Out in Front: The Front-Wheel-Drive Oldsmobile Toronado, Part 2

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.

1980 Oldsmobile Toronado front 3q © 2007 IFCAR (PD)
The slatted grille (replacing the initial crosshatch pattern) marks this as a 1980 Oldsmobile Toronado, which now had the 150-horsepower (112 kW) Oldsmobile 307 cu. in. (5,033 cc) V-8 as standard with 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) gasoline or diesel engines optional. A new XSC option package included bucket seats (the first time they’d been offered in the Toronado since 1970), heavy-duty suspension, additional instrumentation, and a center console. The XSC package also featured body-colored wheelcovers rather than this car’s simulated wires. The XSC package was apparently not very popular and was dropped after 1981. (Photo: “3rd Oldsmobile Toronado”” © 2007 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

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.

1983 Oldsmobile Toronado Brougham front 3q
This 1983 Oldsmobile Toronado Brougham originally listed for a bit over $15,000. The base engine was now the 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) Buick V-6, with 125 hp (93 kW). The 350 cu. in. (5,737 cc) gasoline engine was gone, but the 105 hp (78 kW) diesel and 140 hp (104 kW) 307 cu. in. (5,033 cc) gasoline engine remained optional. Four-wheel disc brakes and a four-speed automatic became standard in 1982.

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.

1988 Oldsmobile Trofeo FE6 front 3q © 2007 Karmann (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The sporty Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo — initially an option package, later a separate model — was distinguishable from the standard Toronado by its fog lamps and single-color (rather than two-tone) paint. Like the Toronado, it was 187.5 inches (4,763 mm) long on a 107.9-inch (2,741mm) wheelbase, with a curb weight of around 3,300 lb (1,510 kg). This is a 1988 model, which had a redesigned engine block with a balance shaft for greater smoothness along with sequential fuel injection and lighter pistons, increasing output by 15 hp (10 kW). (Photo: “Trofeo-fe6” © 2007 Karmann; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

1990 Oldsmobile Toronado front 3q
The 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado and Trofeo were stretched to 200.3 inches (5,088 mm) overall, gaining a reshaped roof, a sleeker grilleless nose, and minor structural and suspension improvements. The new Trofeo was surprisingly agile for a largish domestic coupe; even Car and Driver, which tended to look at domestic sedans with a jaundiced eye, called it one of the best-handling cars in America. Unfortunately, with a price tag of nearly $25,000, most well-heeled Boomers ignored it in favor of similarly priced import rivals like the Acura Legend and BMW 325i.

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.

1990 Oldsmobile Toronado front
Along with the exterior facelift, the 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado had a revised interior with a driver’s side airbag and analog instruments, although digital instrumentation and a split bench seat remained optional. Anti-lock brakes, already standard on the Trofeo, were optional on Toronados; they became standard across the line in 1991. The 1990 model still had 165 net horsepower (12 kW), but minor engine revisions brought that to 170 hp (127 kW) for 1991 and 1992. Unfortunately, the restyle had also increased curb weight by more than 100 lb (45 kg), so straight-line performance still wasn’t outstanding.

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.

1992 Oldsmobile Toronado rear 3q
The 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado’s rear deck was 12.8 inches (325 mm) longer than before, reducing the previous bobtail look, while the reshaped backlight and sail panels lessened the resemblance to the workaday Cutlass Calais. If the Toronado had looked like this in 1986, it might have done better, but by 1990, it was too late to do much good. Combined Toronado/Trofeo sales were only 15,022 in 1990, falling to around 8,000 units in 1991.

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.

34 Comments

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  1. All that I can say is thanks for your website. I remember a couple of years ago a co worker told me that a friend of hers had driven her home in her well used Oldsmobile Trofeo. I was impressed that in it’s faded opulence this Olds was still doing sterling service.

    1. My ’90 Trofeo is easily the best daily beater Ive ever enjoyed.
      Yet another great job by the author and this site, also!

  2. I saw a local dealer selling an empty shell version of the motor home in the late 70’s. Then whilr driving down to Florida to watch th 24 hour race at Daytona, saw one set up as a transporter, had a roll-up door in the rear. It had a Porsche in it.

  3. Does anyone know where the yellow 1977 Toronado XSR resides today?

  4. My intention is to preserve my 1977 Toronado Brougham for another 13 years and then give it to my son. It pleases me to see his appreciation for this car. It’s appraised at 98.3/100. if anyone out there comes across a front floor mat, please say so as I went and left mine in the sun and it faded! It is red. Also one hub cap has a small dent in it so… just say so if you know where I might find one.

    1. Sorry, I can’t advise anyone on finding parts or repairs — I really don’t know!

      1. Hopefully, one of your followers will know. I think your site is a great idea!
        Take care and Good Luck!

      2. Marty moore’s REVCON motor home repair parts in Calif.–I think in San De. OLD MAN BUT HAS A TON OF KNOWLEDGE & PARTS for old R.V’S

  5. That was a nice article, reading about “Toro’s” brought back a lot of memories. I worked as a Tech for Oldsmobile shops back in the early days, the 1967 was the first model I worked on as a current year and I worked on them to the end. I especially loved the early years with the HOT optional engines, the later ones ran like a Lead Sled. The Toro and 442 ran about even as my favorite Oldsmobile’s….

    Eagle

  6. I have a 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado front wheel drive motorhome. Never seen anything like it! Can anyone tell me more about it? can send pics if nessessary.

    1. Hi Don, I worked on a number of GMC Motor homes that used the 455 Oldsmobile engine and the Toronado front drive unit but there were also several other manufactures who used the Oldsmobile FWD package to power their units. If you do a Google search for your brand and year you shouldn’t have a problem finding info about your vehicle. Cortez was another manufacture who used the Oldsmobile FWD. NASA actually used a Cortez to shuttle astronauts to the launch pad. Apparently there are still fans of the Cortez Motor home and parts are still sold by the companies owner, although no new units have been built for years. Search and you should find some info quite easily.

      Eagle

      1. I had thought from the research I did that Cortez didn’t adopt the Toronado powertrain until 1970 (although I’m no expert on motor homes, so I may be wrong in that!), but I’m sure there were at least a few earlier examples, including probably some cobbled-together shade-tree jobs. The UPP concept made a lot of sense for motor homes and vans: enough torque to haul a substantial load, compact enough to not eat up interior space, and not so exotic you couldn’t get parts for most of it. I imagine the biggest obstacle to motor home use was likely the price.

  7. I currently have a 1976 gmc motorhome at my property and would like some information on it i drove it 260 miles to my house it was sitting in storage for 3 years all i did was put a battery in it and set up a gas tank with a electric fuel pump and dtove it home

    1. Jerry,

      I’m not able to provide information on specific vehicles (I really have no idea), but there’s general information on the Motorhome in the text of the article.

    2. Has anyone contacted you yet with info ? If ot let me know we have a forum group and several clubs nationwide devoted to the GMC MH over 8000 are still running.
      SAW

    3. Did virtually the same thing in Sept. Bought a 1976 GMC Eleganza II in Waxahachee, Tx. Been sitting at least 2 years. Washed it, new battery, electric fuel pump and ferry tank, and 1 new tire. Fired right up, lots of smoke, then drove to Lampassas. Brother, who has 4 of them, is still working on it. Looking forward to hitting the road with it.

  8. have inherited a 1973 travoy motor home. Model HSCR. Type 12J. It’s free. Pick it up in Yucca Vally, Ca.. Good shape. Tires old. Engine has not been run for 7-10 yrs. Housed in its own enclosed barn.

    1. Don,

      I redacted your phone number — I really don’t recommend posting phone numbers online (except maybe a business number that’s publicly listed online anyway) lest you get besieged by robo-callers. If you’re determined, I will put it back, but I take no responsibility for the consequences!

    2. have the 28feet one

  9. The Toronado died in 1986,the small 6 cylinder 1986 was grotesquely inferior to the great 1985 Toronado Caliente which was somewhat better than all the previous ones,the small one despite the gorgeous dashboard was not much more than an economy car,something affluent people disregard,it was gorgeous though compared to the contraptions being put out nowadays by all the manufacturers.
    The automobile is dying worldwide.

  10. SIR, I HAVE AN OLDS XSC [1980] AND I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW MANY THEY MADE. THANK YOU C. VOLKERT

    1. If any xsc’s are for sale- I am interested.

  11. I still have my 79 that I ordered new 350 runs as smooth as the day it left the dealership!

  12. Anyone have problems with headlights i don’t have power on my 1969 head lights. I tested. Each one. Ands works. Low beams. Have 3 point.
    But one om these have ground one broke
    So that affect. The service
    Anyone. Can help me out. Also power windos and power seat. Problems and solutions

    1. I can’t help with repairs or maintenance issues, sorry!

    2. I know that passing light is a little problem but whit a little fuse/ breaker/disjunctior is the problem solved!
      Good luck

  13. My husband was President of Revcon starting in 1976 and we loved the RV business and were involved with ElDorado/Honorbuilt Company from 1966-1976 when we moved to California. My family remembers being at the Dodger RV show and the Silver Bullet was a huge hit.

    1. I just picked up a 1975 Revcon. If you can share any pics or other info that would be great!

  14. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you
    know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think
    its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different browsers
    and both show the same results.

    maglia Roma

    1. Hmm, that’s very strange. I’m not experiencing that when I test it. Was the problem specific to this article, or did it occur on multiple pages?

      I have encountered a problem on certain articles where the WordPress media page (not normally accessible or visible to visitors) has disappeared or somehow broken without the associated image being gone, which creates a bizarre condition where the image loads, but also throws a 404 error that appears in the log. That doesn’t appear to be happening here, though.

      It may be a browser caching anomaly, where for some reason the page doesn’t completely load (due to a momentarily hiccup in the connection or browser lag), but then the browser has cached an incomplete version of that page and refuses to let go of it. That happens sometimes, and the only thing to be done about it is to clear the browser cache and try loading the page again. Since it’s a transient problem, it frequently has nothing to do with the actual page. It’s just an obnoxious side effect of the way modern browsers work.

  15. Nice story,but you have the design history wrong. don Schomer was a fine designer,but was not on this project.
    I had worked on the 66Toro with Olds chief Engineer John Belts who was then Olds Gen Manager for the 2 gen 71 Toro.
    He saw a scale model Eldorado proposal I did,and had me brought back from loan to Vaxhall in England.
    His first words to me were “we donot want another “sports” car like you did in66 ,think Eldorado- Lincoln
    The front end I wanted a
    Cord look, the two lower grills made cooling a Chalange!

    1. Mr. North,

      Thanks so much for your input — I have amended (and hopefully corrected) the text.

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