The Idea of North

An Italo-American curiosity receives a broad DTW brushstroke.

Ghia’s Thor concept, gets the late ’60s split screen treatment. (c)

Some cars emerge into the world fully formed, and regardless of where one lands upon their aesthetic merits, defy the facelifter’s scalpel, or indeed much in the way of subsequent enhancement. In stating this, I must add, I am not suggesting these cars were never the subject of facelifting exercises, more that perhaps they really ought not to have been.

Of the cars in question (and you can speculate upon the constitution of that shortlist amongst yourselves), opinions may differ as to the relative stylistic merits – for not all were considered great beauties – but the subject of today’s essay is unquestionably a design paragon. Or more to the point, the original from which it is derived; in my view the last truly significant American car design, if purely aesthetic terms are one’s unit of measure.

Selling the 66 Toronado- (c):

The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado is unquestionably one of the stylistic monoliths of Detroit’s sunset years. Coming as it did towards the latter end of the decade, it emerged before a combination of commercial hubris, legislation, value engineering, and geopolitical shocks brought a period of (broadly speaking), creative fruitfulness to an abrupt close.

Not simply a visual statement, but something of an engineering trailblazer for its General Motors parent, the Toronado is a car so entirely in and of itself that in some ways it doesn’t seem like the product of the world’s largest carmaker at all, rather one of a smaller-scale disruptor; one who would in the normal scheme of things, have been destined to honourable failure and inevitable demise. But then the US industry remains for me, very much a foreign landscape.

Allegedly based on a purely speculative theme by Oldsmobile stylist, David North in the early ’60s, the Toronado’s shape is remarkable for its proportions, its confident, clean-limbed surfacing, and its sparing use of embellishment. Its scale was, in retrospect, a given – if very much an asset – to the car’s sheer visual presence, if not necessarily to its agility.

This being so, and with the production car being well received by press and buying public alike, one wonders what might have prompted GM styling chief, Bill Mitchell to (allegedly) commission Ghia to reimagine the car along more European lines, assuming of course that it wasn’t in fact a piece of unsolicited speculation on the part of the Italian styling house itself.

The 1967 Thor concept, the work of none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro during his post-Bertone and pre-Ital Design hiatus, certainly bears all the hallmarks of an Italian carrozzeria approach, and carries within it vague (fore?)shadowings of contemporary designs from the same hand and house.

Either way, the resultant design is said not to have found favour with Mitchell, who either through his own direction, or that of GM’s marketing department, proceeded to over-embellish and gradually smother the original theme towards something more conventionally baroque before ultimately screwing the pooch entirely – to put it in US Airforce test pilot parlance.

As an aside, it’s well known that the Apollo programme Astronauts (who were fighter jocks almost to a man), drove Chevrolet Corvettes. Legendary NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz however, I always felt, would have been less outwardly showy, but as a man with nevertheless what appears to have been a well defined sense of self, and I would imagine, a fine appreciation for engineering, may well have chosen a Toronado as his daily driver.

Returning to the Ghia proposal, it’s not entirely without merit, but not only is it not one of Giorgetto’s better efforts, you most assuredly wouldn’t choose it over the original ’66 car. Because to refer back to my opening paragraph, there are some designs you simply do not mess with. What a shame therefore that Mr. Mitchell lost sight of his idea of North.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “The Idea of North”

  1. Good morning Eóin, and thanks for brightening up an overcast Saturday morning with one of my all-time favourite American cars. I cannot resist the temptation to post another photo of it:

    Of course, all good things must come to an end. In the Toronado’s case, it was this bland lump of nothing in particular that marked its demise in 1992:

    Actually, the 1992 car is not ugly, but it simply lacks any of the brutal elegance (if that’s not oxymoronic) of the original.

  2. I have to say I have never understood what the purpose of this car was, and what GM was trying to do with it.

    I don’t see how the supposed space utilization advantages of a fwd format are going to be realized in a car that is less than 53 inches in height and has a fastback coupe body. With that roof height, the occupants are going to have a very low seating position, and the car is going to have a very long wheelbase to have enough legroom.

    They spent a bunch of money to develop a fwd powertrain that had near rwd handling and durability. ??? In a world of $3 per barrel oil, who cares ?

    One thing the GM luxury segments should have been working on during this period – the difference between the quality of materials and components of the 1960 cars and 1968 cars is dramatic.

    We have an annual Cadillac show here in Victoria and you can see year by year, just how much the cars were cheapened in the 1960s.

    And the decontenting in body components and interior materials goes double for the frames, engines, transmissions, even dual to single exhaust – it’s just cheapened crap.

    That’s what they should have been working on – how to reduce the cost of the cars without turning them into decontented junk that gave Mercedes a huge opening.

    1. Would have to agree. GM would have been better off applying the FWD layout to its own equivalent of the Ford Cardinal project aka Taunus P4/P6 for the US market or failing that at least producing a Volkswagen Type-3/4-sized flat-4 little brother to the Chevrolet Corvair (with the front anti-roll bar fitted as standard), only Vauxhall had the FWD XP-714 project during that period as a parallel project to the Kadett A before it became the Viva HA.

  3. Hi Eoin,

    The Italian remake looks a bit like the Maserati Simun. The original American car is really good looking I think too.

    1. NRJ: Say what you like about maestro Giugiaro, but he was well ahead of the curve when it came to recycling.

    1. Fred: If you scroll down to the comments section to the enclosed article below, you will find that there is a rather strongly worded refutation of that particular piece of received wisdom. I’ll simply say, ‘that would be an ecumenical matter’ and leave the room… then come back to retrieve my keys…

  4. I re-read what I said in my comments on the 2016 article, and haven’t changed my mind in any way. I’ve got the GM Engineering Journals for 1966, fellers. Dream all you want. I just pulled it out of the bookcase again for another look. The chain drive was chosen instead of gears which howled and were rejected. the chain was very thoroughly designed and developed. There’s an entire article on it, including design calculations. Nothing backwards about it.

    Wikipedia has got it completely wrong, that’s all, concerning the Riviera versus Toronado chassis for 1966.

    I said, “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.”

    They used a ’63 Buick Riviera upper body, among others, as a disguise for prototype Toronado testing, perhaps I should have said. In standard form the Riviera had a full X-frame with no side rails, a double wishbone coilover front suspension and a live rear axle on the standard 3 link rear coil suspension, similar to a 1958 to 1964 full-size Chevrolet. After that Chevrolet went to a four link rear suspension which eliminated the need for a Panhard rod. It turned up on Vauxhalls as well, both Viva HB and coke-bottle Victor.

    If someone can explain how a Buick Riviera chassis could accommodate the longitudinal front suspension torsion bars on a X-frame, I’m all ears. The second generation Riviera E-body still had a X-frame chassis. The whole Toronado car was new with a ladder frame chassis, and a unit body sitting atop the truncated frame. GM made the Toronado because back then, society could still dream – they were going to the moon in the USA. Roominess had little to do with it, the look was the thing and I loved it personally. It was like a spaceship. We’re all pretty dull these days on future things other than more and more phones and EVs. Doesn’t exactly inspire.

    It was the original Mercury program Seven astronauts who first drove Corvettes, except John Glenn:

    I quote from Wikipedia with some trepidation, but LIFE magazine had a spread on it as well, that I remember:
    “After General Motors executive Ed Cole presented Shepard with a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette, Jim Rathmann, a race car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1960 and who was a Chevrolet dealer in Melbourne, Florida, convinced Cole to turn this into an ongoing marketing campaign. Henceforth, astronauts were able to lease new Corvettes for a dollar a year. All of the Mercury Seven but Glenn took up the offer. Cooper, Grissom and Shepard were soon racing their Corvettes around Cape Canaveral, with the military and local police ignoring their exploits. From a marketing perspective, it was very successful, and helped the highly priced Corvette become established as a desirable brand.”

    For a buck a year, I’d have driven a Corvette too! But in my dreams I wanted an E-type with IRS, not a cart-sprung axle.

  5. If Dick Ruzzin, one of the designers of the 1966 Toronado, is to be believed then the chassis/platform used on the Toronado and Riviera was engineered to be capable of accepting both front wheel drive and rear wheel drive.
    See this link:

    Here’s a quote from said article: “The Toronado was one of a series of three cars that also included the Buick Riviera and the Cadillac Eldorado. The chassis was engineered to be capable of both front drive for
    the Toronado and Eldorado and rear drive for the Riviera.
    There was a balance of both interchangeable parts and specific parts for the individual cars.

    The windshield, A-pillar and door side glass was shared by all three cars.
    The roof panel and backlight were shared by Toronado and Riviera.
    Door inners were shared by all three as well as various underbody panels.
    Each car’s individual sheet metal pieces allowed the unique appearance achieved by all three.
    The only piece that you could really see as common was the windshield pillar.

    This photo taken in the design studio is interesting (although it says nothing about the chassis hardware commonalities of course):

    1. The Toronado floor is totally flat. Where would the rwd transmission and driveshaft go ?

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