Out in Front: The Front-Wheel-Drive Oldsmobile Toronado, Part 2

THE GMC MOTORHOME

Despite their tidy, compact powertrains, neither the Toronado nor the Cadillac Eldorado was especially space-efficient — their flat floors made them more habitable for middle-seat passengers than a typical RWD sedan, but passenger and cargo room were compromised by style-conscious proportions. In a June 1970 Popular Mechanics owners survey, some buyers complained that front-wheel drive wasn’t available in a more practical body style. Bill Mitchell had actually proposed a Toronado wagon early on, but GM didn’t offer FWD sedans or wagons until the eighties and didn’t introduce a FWD light van until the U-body minivans in 1990. In the early seventies, however, the Toronado’s Unitized Power Package found its way into an entirely different sort of utility vehicle, built not by Oldsmobile, but by GMC Truck & Coach Division.

As we mentioned in our first installment, GMC had flirted with the idea of a FWD cargo van back in the fifties with the 1955 L’Universelle. It was an intriguing idea, but probably too costly for the contemporary truck market, which had yet to embrace independent front-suspension, let alone front-wheel drive. The growing popularity of the recreational vehicle (RV) in the late sixties, however, suggested a different avenue. Independent RV builders were snapping up thousands of truck chassis for custom motor homes and GM wanted a piece of that lucrative action.

Front-wheel drive offered some of the same advantages for vans and recreational vehicles that it did for passenger cars: better traction and more room for living or cargo space. Several smaller manufacturers had already gone that route. Since 1963, Clark Equipment Corporation had offered a front-drive RV called the Cortez, which adopted the Toronado powertrain in 1971. The late sixties Tiara and Travoy and the 1972 Revcon were also Toronado-powered, although both were produced in relatively small numbers.

Development of GM’s own FWD motor home began around 1969, initially as a corporate Engineering Staff project. Both GMC and Chevrolet Truck were very interested, but GMC ultimately got the nod because of the motor home’s projected size and gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). GMC’s general manager, Martin Caserio, saw the FWD project, known internally as TVS-4 (for “Travel Vehicle, Streamlined”), as a utilitarian vehicle that could be offered in many specialized commercial versions, from mobile command centers to airport shuttles.

1974 GMC Motorhome cutaway press image TB-47872-0047 - Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 14496)
An early press image of the GMC Motorhome. At launch, the Motorhome had 265 horsepower (198 kW) and a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) (not curb weight) of 11,500 lb (5,217 kg); overall length ranged from 285 to 332 inches (7,239 to 8,433 mm), depending on model. The FWD powertrain allowed a low build for an RV, but it was still about 96 inches (2,438 mm) tall even without a roof-mounted air conditioner. Coefficient of drag (without the roof A/C unit and other external addenda) was only 0.31, substantially lower than most contemporary passenger cars. (Image copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

The TVS-4’s powertrain, front suspension, and front disc brakes were very similar to the second-generation Toronado’s, although some components had to be beefed up to cope with the big RV’s weight. Unlike the Toronado, the TVS-4 had fully independent suspension with optional self-leveling hydro-pneumatic springs and tandem rear wheels — unusual for an RV of this era — located by both leading and trailing arms. The body, which used a combination of aluminum and sheet molded compound fiberglass panels, was remarkably aerodynamic, with sleek, space-age looks courtesy of GMC chief stylist Michael Lathers. GMC even commissioned House & Garden magazine to coordinate the interior color schemes, ensuring that it would be the height of mid-seventies chic.

GMC announced the TVS-4, prosaically dubbed GMC Motorhome, at the TransPro trade show in February 1972, although the Motorhome didn’t actually go into production until early the following year. The Motorhome was offered in two sizes: the Model 230, on a 140-inch (3,556mm) wheelbase, and the stretched Model 260, with a wheelbase of 160 inches (4,064 mm). Both were available either in stripped “Transmode” form for customizers or in a number of fully furnished versions with prices ranging from a base of $13,569 to around $18,000 for a well-equipped Model 260 — expensive but not unreasonable for a Class A motor home in those days.

By the time the Motorhome went on sale, Caserio had departed for a stint at Pontiac, ceding the reins of GMC to Alex Mair. Mair saw the Motorhome less as an affordable family or commercial vehicle and more as a high-end divisional flagship. Since the FWD motor home was always going to be too expensive and too outré to seriously compete with much cheaper RWD truck chassis, it made more business sense to push the Motorhome upmarket. The furnished versions were fairly well-equipped even in standard form and there was a lengthy list of options, ranging from air conditioning with automatic climate control to TV antennas and even a vacuum cleaner.

Initial sales were brisk. GMC sold more than 2,000 in the first year, which was modest by truck standards, but encouraging given the Motorhome’s price tag. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo that fall put a crimp into motor home sales just as it did the passenger car market. The Motorhome was actually fairly thrifty for a big RV, returning as much as 10–11 mpg (21.4–23.5 L/100 km) on the road, but fuel shortages made buyers wary. Slow sales led GMC to two brief production freezes during the 1974 model year. All things considered, the sales decline was modest, but business didn’t really rebound until the 1976 model year.

1974 GMC Motorhome front 3q press photo 160505 - Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 14496)
The GMC Motorhome’s exterior styling didn’t change a great deal over its six-year lifespan, although GMC shuffled the interior packages and options. 1975 models got a beefed-up frame and new side windows with better sealing. All the Model 230s except the Transmode were dropped in 1975, so customers who wanted a fully furnished vehicle had to opt for the more expensive Model 260. For 1977, the 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) Oldsmobile engine, which had been discontinued, was replaced by the new 403 cu. in. V-8 (6,598 cc), again shared with the contemporary Toronado. (Photo copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

Although Motorhome production hit a record 3,260 units in 1976, it was still not a big seller by GMC standards and was expensive and labor-intensive to produce. Thanks to its high prices — a top-of-the line Model 260 Kingsley now ran to around $38,000 — we suspect the Motorhome was profitable on a unit basis, but weighed against the number of trucks GMC could produce with the same resources, it probably didn’t make a strong case for itself.

Another factor may have been the imminent demise of the TH425 transmission. Since the biggest engine offered in the 1979 Toronado and Eldorado was slated to be the Oldsmobile 350 (5,737 cc), the E-body cars were about to switch to the lighter TH325 transmission. The Motorhome’s limited production presumably didn’t justify continued production of the older transmission or, for that matter, continuing the Oldsmobile 403 cu. in. (5,398 cc) V-8, which would survive only through the end of the 1979 model year.

GMC general manager Robert Truxell, who had replaced Mair in 1974, announced in November 1977 that the Motorhome would be phased out. Production ended in July 1978; the grand total was fewer than 13,000 units in six model years. GMC eventually sold the rights to the design to California businessman Donald Wheat, who tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the Motorhome in the mid-eighties.

1974 GMC Motorhome side press image C2501-0001 - Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 14496)
The interiors for early furnished GMC Motorhomes were made by the Gemini division of the RV manufacturer PRF Industries under contract to GM. Starting in 1975, interior assembly moved in-house, using furnishings and interior trim supplied by Grand Rapids Furniture. The Motorhome’s rounded windows were adopted to reduce the windows’ tendency to crack as the body twisted. Note this example’s colored body-side stripe; the front stripe was standard, but the full-length version was an $86 option. (Photo copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

The GMC Motorhome had a prominent role in the 1981 comedy film Stripes, starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, and John Candy, and has also enjoyed several incarnations as a Mattel Hot Wheels car, starting in 1977. Surviving Motorhomes have a considerable fan following and various companies continue to offer aftermarket parts and accessories for them; in 1992, Cinnabar Engineering bought a license to manufacture replacement parts, which GMC had recently discontinued. As a promotional effort, one such manufacturer, Dyno Sources of Sequim, Washington, used a modified GMC Motorhome to set a new world speed record for Class A RVs, reaching 102.76 mph (165.38 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 2006. That vehicle, however, was powered by a 454 cu. in. (7,443 cc) Chevrolet V-8, not a Toronado engine.

26 Comments

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  1. All that I can say is thanks for your website. I remember a couple of years ago a co worker told me that a friend of hers had driven her home in her well used Oldsmobile Trofeo. I was impressed that in it’s faded opulence this Olds was still doing sterling service.

    1. My ’90 Trofeo is easily the best daily beater Ive ever enjoyed.
      Yet another great job by the author and this site, also!

  2. I saw a local dealer selling an empty shell version of the motor home in the late 70’s. Then whilr driving down to Florida to watch th 24 hour race at Daytona, saw one set up as a transporter, had a roll-up door in the rear. It had a Porsche in it.

  3. Does anyone know where the yellow 1977 Toronado XSR resides today?

  4. My intention is to preserve my 1977 Toronado Brougham for another 13 years and then give it to my son. It pleases me to see his appreciation for this car. It’s appraised at 98.3/100. if anyone out there comes across a front floor mat, please say so as I went and left mine in the sun and it faded! It is red. Also one hub cap has a small dent in it so… just say so if you know where I might find one.

    1. Sorry, I can’t advise anyone on finding parts or repairs — I really don’t know!

      1. Hopefully, one of your followers will know. I think your site is a great idea!
        Take care and Good Luck!

      2. Marty moore’s REVCON motor home repair parts in Calif.–I think in San De. OLD MAN BUT HAS A TON OF KNOWLEDGE & PARTS for old R.V’S

  5. That was a nice article, reading about “Toro’s” brought back a lot of memories. I worked as a Tech for Oldsmobile shops back in the early days, the 1967 was the first model I worked on as a current year and I worked on them to the end. I especially loved the early years with the HOT optional engines, the later ones ran like a Lead Sled. The Toro and 442 ran about even as my favorite Oldsmobile’s….

    Eagle

  6. I have a 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado front wheel drive motorhome. Never seen anything like it! Can anyone tell me more about it? can send pics if nessessary.

    1. Hi Don, I worked on a number of GMC Motor homes that used the 455 Oldsmobile engine and the Toronado front drive unit but there were also several other manufactures who used the Oldsmobile FWD package to power their units. If you do a Google search for your brand and year you shouldn’t have a problem finding info about your vehicle. Cortez was another manufacture who used the Oldsmobile FWD. NASA actually used a Cortez to shuttle astronauts to the launch pad. Apparently there are still fans of the Cortez Motor home and parts are still sold by the companies owner, although no new units have been built for years. Search and you should find some info quite easily.

      Eagle

      1. I had thought from the research I did that Cortez didn’t adopt the Toronado powertrain until 1970 (although I’m no expert on motor homes, so I may be wrong in that!), but I’m sure there were at least a few earlier examples, including probably some cobbled-together shade-tree jobs. The UPP concept made a lot of sense for motor homes and vans: enough torque to haul a substantial load, compact enough to not eat up interior space, and not so exotic you couldn’t get parts for most of it. I imagine the biggest obstacle to motor home use was likely the price.

  7. I currently have a 1976 gmc motorhome at my property and would like some information on it i drove it 260 miles to my house it was sitting in storage for 3 years all i did was put a battery in it and set up a gas tank with a electric fuel pump and dtove it home

    1. Jerry,

      I’m not able to provide information on specific vehicles (I really have no idea), but there’s general information on the Motorhome in the text of the article.

    2. Has anyone contacted you yet with info ? If ot let me know we have a forum group and several clubs nationwide devoted to the GMC MH over 8000 are still running.
      SAW

    3. Did virtually the same thing in Sept. Bought a 1976 GMC Eleganza II in Waxahachee, Tx. Been sitting at least 2 years. Washed it, new battery, electric fuel pump and ferry tank, and 1 new tire. Fired right up, lots of smoke, then drove to Lampassas. Brother, who has 4 of them, is still working on it. Looking forward to hitting the road with it.

  8. have inherited a 1973 travoy motor home. Model HSCR. Type 12J. It’s free. Pick it up in Yucca Vally, Ca.. Good shape. Tires old. Engine has not been run for 7-10 yrs. Housed in its own enclosed barn.

    1. Don,

      I redacted your phone number — I really don’t recommend posting phone numbers online (except maybe a business number that’s publicly listed online anyway) lest you get besieged by robo-callers. If you’re determined, I will put it back, but I take no responsibility for the consequences!

    2. have the 28feet one

  9. The Toronado died in 1986,the small 6 cylinder 1986 was grotesquely inferior to the great 1985 Toronado Caliente which was somewhat better than all the previous ones,the small one despite the gorgeous dashboard was not much more than an economy car,something affluent people disregard,it was gorgeous though compared to the contraptions being put out nowadays by all the manufacturers.
    The automobile is dying worldwide.

  10. SIR, I HAVE AN OLDS XSC [1980] AND I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW MANY THEY MADE. THANK YOU C. VOLKERT

  11. I still have my 79 that I ordered new 350 runs as smooth as the day it left the dealership!

  12. Anyone have problems with headlights i don’t have power on my 1969 head lights. I tested. Each one. Ands works. Low beams. Have 3 point.
    But one om these have ground one broke
    So that affect. The service
    Anyone. Can help me out. Also power windos and power seat. Problems and solutions

    1. I can’t help with repairs or maintenance issues, sorry!

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