Technologically and stylistically, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was a landmark — a striking, sophisticated big GT that was also the first front-wheel-drive American production car in nearly 30 years. This week, we look at the origins of the 1966-1970 Toronado and the evolution and development of its unusual FWD Unitized Power Package.
Note: This article replaces our original 2008 piece on the Toronado. It has been completely rewritten and expanded, adding a great deal of new information and new images.
Today, front-wheel drive is ubiquitous, found on everything from tiny Japanese kei-cars to crossover SUVs. Until the early eighties, however, the majority of passenger cars in America, Europe, and Japan used what some automotive historians call le Système Panhard: a front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels through a central propeller shaft. The “FR” layout had its drawbacks, but it was simple, durable, and, more importantly, cheap. Various alternative layouts had been essayed since the earliest days of the automobile — Walter Christie built a number of successful FWD race cars as early as 1904 — but for various reasons, they failed to unseat the well-established incumbent.
Although mid-engine, rear-drive (MR) configurations came into vogue for sports cars in the seventies, the major rivals to the FR setup were the rear-engine, rear-drive (RR) and front-engine, front-wheel-drive (FF) layouts. Both the FF and RR formats offer several advantages over the FR layout. The first was superior traction, a result of putting the mass of the engine directly over the drive wheels. The second — particularly compelling for smaller cars — was packaging efficiency. In an FR vehicle, the occupants must share space with the propeller shaft and differential, which are particularly intrusive in low-slung cars like the first four-seat Ford Thunderbird. Packaging the entire drivetrain at one end of the vehicle leaves more room for passengers and cargo, and it can also facilitate assembly, allowing the powertrain to be installed as a single unit.
Both configurations also have notable drawbacks. RR cars are more practical with air cooling than water cooling, while their inherent tail heaviness reduces their straight-line stability and encourages some unwelcome cornering behavior. FF cars, by contrast, tend to be quite stable, but their front weight bias produces heavier steering and making the front wheels responsible for both power and steering also causes its own handling quirks. Front-wheel drive also tends to be expensive, in part because of the multiple universal joints needed to allow the driveshafts to accommodate the full range of wheel motion.
Except for the unique V8-powered Tatras, the RR layout tended to be associated with small economy cars, but before World War II, front-wheel drive had a much racier image. The lack of a prop shaft allowed FWD cars (particularly single-seat race cars) to be lower with a smaller frontal area and a lower center of gravity, all beneficial on the track. Engineer Harry Miller offered a number of quite successful front-drive race cars in the late twenties, which led to a brief vogue for FWD prestige cars like the Cord L-29, the short-lived Gardner and Ruxton, and a stillborn V-12 Packard. While the subsequent Citroën Traction Avant and Cord 810/812 were not quite luxury cars, they were definitely upscale in both price and appointments. Unfortunately, most of those cars suffered significant teething problems and the Depression was not an opportune time for launching new models with expensive new technology. Only Citroën’s Traction survived the decade.
When automotive production resumed after the war, European manufacturers developed a new generation of inexpensive FF cars, including the Citroën 2CV, Panhard Dyna, Saab 92, and Borgward Goliath. In America, however, front-wheel drive was all but extinct. Henry Kaiser‘s plans for a postwar FWD car never made it past the prototype stage and even early domestic compacts like the Nash Rambler and Hudson Jet had conventional FR layouts. The last American production car with front-wheel drive had been the Cord 812, which was discontinued in 1937. Still, the advantages of the FF configuration were not lost on Big Three engineers. In 1955, GM exhibited a number of FWD concept cars at its traveling Motorama show: a roadster and a four-door hardtop christened LaSalle II and a compact panel truck called L’Universelle.
Conceived by GM Styling and the corporate Engineering Staff, the LaSalle IIs were intended to showcase various advanced features, including front-wheel drive, unitized construction, fully independent suspension, and a transversely mounted fuel-injected DOHC V6. The FWD powertrain, developed as a collaboration between the corporate Transmission and Power Development groups, was called the “Unitized Power Package,” or UPP, combining engine and transaxle into one compact unit. We’ve been unable to find detailed specifications for the LaSalle II’s UPP, but in any case, it appears they were largely notional — the show cars didn’t run and their mock-up powertrains were rear-wheel-drive. The Engineering Staff didn’t have a functional UPP prototype until sometime after the Motorama closed.
The GMC L’Universelle was slightly more realistic, mating Pontiac’s new 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc) V8 to a transaxle based on the four-speed Dual Range Hydra-Matic. Like the the Citroën Traction Avant and DS-19 (which bowed around the same time), L’Universelle had a longitudinal engine, rotated 180 degrees and mounted behind the transaxle with a final drive unit that reversed the transmission’s rotation so the truck would not move backward with the transmission in Drive. To allow space for the driveshafts to pass between the front A-arms, the front springs were longitudinal torsion bars. The rear was a dead axle with a dropped center section, allowing a deep, flat load floor. It was a very practical idea, offering maximum utility space in a relatively compact package, but the awkward cooling system layout — with the radiator mounted behind the cabin, exhausting through a roof-mounted grille — suggested that it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Nonetheless, GMC did seriously consider putting it into limited production (now with a transversely mounted engine and a bus-derived angle drive system), but cost considerations led to its cancellation in 1956.
THE FRONT-DRIVE F-85
There was also interest in front-wheel drive at some of the divisions, which in those days still did much of their own research and development work. Some of the strongest interest came from Oldsmobile, particularly from Olds advanced engineering chief Andrew K. Watt. Watt was an early proponent of front-wheel drive and it was at his behest that the Advanced group began experimental work on FF powertrains in early 1957. The project had strong support from Olds assistant chief engineer John Beltz and at least tentative interest from chief engineer Harold Metzel, but Jim Dawson, then a senior project engineer in the Advanced group, said later that it was really Watt who had pushed for front-wheel drive.
Following the “Eisenhower recession” that began in mid-1957, GM launched the new corporate X-100 program, which eventually spawned the 1961 “senior compacts”: the Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest, and Oldsmobile F-85. When the X-100 project began, Andy Watt and John Beltz suggested that Oldsmobile’s version have front-wheel drive. Since the senior compacts were slated to have all-new engines and transmissions, it seemed an appropriate time to introduce a new layout. Front-wheel drive would also give the compact F-85 a useful edge in interior space.
In early 1958, Watt’s group began development of an experimental FWD compact, powered by a new 60-degree, 215 cu. in. (3.5 L) aluminum V6. The engine was mounted transversely on a short subframe with two separate chain drive systems, one connecting the engine and transmission (a four-speed automatic, presumably Hydra-Matic-based), the other connecting the transmission to the final drive. The prototype was 180 inches (4,572 mm) long on a 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase, roughly the size of a Chevrolet Corvair. Various sources describe it as being based on either a 1959 Rambler, a Corvair, or a pre-production F-85, but the cobbled-together nature of its powertrain and front subframe brought the prototype’s weight to a hefty 3,363 lb (1,526 kg), more than 200 lb (91 kg) heavier than a contemporary Rambler Six and at least 800 lb (363 kg) heavier than the Corvair. At some point during the development, the V6 was superseded by Oldsmobile’s version of the 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8, which Olds dubbed “Rockette.”
The first prototypes were not ready for testing until the spring of 1960, by which time the 1961 F-85 was already approaching pre-production, fitted with the aluminum Rockette engine and a conventional rear-drive layout. Our sources are not clear on whether delays with the prototype led Oldsmobile to forgo front-wheel drive for its initial senior compact models or whether the decision had already been made for other reasons, but either way, it appears that the FWD package was still being considered for future models, perhaps the second-generation F-85.
If that was the plan, it changed considerably soon long after the 1961 models went on sale. The 1961 model year was not a strong one in general and early sales of the Oldsmobile F-85 were sluggish. The F-85 was pricey for an economy car, in part because its aluminum engine made it expensive to produce; a FWD version would be even costlier. More profitable dress-up models like the sporty Cutlass, launched in May 1961, seemed a safer bet for the compact market, particularly since the Ford Falcon‘s triumph over the Corvair suggested that economy car buyers had little appetite for technical novelty.
Oldsmobile was not ready to abandon the idea of front-wheel drive, but by July 1961, Watt, Beltz, and Metzel had turned their attention to full-size cars. Oldsmobile’s third FWD prototypes would be a converted Dynamic Eighty-Eight.
Harold Metzel and Oldsmobile general manager Jack Wolfram pitched the idea of a big FWD car to corporate management, but they met considerable resistance. Aside from the cost issue, some senior executives doubted it would work. A FWD compact was one thing, but a full-size car with a torquey modern V8 was something else. Selling a big FWD Oldsmobile to the corporation would be an uphill battle.