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Periodic Reminder: 4-4-2 stood for many things over the years

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Photo by the author.

As we recently discussed, it’s fairly easy for the general public and auto enthusiasts alike to get confused about automotive nomenclature. Matters are often made worse when marketing departments forget to check their own references, or plan for the future, and thus sow a lot of that confusion themselves, as is the case with the Oldsmobile 4-4-2.

The problem with Oldsmobile’s approach to the 4-4-2 didn’t arise from too little communication, as was the case with the Iron Duke, a term that Pontiac only appeared to use once in its marketing efforts. Instead, Oldsmobile’s people kept redefining the term over a period of more than 35 years to chase product changes, leading to no less than five different interpretations of 4-4-2.

The first interpretation didn’t even reference engine size. In 1964, when the 4-4-2 was introduced as an option on F-85s, Oldsmobile spelled out exactly what that option meant: four-barrel carburetor, four-on-the-floor transmission, and dual exhaust. “Police need it-Olds built it-Pursuit proved it,” the tagline went.

Then, in 1965, Oldsmobile immediately changed its tune. With the introduction of the V-8, the four-speed reference was gone. Instead, 4-4-2 came to stand for V-8, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhaust. That definition more or less held through 1969, though starting in 1966, Oldsmobile left out what the option – later model – stood for in its sales literature.

That move proved rather convenient for Oldsmobile, considering all the tinkering the company did to the 4-4-2 during that time. In 1966, the division added a triple-carb option (so, uh, 4-6-2?), and in 1968, one could get a 4-4-2 with a three-speed transmission and two-barrel carburetor (so, uh, 3-2-2 or 2-3-2?). When Oldsmobile swapped the 455 for the 400 in 1970, it made no mention of whether the first 4 still referenced engine size.

As if it wasn’t apparent that 4-4-2 had slipped into nonsensical branding over those years, Oldsmobile essentially confirmed as much in 1972 when the 4-4-2 became a handling and appearance package. One could argue that this was the year when the 4-4-2 name came to mean nothing and had no definition, an era that extended through to 1980, when Oldsmobile discontinued the option.

Five years later, with the revival of the 4-4-2 name on the G-body platform, Oldsmobile took a stab at redefining the 4-4-2 name. This time, in a throwback to the inaugural 4-4-2, the name stood for four-barrel carburetor, four-speed (automatic) transmission, and dual exhaust. Oldsmobile also ditched the hyphens for the option name, making it a 442 for the first time.

That definition lasted just three years, but a fifth and final one cropped up in 1990 on the N-body front-wheel-drive platform with the availability of the high-output Quad4 engine. With an entirely new platform and approach to creating a high-performance car, it made sense that the definition of 442 would change entirely, this time referencing the four-cylinder’s four valves per cylinder and dual camshafts. Oldsmobile also got a little crafty with the name of the performance edition of the Cutlass Calais, calling it the Quad442. It lasted only two model years.

So we tip our hats to Oldsmobile for attempting to create meaning out of this meaningless world. And then we put our hats right back on for Oldsmobile utterly losing the plot in their attempt.