THE DOWNSIZED TORONADO
In 1974, one of GM’s Advanced studios developed an interesting and radical concept for a possible third-generation Toronado. Nicknamed the “Four-Fendered Farkel,” after a popular comedy sketch on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, it took the original Toronado’s Cord 810/812 cues to extremes, featuring separate fenders and a dramatic coffin-nose hood. This design eventually progressed to the full-size model stage, now sporting external exhaust pipes reminiscent of the supercharged 1937 Cord 812 SC, but the project went no further. A few pictures have survived, but we don’t know what eventually became of the model itself.
By the time that model was built, GM had embarked on a $15 billion corporate program to downsize its entire automotive line. The full-size cars came first, arriving for 1977, followed a year later by downsized A-body intermediates. The E-body Eldorado, Riviera, and Toronado received the same treatment for 1979. Not only would the new E-bodies be significantly smaller than before, they would now be built in the same factory in Linden, New Jersey, and all three would now shared the Unitized Power Package. (The restyled Cadillac Seville would adopt the UPP the following year.)
Stylistically, the 1979 Toronado — developed under Oldsmobile chief stylist Len Casillo, who had succeeded Stan Parker in 1973 — was not a great departure from its predecessor save for its dimensions. Overall length was trimmed to 205.6 inches (5,224 mm) while wheelbase shrank from 122 to 114 inches (3,099 to 2,896 mm); curb weight was now around 3,800 lb (1,725 kg), nearly half a ton lighter than the ’78 model. Although it was certainly smaller, the new Toronado was hardly small; its overall dimensions were now very close to the popular mid-sixties Ford Thunderbird — or, for that matter, the A-body intermediate platform that Bill Mitchell had wanted to use for the original Toronado.
While the Toronado retained body-on-frame construction, packaging efficiency was much improved. The narrower width forced Oldsmobile to abandon the pretense of six-passenger seating, but the new car was usefully roomier in most other dimensions. Part of the space savings resulted from exchanging the rear beam axle for independent rear suspension (with semi-trailing arms, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar), which also brought improvements in ride and handling. The Toronado’s suspension tuning was less athletic than the new Riviera’s, but a 1979 Popular Mechanics owner survey suggested that many buyers preferred it that way. Another unusual feature was a hydraulic brake booster rather than the usual vacuum servo.
In the interests of fuel economy, the Toronado traded its 403 cu. in. (6,598 cc) engine for the Oldsmobile 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) V-8, initially with 165 net horsepower (123 kW). With less torque to manage, the Toronado exchanged the TH-425 transmission for the medium-duty TH-325, which weighed about 56 lb (25 kg) less. Although down 25 horsepower (19 kW) from the previous year, the new Toronado’s power-to-weight ratio was actually somewhat improved, although it was still a far cry from the muscular W34 of a decade earlier. Later in the model year, economy-conscious buyers (such as there were, in this price class) could order Oldsmobile’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) diesel V-8, with 125 hp (93 kW) and 225 lb-ft (305 N-m) of torque. It had respectable fuel economy, but sluggish acceleration, and a propensity for smoke and clatter. It had a poor service record as well. Former Oldsmobile general manager Howard Kehrl (who had helped to design the first-generation Toronado’s Unitized Power Package) later admitted that the diesel had been brought to market before it was ready.
The downsized Toronado once again failed to win the hearts of the automotive press, which was more enamored with the new turbocharged Buick Riviera S-Type. Nonetheless, the new Toronado went over well with buyers, selling over 50,000 units in its first year — more than double the 1978 total and the second best year the Toronado had ever had. The new Toro’s basic appeal was much the same as before: Eldorado style for about $4,000 less. The Toronado and Eldorado even had the same engine; both the Eldorado and Seville used Oldsmobile’s 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) engines.
Still, the Toronado was the least popular of the downsized E-bodies. In 1979, it came within about 2,000 units of the new Riviera, but the gap grew wider with each subsequent year. Buick was making aggressive inroads into Oldsmobile’s market, finally displacing Olds as number three in domestic auto sales in 1982. Surprisingly, both the Toronado and the Riviera once again fell short of the Eldorado, which was one of Cadillac’s best-selling models during this period — a testament, we assume, to the power of branding.
The third-generation Toronado survived seven model years with relatively modest changes. Emissions concerns led to the deletion of the 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) gasoline engine in 1981, leaving the diesel, Oldsmobile’s 307 cu. in. (5,033 cc) V-8, and a 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) V-6. Since none of these had more than 140 net horsepower (104 kW), performance was leisurely, although raw acceleration was apparently not a major priority for personal luxury car buyers in this period. Oldsmobile had better luck with opulence, like the leather-trimmed, landau-roofed Toronado Caliente package offered in 1984-1985. Unlike Buick and Cadillac, there was never a production Toronado convertible, although a few were converted privately by ASC or other aftermarket coachbuilders.
Possessing neither the Riviera’s flair nor the Eldorado’s cachet, the Toronado gradually lost ground, with sales slipping below 34,000 units in 1982. Business picked up again in 1984 and 1985, but the Eldorado continued to outpace its Olds cousin by around 30,000 units a year. Nevertheless, the 1979-1985 generation was the Toronado’s most successful, with total sales of 299,918 units in seven model years.
THE GM30 TORONADO
Even after the 1979 downsizing, the Toronado, Eldorado, and Riviera remained among GM’s biggest cars. By the early eighties, it was common knowledge that even smaller E-cars were due by the middle of the decade. They finally arrived for the 1986 model year, riding a new unitized platform known in GM parlance as GM30.
The GM30 platform was a spin-off of the new compact GM20 (N-body) platform that had debuted the previous year to replace the unloved FWD X-body. Although they shared no exterior sheet metal, the N-body and the new E-cars had similar proportions and a very similar roofline, although the E-body was longer overall with a 3-inch (51mm) longer wheelbase. Suspension was once again all-independent, but it now used struts front and rear, carried on detachable crossmembers to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. The only mechanical curiosity was the use of a single transverse leaf spring for the rear suspension, replacing the previous coil springs. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard and both the Riviera and Toronado featured electronic instruments.
Perhaps the most dramatic mechanical change was under the hood. While the E-cars retained front-wheel drive, the Unitized Power Package was gone, replaced by a transverse engine and THM 440-T4 four-speed transaxle, mounted in the now-orthodox fashion. The Eldorado still offered a V-8 engine, but the Toronado and Riviera were now available only with Buick’s 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) V-6, making 140 horsepower (104 kW).
Dynamically, the downsized Toronado was much improved, with a more rigid structure and significantly better body control. Contemporary testers were particularly impressed with the optional LE3 suspension, which sharpened cornering response with fatter tires, firmer struts and shocks, and thicker anti-roll bars. Although the 3,791 cc V-6 had no more power and somewhat less torque than the old 307 cu. in. (5,033 cc) V-8, a 550 lb (250 kg) weight reduction meant the new car was quicker than before: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took 10–11 seconds and Car and Driver‘s preproduction preview car managed a top speed of 110 mph (176 km/h). EPA fuel economy also improved by around 10%.
In some ways, the Toronado had come full circle. Its size, weight, and configuration were surprisingly close to engineer Andy Watt’s FWD prototype of 1960, which also had a transverse V-6 engine and four-speed automatic. The new car’s sloping nose, hidden headlights, and slatted grille bars evoked the original Toronado while Oldsmobile’s advertising and marketing painted the new car as a sophisticated American grand tourer, much like its 1966 predecessor.
All that sounded good on a paper, but the result was a commercial disaster. Sales plunged to less than 16,000 units, the worst the Toronado had ever done. Riding Cadillac’s coattails was no longer much help; Eldorado sales were similarly dismal. Conventional wisdom usually blames the Toronado’s decline on its smaller dimensions, an explanation we consider overly simplistic — the new E-cars were not dramatically smaller than the contemporary Thunderbird, which was quite successful.
We think the bigger problem was that the new Toronado’s ambitions simply exceeded its scope. It seems that Oldsmobile — or the larger Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac organization that had absorbed Olds in early 1984 — expected the GM30 to simultaneously attract affluent Baby Boomers (who had never shown much interest in domestic luxury cars) and preserve the Toronado’s existing conservative, over-50 clientele while also fulfilling the corporate mandate for downsizing and maintaining the hardpoints of the cheaper GM20 platform. Unfortunately, the results were not so felicitous. Combining the E-cars’ familiar short deck and upright roofline with the N-body’s shorter fenders made the tail look stubby and the greenhouse disproportionately large; the Toronado looked smaller than before, which had not been true of its predecessor. At the same time, the new Toronado’s proportions were still a little too starchy and formal to pull off the aero nose. The changes only seemed to alienate existing buyers while doing little to tempt thirtysomething Yuppies from their BMWs and Audis.
Reinventing the Toronado as a modern sporty coupe in the mold of the aero Thunderbird wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but we suspect that pulling it off would have required a more cohesive look and a platform with fewer obvious ties to the GM20 cars. Introducing styling themes on cheaper models before applying them to high-end products seldom turns out well — the commonality only made the $9,000 difference between the Toronado and a V-6 Cutlass Calais that much harder to accept. The Toronado was better equipped and had a bigger engine, but its outright performance was rather ordinary and status-conscious were more likely to opt for the similarly priced BMW 325i or other upscale imports.
Oldsmobile tried to bolster the Toronado’s sporty image with an option package called Trofeo (Spanish and Italian for “trophy”), which included the FE3 suspension and various ‘Euro’ styling cues. The Toronado also got a bit more power, climbing to 150 hp (112 kW) in 1987 and 165 hp (123 kW) in 1988. Sales rose only slightly, reaching a peak of 16,496 in 1988. The Trofeo, which became a separate model in 1989, consistently outsold the base Toronado, but neither sold well. A 1990 restyle, with a longer tail and better proportions, helped only a little. With the market for big coupes of all kinds shrinking rapidly, Oldsmobile finally decided to pull the plug at the end of the 1992 model year. Sales of the final Toronado and Trofeo totaled less than 6,400 units.
Toward the end, there were various rumors about the Toronado’s future, ranging from the adoption of a supercharged version of the 138 cu. in. (2,260 cc) Quad 4 engine to a new four-door model. The luxurious G-body Oldsmobile Aurora that arrived for 1995 borrowed a number of design cues from the original 1966 Toro, but the Toronado would have no real successor.