Few people would bat an eye at this Oldsmobile Aurora that, by the time you’re reading this, has been cubed and probably turned into a refrigerator. While the swoopy design was considered stylish by 1990s standards, Oldsmobile’s last gasp at relevance looks forgettable today . However, unlike the Aurora’s bigger Cadillac cousins, the Aurora—or to be exact, one part of the Aurora—carries some surprising historical significance.
Oldsmobile began selling the Aurora in 1995 and it got the best reviews for any Oldsmobile since the Quad 4-powered Achieva SCX and Olds Cutlass Calais 442 W41, both small-production cars designed to compete in the SCCA’s Showroom Stock classes. And the Aurora deserved the acclaim because it was probably also the most contemporary car Olds had built in at least a decade. This one found its way to the junkyard after 159,000 miles.
For all the contemporary interior, the real centerpiece of the Aurora was its engine: an all-aluminum 4.0-liter, 32-valve V8 driving the front wheels. The engine shared a lot of architecture with Cadillac’s Northstar V8 but had lower displacement and fewer horsepower, 250 to the Northstar’s 290. The Aurora V8, however, seems to have a better reliability record than its bigger corporate relative, although a lot of the Northstar’s poor design aspects—like a starter motor inside the engine’s “valley” underneath the intake—are shared between the two. The final years of the Aurora also included the “Short Star” V6, which was basically a six-cylinder version of the earlier V8.
Whatever the problems of the street car, the Aurora’s legacy comes from the engine’s use outside of the Aurora’s front-wheel-drive application. When Shelby re-emerged in the 1990s with their first bespoke road car, the Series 1, the Aurora’s aluminum V8 was picked to power it. The engine was turned from its normal transverse mounting to a more traditional rear-wheel-drive setup.The Shelby engineers squeezed every last drop of horsepower from the engine. With new camshafts, a retuned ECU, higher-flow intake, and higher-flow exhaust, the Series 1 made 320 horsepower.
While 320 horsepower sounds relatively unimpressive in the modern times of 300-horsepower beigemobiles, that was a pretty trick setup two decades ago. The engine got a six-speed manual transmission that further improved power delivery. With a $108,000 price tag, however, they were relatively hard to move and only about 250 were sold. Maybe MotorTrend’s 1998 claim of “The Most Significant Car Carroll Has Ever Produced” was a bit premature. That said, the pictured Series 1 sold at auction for $117,000 last year so the engine is still worth money somewhere.
Shelby, however, wasn’t the only place the Aurora V8 found use. After the contentious 1996 Indy Racing League/CART split, General Motors put a highly tuned 650 horsepower version of the Aurora V8 in their 1997 IRL and Indianapolis 500 entries. Of the 35 starters the top 27 qualifiers all ran the Oldsmobile engine instead of the Nissan VH-based Infiniti V8 and Arie Luyendyk’s Olds-powered G-Force chassis won the race from pole by not napping during the final-lap restart (above). The Oldsmobile V8 would continue as the engine of choice through 2001, powering Indy 500 victories for Eddie Cheever, Kenny Brack, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Helio Castroneves.
Oldsmobile also put the Aurora to work in a special testing application. In 1987, A.J. Foyt and Oldsmobile set a number of speed records with a high-strung turbocharged Quad 4 engine in the longtail Oldsmobile Aerotech. The Aerotech was a Foyt-prepared March open-wheel chassis with the streamlined body draped over it. General Motors pulled the Aerotech out of mothballs in 1992, redesigned a few elements, and stuck an early version of the Aurora V8 in it. Over eight days in December 1992, the Aurora-powered Aerotech smashed 47 speed records covering everything from 10 kilometers to 24 hours.
All of that engine’s legacy, however, lived and died in the Aurora street car. Fittingly, Car and Driver brought an Aurora to the first LeMons race at Altamont in 2006, just two years after Oldsmobile ceased to exist. In LeMons’ early first races, the Aurora was considered “too clean” for duty in the series, though the itself was, in retrospect, abjectly terrible for road racing. I don’t think anyone would bat an eye at an Aurora in LeMons these days.
The final Auroras built had 2003 model years, although the last Aurora engines went into the Shelby Series 1 in 2005. The engine’s legacy remains tied to racing and as the street cars disappear from the streets rapidly, you just might notice the few still on the road. When you do, think of the awesome potential that lurks under the hood for your bench-racing project. At least until you have to change the starter motor.