LOOKING BACK ON FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE
Some historians have called the Oldsmobile Tornado the precursor of modern FWD American cars, but if it was a pioneer, it was a lonely one. By our count, GM built 2,188,757 vehicles with the Unitized Power Package between 1966 and 1985, which is a very respectable figure by most standards, but represents only a tiny fraction of the corporation’s total car and truck production for the same period. Before the debut of the X-cars in 1979, GM’s total annual FWD production only exceeded 100,000 units on one occasion, a drop in the bucket for General Motors.
The UPP would have opened the door for GM to develop FWD versions of its other big V-8-powered cars and trucks — perhaps a FWD Vista Cruiser or Chevrolet Van — but they probably would have been niche items, particularly for what they probably would have cost. When Detroit finally embraced front-wheel drive in the late seventies, it was mostly because economic and political pressures were forcing manufacturers to develop a new generation of smaller cars with smaller engines. In that climate, there was even less need for big V-8-powered FWD cars than there had been before the OPEC embargo.
In that light, the original Toronado was not so much a missing link as an evolutionary sidebar, an interesting dead end. Indeed, GM’s later mass-market FWD cars had more conventional transverse front engine/transaxle drivetrains that bore little resemblance to the Toronado’s novel but expensive UPP, which even the Toro abandoned after 1985.
Former GM chairman Frederic Donner once remarked to designer Stan Wilen (who oversaw the styling development of the original Toronado) that cars like the Toronado were worthwhile even if they didn’t sell well because they demonstrated the corporation’s capacity for innovation. We’re sympathetic to that idea, but it’s hard to reconcile with Oldsmobile’s curious reluctance to promote the Toronado’s innovative features. By the mid-seventies, Toronado marketing barely mentioned that the car had front-wheel drive, much less that it offered both airbags and ABS.
In a way, the Toronado’s low-key image may have been to its advantage. The UPP Toronado survived far longer than many of GM’s early forays into new technology; Oldsmobile’s turbocharged F-85 Jetfire lasted only two years and Pontiac’s rope-drive Tempest survived only three. The Toronado was almost as radical a departure from the American norm as the Corvair, but generated no particular controversy and very little fuss. On the whole, the Toronado was commendably reliable and it addressed FWD foibles like torque steer better than did many later cars. Whatever else we can say about its style or performance, it worked, which is probably why the Toronado — unlike so many innovators — managed to outlive its own novelty. For that alone, it deserves a tip of the hat.
Special thanks to Gary Smith (who has his own excellent website on automotive design, Dean’s Garage), for putting us in touch with other former GM designers, and to Kathy Adelson of the GM Media Archive for her invaluable assistance in tracking down historical images 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 made by former Oldsmobile engineer William Thomas on the earlier version of this article, 25 April to 29 April 2010; and comments and emails to the author from David North, 18–21 November 2018.
Additional information on and driving impressions for the later Toronados came from Tony Assenza, “Driving Impression: 1990 new Cars: Oldsmobile Troféo: Better, but baffling,” Car and Driver Vol. 35, No. 4 (October 1989), pp. 72-74; Patrick Bedard, “Preview Test: 1986 Oldsmobile Toronado,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 2 (August 1985), pp. 40-45; Jim Brokaw, “Almost a Limousine,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 12 (December 1970), pp. 67-71, and “Toronado, Thunderbird, Grand Prix and Riviera: You can get cozy with that ‘personal luxury car’ if you’ve got $6000 to $8000,” Motor Trend Vol. 25, No. 6 (June 1973), reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 118–121, and “The Personal Luxury Cars,” Motor Trend Vol. 26, No. 3 (March 1974), reprinted in Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 129–132; Jim Dunne, “Detroit Spy Report,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 161, No. 11 (November 1990), pp. 114–115; “Inside Detroit,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 166, No. 4 (April 1989), p. 52; and “GM’s all-new luxury sedans,” Popular Science Vol. 227, No. 2 (August 1985), pp. 81-83; Jim Dunne and Ed Jacobs, “Plush mid-size coupes: GM’s new front-drive cars lead the way,” Popular Science Vol. 214, No. 3 (March 1979), pp. 32-38, 43; General Motors Corporation, “GM Design Staff Appointments” [press release], November 10, 1992; Wade Hoyt and Michael Lamm, “Detroit ’86: American Technology Takes Charge,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 162, No. 9 (September 1985), pp. 77–80; Michael Lamm, “Driving the ’79 General Motors Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 150, No. 4 (October 1978), pp. 108–111, 236; “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; Jim Richardson, “History of the 1978 Cadillac Eldorado Custom Biarritz Classic,” n.d., members.cox. net/phxjer/ eldo/history.htm, accessed 25 January 2011; Bill Sanders, “Luxury with a Flair,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1969), pp. 74-85; and “Top Luxury for Pennies…” Road Test May 1972, reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 90-95; and Gary Smith, “GM Styling Advanced Design and Pre-production Photos,” Dean’s Garage, 4 February 2010, deansgarage. com/2010/ gm-styling-images-from-the-early-%E2%80%9960s/, accessed 20 November 2010, and “1977 Buick Olds Studio Show Photos,” Dean’s Garage, 15 June 2009, deansgarage. com/2009/ 1977-buick-olds-studio-show-photos/, accessed 20 November 2010.
Additional background and technical details came from “Auto Brevity: Anti-Lock Brake Systems,” Automotive Mileposts, n.d., automotivemileposts. com, accessed 31 October 2010; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Photo Feature: 1977 Oldsmobile Toronado XSR Coupe,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 1 (June 2003), pp. 44–47; and the Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: 2006).
Information on the GMC Motorhomes came from “bdub,” “Frequently Asked Questions: Information Resources for GMC Motorhome Owners,” 1999-2000, www.bdub. net, accessed 23 October 2010; Bill Bryant, “Story of a Classic: The GMC Motorhome, Part One,” Family Motor Coaching February 2004, pp. 58-61; “Story of a Classic: The GMC Motorhome, Part Two,” Family Motor Coaching March 2004, pp. 70-78; and “Story of a Classic: The GMC Motorhome, Part Three,” Family Motor Coaching April 2004, pp. 74-80; all are reprinted on the web (with the permission of the author) at www.bdub. net, accessed 15 November 2010; Patrick Flower, The GMC Motorhome Source, 15 October 2007, www.gmcmotorhome. com, accessed 23 October 2010; GMC Dixielanders, “The GMC Motorhome,” n.d., www.gmcdixielanders. org, accessed 22 October 2010; “GMC Motorhome,” Hot Wheels Wiki, n.d., hotwheels.wikia. com, accessed 15 November 2010; the “GMC Motor Home – Multi Purpose Vehicle” brochure, reprinted at www.bdub. net, accessed 23 October 2010; “GMC: the Hot Wheels RV,” Squob.com, 23 September 2008, squob. com, accessed 15 November 2010; Brian Heiler, “Barbie or Big Jim?” Plaid Stallions, 16 June 2016, plaidstallions.blogspot. com/2016/06/barbie-or-big-jim.html, accessed 17 April 2018, and “Vintage Barbie Love,” Plaid Stallions, 17 December 2013, plaidstallions.blogspot. com/2013/12/vintage-barbie-love.html, accessed 17 April 2018; Bob Kovacik, “GMC Motorhome: All this, and economy too,” Motor Trend Vol. 29, No. 10 (October 1977), pp. 77-78; Laura Moncur, “Barbie Star Traveler,” Pick Me! 10 February 2008, laura.moncur. org/archives/2008/02/10/barbie-star-traveler/, accessed 18 April 2018; and “Barbie Star Traveler: The Beginnings www.starling-travel. com/2012/02/01/barbie-star-traveler-the-beginnings-of-my-camper-obsession/, accessed 18 April 2018; Herbert Shuldiner and Jim Dunne, “Drive ‘Em Like a Car — Sleek New RVs Offer New Roadability and Engineering,” Popular Science Vol. 203, No. 2 (August 1973), pp. 78-79, 126; Stripes (director: Ivan Reitman; writers: Len Blum & Dan Goldberg and Harold Ramis; producers: Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg; United States: Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 1981; Extended Cut DVD, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2005); “Stripes (1981),” Internet Movie Database, n.d., www.imdb. com/title/tt0083131/, accessed 23 October 2010; “World Land Speed Record for Motorhomes,” Cooperative Motor Works, 17 September 2006, www.gmccoop. com, accessed 15 November 2010); and the GMC Motorhome Wikipedia page (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GMC_motorhome, accessed 23 October 2010). Additional information on other Toronado-powered motorhomes came from “Hey, what is a Cortez anyway?” CortezCoach.com, 2010, www.cortezcoach. com, accessed 22 October 2010; and the Revconeers, “The Revcon Motorhome,” The Revconeers Chapter of the Family Motor Coach Association, 2010, revconeers. com, accessed 22 October 2010.
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