1971-1978 Oldsmobile Toronado

Five years after its debut as General Motors' first production front-wheel-drive car, the 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado was ready for a complete remake. It borrowed a few admired styling touches from GM's second front-drive car but still maintained plenty of its own identity.

I was there when the "big" Toronado had its final run. In fact, I sold the last one we had at the large Oldsmobile dealership where I worked as a new-car salesman. The big Toros of the Seventies were certainly handsome machines, but by their final year, many people viewed them as anachronisms in a world of costlier fuel and rapidly downsizing automobiles. Still, it was sad to see them fade away. After all, things had started out so well.

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The prominent beaklike hood of the 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado pushed grille openings to the far ends of the bumper.
The prominent beak-like hood of the 1971 Oldsmobile
Toronado pushed grille openings to the far ends of the bumper.
See more pictures of classic cars.

The Toronado personal-luxury coupe made its debut for 1966, boasting the first front-wheel-drive configuration in an American car since the 1937 Cord. The "Toro" occupied an enviable position as the costliest and most-admired model in the Olds­mobile lineup. Back then, Olds held a coveted place in the industry. The big Ninety-Eight was known as a "thinking man's Cadillac," while the Delta 88s were upscale family cars renowned for comfort and style. Young people salivated over the awesome 4-4-2 muscle cars, while newlyweds usually hankered for something from the sporty Cutlass series, Olds' line of intermediates.

In the Toro­nado, America's oldest existing car brand had yet another of the engineering marvels for which the marque had become known through the years. The original Toronado also sported striking styling, which was facelifted and freshened over the next four years. Engine and chassis upgrades were made along the way, too.

For the 1971 model year, however, the time had come for a complete redesign. Engineers settled on a 122.3-inch wheelbase, 3.3 inches longer than before, and both the full-frame chassis and Fisher "E" body would be all-new. Toronado would continue to offer just one body style -- a hardtop coupe -- and marketing chiefs decided to reduce the number of models to just one, rather than offer base and premium models as in prior years. The consolidation made sense; buyers had always chosen the better model over the budget version by a wide margin.

Styling of the second-generation Toro­nado was squared up and more formal looking than before. Overall length was increased by 5.6 inches to 219.9 inches. While Oldsmobile acknowledged that there were other luxury coupes on the market, it dubbed Toronado "The Unmis­tak­able One."

The imposing profile featured long blade-type fenders that flowed back to the doors, the upper fender line continuing into the doors before terminating in a pronounced dip. The theme then resumed just aft of the door with a well-defined character line that shot straight up for a few inches before turning rearward to the back of the car, where the rear quarters ended in bladelike extensions that complemented the front fenders. New slim handles were recessed into the doors.

A formal, upright roof­line left only enough room for narrow vertical rear-quarter windows and gave the cabin a close-coupled look. The Toro­'s optional padded vinyl top was of the "halo" style, with a strip of sheet­metal showing between the windows and the roof covering. The combination of roof profile, side glass, and sharp kick-up line bore a deliberate resemblance to another front-drive personal coupe, the 1967-70 Cadil­lac Eldo­rado.

Up front, Toronado featured what might best be described as grilleless styling. Quad headlamps flanked a raised and projected center section of the broad hood, all set above a massive bumper. Air intake was accomplished via twin grilles set into the outer thirds of the bumper, a very distinctive touch. In back, one found a trunklid with a raised and extended center portion that, in plan view, would have appeared to be a continuation of the jutting hood. Recessed rectan­gu­lar taillamps sat low in niches created by the trunklid and rear bumper.

Toronado's interior came in for special attention with cut-pile carpeting and elegant fabrics and trim. Even the accelerator and brake pedals were color coordinated! Olds contended that the front seat, made of solid foam, was "simple and sag proof."

The handsome instrument panel was composed of three sections. A central rectangle held speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge, and gearshift indicator. Flanking this were two larger rectangles. The one on the left contained climate-control levers, lighting and wiper/washer controls, and an air vent; the left one held the radio, cigar lighter, and another air vent. Shoulder room in this sumptuous interior measured more than five feet, and the floor was virtually flat, thanks to the front-wheel drive.

Though still quite rare in America in 1971, front-wheel drive wasn't the only trump card the new Toro held. One particularly innovative feature: The taillights were supplemented by a pair of eye-level stop and signal lamps set in slots just below the rear window, a preview of today's high-mounted brake lights. A sophisticated new flow-through ventilation system exhausted interior air through louvers on the decklid. An optional "True-Track" antilock braking system, which operated on the rear brakes only, was available.


Oldsmobile's Success

Standard drivetrain on the new 1971 Oldsmobile Toro­nado included a mighty 455-cid V-8 hooked up to a special "split" Turbo Hydra-matic 400 transmission that let the big engine remain in the "north-south" alignment typical of rear-drive cars. Beginning with 1971, the engine was calibrated to run on low-lead, no-lead, or regular-grade gasoline rather than premium as a result of a reduction in compression ratio to 8.5:1. Horsepower dipped, too, down 25 from 1970 to 350 bhp at 4,200 rpm.

The Toro's Rocket 455 engine incorporated dual exhausts and a forced-air induction system for improved response, and positive valve rotators ensured extended valve life, but none of this exactly made the car a sprinter. Motor Trend required 10.7 seconds to go 0-60 mph in one and 16.9 seconds to cover a standing-start quarter mile.

Instead, the Toronado hung its hat on ride and creature comforts. The short stub frame and rear leaf springs of previous Toros were replaced by a full frame and all-coil suspension (with four-link geometry at the rear) that enabled the big 4,577-pound vehicle to handle twisty, bumpy roads with aplomb.

Olds bragged about Toronado's new faster-acting steering setup and the "G-Ride" system that included "Supershocks" with Teflon-coated cylinders to cut friction for smoother operation. Power-assisted front-disc/rear-drum brakes were continued as standard equipment, but Motor Trend found the Toronado, with its substantial front weight bias, a bit hairy to control in a panic stop from 60 mph.

Other key standard features included power steering, a self-regulating electric clock, radio antenna imbedded in the windshield, hidden windshield wipers, and wheel covers. Standard safety equipment included lap and shoulder belts for two front passengers, seat belts for all others, two front head restraints, an energy-absorbing steering column, side-guard door beams, padded instrument panel and sun visors, and more.

An electric rear window defogger, which Toro­nado had pioneered, was a popular option. So were an AM/FM radio, power windows and door locks, power seat (two- or six-way), air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering column, power trunk release, cruise control, low-fuel warning light, trip odometer, and triple-white stripe tires. A posh Brougham interior with a 60/40 divided front seat and individual controls for driver and passenger was listed, too. Fifteen exterior color choices were offered, enough to please even the most discriminating buyer.

In a question-and-answer interview in the December 1970 issue of Motor Trend, Oldsmobile Division General Manger John Beltz described the kind of buyer to whom the Toronado appealed. "He's a very selective and discerning individual. He's better educated than any of our other owners, or most owners in the industry. . . . He's making more money than even our Ninety-Eight owners. He's very successful. He's younger than the majority of our owners. So there you begin to get a picture of an individual who you might call an active, affluent person . . . a thought-leader type of individual," Beltz said.

Manufactured at a rate of just 26 cars an hour on a dedicated assembly line, the '71 Toronado made its public debut on September 10, 1970. Even though a 67-day strike that fall crimped supplies of all General Motors cars, response to the new Toro was encouraging. Model-year production edged upward to 28,980 units, the most since 1966.


1972 Oldsmobile Toronado

After the full redesign, there wasn't a lot new on the 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado. The grille sections shifted to all vertical bars. Protective moldings -- chrome on the body sides, vinyl on the front bumper -- became standard equipment, and the rear-seat armrest now boasted a built-in cigar lighter.

The 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado continued to be powered by a 455-cid V-8.
The 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado continued to
be powered by a 455-cid V-8.

A revision to the ventilation system did away with the deck louvers. Audible wear sensors were added to the disc brakes, and wheelbase was nudged back to exactly 122 inches. New options included an outside temperature indicator, headlamps-off delay, a sealed battery, and tilt-away steering wheel.

The Toronado V-8 was now rated at 250 bhp. A little of the 100-horsepower cut was the effect of retuning to curb exhaust emissions, but most of the reduction was simply due to the fact that the industry began reporting net horsepower as measured at the flywheel with all engine accessories operating.

Previ­ously, gross horsepower -- measured on engines running without necessary but power-robbing accessories -- had been the standard. With an uninterrupted production schedule and essentially unchanged prices, model-year demand for Toros grew by 69 percent to a record 48,900. This was in keeping with Oldsmobile's overall success: On the strength of an all-time high 758,711 cars built that season, the division shot up to third in sales.


1973 Oldsmobile Toronado

Nineteen seventy-three was the year federal bumper protection standards went into effect. To meet those standards, the 1973 Oldsmobile Toro­nado got a new hydraulic front-bumper system. It was comprised of a chrome bumper bar attached to hydraulic rams that could move rearward to absorb impact and provide better protection in impacts up to five mph.

The absence of a transmission tunnel in the front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile Toronado added leg room for passengers.
The absence of a transmission tunnel in the
front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile
Toronado added leg room for passengers.

A meatier rear bumper was also introduced, but since rear-bumper standards weren't as stringent -- yet -- the expensive hydraulic mounts weren't needed there. Front and rear bumper guards were standard.

Along with the new bumpers came a host of styling revisions. Out back, the decklid was restyled because the taillights were changed to vertical lenses set into the trailing edge of the quarter panels. A full-width filler panel incorporating reflec­tors and back-up lamps ran between the decklid and the bumper. To balance the taillight design, front park and signal lamps came in a new vertical style in the ends of the front fenders. Grilles were also reworked to fit in the hydraulic bumper.

Steel-belted radial tires were now available at extra cost -- as were the bright bodyside moldings that previously had been standard. The vinyl top no longer had the halo effect, instead covering the whole roof surface.

In a record-setting year for the industry as a whole, Oldsmobile wholesaled more than 900,000 cars for 1973. Of them, 55,921 were Toronados, the all-time high for the big coupe. Detroit wouldn't be able to celebrate for very long, however.


1974 Oldsmobile Toronado

A lot was new in the 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado. A small grille opening was cut into the lower part of the central hood bulge, highlighted by three bright strips reminiscent of the original Toro's Cord-like grillework. The Toronado name was spelled out in individual letters above the grille and a stand-up ornament now topped the hood.

Toronado also added a handsome optional "opera roof" treatment, a thickly padded vinyl half-top with a winged ornament and small vertical fixed-position windows on the sail panel. An electric sunroof was optionally available. With hydraulic bumper systems now in place both front and rear, overall length was up to 228 inches.

Inside, Toronado was treated to a two-spoke steering wheel and an instrument panel design that were both new. A large rectangular area in front of the driver held a strip speedometer, odometer, and fuel gauge. Lighting and climate controls were on the left, radio to the right. Even farther to the right was the clock, now digital.

The 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado was the first GM car to come off the line with an air-bag system.
The 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado was the first GM
car to come off the line with an air-bag system.

New this year was a "message center," two panels flanking the shift quadrant that contained warning lights for oil, alternator, parking brake, engine temperature, and low fuel, plus remind­ers to fasten seat belts or that lights were left on. Extra-cost Brougham interior trim now featured velour upholstery in a choice of five colors; if they preferred, buyers could also specify white vinyl.

Technical advancements included chas­sis calibrations to compensate for the cars' growing heft. A polypropylene-cased battery reduced weight by nine pounds. Front disc brakes got beefier pads. Like other big Oldses, the Toro­nado could be ordered with a high-energy ignition system with built-in coil that provided a hotter spark while eliminating the points and condenser. Steel-belted radial tires, built to GM specifications, were newly offered.

Olds furthered its reputation as an "engineer's car" by delivering the first production car -- a Toronado Brougham -- with an "air cushion restraint system," or an air bag. After its press showing, the car went to GM president Ed Cole, who'd ordered it.

Also new was Tempmatic air conditioning, which provided precise automatic temperature control and included a charcoal air filter to prevent offensive odors from entering the car. A new pulse wiper system was also available.

All the innovations in the world couldn't change the fact that 1974 was an awful year for the U.S. auto industry. Central to that was the oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Coun­tries after war broke out in the Middle East. In effect from October 1973 to March 1974, the boycott tightened gasoline supplies and hiked prices -- and drove many Americans to small, high-mileage imported cars.

Auto­makers suffered a drop in sales of more than 2 million units. Big cars were the hardest hit. With power down (to 230 bhp) and weight up (to more than 4,800 pounds), the Toronado was hardly a gas miser, and orders declined by almost 51 percent.

The sales slump deepened in 1975 despite changes designed to lure customers back to the Toronado camp. First and foremost, engineers improved fuel econ­omy.


1975 Oldsmobile Toronado

The 1975 Oldsmobile Toronado boasted improved fuel econ­omy. "For 1975, engineering refinements have significantly improved gas mileage over last year," the division said. "Weight has been reduced. Idle speed lowered. Carburetion is more efficient." Horsepower was further reined in to 215. A new 2.73:1 axle ratio certainly boosted highway mileage.

To help Toronado driv­ers help themselves go easy on gas, a fuel economy gauge that "shows when you're getting the best mileage" was optional. All the while, stiffening emissions standards still had to be met, and that was done through the addition of a catalytic converter.

GM's gradual switch to rectangular headlamps began in '75, the Toronado being among the first vehicles on which this happened. In back, vertical bumper ends filled the area that formerly held the taillamps; rear lighting moved to a strip below the decklid. True hardtop styling was replaced by a roof with static opera windows in wide sail panels.

Power windows and high-energy ignition were now standard, and a theft-deterrent system that flashed lights and sounded the horn if anyone tampered with the doors, hood, or trunk was a new option. Two models were offered, a Custom and a Brougham that cost $230 more.


1976-1978 Oldsmobile Toronado Specifications

The 1976 Oldsmobile Toronado mostly maintained the status quo. Newly available as an option was a semiautomatic leveling system that let drivers set the rear shock absorbers to handle normal, medium, or heavy-duty loads from a dial on the instrument panel.

Meanwhile, the air bag option, a pricey item available on certain Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Cadillacs, put in its last appearance due to lack of interest -- for the time being. Broughams with cloth seats sported a new "loose cushion" look. With the auto industry starting to climb out of the cellar this year, Toro production rose, if only slightly.

Velour upholstery with a
Velour upholstery with a "loose cushion" look was
featured in the 1976 Oldsmobile Toronado Brougham.

­It turned out that 1977 was as wild for the Toronado as '76 had been tame. There was revised styling, a new engine, and a new model -- plus one that didn't quite get off the ground. With the Custom dropped, the model range began with the Brougham, the starting price of which had by now inflated to $8134. A good $2500 more fetched a dramatic new XS coupe with a massive panoramic backlight and a tinted-glass power sunroof. Using hot-bent-wire technology to form sharp corners in the glass, the rear window wrapped from B-pillar to B-pillar.

Olds came close to offering an XS with a distinctive twist. Dubbed the XSR, it would have featured reflective-glass T-top panels. Unlike other such panels that were just coming into vogue, these were to slide inboard at the touch of a button, nesting one over the other beneath a central roof section. A prototype was commissioned and the XSR even appeared in an Oldsmobile catalog, but the top mechanism was ultimately deemed too troublesome to produce.

Frontal styling featured a larger central grille with a Cadillac-style eggcrate design, new bumper, and turn-signal lamps mounted beneath the headlamps. Standard cornering and side-marker lights were moved to the fender sides, and the leading edge of the front fenders now held small light-up Toronado emblems.

With Ninety-Eights and Delta 88s newly downsized for '77, the Toro became the largest Oldsmobile. The 455 V-8, in use since 1968, was jettisoned in favor of a new 403-cid Rocket V-8 with electronic spark timing for improved fuel economy. In Toronados, the engine developed 200 bhp at 3600 rpm and 330 pound-feet of torque at 2400 rpm. Four-Season air conditioning was now standard equipment, and an AM/FM stereo with a built-in citizens band radio joined the options list.

Though still third in the sales race, Oldsmobile reached a milestone in '77: its first 1-million-car model year. The midsize Cutlass, America's best-selling nameplate, accounted for more than half of the year's output, but the Toronado helped out a bit. Production was up by almost 10,000 cars to 34,085, the big coupe's best showing in four years.

Changes to the 1978 Toronado were few. There was a handsome new vertical-bar grille and an AM/FM stereo radio was now standard equipment. A slight cut in engine compression shaded horsepower back to 190 and torque to 325 pound-feet. Optional leather inserts used on the seating surfaces were introduced in a choice of carmine, black, or camel.

Despite the virtual sameness, base prices shot up -- by nearly $1000 on the XS. Meanwhile, demand was down by more than 9000 units in what would be the final year for the big Toro. Its turn for downsizing had come and an all-new Toronado, riding an eight-inch-shorter wheelbase and weighing nearly 1000 pounds less, was about to pull Oldsmobile's personal-luxury coupe into the years of its most consistent success.

Even with eight years' worth of changes to its exterior styling, interior appointments, and drivetrain, there was no mistaking a 1978 Toronado as a member of the second generation of Oldsmobile's front-wheel-drive personal-luxury coupe. As it turned out, '78 would mark the last time the imposing "Toro" would ever be this big.

1971-1978 Oldsmobile Toronado Models, Prices, Production

1971 Weight Price Production
(wb 122.3)
hardtop coupe 4,577 5,459 28,9801
(wb 122.0)
hardtop coupe
(wb 122.0)
hardtop coupe 4,794 5,441 55,9213
(wb 122.0)
hardtop coupe 4,838 5,560 27,5824
(wb 122.0)
Brougham coupe 4,831 6,766 18,882
Custom coupe 4,787 6,536 4,419
Total 1975 Toronado 23,301
(wb 122.0)
Brougham coupe 4,783 7,137 21,749
Custom coupe 4,761 6,891 2,555
Total 1976 Toronado 24,304
(wb 122.0)
XS coupe 4,805 10,684 2,7145
Brougham coupe 4,747 8,134 31,371
Total 1977 Toronado 34,085
(wb 122.0)
XS coupe 4,767 11,599 2,453
Brougham coupe 4,833 8,899 22,362
Total 1978 Toronado­ 24,815
­1Includes 8796 with Brougham interior option. 2Includes 17,824 with Brougham interior option. 3Includes 27,728 with Brougham interior option. 4Includes 19,48­8 with Brougham interior option. 5Includes one prototype of the advertised but never-produced XSR model. Source: Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile's First 100 Years, by Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corp., 1996.