Both 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 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 — especially 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 with water cooling and 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; 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 V-8-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, both very 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 V-6. The FWD powertrain, developed by the corporate Power Development and Transmission 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 actually complete 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) V-8 to a three-speed 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; the differential gears reversed the transmission’s rotation so the van wouldn’t move backward in Drive. Front suspension was by double wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars (adopted to allow the halfshafts to pass between the wishbones) while the rear used a dead axle with a dropped center section that allowed the van’s interior to have a deep, flat load floor.
In many respects, L’Universelle was very practical, offering maximum utility space in a relatively compact package, but the awkward cooling system layout — with a roof-mounted grille passing air to a radiator mounted behind the front seats — suggested that the van wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Nonetheless, GMC did seriously consider putting it into limited production for 1956, now with a transversely mounted 317 cu. in. (5,188 cc) Pontiac engine, dual-coupling four-speed Hydra-Matic, and a bus-derived angle drive system. High costs and the project’s likely very high price tag finally led GMC to pull the plug 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. Toward the beginning of 1957, Oldsmobile advanced engineering chief Andrew K. Watt embarked on a new project to develop an experimental FF powertrain.
As an Advanced group project, this was not originally tied to any specific production program, but later that year, the worsening “Eisenhower recession” prompted GM to launch the new X-100 program, aimed at giving each of the corporation’s mid-price divisions a compact car to sell. The result would be the introduction for 1961 of GM’s “senior compacts”: the Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest, and Oldsmobile F-85. Watt and Oldsmobile assistant chief engineer John Beltz thought the F-85 would be an ideal application for front-wheel drive, allowing greater interior space despite the smaller external dimensions. The senior compacts were already slated to have all-new engines and transmissions, so it seemed like a perfect time to try something new.
In early 1958, Watt’s group began feasibility studies for a FWD compact. By 1959, they’d cobbled together an initial prototype powered by an all-new, Oldsmobile-designed 60-degree aluminum V-6 displacing about 215 cu. in. (3.5 L). A short front subframe carried the engine, transmission (a four-speed automatic, presumably Hydra-Matic-based), and differential. The engine and transmission were both mounted transversely, but the transmission sat behind the engine and was driven from the flywheel by a short length of chain. A second chain drive connected the transmission output shaft to the differential. The differential halfshafts used a combination of Rzeppa-type constant velocity joints and universal joints.
A second prototype, the A20A, was completed by early 1960. Different sources variously describe the A20A as being based on a 1959 Rambler Six, a Chevrolet Corvair, or a preproduction Oldsmobile F-85. In any event, the prototype shared the F-85’s 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase, but was 8.2 inches (208 mm) shorter, stretching 180 inches (4,572 mm) overall, and more than 400 lb (180 kg) heavier, tipping the scales at a hefty 3,363 lb (1,526 kg). The earlier test mule’s prototype V-6 was replaced by Oldsmobile’s version of Buick’s new 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V-8, which Olds dubbed “Rockette.”
Proving grounds testing of the prototype was encouraging, but by that time, the 1961 F-85 was already close to production, with the aluminum Rockette engine and a conventional FR layout. We’re not clear on whether Oldsmobile opted to forgo FWD for the initial F-85 because the FWD package was not yet sufficiently developed or for other reasons, but either way, it appears that the FWD package was still being seriously considered for future compact models, perhaps the second-generation F-85.
If that was indeed 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 was 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 the summer of 1961, Watt and Beltz had turned their attention to full-size cars; Oldsmobile’s third FWD prototype was a converted Dynamic Eighty-Eight.
Oldsmobile chief engineer Harold Metzel and division general manager Jack Wolfram pitched the idea of a FWD Eighty-Eight to corporate management, but met considerable resistance and no small amount of skepticism. A FWD compact was one thing, but a full-size car with a torquey modern V-8 was something else and some senior corporate executives doubted it would work. It was clear to Wolfram and Metzel that selling a big FWD Oldsmobile to the corporation would be an uphill battle.
THE OLDSMOBILE RIVIERA
Concurrently, Oldsmobile management was also facing another challenge: the Ford Thunderbird. The posh four-seat T-Bird actually outsold the comparably priced Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight by a fair margin and had a distinctive style and identity that no contemporary Oldsmobile could match. Oldsmobile’s closest rival was the new Starfire convertible, but that was essentially just a dressed-up Super Eighty-Eight. To really compete with the T-Bird, Oldsmobile needed a car with a unique body not shared with mundane models.
Oldsmobile had recently lost an internal competition for Ned Nickles’ XP-715 design, which subsequently became the Buick Riviera. Stylist Dave North, then in the Oldsmobile studio, says that almost as soon as the contest was over, Olds management began pushing for a Riviera-like specialty car of their own.
Such a specialty car seemed like another good candidate for front-wheel drive, if only for economic reasons. Interior space was not a major priority in that segment, but personal luxury cars were considerably less price-sensitive than compacts were. Furthermore, erstwhile Thunderbird buyers were more likely to be open to mechanical novelty than were shoppers looking for a cheap economy car. (In fact, Ford had considered introducing front-wheel drive on the 1961 Thunderbird for very similar reasons.)
By mid-1962, former Chevrolet general manager Ed Cole, now group vice president of the Car and Truck Group, decided that Oldsmobile should indeed have its own personal luxury car, as should Cadillac. Aside from the obvious market potential of such cars, Cole was looking ahead to the next-generation Riviera. The 1963 Riviera’s body shell, known in GM parlance as the E-body, was not shared with any other car, which meant higher unit costs. Having Oldsmobile and Cadillac share that body shell would make all three cars much more profitable to build.
It appears that Cole was less sanguine about front-wheel drive, a configuration that he had considered and discarded during the development of the Chevrolet Corvair (albeit for different reasons). However, he didn’t veto the idea outright. Around this time, Oldsmobile chief stylist Stan Wilen overheard Cole discussing FWD with Styling VP Bill Mitchell in terms that sounded at least encouraging.
THE FLAME RED CAR
Coincidentally, a few months earlier, Wilen had asked his group to come up with concepts for a new Oldsmobile specialty car. This was not a production project and there was no specific platform or configuration in mind; Wilen later explained that it was just a way of letting the stylists stretch their creative faculties a bit between duller and more mundane projects. This stress-relieving exercise yielded a number of interesting concepts, the most notable of which was a striking full-size rendering by Wilen’s assistant David North of a vivid red car against a black backdrop.
The car depicted in that rendering was not a completely new design. North, who had previously been in the Pontiac studio, says he originally conceived the sporty coupe while on loan-out from Pontiac to Advanced Studio 3, envisioning his concept as a future Pontiac. North’s sketches and scale model of the design had greatly impressed Pontiac chief stylist Jack Humbert and stylist Irv Rybicki, former head of the Oldsmobile studio, and had helped to earn North his promotion to assistant chief stylist of Oldsmobile.
North’s “flame red car,” as it was subsequently dubbed, continued to make a strong impression. A few weeks later, when Ed Cole and Bill Mitchell told Wilen that Oldsmobile would be getting its own specialty car, Wilen showed them North’s rendering, which they both loved. It was selected as the basis for subsequent design development.
Soon afterward, Wilen was ordered to scale up North’s design to the dimensions of the Buick Riviera so that the new car could eventually share the Riviera’s E-body shell. This was a controversial decision; North had conceived the design for a future version of the new intermediate A-body shell (the first version of which would be introduced for 1964), and Metzel, Beltz, and Mitchell all felt that would be a more appropriate size.
Hoping to illustrate the point, Mitchell ordered the development of a full-size clay model of an A-body version of the design. To limit interference, he took the unusual step of pulling the project from the Oldsmobile studio and sending North’s design — and North himself — back to Advanced Studio 3 (then headed by Ed Taylor and future GM design VP Wayne Cherry), which was off-limits to all but a select few.
This stratagem failed to sway Ed Cole. The final decision was one of economics, not aesthetics: the tooling costs for the A-body were already shared by four divisions while the Riviera then stood alone. Oldsmobile’s specialty car would have to share the larger E-body.
Major size alternations can be disastrous to a design, but Wilen ultimately felt — and most subsequent observers have agreed — that North’s concept translated surprisingly well to the bigger platform. A full-size clay model of the scaled-up design, now designated XP-784, was presented for management approval in February 1963 and approved for production (with a few additional revisions) in April. For all the stretching and tweaking, the final XP-784 still looked remarkably similar to North’s original concept.
THE UNITIZED POWER PACKAGE
Although Oldsmobile’s FWD test mules had traded the aluminum Rockette engine for the 394 cu. in. (6,460 cc) Rocket V-8, they had still mounted their engines transversely. Now that there was a chance the FWD package might need to be shared across divisions, Beltz and Watt switched to a more orthodox longitudinal engine layout, presumably to more easily accommodate other engines. While the big Oldsmobile V-8 fit transversely, the all-new V-12 the Engineering Staff was then developing for Cadillac (tentatively slated to debut in Cadillac’s E-car) would not have been so easy, nor would an inline six.
The switch to longitudinal engine mounting inevitably required some rethinking of the prototypes’ dual chain drive, which we can’t imagine had been terribly efficient in any case. Oldsmobile considered turning the engine 180 degrees and mounting it behind the transaxle, à la Citroën or the old L’Universelle concept, but according to engineer Frank Ball, that arrangement was deemed unacceptably bulky. At Beltz’s suggestion, Oldsmobile engineers Howard Kehrl and Jim Lewis, who developed the final powertrain layout, instead opted to offset the engine slightly forward and to the right (by 1 inch/25mm and 1.8 inches/46 mm respectively) and mount the transmission and differential flush against the left side of the block.
The transmission itself, known in production as the TH-425, was based on the new three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic (TH-400), used the same internal ratios and variable-pitch stator as other TH-400-equipped Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Cadillacs. However, the gearbox was separated from the torque converter, turned 180 degrees (which also required reversing the directions of its internal gear rotation and clutch engagements), and offset to the left. The differential, a compact planetary unit, sat at the front of the gearbox, driving the front wheels through unequal-length halfshafts. The engine was raised 1.5 inches (38 mm) and the oil pan was reshaped to allow the longer right halfshaft to pass beneath the sump.
As on Oldsmobile’s earlier FWD prototypes, the TH-425 transmitted power from the torque converter turbine to the gearbox input shaft via a short length of Morse “Hy-Vo” silent chain. The use of the chain raised many eyebrows — even among the engineers of Borg-Warner’s Morse Chain division, which designed and manufactured the chain — but Watt’s group found that chain drive offered a better compromise between efficiency, durability, and quietness than did any other alternative, including belts or gear drive.
The original halfshafts, developed by Oldsmobile and GM’s Saginaw Division, used permanently sealed Rzeppa-type constant velocity (CV) joints at each end, but the inner CV joints telescoped, allowing the halfshaft’s length to change slightly in response to lateral forces. Interestingly, the telescoping CV joint was actually invented by Pontiac’s John DeLorean, who patented it in 1959, and was originally intended for the rear suspension of the rope-drive Tempest, where it was supposed to reduce acceleration and braking squat. Oldsmobile used it, along with careful attention to steering geometry (including a slight negative scrub radius), to almost completely eliminate torque steer. (The telescoping halfshafts were replaced for 1967 by three-ball-bearing CV joints, which worked almost as well and cost less.) The right halfshaft also incorporated a rubber torsional damper that could twist up to 7.5 degrees to absorb driveline shocks and vibration.
The complete powertrain assembly, again known as the Unitized Power Package, was a marvel of packaging efficiency, taking up only a little more space than the engine itself. The entire UPP drivetrain fit neatly between the front wheels, avoiding the extreme nose-heaviness that had been a problem with some early FWD cars. The UPP also made good use of existing components. Other than the modified mounts and oil pan, the engine was basically stock and the TH-425 shared many major assemblies with the standard TH-400, although its internals had to be modified to alter their direction of operation. Less happily for GM, the layout was also appears to have been covered by a Ford Motor Company patent; see the sidebar below.
Until early 1964, the UPP was still not formally approved for production — Cole and GM president Jack Gordon wanted to see if it actually worked before giving the green light. They finally assented in February, after Beltz demonstrated a UPP-powered prototype at the GM Proving Grounds in Arizona.
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.
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.
A PARTY OF ONE
Lackluster sales performance made the Toronado a rather Pyrrhic victory for Metzel, Andy Watt, and John Beltz. They had overcome great odds just to bring the car to market and they had demonstrated convincingly that front-wheel drive could work for big American cars. However, the Toronado was so expensive to build and public interest was so lukewarm that it hardly seemed worth the effort. The contemporary Riviera handled as well or better, had much better brakes, cost less, and was some 250 lb (113 kg) lighter despite nearly identical exterior dimensions. The Toronado’s imposing fastback shape, meanwhile, seemed to appeal more to critics than the buying public while sacrificing much of the FWD layout’s potential packaging efficiency.
It might be tempting to look at the Toronado as a proof-of-concept exercise for front-wheel drive, but Beltz later insisted that wasn’t the case. Indeed, Oldsmobile wouldn’t offer another FF car until the 1980 X-body Oldsmobile Omega and the division participated in that project (whose FWD layout was very different from that of the Toronado) only reluctantly.
Buyers were definitely aware that the Toronado was FWD — a 1970 Popular Mechanics owners survey found that more than 40% had chosen the Toronado specifically because of the drivetrain — but Oldsmobile did very little to promote that fact. Early Toronado advertising mentioned FWD only in passing — there were none of the highly technical ads that Campbell-Ewald had done to promote the Corvette Sting Ray’s independent rear suspension — and even those references would gradually disappear.
We’re not entirely sure why Oldsmobile was so reticent to publicize Toronado’s FF drivetrain, although it’s possible that it had something to do with the Hooven patent; we can understand why GM might have been reluctant to promote an invention on which it may have been paying royalties to Ford. Whatever the reason, Oldsmobile swept its own considerable technical achievement under the rug.
If anything, the Toronado may have convinced Oldsmobile that it didn’t really need front-wheel drive, which in the mid-sixties was probably true. In the mid-seventies, buyers would have lined up around the block for an efficient, V-6-powered FWD car like Watt’s earlier prototype, but a decade earlier, we suspect it would have lost out to the cheaper, simpler Ford Fairlane, the same way the Corvair lost out to the more conventional Falcon. With the Eisenhower recession fading from memory and the OPEC embargo still years away, front-wheel drive was little more than a curiosity.
In our second installment, we’ll look at the rest of the Toronado’s history, along with an unusual spin-off of its Unitized Power Package concept: the 1973-1978 GMC Motorhome.
Special thanks go out to Kathy Adelson of the GM Media Archive for her invaluable assistance in tracking down historical photos for this article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on the development and evolution of the Toronado included an AC Spark Plugs ad in Popular Science Vol. 191, No. 3 (September 1967), p. 21; C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1966-1970 Oldsmobile Toronado,” HowStuffWorks.com, 15 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1966-1970-oldsmobile- toronado.htm, accessed 22 October 2010; Ray T. Bohacz, “Mechanical Marvels: Chain Gang: Exploring Camshaft Drive Mechanism,” Hemmings Classic Car #12 (September 2005), pp. 66–69; “Car and Driver Road Test: Ford Thunderbird and Cadillac Eldorado,” Car and Driver November 1966, reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado 1967-78 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); Chris Carlson, “Oldsmobile Toronado,” ClassicOldsmobile.com, 2005, encyclopedia.classicoldsmobile. com/toronado/index.html, accessed 13 November 2010; Linda Clark, “1964 Oldsmobile 4-4-2: Muscling in on the Ponycars,” Special Interest Auto #69 (June 1982), reprinted in Cutlass & 4-4-2 Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 124-131; Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); Craig Fitzgerald, “1966 Revolutionary Ride,” Hemmings Classic Car #4 (January 2005), pp. 14–21; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Maurice D. Hendry, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History (Fourth Edition update by David R. Holls) (Princeton, N.J. : Automobile Quarterly, 1990); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 172-187; John F. Katz, “SIA comparisonReport: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado vs. 1967 Cadillac Eldorado,” Special Interest Autos #168 (November-December 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books), ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 110-119; Michael Lamm, “Toro & Cord: So different and yet so much alike!” Special Interest Autos #35 (July-August 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Special Interest Autos, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 100-107; Todd Lassa, “Drive: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado: Rule Breaker: 40 Years On, It’s Still the Most Radical Olds Ever,” Motor Trend October 2005, www.motortrend. com, accessed 22 October 2010; Richard M. Langworth, Illustrated Oldsmobile Buyer’s Guide (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1987); Jay Leno’s conversation with Dave North, Jay Leno’s Garage, 9 December 2007, www.jaylenosgarage. com, accessed 22 October 2010; Karl Ludvigsen, The V-12 Engine: The Untold Inside Story of the Technology, Evolution, Performance and Impact of All V-12-Engined Cars (Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 2005); Donald MacDonald, “Developing the Toronado,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 12 (December 1965), pp. 40-45; Steve Magnante, “Hurst Hairy Oldsmobile – Keeping the Legend Alive: The Hurst Hairy Olds Returns,” Hot Rod December 2002, www.hotrod. com, accessed 6 November 2010; Mark J. McCourt and Jeff Koch, “Leading the Way,” Hemmings Classic Car #27 (December 2006), pp 22–29; Bob Merlis, “Collectible Classic: 1966-1967 Oldsmobile Toronado,” Automobile February 2009, www.automobilemag. com, accessed 26 October 2010; “Motor Trend Interview: John Beltz,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 12 (December 1970), pp. 72-76, 92-93; “1966-1985 Oldsmobile Toronado,” Automotive Mileposts, n.d., automotivemileposts. com, accessed 10 November 2010; Oldsmobile Toronado ad, LIFE Vol. 65, No. 5 (2 August 1968), p. 16; Oldsmobile Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “Step Out Front in ’66 … in a Rocket Action Olds! Toronado: New one-of-a-kind car…engineered by Oldsmobile!” [advertisement], Car and Driver Vol. 11, No. 5 (November 1965), pp. 46–47; “Oldsmobile Toronado: The Most Carefully Engineered and Thoroughly Tested Car,” Car Life Vol. 12, No. 2 (November 1965), pp. 28-37; Ken Pilidis, Olds Faithful (the Oldsmobile Northern Lights Chapter newsletter) July 2009, p. 2; “Road Research Report: Olds Toronado,” Car and Driver Vol. 11, No. 5 (November 1965), pp. 29-35, 94-99; Herbert Shudliner, “Spotlight on Detroit,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 4 (April 1965), p. 11; Daniel Strohl, “1968 Oldsmobile Toronado,” Hemmings Classic Car #12 (September 2005), p. 102, and “Success! Cadillac’s OHC V-12 engine photos found,” Hemmings Blog, 14 April 2010, blog.hemmings. com, accessed 19 October 2010; Kris Trexler, “Steve & Matt Butcher’s 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado Deluxe,” North Texas Oldsmobile Club, n.d., clubs.hemmings. com/ clubsites/ ntexasoca/ images/ 1967_Oldsmobile_ ToronadoDeluxe.pdf, accessed 26 October 2010; “Unusual Toronados,” Toronado by Oldsmobile, n.d., www3.telus. net/ toronado/ unusual.html, accessed 1 November 2010; vistacruiser67, “1966 Oldsmobile Toronado Pike’s Peak Hill Climb 425 Rocket,” YouTube, https://youtu.be/ziYJVoaOeiI, uploaded 2 February 2008, accessed 10 November 2010; “Youngmobiles: Can-Am engines and other hot rockets,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 10 (October 1969), reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999), pp. 96-99; the Oldsmobile Toronado Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldsmobile_Toronado, accessed 13 November 2010); emails to the author from George Camp, Tom Falconer, Tom Matano, Richard Ruzzin, and Gary Smith, 11–28 November 2010; comments and emails to the author from David North, 18–21 November 2018; and comments made by former Oldsmobile engineer William Thomas on the earlier version of this article, 25 April to 29 April 2010.
Additional driving impressions for the Toronado came from “Buick Riviera: beauty only skin deep?” Road Test, July 1966, reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 64-69; “Car and Driver Road Test: Oldsmobile Toronado: A giant 400 horsepower, two-and-a-half-ton Mini is a gas, but it’s not for citizens with cardiac conditions,” Car and Driver Vol. 13, No. 10 (April 1968), reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, pp. 64-67; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile Toronado,” Car Life Vol. 12, No. 5 (February 1966), reprinted in ibid, pp. 43-47; “Car Life Road Test: Riviera Gran Sport” and “Toronado vs. Riviera: An On-the-Road Comparison,” Car Life Vol. 12, No. 5 (February 1966), reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, pp. 56-61; “Cars Road Test: Toronado vs. Riviera,” Cars September 1966, reprinted in ibid, pp. 70-76; John Ethridge, “5 Luxury Specialty Cars,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 8 (August 1967), pp. 68-73, reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, pp. 78-83; “Giant test,” Car October 1966, pp. 44–51; Michael Lamm, “Toronado Owners Really Dig FWD but say Gas Mileage a Bummer,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 133, No. 6 (June 1970), pp. 118-121, “Two fwd giants: Both excel in prestige and gas guzzling,” and “What’s ahead for front-wheel drive?” Popular Mechanics Vol. 137, No. 4 (April 1972), pp. 100-107; “Oldsmobile Toronado (Autocar Road Test Number 2061),” Autocar 14 January 1966, pp. 79–84; Bill Sanders, “Luxury with a Flair,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1969), pp. 74-85; and Don Sherman, “1966 Oldsmobile Toronado: When men were men, cars were cars, and GM feared no technological frontier,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 2 (August 1985), pp. 40-49.
Additional information on the Oldsmobile Starfire and Jetstar I, the Toronado’s predecessors in the personal luxury sweepstakes, came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1954-1966 Oldsmobile Starfire,” HowStuffWorks.com, 18 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1954-1966-oldsmobile-starfire.htm, accessed 1 November 2010; and Josiah Work, “1964 Oldsmobile Jetstar I: Marvelous Marketing Mistake,” Special Interest Autos #86 (March-April 1985), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles, pp. 92-99.
Additional background on the F-85/Cutlass came from “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile F-85,” Car Life Vol. 8, No. 8 (May 1961), reprinted in Oldsmobile Automobiles 1955-1963, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1989), pp. 66–70; “Oldsmobile F-85,” Car and Driver Vol. 6, No. 11 (May 1961), reprinted in ibid, pp. 71–73; and “Oldsmobile F-85,” Motor Trend Vol. 13, No. 2 (February 1961), reprinted in ibid, pp. 61–63.
Some additional information on GM’s early FWD show cars came from “California Dreaming: Concours D’Elegance to Feature GM Dream Cars from Joe Bortz Collection,” Old Cars Weekly 29 January 2008, www.oldcarsweekly. com, accessed 10 November 2010; Don Keefe, “1955 GMC L’Universelle – Department X,” High Performance Pontiac September 2003, www.highperformancepontiac. com, accessed 27 October 2010; Dave Newell and Robert L. Hauser, “L’Universelle: Front Wheel Drive in ’55,” Special Interest Autos #70 (August 1982), pp. 18-23; Yann Saunders, The Cadillac Database, 1996-2010, Cadillac Database, www.cadillacdatabase. com, accessed 29 October 2010; and David W. Temple, “1955 GMC L’Universelle,” Hemmings Classic Car #61 (OCtober 2009), pp. 52–55.
Information on Fred Hooven and Ford’s FWD efforts during this period came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Ford Cardinal: Dearborn’s Would-Be World Car,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), pp. 50-53; David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), p. 521; Frederick J. Hooven (assignor to Ford Motor Company), “Vehicular Power Plant,” U.S. Patent No. 3,052,313, filed 15 July 1959, issued 4 September 1962; Richard M. Langworth, The Thunderbird Story: Personal Luxury (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1980); Tim Moran, “The Radial Revolution,” Invention & Technology Magazine Vol. 16, Issue 4 (Spring 2001), www.americanheritage. com, accessed 22 October 2010; George H. Muller (assignor to Ford Motor Company), “Vehicular Power Plant,” U.S. Patent No. 3,213,958, filed 14 April 1964, issued 26 October 1965; Myron Tribus, “Frederick Johnson Hooven,” Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 3 (1989) pp. 201-204, reprinted at www.falconregistry. com, accessed 2 November 2010.
Background on the Cord 810 and 812 came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996) and “1936-1937 Cord 810/812,” HowStuffWorks.com, 29 October 2010, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1936-1937-cord-810-812.htm, accessed 31 October 2010; and Arch Brown, “Supercharged Sensation: 1937 Cord 812-SC,” Special Interest Autos #110 (April 1989), pp. 28-35.
Information on the Rochester Quadrajet came from Jim O’Clair, “Rochester Quadrajet Carburetors,” Hemmings Motor News January 2005; Gary Goms, “Diagnostic Dilemmas: Servicing Quadrajet Carburetors,” UnderhoodService.com, 1 May 2008, www.underhoodservice. com, accessed 6 November 2010; George Nenadovich, “Rochester Quadrajet Common Problems and Decoding,” BuickPerformance.com, accessed 1 November 2010; and United States of America v. General Motors Corporation v. Brock Adams, Secretary of Transportation, et al, 565 F.2d 754 184 U.S.App.D.C. 179, Nos.76-1744 and 76-1745, United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 1977.
Additional background and technical details came from “Auto Brevity: Anti-Lock Brake Systems,” Automotive Mileposts, n.d., automotivemileposts. com, accessed 31 October 2010; Patrick Bedard, “A Car Is Born: X,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 11 (May 1979), pp. 62–65; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile Delta 88,” Car Life Vol. 11, No. 7 (April 1965), reprinted in Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, pp. 33–37; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); John DeLorean, “Universal Joint,” U.S. Patent No. 2,898,750, filed 24 September 1958, issued 11 August 1959; Honda Motor Co., Ltd., “Ascot/Accord, Accord Inspire/Vigor (Fact Book),” 13 September 1989, www.honda. co.jp, accessed 12 February 2015; Geoff Moore, “60° V6 Family Tree,” 60° V6 Website, n.d., 60degreev6. com, accessed 26 October 2010; the Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: 2006); Don Sherman, “The New Approach: X,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 11 (May 1979), pp. 80–82; and Andrew K. Watt (assignor to General Motors), “Front Wheel Drive Torque Steer Compensator,” U.S. Patent No. 3,283,842, filed 8 December 1964, issued 8 November 1966.
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