Most histories of the Oldsmobile Toronado start and end with the original 1966 models, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The Toronado survived another 25 years and its most commercially successful period was still to come. This week, we look at the history of the 1971-1992 Toronado and examine another vehicle that shared its novel powertrain: the 1973-1978 GMC Motorhome.
THE ELDORADO FROM LANSING
As we saw in our first installment, the first Oldsmobile Toronado bowed in 1966, the first front-wheel-drive American production car in nearly 30 years. It won great critical acclaim for both its clever Unitized Power Package (UPP) drivetrain and its striking exterior styling, but public reaction was guarded. The Toronado soon developed a loyal following, but sales were consistently disappointing. If the success of the Ford Thunderbird was any indication, contemporary luxury car shoppers were more interested in a fashionable image than serious performance. Their idea of high technology was powered vent windows and banks of aircraft-style toggle switches, not front-wheel drive or cold air induction.
By the time the Toronado received its first full redesign for 1971, Oldsmobile had seen the writing on the wall. If the first Toronado had been a high-tech answer to the dashing Buick Riviera, the second generation would be Lansing’s Eldorado: a posh personal luxury cruiser of which front-wheel drive was only an incidental feature.
The search for a new styling theme was a protracted one involving several different styling studios. Although some accounts attribute the second-generation Toronado design to stylist Don Schumer, then in one of the Advanced studios, the design that eventually became the 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado actually came from David North, who had developed the first-generation Toronado. However, the second generation took a very different path from the first. In fact, North says it began as a Cadillac Eldorado proposal.
As it turned out, that was exactly what Olds general manager John Beltz was looking for, and he arranged to bring North back from his assignment to GM’s Vauxhall division in Luton, England, to develop the design for Oldsmobile, telling him to emphasize the Eldorado flavor. The initial FWD Cadillac Eldorado had been considerably more profitable than its first-generation Toronado cousin, and the arrival of the posh Lincoln Continental Mark III made clear that that was the direction the luxury coupe market was taking. (It’s also worth noting that Oldsmobile’s chief stylist was now Stan Parker, who had overseen the development of the first FWD Eldorado during his previous tenure at Cadillac.)
The new Toronado dispensed entirely with the first generation’s fastback shape, which had been progressively toned down since 1969; the roof and rear fenders were now clearly separate. The result was a boxier shape that bore a more than passing resemblance to the contemporary Eldorado, particularly in profile, although the twin grilles subtly continued the first-generation Toronado’s nod to the Cord 810/812. If the Toronado looked more like a 1970 Eldorado than the bulkier, all-new 1971 Eldo, that was not necessarily a bad thing; Cadillac resale values were at their peak in the early seventies, so in some markets, a late-model Eldorado actually commanded higher prices than a brand-new Toronado. The Toronado’s greatest stylistic departure from the Cadillac theme was the front end, which was distinctly Oldsmobile.
The Toronado once again shared its E-body shell with the Eldorado and Riviera. Previously, the Toronado and Eldorado had been semi-unitized, while the Riviera had a self-supporting cruciform chassis, but for 1971, all three cars rode a full-length perimeter frame, intended to provide greater isolation from noise, vibration, and harshness. Both the Toronado and Eldorado traded their previous rear suspensions, which had used single leaf springs and quad shocks, for trailing arms and coil springs, further reducing ride harshness. The Toronado’s damping and spring rates were now luxury-car soft, although the F41 heavy-duty suspension was still on the option list.
The Toronado’s clever Unitized Power Package was little changed, but buyers who didn’t read the fine print might think the big 455 cu. in. (7,450 cc) V-8 had been completely defanged. It was now rated at 275 horsepower (205 kW) and 375 lb-ft (508 N-m) of torque, a nominal drop of 100 hp (75 kW) from 1970. Although the compression ratio had fallen from 10.25 to 8.5:1, part of GM president Ed Cole’s mandate to prepare for unleaded fuels, most of the drop was attributable to new, more realistic SAE net rating system; in the old SAE gross system, the Toronado’s engine was rated at 350 horsepower (261 kW). The powerful W34 GT engine, which had gone into around 20% of 1970 Toronados, was quietly dropped; the Toronado’s sporting days were over.
The new Toronado didn’t make a great impression on the automotive press. While front-wheel drive was still rare in the U.S. market, it was no longer groundbreaking and the new Toro’s performance and handling were otherwise unexceptional. The 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint now took more than 10 seconds and unless you ordered the optional True-Track rear ABS, added late in the 1970 model year, braking distances were still hampered by premature rear lockup, a consequence of weight transfer onto the Toronado’s already heavy nose. The Ford Thunderbird, long the waftiest car in its class, now had a firmer ride than the Toronado and was notably quicker to boot. From an enthusiast standpoint, the Toronado had become decidedly dull.
Nonetheless, the Toro’s newfound conservatism seemed to go over well with buyers. Despite a lengthy United Auto Workers strike that began just as the 1971 models arrived, Toronado sales showed encouraging signs of life, rising 14% from 1970. The Toronado was no longer winning any engineering awards, but if you wanted a reasonable imitation of a year-old Eldorado for about $1,000 less — and the waiting lists at Cadillac dealerships suggested that many did — it was a pretty good deal.