The Oldsmobile 442 muscle car began as a cross-company rivalry. Pontiac, a division of General Motors just like Oldsmobile, came out with the Pontiac GTO in 1964 (at the time it was a performance package on the Tempest before becoming its own model). Not to be outdone, Oldsmobile came up with the 442 package for their F-85 and Cutlass models (excluding the Cutlass station wagon), and the rest is muscle car history.
The name 442 does not refer to the engine’s displacement, as the original 1964 model had a 330 CID (6.4-liter) engine. The name originally referred to the mechanical setup of the car. It had a 4-barrel carburetor, a four-speed transmission, and a 2 pipe exhaust system, hence the 4-4-2. In subsequent models, however, the setup changed. For example, the 1965 model offered a 3-speed transmission, so the name then reflected the new 400 CID (6.6-liter) engine, along with the 4-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. Some years, the exact mechanical setup did not reflect the 442 name, but by that time it was an established vehicle. However, some years (like 1972), the package was referred to as an option code, like W29, instead of the traditional 442 name.
Performance-wise, the 442 delivered a lot for a small price tag. The original 442 option package only cost $285, yet the cars could hit 0-to-60 mph in 7.5 seconds and hit a top speed 116 mph. Not bad for the cost. Over the years, the 442 has changed quite a bit when it comes to specific components, but the general philosophy behind the car was always the same: make the engine big and powerful, then upgrade anything that needs it in order to handle the extra power. Those upgrades usually included a new clutch to handle the 355 lb-ft of torque, a stiffer suspension and frame to provide stability at higher speeds, and heavy duty brakes to stop the car once it was really moving (the 442 generally weighed around 3,500 pounds, varying depending on the base model).
The 1964 442 was introduced late in the model year, resulting in only 2,999 sales. The 1965 version, though, capitalized on the new American fascination with muscle cars that was ignited by the aforementioned Pontiac GTO, as well as others like the Ford Mustang and the Plymouth Barracuda, selling 25,003 units. Production rates varied over the years, sometimes climbing over 30,000, sometimes dropping to 5,000. By 1991, the 442 was at the end of the line. The final 442 option was for the 1991 Cutlass Calais, and by then, the 442 had changed. The numbers now stood for 4-cylinder engine, 4 valves for each cylinder, and 2 camshafts. While the 1991 442 was an ignominous end, the 442 of the 1960s and 70s will live on in the hearts of muscle car enthusiasts.