An Italo-American curiosity receives a broad DTW brushstroke.
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.
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.