasts was a monstrous big-block under the hood, which easily trumped the offerings from every other division’s A-body. Oldsmobile’s trick for getting the 455 past the GM rulebook: having final assembly/modification done off-site, with the cars being effectively sold back to Olds for dealer distribution.

The Hurst/Olds project continued into the 1969 season, offered under the $683.94 W-46 option code. It was pricy, but consider the option started with a engine. Some oft-repeated and incorrect lore may suggest otherwise, but the reality is each 4-4-2 that left the assembly line destined for Hurst conversion at Demmer Engineering was already equipped with the engine bolted into place, thanks to the federal VIN mandates. Further engine details were documented as follows:

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, 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.

Beyond the engine, each were fitted with a console-shifted Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 transmission fitted with the famed Hurst Dual/Gate linkage, the second gate of which permitted faster, more accurate sequential manual upshifts through the D-S-L range. This was linked to Oldsmobile’s Anit-Spin differential – a 10-bolt unit, even though the cover is held in place by 12 bolts – containing one of three different ratios: code 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. The 112-inch wheelbase frame also held GM’s typical coil-sprung suspension system, along with mandated power front disc brakes hidden by 15×7 inch wheels shod with F60-15 tires.

Visually, the cars were shipped to Demmer Engineering already painted Cameo white; nary a 4-4-2 emblem was fixed to the panels. As one can see, visual upgrades were plentiful. In addition to the massive hood scoops, the grille was blacked out, racing mirrors were installed, Hurst Gold Fire Frost stripes were painted on the body, and a fiberglass spoiler was secured to the decklid. black interiors with bucket seats – the headrest replicating the Hurst stripes – were also mandated.

Oldsmobile and Demmer ultimately supplied the eager public with 914 copies of the Hurst/Olds for 1969, one of which, with a 3.91 final drive ratio, was pushed to a quarter-mile pass of 13.98 seconds at 101.28 MPH by the staff of Motor Trend; a road test that appeared in their June 1969 edition.

As mentioned, FoMoCo – and specific to this topic, Mercury – already had a leg up on GM; big-block had been a staple within the division’s intermediate family option list for some time. By 1969, Montego-based Cyclones could have been ordered with 429 and its Cobra Jet, or Super Cobra Jet, variants. The engines were either a standard or optional feature that was carried over to the redesigned Cyclone, Cyclone GT and Cyclone Spoiler for 1970.

Cyclone’s restyling was dramatic, particularly the Cyclone Spoiler. A little bigger and a bit heavier, it was by far meaner thanks to its front and rear spoilers, cold air hood scoop, semi-fastback roof and that unmistakable gunsight-grille that jutted forward. Stripes? Yup. Grabber paint? Available. How about an 8,000 RPM tach and 140 MPH speedometer? Those were included as well. the Spoiler had all the right hallmarks of a serious street performer, including choice of a four-speed manual or an automatic against one of the three 429 engines buried below the hood. as reported in the feature article:

Standard in the Spoiler for ’70 was the mighty 429 Cobra Jet; beyond the 360hp ThunderJet 429s available in lesser Cyclones, you got a 700-CFM Rochester Quadrajet carburetor, 2.24/1.72-inch valves, a compression bump to 11.3:1 and beefier main-bearing webbing (though only two-bolt mains). This totaled up to 370 advertised horsepower at 5,400 RPM, and 450-lbs.ft. of torque at 3,400 RPM; we suspect the actual power numbers are a little closer to 400hp than Ford ever wanted to tell.

But the hottest engine wasn’t even a checkbox on the sheet: You had to order the $96 Drag-Pack axle ratio (3.91:1) in order to step up to the Super Cobra Jet mill. (Early rumors that a Boss-powered Cyclone would appear never did come to fruition.) The standard CJ’s two-bolt mains made way for four-bolt mains, the pistons were forged aluminum, the cam was a solid-lifter job, a 780-CFM Holley carb sat atop a bespoke intake manifold (allowing 12 percent more air to flow in), and an oil cooler hung from the front of the radiator support. That’s a lot of upgrading just to satisfy an axle ratio–and possibly one of the greatest performance bargains of the era. There were also some external tells, like a single incoming fuel line versus the standard CJ’s twin lines.

The result? A rated five more horsepower at two hundred more revs. Lighter internals, 12 percent more air to shove in the combustion chambers, a solid-lifter cam… and just five horsepower? Wink, wink. If the standard CJ was really a 400hp machine, the SCJ should live solidly in the 425-430hp neighborhood.

So how did a Cyclone Spoiler stack up in performance circles? In their February 1970 issue, Motor Trend published their road test of an Spoiler assembled with the Drag-Pack (3.91 rear gear) option that bolstered the 429 to SCJ status, along with a four-speed manual; it did 0-60 in 5.8 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 13.99 seconds at 101.0 MPH.

Still, sales tanked. Mercury built 13,496 Cyclones in 1970, of which 1,631 were Cyclone Spoilers. A total of 341 1970 Spoilers were built with the 429SCJ and either the Drag Pak or Super Drag Pak rear axle ratio. But as the article pointed out:

But a funny thing happened on the Spoiler’s slide down to anonymity: NASCAR. Unlike the ’69 model year, Ford and Mercury didn’t do a NASCAR-friendly homologation special on the 1970 intermediate platforms; they were proposed (see HMM#67, April 2009) but ultimately didn’t pan out. The successful ’69 Mercs kept rolling through 1970 and ’71 on the Grand National circuit, where a stock car was good for three years before it had to be re-bodied. And so, while a handful of 1970-’71 Cyclones (running Montego grilles and flat hoods) ran as contemporary cars, they didn’t start their ascendance in NASCAR until 1972, when David Pearson and the Wood Brothers made the switch. Same colors, same #21, same Purolator sponsorship, but it was a whole new ballgame for the Silver Fox.

Pearson, who had walked out on Holman-Moody in mid-1971, continued his part-time schedule with the Wood Brothers, to great effect. For 1972, Pearson won six times in the 17 events he competed in (there were 31 races in the newly christened Winston Cup that year); a year later, he entered 18 of 28 races in the season, and won 11 of them. That was enough to get him titled Driver of the Year, despite finishing eighth in points. For 1974, Pearson drove his Cyclone-bodied machine in 19 of 30 events, winning seven, including the Winston 500 by just 0.17 seconds. Even Richard Petty, NASCAR’s all-time winningest driver, has said that David Pearson was his toughest competitor on-track; Pearson’s highest-profile weapon was the 1970-’71-style body. The sad irony here is that Pearson’s victories and popularity couldn’t translate in the showroom.

Armed with this big-block knowledge, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?