AN UNDERWHELMING DEBUT
Despite the critical acclaim, Toronado sales were disappointing. Oldsmobile had hoped to sell 50,000 units a year, but the 1966 model fell short of that mark by nearly 20%. The ubiquitous Thunderbird outsold the Toronado by more than 28,000 units despite being in the final year of its three-year styling cycle. The rear-drive Buick Riviera also topped the Toronado by more than 10%.
Why? It probably didn’t help that the Toronado was roughly $200 more expensive than either of those rivals and its main advantages — better winter traction and somewhat greater passenger room, courtesy of its flat floor — were not key selling points for buyers in this class. The Toronado also had a rather stiff ride for a personal luxury car, particularly compared to the wafty T-Bird. (The Toronado’s sporty feel was not illusory; Oldsmobile commissioned racing driver Bobby Unser to test the pre-production Toronado at Pikes Peak in early 1965. Production Toronados won the the stock class at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1966; came in second in 1967; and took first, second, and third places in 1968.)
The modest sales appear to have given Oldsmobile management second thoughts about the Toronado’s exterior styling. Dramatic as it was, its sporty character and fastback shape were at odds with the tastes of luxury car buyers, who were gravitating toward baroque formality. The Toronado also had little stylistic relationship with other Oldsmobiles, which limited its value as a flagship model. Wilen was instructed to make future iterations look more like the rest of the Olds line.
The Toronado received only a few changes for its second year, among them a pressure-limiting brake proportioning valve and optional front disc brakes. The discs made for better emergency stopping distances, although road testers complained that the brakes still faded dramatically in repeated use. Since buyers apparently hadn’t shared the motoring press’s enthusiasm for the 1966 car’s stiff springs and shocks, Oldsmobile also softened the suspension in the interests of ride comfort.
Unfortunately, it seemed that many of the people who wanted a Toronado had bought one in the first year. Sales fell from 40,963 in 1966 to fewer than 22,000 in 1967. Although the Toronado now had slightly less internal competition — the slow-selling RWD Starfire was gone — it now had an all-new Thunderbird to contend with. The T-Bird once again outsold both the Toronado and the Riviera. (The FWD Cadillac Eldorado also arrived for 1967, but it was a substantially more expensive car and we’re not sure how much direct impact it had on Toronado sales.)
THE TORONADO EVOLVES
Over the next three years, Oldsmobile seemed increasingly uncertain what to do with the Toronado. For 1968, it got taller gearing, a bigger 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) V-8 with less power but more torque, and an even softer suspension that some reviewers found disconcertingly under-damped. All that implied a move toward Thunderbird-like sybaritism, but an aggressive new split grille suggested otherwise, as did the newly optional W34 Force-Air engine, which boasted a whopping 400 gross horsepower (298 kW). Customers looking for a 4,700 lb (2,130 kg), $7,000 Supercar were apparently scarce; fewer than 150 buyers opted for the W34 package that year.
Although committed to the basic 1966 body shell through the 1970 model year, Oldsmobile gradually deemphasized the Toronado’s fastback shape. Since 1967, a vinyl roof had been available to break up the body’s visual mass. For 1969, Olds stylists reshaped the tail and sail panels, making the Toronado look more like a notchback. The following year, the Toronado got squared-off wheelhouses and a new grille with exposed headlamps, apparently aimed at increasing its resemblance to its Cadillac Eldorado cousin. At the same time, however, the 1970 W34 package added prominent GT badges and tape stripes along with an optional F41 heavy-duty suspension that restored some of the firmness of the original 1966 model. Surprisingly, the GT package seemed to strike a chord with buyers, about 20% of whom ordered it. We don’t know how many opted for the F41 option, but we suspect the number wasn’t high.
The 1970 Toronado finally made front disc brakes standard equipment, which they probably should have been from the beginning. Midway through the year, buyers could supplement the discs with a new “True-Track” anti-lock braking system. Developed by GM’s AC Electronics Division, True-Track was similar to the Kelsey-Hayes “Sure-Track” ABS offered on the contemporary Lincoln Continental Mark III; the Cadillac Eldorado offered a similar system, dubbed “Trackmaster.” Since it worked only on the rear wheels and did nothing to alleviate brake fade, True-Track was not a panacea, but it did address longstanding complaints about rear-wheel lockup in hard stops.
None of these changes brought much life to Toronado sales. The 1968-1970 totals were somewhat better than the dismal 1967 tally, but the Toronado still failed to top 30,000 units a year. By 1970, it had even fallen short of the Eldorado, which was remarkable considering that the Cadillac cost nearly $2,000 more — enough to buy a new Ford Maverick in those days.
Total production of the first-generation Toronado came to a modest 143,134 units in five model years. That was almost 25,000 units more than the rear-drive Starfire had managed in six years, but the Starfire had been far cheaper to develop. We doubt the first-generation Toronado was ever a profitable car for Oldsmobile; Harold Metzel, who retired in 1969, always maintained that it was not. Toronado owners were loyal — in Popular Mechanics surveys, more than 90% of buyers said they would buy another one, and many did — but there just weren’t enough of them.