The Oldsmobile Toronado personal-luxury coupe marked the return of front-wheel drive in Detroit for the first time since the Thirties and provided a long-range forecast of the design revolution that would sweep the U.S. industry in the Eighties. Here's the story of the engineering tour de force that now ranks as one of the most collectible automobiles of the Sixties.
Quickly now: name the automotive blockbuster of model year 1966. Answer: the Toronado. It not only made headlines in all the major enthusiast magazines and most of the national news weeklies, but also stopped crowds at auto shows and dealer showrooms from coast to coast. And what stopped the crowds mainly was one feature: a virtually flat passenger compartment floor. You see, the Toronado was the first American car with front-wheel drive since the Cord 810/812 of three decades earlier. Not only that, it was the largest such car ever attempted: a big personal-luxury coupe riding a full-size 119-inch wheelbase and tipping the scales at better than two tons. Skeptics said front drive would never work on such a heroic scale, but Oldsmobile proved them wrong -- and did it beautifully.
Today, the first-generation Toronado is recognized not just as an engineering tour de force but as the stage-setter for GM's near-wholesale commitment to front drive in the Eighties. Add in luxury, fine craftsmanship, exceptional roadability, and distinctive styling, and you have a modern milestone that stands as one of the most collectible automobiles in U.S. postwar history.
The idea of driving a car by its front wheels instead of the rear ones was nothing new even in the Sixties. Though it's difficult to say who tried it first, the basic engineering principles were largely established by the early Thirties and the concept generally regarded as workable, though far from practical. Aside from Harry Miller's successful Indianapolis racers, one of the first American cars to employ front drive was the first to bear the name of Errett Loban Cord, the classically styled, low-production L-29 of 1929-1931. And Audi likes to remind us nowadays that it pioneered the concept in Europe as early as 1931 with its first car, the aptly named "Front" model designed by August Horsch.
On the next page, learn the history that led up to the Toronado's front-wheel drive.
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The Oldsmobile Toronado's Front-Wheel Drive
The Oldsmobile Toronado certainly wasn't the first front-wheel drive car -- the basic engineering principles were largely established by the early Thirties. But the Depression was simply the wrong time for an automaker to introduce anything radical or untried, particularly if it made a car more expensive. So while many manufacturers experimented with front drive, few took the production plunge. For most of those that did, the results were disastrous.
Though front drive's greater compactness and superior wet-weather traction were widely appreciated even in those days, its main attraction was the much lower ride height it conferred, a styling advantage with obvious sales implications. Unfortunately, front drive was -- and still is -- more costly to design and produce than conventional rear drive, and most of the early systems were not at all reliable. In the face of an ailing national economy and a faltering market, the decision by Ruxton and Gardner to adopt front drive only hastened their demise, and mechanical problems ultimately caught up with the Cord. The only front-drive car of the prewar era to achieve genuine sales success was Citroën's significant traction avant sedan series, introduced in 1934 and the mainstay of the French automaker's lineup through the early Fifties.
But front drive was far from dead in Detroit. Partly in response to the Depression, the Big Three companies had been looking into the possibility of offering much smaller models alongside their standard offerings, just in case the market should want them. A variety of experimental projects were initiated towards this end beginning in the mid-Thirties, and were well advanced as World War II approached. Because of the more difficult packaging problems involved with a smaller car, these programs did not necessarily rule out radical engineering solutions, and front-wheel drive was one of those investigated, along with rear engine/rear drive, radial engines, air cooling, unit construction, and other way-out ideas.
Some of this work was carried on into the war years, as time permitted, with an eye to postwar planning. Both GM and Ford had concluded there would be a strong upsurge in small-car demand once peace returned, and both had new compact designs all but locked up when the industry resumed civilian production in late 1945. But the demand simply wasn't there -- and wouldn't be for another dozen years or so. And because accountants at both firms had calculated that a small car couldn't be built or sold for that much less than a standard-size model, there was no incentive to build compacts -- or resort to costly complexities like front drive.
It may have languished on Detroit's back burner in the Fifties, but front drive wasn't completely ignored. General Motors engineers gave some serious thought to it in 1954 for the LaSalle II, a long-hood/short-tail roadster then being developed for the 1955 Motorama season. However, the problems of making front drive compatible with the 429-cubic-inch V-8 planned for this one-off proved insurmountable in the short time available, and the show car appeared with an ordinary front-engine/rear-drive format.
On the next page, learn about the design process that resulted in the Oldsmobile Toronado.
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The Oldsmobile Toronado Design
Long before work on the Oldsmobile Toronado began, a talented young engineer named John Beltz was on a fast track toward the division's top engineering post and, quite possibly, the general manager's job. Beltz was fascinated with the possibilities suggested by a front drive mechanical package and quickly rallied a group of colleagues to pursue them. It was a classic example of being in the right place at the right time. As GM's most innovative division, Oldsmobile was certainly the best place in the company to work on a new drivetrain that might be as significant as the division's breakthrough Hydra-Matic Drive of 1940 or (with Cadillac) the industry's first high-compression overhead-valve V-8 in 1949.
And the timing couldn't have been better. By happy happenstance, GM was about to embark on a design program to produce a new compact car, slated for 1960 introduction. The result was the novel rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair, GM's response to the growing popularity of imports like the VW Beetle in the Fifties. Fisher Body Division had developed a new unitized body/chassis structure for the Corvair, designated the Y-body, with a 108-inch wheelbase. Buick, Olds, and Pontiac took one look and wanted in, only they wanted more passenger room and a more conventional drivetrain. Accordingly, Fisher stretched the Y-body to a 112-inch wheelbase for three slightly larger compacts that would bow for 1961. What better place for Beltz's new front-wheel drive?
Oldsmobile looked at a variety of front-drive arrangements for what would become the F-85, the Buick Special, and Pontiac Tempest. Gears, belts, and chains were considered for transferring the drive, and a purpose-designed V-6 engine and four-speed manual gearbox were built and tested. The effort progressed as far as a running prototype outfitted with an aluminum-block V-6, mounted transversely in the now-popular manner, and connected via chain to an automatic transmission. But cost again reared its ugly head. The production F-85 arrived with bog-ordinary Hotchkiss drive and a front-mounted V-8 courtesy of Buick, though it did have an aluminum block. The Tempest, of course, was the only one of this trio with any engineering distinction: John Z. DeLorean's unusual rear transaxle arrangement, which usually produced some pretty unusual cornering behavior.
Beltz was undeterred. Over the next couple of years, division engineers and GM Engineering Staff continued working on a variety of fronts to perfect a marketable front-drive system. Their efforts culminated in a February 1964 presentation made by Beltz and his allies to top corporate brass gathered at GM's Mesa, Arizona proving grounds. Bearing the XP-784 project designation, it was not a compact, but a two-door hardtop coupe almost as large as a big Ninety-Eight.
Oldsmobile badly wanted this car to counter the highly acclaimed Riviera from intramural rival Buick and as a challenger to Ford's well-established four-seat Thunderbird. To be sure, it didn't really need front drive -- certainly not to open up more space in an already roomy passenger compartment. But it was a feature perfectly in keeping with Oldsmobile's "innovator" tradition -- and it impressed the execs with handling and roadholding that were uncanny for such a car. The response was enthusiastic: the front-drive Olds was approved for 1966.
Go to the next page to read about the Oldsmobile Toronado's unique styling.
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The Oldsmobile Toronado Styling
Styling development for the Oldsmobile Toronado, code-named XP-784, had been started about a year before formal program approval, and was completed in remarkably short order under the direction of design vice-president William L. Mitchell. Even early clay models -- some of which wore "Sidewinder" and "Starfire" script -- displayed the major elements that would make the production Toronado so distinctive.
The dominant theme was a long front with an uncommon amount of overhang and thrusting fenderlines, both suggestive of front-wheel drive and undoubtedly chosen for that reason. The basic fastback shape was enhanced by muscularly flared wheel arches and a beltline that terminated ahead of the C-pillar, curving upward and forward to leave an unbroken line from the rear roof area to the lower body. Designers initially favored a sloped tail, but moved quickly to a cropped Kamm-style treatment that further emphasized the front end. Hidden headlamps were coming into vogue, and there was no question the new Olds would have them.
In all, it was a brilliant styling package appropriate for the revolutionary new chassis, which Mitchell said "opened entirely new possibilities for vehicle architecture and provided the opportunity for styling designers and engineers to come up with a completely fresh approach."
Oldsmobile lacked sufficient body assembly space at its home plant in Lansing, Michigan, where the new car would be built, so it was decided to truck in bodies from the Fisher plant in Cleveland, hundreds of miles away. Meanwhile, production engineers began laying out a special single-model assembly line within the vast Lansing complex, intended to move at a slower-than-usual rate. This plus a veteran work force would assure exemplary workmanship from the start. By early 1965, some 38 pilot cars had been built and were ready for final shakedown.
The Toronado was one of the most exhaustively tested new cars in GM history -- no surprise considering its unusual mechanical makeup and the company's well-known aversion to making mistakes. Both the Milford, Michigan and Arizona proving grounds were pressed into round-the-clock service, cobbled-up prototypes disguised as Ninety-Eights were evaluated on public roads, and no less a "test driver" than Bobby Unser took a pre-production aluminum-body car up Pike's Peak, just for good measure. One of the more interesting development "mules" was also surprisingly well-finished. It was, predictably enough, a modified Riviera with enlarged rear-wheel openings and an extended snout to accommodate the front-drive powertrain. Otherwise, it looked much like any normal Riv.
On the next page, learn how Oldsmobile created the all-new Toronado's chassis.
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The Oldsmobile Toronado Chassis
Clever is the word for the Oldsmobile Toronado chassis. Power was supplied by the most potent Rocket V-8 yet, a new 385-horsepower version of a 425-cubic-inch engine introduced for 1965 on the division's full-size models. Equipped with dual exhausts, it was mounted conventionally (i.e., fore/aft) on a stub frame partially welded to the main perimeter chassis. The Toronado engine differed in having a reworked carburetor and intake manifold, necessary to clear the low-profile hood, as well as a reshaped exhaust manifold to make room for the front suspension.
The suspension at both ends was out of the ordinary. At the front were longitudinal torsion bars and a heavy-duty anti-roll bar. A simple beam axle on single leaf springs was used at the rear, along with quad shock absorbers -- one pair mounted vertically, one horizontally -- to keep the back tires firmly planted on the road. Large drum brakes with standard power assist were used all-round, with cooling assisted by large slotted wheels evocative of those on the classic Cord 810/812. Steering was the customary power-assisted recirculating ball, geared at a relatively quick 17.8:1 ratio.
Said Motor Trend magazine: ''The Toronado's a truly outstanding car, and this first model is highly perfected. We think it's destined to become a classic in its own time." Considering the new mechanical layout, the 1966 met with a very warm reception.
Of course, the Toronado's most unusual aspect was that driveline. The standard and only available transmission was a special split version of the famed Hydra-Matic, with the torque converter directly behind the engine and the gearbox mounted remotely under the left-side cylinder bank. Connecting them was a two-inch multiple-link chain, and differential torque was split evenly between the half shafts. This arrangement produced surprisingly balanced weight distribution for a big front-driver -- 54/46 percent front/rear -- and contributed greatly to the car's over-the-road prowess.
On the next page, learn about the early years of the Oldsmobile Toronado.
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The 1966, 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado
The Oldsmobile Toronado debuted on October 14, 1965 in two versions, standard and deluxe, with prices starting at $4585. Besides the items already mentioned, base equipment included front and rear seatbelts, full carpeting, electric clock, two-speed windshield wipers with washers, backup lamps, a courtesy light package, and six-passenger seating via a full-width front bench. To this, the deluxe model added a bucket-style "Strato" front seat with pull-down center armrest, chrome interior moldings for windshield and windows, and wheel trim rings.
Considering its new mechanical concept, the Toronado met with a very warm reception. Model year production totalled close to 41,000 units, with buyers favoring the deluxe model by about 6 to 1. This figure was way behind that year's Thunderbird tally of slightly more than 69,000 cars, but it wasn't bad compared to the Riviera, which was completely re-styled for 1966 on the Toronado body-shell and scored 45,348 sales.
The new Oldsmobile was also well received by the motoring press. It won Car Life magazine "engineering excellence" accolades, was voted best luxury and personal car by Car and Driver, and walked away with the 50-pound chunk of marble attached to Motor Trend magazine's "Car of the Year" trophy. MT took its Toronado on a grueling 2,700-mile coast-to-coast road test run, using but three quarts of oil and averaging 13 miles per gallon of premium gas.
The performance numbers speak for themselves: 9.5 seconds in the 0-60 mph dash and 17 seconds in the standing-start quarter-mile at a trap speed of 82 mph. In one of their more accurate new-model assessments, MT's editors declared: "The Toronado's a truly outstanding car, and this first model is highly perfected. We think it's destined to become a classic in its own time."
It's difficult to improve on perfection, which may explain why the Toronado saw relatively little change through the end of the first generation in 1970. Even so, worthwhile improvements were made along the way. The 1967 edition was offered with two significant new options: front disc brakes and radial tires. The latter were especially welcome, as the 1966 had developed a reputation for eating its front tires. Mechanical changes were limited to new-style driveshaft joints and, to soften the ride, revised rear shock absorber rates and spring bushings.
The long, heavy doors had been criticized by some owners as cumbersome, so door-opening assist springs were added. New comfort and convenience options comprised AM/FM stereo radio with 8-track tape player, "Strato" front bucket seats and center console (which negated the value of the humpless front floor), and three-point seatbelts.
For faster engine warm-up and improved economy, a "climatic combustion control" system was adopted, along with Delco High-Energy ignition said to triple spark plug life, improve starting ease, and extend tune-up intervals. Appearance was spruced up with an eggcrate grille, headlamp doors moved out flush with the surrounding sheet metal, and revised taillamps.
Prices rose by only $100 or so, the base tag now reading $4,674. But though the Toronado remained as bold, brawny, and beautiful as before, 1967 sales fell alarmingly to about half the 1966 total, plummeting to about 21,800 (including just 1,770 of the standard models). Riviera also declined that season, though not nearly as much (to about 43,000), and the T-Bird gained appreciably, going up by about 9,000 units on the strength of its all-new 1967 design.
On the next page, learn about the Oldsmobile Toronado from 1968 to 1970.
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The 1968, 1969, 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado
Oldsmobile had scheduled a heavy face-lift for the 1968 Toronado, and it helped a little with slumping sales. Production went up to near 26,500. The main styling work appeared at the front, a full-width bumper/grille with a short vertical divider. The headlamps were still hidden, but instead of pivoting up out of the nose they were now fixed, mounted behind dummy grille sections that lifted up whenever the lamps were switched on. Once again, there were minor chassis tweaks to make the ride more lush.
Though not intended as a performance car, the Toronado got swept up somewhat in the division's "Dr. Oldsmobile" campaign for 1968. The standard powerplant was upgraded to the new 455-cubic-inch engine, which took over for the 425 that year throughout the Olds lineup. It was rated at 375 horsepower in the Toro. And there was an engine option for the first time. Listed as the W-34, it came with special camshaft, heat-treated valve springs, modified distributor, and low-restriction dual-exhaust system, good for a rated 400 horsepower.
Car Life tested a W-34 for its May 1968 issue, reporting a top speed of 123 mph and "best" fuel consumption of only 12 mpg. Said the editors: "It is not an ordinary automobile. When fitted out like the test car it is expensive, but it has some strong attributes: high performance, dependable handling, strong masculine styling, the flair of front-wheel drive, and the availability of enough luxury options to furnish a pleasure dome for a khan. Taken together, they describe only the Toronado, an unusual and enjoyable automobile."
Toronado rolled into its fourth year with a restyled rear end that added a bit more trunk space and 31/2 inches in overall length. Styling was otherwise much the same as before, but you could now order an optional vinyl roof covering that destroyed the clean C-pillar line. There was nothing new on the engine chart, but engineers added more sound insulation and fiddled with motor mounts and spring and shock absorber calibrations in a quest for greater refinement.
The Toronado notched a modest gain in sales, which rose to about 28,500 for the model year, still way below the 1966 figure. One factor in this so-so sales performance may have been another GM competitor, the Cadillac Eldorado, introduced for 1967. Like the Riviera, it was based on the Toronado bodyshell and even borrowed its front-drive mechanicals -- and it had the prestige of being a Cadillac. All this only undermined the Toro's image as a unique and exclusive product.
Furthering that impression was the more glittery and less distinctive 1970 model. Headlamps were exposed for the first time (some owners had complained the headlamp doors acted up on the earlier models), trim was rearranged mostly for the sake of change, and a more conventional instrument panel appeared. Base price went over $5,000 (by $23) for the first time (it was $4,836 the year before), though you now got the previously optional front disc brakes as standard, still with power assist but augmented by a new tandem booster that produced higher line pressures.
Both versions of the 455 V-8 returned at their previous power ratings. One interesting new package option appeared this year. Dubbed "GT," it consisted of special seats, front console, and discreet ID emblems. Less than 1,000 cars were so equipped, indicating most Toronado buyers simply weren't interested in anything remotely like "sport." Model year sales skidded to about 25,500, thus ringing down the curtain on the first-generation design.
The pioneering 1966-1970 Toronados were almost instant collectibles. And for the enthusiast who marches to the beat of a different automotive drummer, we can think of no better choice.