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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.