THE XP-784 TAKES SHAPE
Since the E-car project now involved three divisions — Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac — initial planning and development was coordinated and overseen by the central Engineering Staff, then headed by VP of engineering Harry Barr. By early 1964, the divisions were allowed to go forward with their own production engineering work, although development of some major systems would be shared between the three divisions, Fisher Body, and (as alluded to above) the Saginaw and Hydra-Matic Divisions.
Although GM stylists had described North’s design as “the monocoque look” for the way the sail panels flowed seamlessly into the rear deck and fenders, the production car would be another of GM’s exercises in semi-unitized construction. Harold Metzel was not a fan of full monocoque construction, which transmits more noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) than does a rubber-isolated separate frame. The XP-784’s body structure, designed by Fisher Body, would be essentially unitized, but to reduce NVH, the engine and front suspension were carried on a partial frame whose trailing ends carried the front shackles of the rear springs. Oldsmobile was not entirely satisfied with this solution, which was actually devised and developed by Cadillac, so the second-generation Toronado (launched for the 1971 model year) would adopt a full perimeter frame instead.
The rear suspension, also developed by Cadillac, used a beam axle on single leaf springs (comparable to those used by the Chevy II/Nova) along with four tubular shock absorbers. Two were mounted vertically in the conventional fashion, but the other two were mounted horizontally, above and parallel to the rear springs, allowing them to do double duty as radius rods.
The front suspension was a typical double wishbone arrangement, but the halfshafts made conventional lower-arm-mounted coil springs impractical. Oldsmobile considered mounting the coils atop the upper wishbones, à la Nash Rambler, Ford Falcon, or Thunderbird, but finally settled on longitudinal torsion bars like those used by contemporary Chryslers or the old GMC L’Universelle. There was also a front anti-roll bar. Steering was by power-assisted recirculating ball with an overall ratio of 17.8:1; an additional shock absorber mounted on the steering linkage to avoid steering kickback.
To better amortize the substantial development and tooling costs, Cole wanted all three divisions to share this layout and the UPP, each substituting their own V-8 engines. Cadillac agreed, but asked for and received an additional year for styling and mechanical development; Oldsmobile had a substantial head start in both areas. Buick general manager Ed Rollert, however, said no to front-wheel drive. Problems with untried technology had done Buick great harm in the late fifties and we suspect Rollert was not eager to go down that road again. Cole eventually agreed to allow Buick to adapt the chassis and cruciform frame of the 1963–1965 Riviera to the new E-body shell, retaining rear-wheel drive.
THE 1966 OLDSMOBILE TORONADO
The XP-784 still didn’t have an official name when road testing began in late 1964. Early press reports speculated that the car would be called Holiday, a designation Oldsmobile had used for its pillarless hardtops since 1950. In fact, leading contenders included Cirrus (a name later adopted by Chrysler), Scirocco (later used by Volkswagen), and Magnum (later used by Dodge). Chevrolet general manager Bunkie Knudsen finally offered the name “Toronado,” which Chevrolet had registered for an undistinguished 1963 show car.
The Toronado was officially announced in late July and went on sale September 24. It attracted considerable attention from the automotive press, which hailed it as the most interesting domestic car since the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The Toronado promptly won Motor Trend‘s 1966 Car of the Year Award and Car Life‘s 1966 Award for Engineering Excellence.
Testers were surprised to discover that the Toronado’s front-wheel drive was almost undetectable. Despite the big V-8’s ample torque, there was no perceptible torque steer or steering kickback. With just over 60% of the car’s static weight on the front wheels, understeer was the order of the day, but contemporary testers didn’t find it excessive, at least compared to other large American cars of the time. Unlike a RWD car, however, it was impossible to bring out the Toronado’s tail with the throttle and the Toronado had none of the Mini Cooper‘s penchant for lift-throttle oversteer. As advertised, the Toronado’s high-speed stability was excellent and testers who had the opportunity to drive it in the rain found that the Toronado’s wet-weather traction was indeed superior to the RWD Riviera’s.
If the Toronado’s handling was a mostly pleasant surprise, its stopping power was not. Car and Driver, Car Life, and Consumer Reports all found the Toronado’s brakes inadequate, reporting lengthy stopping distances, substantial fade, and a tendency to lock the lightly loaded rear wheels. Both Car Life and Car and Driver took issue with Oldsmobile’s contention that the Toronado didn’t need discs; Car Life also recommended adding a pressure-limiting proportioning valve, like that of the contemporary Thunderbird, to delay rear-wheel lockup.
Brakes aside, the Toronado was a remarkable piece of engineering. No less an authority than Alec Issigonis, BMC technical director and designer of the Mini, had declared that front-wheel drive was impractical with engines over 2 liters (122 cu. in.), but the Toronado coped admirably with 6,964 cc (425 cu. in.), 385 gross horsepower (287 kW), and 475 lb-ft (644 N-m) of torque. For all its novelty, the Unitized Power Package also proved to be remarkably reliable. The production line — established in a separate building from other Oldsmobiles — had its issues early on, but there were few problems with the drivetrain in service.
Although the FWD powertrain was relatively trouble-free, several sources claim the Toronado was prone to engine fires due to elevated under-hood temperatures and issues with the Rochester Quadrajet carburetor. We found no hard data on Toronado engine fires, but GM later admitted that some early Quadrajets — though not specifically those used by the Toronado — had defective fuel inlet plugs that could cause fuel leaks and potentially start an engine fire. In the seventies, that issue became the subject of a lengthy court battle between GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which ordered GM to warn owners of Quadrajet-equipped ’65 and ’66 Chevrolets and Buicks of the fire danger. GM’s own affidavits linked the defective plugs to more than 650 engine fires, a number the NHTSA insisted was conservative. Rochester later redesigned the inlet plugs and some owners and restorers substituted aftermarket plugs or sealed the plugs with epoxy to avoid leaks.
Perhaps the most remarkable demonstration of the UPP’s durability didn’t involve a Toronado at all. In the summer of 1965, John Beltz, stung by pre-launch skepticism about the UPP’s unusual chain drive, commissioned Jack “Doc” Watson of Hurst Performance Products to develop a Toronado-powered drag racing exhibition car. The result was the “Hairy Olds,” a 1966 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 powered by two complete Toronado drivetrains, giving it four-wheel drive. Each of the two engines was bored out to 432 cu. in. (7.1 L), fuel-injected, and fitted with a GMC 6-71 supercharger; together, the two supercharged made than 1,000 horsepower (750 kW).
The performance of Hairy Olds, which made its debut in Bakersfield, California in March 1966, was spectacular in every sense of the word, although it was not easy to drive; Watson said it had substantial torque steer at both ends. The Hairy Olds was sidelined by engine failure in 1967 and subsequently destroyed by Hurst, although an Oldsmobile club created a faithful replica in 2002.
The Toronado was also the basis of several other custom cars, including a Dean Jeffries special built for New Orleans Saints owner John Mecom, Jr., featuring extended front fenders and a grille transplanted from the Dodge Charger; a quartet of stretched-wheelbase “67-X” cars built by George Barris for an Imperial Oil contest; a unique Toronado convertible, designed by George Barris for the TV series Mannix; and a number of Toronado limousines. Oldsmobile’s Engineering Shops also created a single short-wheelbase Toronado emergency vehicle, shortened by 52 inches (132 cm) and fitted with a single seat, wooden bumpers, and a spotlight.