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.
With the UAW strike resolved, 1972 sales soared to 48,900 units, hitting nearly 56,000 in 1973, the best the Toronado would ever do. A 1972 Popular Mechanics owners survey suggested that buyers appreciated the Toronado’s Cadillac-like lines; for the first time, styling edged out front-wheel drive as the Toronado’s key selling point. The Toronado may also have captured a few Buick customers who were displeased with the controversial new Riviera. While the Riviera outsold the Toronado in 1971, the situation was reversed for the little-changed ’72 and ’73 models. The Toronado had finally found its commercial groove.
AIRBAGS AND XS
In the fall of 1973, the Oldsmobile Toronado gained another technological distinction, becoming one of the first American production cars to be offered with driver- and passenger-side airbags. With federal requirements for passive restraint in the offing, GM had told the Department of Transportation back in 1970 that it would introduce airbags as an option and then make them standard for the 1975 model year. Although the auto industry succeeded in delaying implementation of the federal requirement originally slated to take effect for the 1972 model year, GM installed airbags in 1,000 1973 Chevrolet Impalas for fleet customers. The “Air Cushion Restraint System” became a regular production option for the 1974 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight, Ninety-Eight, and Toronado, the Buick Electra 225 and Riviera, and most Cadillac models. The first car off the line with the ACRS was a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado.
Even before the option went on sale, GM had scaled back its plans for airbag installation and the ACRS never became standard equipment. The airbags worked — a 1982 report by the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that the number of deaths and serious injuries in ACRS-equipped cars was even lower than projected — but the option was not heavily promoted and take-up was limited. In all, the airbags only went into about 11,000 cars, which we assume includes the early Impala fleet cars. GM finally canceled the option in 1976, citing low demand and the need to redesign the system for the downsized 1977 big cars. The slow-selling True-Track system was dropped at the same time, although both airbags and ABS would return a decade or so later.
Although Oldsmobile was doing very well in the seventies, sales of the second-generation Toronado suffered a serious blow following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. With buyers suddenly shying away from big cars, it probably didn’t help that the 1974 Toronado was even more massive than before, thanks to new 5-mph (8-km/h) hydraulic bumpers; sales fell by 50%. The 1975 and 1976 models, with rectangular headlights and fashionable new opera windows, did even worse, slipping below 25,000 units for the first time since 1967. The Toronado still outsold the Riviera, despite or because of the demise of the latter’s boattail, but not the Eldorado, which remained remarkably popular throughout the seventies.
There was brief flurry of interest in 1977 thanks to two new models, one of which didn’t quite make production. The first was the XS, which featured an unusual angular wraparound backlight, reminiscent of GM’s 1959-1960 Vista hardtops or the old Studebaker Starlight. The second model, the XSR, had a similar roof treatment, but added motorized T-tops that could partly retract into the central crossbar. Developed for Oldsmobile by the American Sunroof Corporation, the XSR appeared in some early Toronado ads and brochures, but concerns about top sealing and reliability led Oldsmobile to cancel the model after only a single prototype was built. (That car still survives today and occasionally appears at auto shows.) The slightly less ambitious XS model, with a moonroof in place of the T-tops, sold 2,713 copies in 1977 and a further 2,453 in 1978, despite a price premium of more than $2,500.
Even with the downturn that followed the energy crisis, the second-generation Oldsmobile Toronado was more successful than the first, with production totaling 267,888 cars in eight model years. Still, by 1978, it had become a dinosaur. The original Toronado had more or less split the difference between the A-body Cutlass and the full-size, B-body Eighty-Eight. With GM’s downsizing of the B- and C-body cars for 1977, the Toronado was now 7.1 inches (180 mm) longer and over 800 lb (363 kg) heavier than the flagship Ninety-Eight. With steadily increasing requirements for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), the third-generation Toronado would be significantly smaller and lighter than before.
THE GMC MOTORHOME
Despite their tidy, compact powertrains, neither the Toronado nor the Cadillac Eldorado was especially space-efficient — their flat floors made them more habitable for middle-seat passengers than a typical RWD sedan, but passenger and cargo room were compromised by style-conscious proportions. In a June 1970 Popular Mechanics owners survey, some buyers complained that front-wheel drive wasn’t available in a more practical body style. Bill Mitchell had actually proposed a Toronado wagon early on, but GM didn’t offer FWD sedans or wagons until the eighties and didn’t introduce a FWD light van until the U-body minivans in 1990. In the early seventies, however, the Toronado’s Unitized Power Package found its way into an entirely different sort of utility vehicle, built not by Oldsmobile, but by GMC Truck & Coach Division.
As we mentioned in our first installment, GMC had flirted with the idea of a FWD cargo van back in the fifties with the 1955 L’Universelle. It was an intriguing idea, but probably too costly for the contemporary truck market, which had yet to embrace independent front-suspension, let alone front-wheel drive. The growing popularity of the recreational vehicle (RV) in the late sixties, however, suggested a different avenue. Independent RV builders were snapping up thousands of truck chassis for custom motor homes and GM wanted a piece of that lucrative action.
Front-wheel drive offered some of the same advantages for vans and recreational vehicles that it did for passenger cars: better traction and more room for living or cargo space. Several smaller manufacturers had already gone that route. Since 1963, Clark Equipment Corporation had offered a front-drive RV called the Cortez, which adopted the Toronado powertrain in 1971. The late sixties Tiara and Travoy and the 1972 Revcon were also Toronado-powered, although both were produced in relatively small numbers.
Development of GM’s own FWD motor home began around 1969, initially as a corporate Engineering Staff project. Both GMC and Chevrolet Truck were very interested, but GMC ultimately got the nod because of the motor home’s projected size and gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). GMC’s general manager, Martin Caserio, saw the FWD project, known internally as TVS-4 (for “Travel Vehicle, Streamlined”), as a utilitarian vehicle that could be offered in many specialized commercial versions, from mobile command centers to airport shuttles.
The TVS-4’s powertrain, front suspension, and front disc brakes were very similar to the second-generation Toronado’s, although some components had to be beefed up to cope with the big RV’s weight. Unlike the Toronado, the TVS-4 had fully independent suspension with optional self-leveling hydro-pneumatic springs and tandem rear wheels — unusual for an RV of this era — located by both leading and trailing arms. The body, which used a combination of aluminum and sheet molded compound fiberglass panels, was remarkably aerodynamic, with sleek, space-age looks courtesy of GMC chief stylist Michael Lathers. GMC even commissioned House & Garden magazine to coordinate the interior color schemes, ensuring that it would be the height of mid-seventies chic.
GMC announced the TVS-4, prosaically dubbed GMC Motorhome, at the TransPro trade show in February 1972, although the Motorhome didn’t actually go into production until early the following year. The Motorhome was offered in two sizes: the Model 230, on a 140-inch (3,556mm) wheelbase, and the stretched Model 260, with a wheelbase of 160 inches (4,064 mm). Both were available either in stripped “Transmode” form for customizers or in a number of fully furnished versions with prices ranging from a base of $13,569 to around $18,000 for a well-equipped Model 260 — expensive but not unreasonable for a Class A motor home in those days.
By the time the Motorhome went on sale, Caserio had departed for a stint at Pontiac, ceding the reins of GMC to Alex Mair. Mair saw the Motorhome less as an affordable family or commercial vehicle and more as a high-end divisional flagship. Since the FWD motor home was always going to be too expensive and too outré to seriously compete with much cheaper RWD truck chassis, it made more business sense to push the Motorhome upmarket. The furnished versions were fairly well-equipped even in standard form and there was a lengthy list of options, ranging from air conditioning with automatic climate control to TV antennas and even a vacuum cleaner.
Initial sales were brisk. GMC sold more than 2,000 in the first year, which was modest by truck standards, but encouraging given the Motorhome’s price tag. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo that fall put a crimp into motor home sales just as it did the passenger car market. The Motorhome was actually fairly thrifty for a big RV, returning as much as 10–11 mpg (21.4–23.5 L/100 km) on the road, but fuel shortages made buyers wary. Slow sales led GMC to two brief production freezes during the 1974 model year. All things considered, the sales decline was modest, but business didn’t really rebound until the 1976 model year.
Although Motorhome production hit a record 3,260 units in 1976, it was still not a big seller by GMC standards and was expensive and labor-intensive to produce. Thanks to its high prices — a top-of-the line Model 260 Kingsley now ran to around $38,000 — we suspect the Motorhome was profitable on a unit basis, but weighed against the number of trucks GMC could produce with the same resources, it probably didn’t make a strong case for itself.
Another factor may have been the imminent demise of the TH425 transmission. Since the biggest engine offered in the 1979 Toronado and Eldorado was slated to be the Oldsmobile 350 (5,737 cc), the E-body cars were about to switch to the lighter TH325 transmission. The Motorhome’s limited production presumably didn’t justify continued production of the older transmission or, for that matter, continuing the Oldsmobile 403 cu. in. (6,598 cc) V-8, which would survive only through the end of the 1979 model year.
GMC general manager Robert Truxell, who had replaced Mair in 1974, announced in November 1977 that the Motorhome would be phased out. Production ended in July 1978; the grand total was fewer than 13,000 units in six model years. GMC eventually sold the rights to the design to California businessman Donald Wheat, who tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the Motorhome in the mid-eighties.
The GMC Motorhome had a prominent role in the 1981 comedy film Stripes, starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, and John Candy, and has also enjoyed several toy incarnations: In 1976, it became the basis of Mattel’s Barbie Star Traveler Motor Home and a vehicle for the Big Jim toyline. The following year, the GMC Motorhome began the first of several runs as a Mattel Hot Wheels car. Surviving Motorhomes have a considerable fan following and various companies continue to offer aftermarket parts and accessories for them; in 1992, Cinnabar Engineering bought a license to manufacture replacement parts, which GMC had recently discontinued. As a promotional effort, one such manufacturer, Dyno Sources of Sequim, Washington, used a modified GMC Motorhome to set a new world speed record for Class A RVs, reaching 102.76 mph (165.38 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 2006. That vehicle, however, was powered by a 454 cu. in. (7,443 cc) Chevrolet V-8, not a Toronado engine.
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.
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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