Because They Could : The Oldsmobile Toronado.

DTW comes to the Half Century for the Oldsmobile Toronado, a 1966 example of which was supposed to be the 100 millionth GM vehicle. Did they really keep count that carefully? What about Johnny Cash’s Cadillac?

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado - image : momentcar.com
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado – image : momentcar.com

Personal Car? That would be my Nissan Cube. However there is also a ‘Personal Luxury Car’, a US category comprising gargantuan, two door cars, such as the Sixties Ford Thunderbirds, which I suppose was shorthand for the head of the nuclear family’s gross personal indulgence. I admit to a liking for most of the personal luxury cars from that era and, looking at GM’s offerings, I would be hard pushed to choose between a ‘67 Cadillac Eldorado, the outrageous, ‘71 boat-tailed Riviera or an original Oldsmobile Toronado.

Despite the flamboyant styling legacy of Harley Earl, GM has always been a rather cautious company, often waiting to see what the others do before it acts. In some cases this has served it well. In others not. And when it has stuck its neck out, such as with the flat-six, rear-engined Corvair or the battery powered EV-1, it has often had its fingers burnt – or maybe more correctly, it has burnt its own fingers..

So, the 1966 Toronado, being the result of Oldsmobile’s front wheel drive investigations instigated in the late 1950s, seems an odd move, particularly as it’s hard to understand quite why they did it, except because they could. If I consider a Toronado parked, in my mind, next to an Issigonis Mini, it’s hard not to think of the Arnold Schwarzenegger / Danny DeVito film ‘Twins’, even if I’ve never watched it. In one you wonder how they found so much space. In the other you wonder how they squandered it. Apart from innovation for innovation’s sake, and in a market where the showroom models seduced their customers with vague concepts like ‘Wide-Track Ride’, that is not to be discounted, was the Toronado just an engineer’s indulgence?

UPP Drivetrain - image : hemmings.com
UPP Drivetrain – image : hemmings.com

Wanting to keep the powertrain compact and to prevent too much nose weight, the transmission sat beside the longitudinally mounted engine. The torque converter was mounted directly onto the back of the V8, and drive was taken from that to the transmission through 180 degrees by a chain. The system was painstakingly developed and proved itself to be very durable. The entire assembly, dubbed Unitized Power Package, was mounted onto a subframe and more room was made in the engine compartment by using torsion bars on the front suspension. Disappointingly only drum brakes were offered in the first year and it was a foolish buyer who didn’t specify the optional discs available from 1967.

Cord 810 – image : hemmings.com

With its concealed headlamps, slatted grille and raised wings as a clue, it’s clear that Oldsmobile were thinking of it as a conceptual successor to the Cord 810/812. But, whereas that car is a wonder to look at inside as well as out, to today’s eyes the reasonably timeless modernity of the Oldsmobile’s exterior is not reflected once you get inside through the huge doors, despite the rolling drum speedometer that they got to several years before Citroen.  It had a flat floor, allowing unimpeded three-abreast seating in the back, but the fastback styling compromised headroom. You would have thought that compact powertrain could have released more passenger area, but that would have affected the long bonnet proportions that a buyer expected.  Once on the road, in its early form it was stiff by US standards of the time and handled respectably, bearing in mind its size, but, despite its 7 litre 385hp (SAE) engine, its claim to being the fastest, front-driven production car was ceded to the 2.7 litre Citroen SM of 4 years later.

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Since Ford had handed its Cardinal front wheel drive compact car design over to Ford Germany and replaced it with the very conventional Falcon, the Toronado put GM ahead, in terms of image if not practice. Within GM, Buick used a variant of the same platform for its Riviera, but kept it rear driven. However Cadillac adopted the front drive UPP for the 1967 Eldorado.

Being put to inappropriate use? A '67 Eldorado - The Oldsmobile was stiffer.
Being put to inappropriate use? A ’67 Eldorado – The Oldsmobile was stiffer.

Hindsight shows the engineering to be a reasonable dead-end, though I suppose that Honda did use chain drive on the transmission of its own dead-end 1300.  The car was almost 5.4 metres long (the SM was 4.9m and that extravagant, sprawling Jaguar of the time, the Mark X was only 5.1m) and it weighed over 2,000 kg (140 more than the Mark X), so it’s hard to see that much practical use was made of the advantages that all that hard work in the engineering department might have allowed. Probably having to work with hard points that would also accommodate the Riviera’s rear drive system restricted and frustrated them, the concept was originally intended for a smaller platform. But it kept the front wheel drive aspirations of GM’s engineers alive and, if you discount the adaptation of the European Horizon into the sub-compact class by Chrysler, GM just managed to get in first with mainstream front-driven US models with the X-Body cars of 1979 which, in Oldsmobile’s case, was the Omega. But, by then, the relative autonomy of the different brand’s engineering departments had diminished hugely.

AQC Getaway on 68 Toronado base
Speak up, which terminal did you say? America Quality Coach Jetway 707 on 68 Toronado base

But, dissociating the engine from the rear wheels allowed for some interesting Toronado based spin-offs (no pun intended). First, there was the the AQC Jetway a really streeeeeetched airport limousine which could be produced without the need to engineer a block-long propshaft. Then there was another of my favourites, the magnificent, shit-burning (literally) GMC Motorhome, once described memorably (by me) as Star Trek meets Little House On The Prairie.

Naturally, the styling of the first Toronado was controversial, because it was interesting and because it was good. When it became more conventional and more dull it naturally sold better. So, although, viewed objectively as an all-in package it comes up short, in my eyes the first Toronado has a uniqueness that makes it a rather significant and desirable car.

30 thoughts on “Because They Could : The Oldsmobile Toronado.”

  1. Are GM always cautious? For two decades the US lump produced strings of remarkable-looking cars. The Olds discussed here is one of them. They probably didn’t know what do with FWD which is why it was applied to this monster. You could say it was a learning excercise.

    1. I’d meant technically cautious. No-one would call a 59 Cadillac cautious – well not to its face. And I said generally – I speak after all as one of only two people who frequent this site who holds the Volt/ Ampera in high regard.

      But if you were going to apply FWD to any of GM’s mid 60s cars, surely a huge showy coupe was the last thing that needed it. Mind you, I’m glad they did.

  2. The ‘sheer look’ GM cars of the Bill Mitchell era are genuinely appealing, as well as standing for the last period in automotive history when the US was leading the way, stylistically speaking.

    And, in an age of ‘hot & cool’ styling, ‘purity of line’ and ‘sensual purity’, ‘sheer look’ actually serves to highlight that form language monickers can actually have a sensible meaning.

  3. Could it have been GM was recognising this was the future and by introducing it on a desirable luxury car it would influence and create mass market acceptance.
    This has always happened where systems such as climate control, power steering etc has started trends by first appearing in luxury models.
    Today Tesla is doing the same with electric cars.

    1. Oldsmobile’s engineers wanted to put it on a one size down car, but had to share the same Cadillac / Buick base. On a smaller car the compact powertrain would have made somewhat more sense. But once you get over the slightly old fashioned sounding idea of using chains it was a good solution. Better than shoving the engine right out front like Audi. It was easier to do an auto this way than a manual, though I doubt that would have been a problem at Personal Luxury Car level.

  4. I like to sneer at American cars as much as the next man, but I can’t help but look at that ’66 Toronado, and the ’95 Oldsmobile in a linked article and compare it to the complete and utter shit that 95% of people in the UK were driving at the time.

    Sure GM could have made some little European style buzzbox with a transverse farting 4 pot turning out 60 three legged horsepower for their first FWD car and they would have sold about 8. By putting it in a car people (in the US) might actually want they could try something new and have a chance of not making a crushing loss on it. Hell Audi are still struggling to get that much of the engine and gearbox package behind the axle line today!

    1. American cars must be understood in context. I think Europeans don’t have a monopoly on good looking cars and I think it is uncontroversial to say reliability sometimes took a back seat while in the US the grasp of detail design is also looking out the rear passenger window. We must adjust comparisons and the Olds can’t be compared to a 1966 Morris Cambridge, more equivalent to a big V6 Ford or even a Mercedes coupe, if we take some regard to purchase power parity. If the Americans did comfy landyachts very well, the Europeans had technical excellence in dynamics and yes, their own very refined visual language appropriate to the scale: the late 60s coupes from Alfa and Lancia were outstanding; the Peugeot 404 and Renault 16 were impressive designs (I can’t think of anything British except the XJ and Humber Imperial….

  5. Jay Leno, who as a collector and an intelligent commentator on cars I have a lot of respect for, has a ’66 Toronado. Except his has twin turbo C5 Corvette underpinning, giving 1000hp through rear drive. Now, it looks perfectly standard from the outside, so I can understand the appeal. Yet it seems to me that resto rods should respect the engineering layout as well as the styling. To me this goes with rear drive Cord conversions and, absolute horror, a rear driven, conventionally suspended Citroen DS hot rod. Needless to say, if you look up references to it on US blogs, there’s a fair amount of approval that someone dumped that effete unamerican FWD concept for decent, manly rear drive, but it don’t seem right to me.

    1. I’m open-minded about him. Of course there are his Clarksonesque boys toys, such as rocket powered bikes. But he writes intelligently about car things and, very important, he is concerned about the fact that his cars run well. I remember a piece he wrote about the fact that quite a few Pebble Beach concours queens were mechanically pretty shot but, since that didn’t affect the awards as long as they could limp up to the judging area, that didn’t worry the preening owners. So, although to my mind there is something depressingly superficial about clothing a Toronado body around different underpinnings, in other aspects I find his attitude as a well-heeled collector very healthy.

  6. Sean: he´s not a monster car-wrecker true. Maybe he could leave the cars alone though. It´s a bit inconsistent to complain about pretty but immobile show cars and also have pretty but mechanically-butchered cars of one´s own. I think the cars should be left as stock.

    1. My own Citroen has a series of more or less invisible mechanical modifications to overcome its original shortcomings. Most current SMs have some or all of these so you could say that few cars really remain stock. When I was considering getting an Alfa Romeo Giulia, I didn’t have a problem with the idea of putting in a twin-spark engine since I felt that was true to the spirit. You can get IRS conversions for stodgy handling MGBs, and you could point out that is how they would have been at the time, had not management been so mean with development money. And customising a mass produced Chevrolet is harmless fun. But generally I don’t like things that don’t look like standard, and aren’t standard in ‘spirit’ (though my interpretation of such a nebulous concept won’t be someone else’s).

      Actually, the butchering that irks me most these days is over-restoration, cars that look un-naturally shinier and brighter than they ever did. A sort of killing by kindness.

    2. I find Leno’s video blogs incredibly annoying. Even if it’s to be considered his personal hobby, he should still prepare himself at least a little before going on air. One cannot be an utter anorak about each and every car, but Leno just comes across as being all too lazy with his research all too often.

    3. I must say I’ve only read his pieces, not watched him, hence my opinion. Possibly he considers things more when he’s writing than when he’s talking. A trait I sympathise with.

  7. Sean, count me in as the third Volt / Ampera fan.

    It has some very clever engineering, albeit some of it expedient, when it was realised late on in the project that IC to electric drive wasn’t going to deliver the required results without a mechanical connection. BMW haven’t worked that one out yet, despite the crapness of the range extender i3 staring them in the face.

    GM have an extraordinary record of putting innovative ideas into large scale production, then abandoning them when they didn’t work, or couldn’t make a profit. I’m thinking of things like the Saturn’s spaceframe construction, also used on MPVs, the Vega’s alloy bores, the Pontiac Tempest’s ‘rope-drive’, everything about the Corvair. Lots more out there…

    I can’t imagine this sort of thing happening at Hyundai or Toyota. The first generation Prius was widely reported to be a massive loss-maker, but there was a plan there, and confidence in the worth of the technical principles which has been vindicated in succeeeding generations.

    On related matters, the new Ampera / Bolt has largely slipped under DTW’s radar. It was the centre of attention in the Opel Reich at the Paris Mondial, where a grassy amphitheatre had been built for us to watch a hipster-ish cartoon film showing the new EV travelling from London to Paris with charge to spare, leaving its rivals behind in rural France along the way. The car itself looks like a B-segment MPV, with Astra-ish external details. Looking like a modern-day rival for the Renault Modus or Fiat Idea is not a promising start, but a range of 500km is a game-changer. At Geneva this year Dieter Zetsche said that a 499km range was the point at which an EV became viable.

    GM say RHD markets aren’t going to get the Ampera. The issue is not conversion, but the price – $37,000 in the USA. I shouldn’t be surprised if GM bottle out of this one too, leaving others to bathe in the glory of making the first universally viable and affordable EV.

  8. A rather large amount of received wisdom from know-nothing US writers on sites like Hemmings is repeated here.

    Why do I say that? Well, I happen to have a bound copy of GM’s four quarterly Engineering Journals from 1966. The first two deal exclusively with the Toronado’s development. From ventilation to chassis design to the powertrain and the dogged development of a reliable powertrain; even the design of the torsion bar spring system for the boot (trunk) lid.

    I’m an engineer as well as a car nut, so I’ve treasured this book for decades. It shows what can be done when people really get down to proper design with a decent budget. NO, it doesn’t have a Buick chassis hard points, it has a three quarter frame leading to single leaf rear springs with four dampers. Where all this stuff about Buick comes from, goodness only knows. They used a Buick bodyshell to disguise the developmental cars and that’s about it – perhaps the no-brainers who’ve written about the car since didn’t bother to go to their library and read the actual GM documents, relying as is all too common in the car biz on old wives’ tales and making things up.

    Anyway, the original Toronado was as bespoke as it gets. The articles go into detail on the problems and solutions, even the clever design of the differential gears is covered, not to mention how the rear cockpit was designed then actually realized in production. No headroom? Who says so?

    1960s European cars were, as a reader above notes in sarcastic detail, underdeveloped bits of tin compared to the Toronado. One can argue the toss all day about handling finesse, and that indefinable Euro sense of always being the sophisticate while Americans are crass and callow, but there weren’t any European cars of the time bar larger Mercedes that came close to this Toronado in mechanical integrity. To argue otherwise is to merely place large blinkers over one’s eyes and ears and insist that any old French plonk is better than Californian wines as if it were a truism rather than the codswallop it truly is.

    In the flesh, this was an amazing car to behold as well. Then for 1967, GM marketing got hold of it, produced the Eldorado with softer suspension, softened the Toronado’s suspension as well, and completely ruined it. C’est la vie.

    1. Well, Bill, while I have no reason to doubt your educated statements, I feel compelled to point out that there’s a reason why some Europeans consider the American attitude to be somewhat ‘crass and callow’. A slightly less brash tone certainly wouldn’t have put any less weight onto the points you’ve been trying to make. I don’t think Sean’s piece has been a put-down of American engineering in the Clarksonesque vain, so I don’t see the need for any kind of aggressive defence.

    2. Bill. In my case it is, of course, inevitably received wisdom. I don’t think I have ever seen an early Toronado, let alone driven one, though it fascinated me enough to have made a plastic kit of one in 1967. Yet since, as I thought I made clear I’ve always greatly admired it, flawed or not, I’m happy for you to disabuse me.

      I found it confusing to understand how it could share much in common with a RWD Riviera body, subframe or not, but, as you know, that is a ‘fact’ repeated more than once. Also, I’d be the first to admit that if GM had developed my Citroen SM, I’d have spent far less time and money maintaining it over the past 20 years. My point about an ‘engineers indulgence’ was based on the fact that the engineering is of a very high standard, but I still question whether the 5.4m (originally) drum braked Toronado is the car they would have chosen to spend their talent and hard work on had they had free rein.

      As for any Euro sense of always being the sophisticate while Americans are crass and callow, well that’s not me and I don’t actually think it’s many other people on this site, though I regret if I’ve given that impression. Possibly irrelevant, but the only person who I’ve discussed the Toronado with who really dismisssed it in those terms actually came from your side of the Atlantic. And I didn’t really believe him.

    3. I replied yesterday away from any references, and my memory is only to be relied on in broad strokes, not for figures. With an identical wheelbase of 3023 mm, and very similar architecture, it seems highly unlikely that the Toronado and Riviera didn’t share a body structure beneath the skin (my use of ‘platform’ was misleading, since obviously a lot of work with the subframe was necessary to accommodate a completely different drivetrain). So a FWD car was built within the proportions of a RWD one, hence my point about it being, in part, a wasted opportunity. Though I doubt that the proportions of an Austin 1800 would have sat well in the Personal Luxury Car category.

      Actually, although I lifted some images from Hemmings, I didn’t look too closely at their writing. There are a lot of contemporary reports available so much of what I wrote was based on ‘no-nothing US writers’ of the time. It was very thirsty (maybe not too much of an issue then) but some magazines found the performance short of expectations, which is a disappointing combination. Remarkably poor brakes is a recurrent theme and disappointing headroom in the back is certainly a reported issue (being tall I’m particularly sensitive when I read that) but I don’t really need to read about it to judge, just look at photos of a Toronado. It was certainly the same in a Riviera, but my point is that the compact drivetrain could have released far more space than it did.

      So, to piss you off more Bill, I’d say that, despite me labelling it significant, in that it stands out as something rather special, I also regard the Toronado as a silly and irrelevant car, completely unnecessary and having no influence at all on the cars we drive today. But many cars are silly and irrelevant. I own one such, maybe two in fact, and am very happy to.

  9. It was indeed “an engineer’s indulgence” but with a clear objective: impress GM’s board and get promoted to the C-suite. The chief engineer of the Toronado was none other than Bob Stempel, a daring engineer cum political animal who used the Toronado project as a springboard to propel himself himself up the GM hierarchy. It worked, and Bob landed the CEO job two decades later. Despite being the only GM CEO ever to be a genuine “car guy” he didn’t manage to stand in the way of the bean counters who slowly but surely drove it to bankruptcy.

    1. Hello, and thanks for your comment. Welcome to DTW. That little insight on Bob Stempel puts the car in a new light. I don´t imagine that these days it is so easy for one executive to steer resources in this fashion, which makes this much less interesting.

  10. Bill: thanks for making us look a little harder at the received wisdom. We have what some will grandly call an epistemological problem, namely how do we know what we know. Wikipedia has judged the Toronado, Riviera 2 and Eldorado to be “related”. You have some GM documentation to show otherwise (I’d love to get a copy) and, on consideration, it seems a stretch to “relate” the Olds and the Buick given their different layouts.
    I haven’t even seen a Toronado in the metal so I can’t comment on the quality. What I can say is that often the general tendencies of US cars and Eurocars are magnified when viewed across the Atlantic. We desperately need a museum of standard US cars over here and the US needs a museum of European cars (ordinary ones). It’d be a fantastic statement of cultural understanding.

  11. I struggle to think of a more handsome American car contemporary to the Toronado, in original trim at least, and that hails from a golden age of Detroit. I even like the Eldorado, which appeared much more lissom than the Caddies that followed on the same theme.

  12. I’m still rather nonplussed at suggestions of a patronising misreading of US cars by us in the UK. So, rather than the several US magazine tests I’ve read recently, I thought I’d look out a contemporary British test. The great Bill Boddy tested a Toronado in the August 1966 edition of Motor Sport.

    The only downsides he mentioned were that the test was delayed when the first UK Press Toronado self-immolated (apparently a teething fault), that he emptied the 20 gallon tank after 185 miles and that it had awful brakes (awful is my word based on ‘severe fade from high speeds’ and ‘adequate’ but ‘snatchy’ otherwise). But he didn’t seem to hold any of these things against the car of which he was effusive in his overall praise for as ‘a fine piece of automobile engineering’.

    Of course Boddy was an enthusiastic driver of early motor cars, so he probably took efficient brakes as a pleasant surprise rather than a necessity. He actually ended the piece with a comment that could have come from Archie Vicar’s pen that he preferred driving a vintage Sunbeam and had handed the Toronado to the photographer half-way through the test (IRONY ALERT : I don’t think that was intended as a put down of the car, just a statement of his preferences in life).

    In the UK the car cost £4,415 12s. 1d, a similar price to an Jensen Interceptor which, although not mass-produced, could be seen as one of the the nearest things in the UK to a Personal Luxury Car. Not that the price similarity means much, US cars were always hugely overpriced in the UK. In addition to import duties, since they only sold to a limited clientele, I think the importers tended to put on quite a fat mark-up for their troubles.

    http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1966/42/truth-about-toronado

  13. Here are some Toronados for sale. $2,500 for the project, $15,500 for the runner.


    There are others available in Europe. Interestingly, although all period shots of the Toronado show the concealed headlights in what I regard as their designed state, with that distinctive step on the trailing edge (and indeed the two advertised above are like that) there are many modern photos showing them flush, as in the following from a dealer in Neu-Ulm (€12,900).

    Were there originally two positions, or do restorers end up doing this either because it’s easier or because they (incorrectly) assume it looks better.

  14. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that marque enthusiasts often fall too easily into the hole of perceiving slight where there is none. Some of course actively seek it out. This is especially true of cars/marques who have been subject to it in the past. There is also the whole “unless you’ve owned one, you’re unqualified to hold an opinion” trope one frequently reads in one-marque forums. I suppose in our American friends’ defence, we in the old world have been guilty in the past of a certain metaphorical patting of the head when it came to the products of Detroit, which does get tiring after a number of decades. We’re not in the habit of doing that here, but I suppose for some, even offering an opinion is itself an offence.

    In my personal lexicon of outstanding and ‘important’ U.S car designs from the 1960’s there’s the ’61 Lincoln Continental, the ’63 Buick Riviera, the Corvette Stingray from the same year and this. I might include the ’67 Eldorado at a pinch. I’m struggling to think of any others that resonate with me, which doesn’t mean other American styles weren’t influential – the original Corvair obviously springs to mind.

    Any decent car collection should have a ’66 Toronado for its styling alone. What a fantastic machine.

    1. When I went to pick up my Cube from the garage earlier this week, there was a 61-63 Thunderbird Hardtop parked there. I always admired the shape, though less so when it was scaled down to become the UK’s Corsair. I should have taken some photos. It seemed a wealth of lovely, chunky details.

  15. My experience of the British attitude to cars is to have been shot down in design school for not dismissing them tout court. For a while I wavered in my interest and settled on critical interest. Unlike my peers I’d actually lived in the US so I understand (maybe a bit better) the context. What
    I want to avoid is the tribalistic “Euro is good/American is bad” car dichotomy. Certainly too many European cars lacked robustness and sometimes the Big Three got careless with fit and finish and detailing. Both continents had cars that were right sized for the conditions. People jeering at land yachts or sardine cans are missing the point. The Europeans might have over-done efficiency and the Big Three had punishing development schedules. I find all of it fascinating.
    My list of US favourites is less driven by technical achievements: the ’62 Lincoln Continental, ’63 Riviera, the Olds here, the 1970 Cadillac Eldorado, the ’76 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman, the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, 1988 Riviera, 1990-ish aerostyle Olds Cutlass coupe. All off the top of my head.

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