Oldsmobile Toronado 1966-70: forward traction!
“Front-wheel drive” offers many advantages in terms of stability and traction. But for General Motors, building its first front-wheel-drive car was first and foremost a commercial trick.
It was in the mid-1970s that front-wheel drive would finally find mainstream success in North America. However, several attempts took place before World War II. We are thinking in particular of Cord L29 (1929 to 1932, 4,400 copies) and 810/812 (1936 to 1937, 2,972 copies). But from there, nothing. Well almost…
If it doesn’t work the first time, persevere!
Paradoxically, it was the success of a rear-engined car, the Volkswagen Beetle, that prompted GM to make its first front-wheel drive developments. Beginning in 1957, the company prepared a trio of compacts for 1961 (Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special). At Oldsmobile, engineers Andrew K. Watt and John Beltz believed that front-wheel drive would be ideal for this project because it provided more space for passengers. From 1958, they tested different solutions and at the beginning of 1960, a rolling prototype was tested. GM decided to stick with a rear-wheel drive architecture for its compacts for cost reasons. Beltz would try another approach from 1962.
At the time, Oldsmobile was seen as GM’s most innovative division (Hydra Matic automatic transmission in 1940 and high-compression Rocket engine in 1949). However, the brand had a problem: it had no competitors with the Ford Thunderbird and the future Buick Riviera, which would be launched for the 1963 model year. Ed Cole, vice president responsible for cars and trucks, likes the idea of an Oldsmobile and a Cadillac in this segment because it would allow development and tooling costs to be shared among the three divisions. He sees front-wheel drive in a positive light because research has shown that buyers of luxury cars are looking for things that make them stand out. Nobody makes front-wheel drives, that’s fine. The E-platform project was approved (in the end, Buick would decide to stick with rear-wheel drive and the Riviera wouldn’t switch to front-wheel drive until 1979).
At the same time, the Oldsmobile design studio began to produce drawings of the future front in anticipation of the future front-wheel-drive automobile. In early 1962, when the designers had completed the 1964 models, the studio’s management launched an internal competition to stimulate their creativity. A coupé with a long bonnet, sloping rear and wide wheel arches – developed by David North – makes a strong impression. The car is called the “flame red car” (the stripes are red on a black background). When the E-platform project was approved, Bill Mitchell, GM’s vice-president responsible for design, immediately thought of the red car. The final concept was approved by management in February 1963. It remained surprisingly close to the very first sketch.
The engineers again released their study for compacts in 1961. This time, it was about the power transmission of the 425 cubic inch (7.0 liter) V8, which was no small feat ( all European front- wheel drive for sale have small engines. in comparison). The V8 is installed longitudinally in the chassis. The automatic transmission, called the TH-425, essentially uses the internal components of the TH-400 but, compared to a conventional automatic transmission, it is split into two pieces to fit the powertrain under the hood. The torque converter is placed on the crankshaft output. The power is then sent to the rest of the box (gear ratios and differential) located under the left engine cylinder of the engine by one every two inch wide chain. The construction of this chain is particularly complex to achieve the goals of reliability and operational quietness. The engine/transmission assembly is called the UPP (Unitized Power Package).
To fit under the bonnet, the carburettor and the intake manifold of the 425 pc, presented in 1965, were redesigned while the exhaust manifolds were modified to make room for the suspensions. And certainly, the suspensions offer unusual solutions: longitudinal torsion bars with reinforced anti-roll bars at the front and rigid axles at the rear but supported by 4 shock absorbers. Brakes are drum on 4 wheels (whose shapes should recall those of Cord 810/812). The steering is power assisted as standard. Weight distribution is fairly balanced with 54% in the front and 46% in the rear.
The XP-784 project is progressing well and remains to be proven. A prototype was shown to GM management at the Mesa, Arizona, test track in February 1964. It was a Starfire body with a front-wheel-drive underbody. Tests went well and the model was approved for the 1966 model year. Oldsmobile lacked production capacity at its Lansing, Michigan plant. So it was decided to make the bodies at the Fisher plant in Cleveland, Ohio, and ship them by truck to Lansing (375 kilometers away) for final assembly, the semi-monocoque construction being (relatively ) easier.
By the end of 1964, road tests had gone well but the car still had no name. The proposed Cirrus, Scirocco and Magnum… which respectively would later be used by Chrysler, Volkswagen and Dodge. Eventually, it would become the Toronado, after a name filed by Chevrolet in 1963 for a concept vehicle shown at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
In half shape
The Toronado was officially announced in July 1965 and went on sale on October 14, 1965. Two models were available: standard (385 horsepower V8, automatic transmission, power brakes, electric clock, front bench seat, two-speed windshield wipers) and Deluxe ( ‘Strato’ bucket-style seats with central armrest, additional chrome), retail for USD 4,366 / CAD 6,542 and USD 4,410 / CAD 6,777, respectively. The press of the time appreciated the stability and traction of the car, the flat front floor, a sign of space, and found that the understeer was completely under control, but they were united in the weakness of the brakes. The Toronado still receives the title of “Car of the Year 1966” from the magazine motorcycle trend who declared the car “remarkable and utterly perfect…destined to become a classic of its time”. More surprisingly, it would finish third in the “European Car of the Year 1966” classification. Customers responded positively and 40,963 Toronados were produced (6,333 standard and 34,630 Deluxe) but this was below Oldsmobile’s projections (50,000 units per year). This was not enough to worry the Thunderbird, which was in the last year of its fourth generation (64,127 coupés), or even the Riviera (45,348 copies), which was renewed for 1966.
The 1967 vintage brought a limited set of changes, but some were very significant, such as the optional addition of front disc brakes and radial tires. The headlights are now flush and the front grille looks like mesh. The suspension has been modified for greater comfort, the opening of the doors receives spring assistance and among the new options we find the radio with 8-track player, 3-point seat belts and bucket seats with central console (which is a bit against the original idea…). Sales were down nearly 47% to 21,790 units (1,770 standard and 20,020 Deluxe) while the Riviera held up well (42,799 units) and the renewed Thunderbird shone (52,989 coupe plus 24,967 of the new 4-door model). . Maybe it’s because of the appearance of the new Cadillac Eldorado (also front-wheel drive but sold more expensively and sold in 17,930 copies)?
The Toronado underwent a major restyling for 1968. The headlights went behind retractable grilles with a honeycomb pattern and the turn signals extended to the sides. The engine has a displacement of 455 cubic inches (7.5 liters) and generates 375 horsepower (400 horsepower with the new optional W34 package that also includes fresh air induction, a lower restriction exhaust line and a recalibrated automatic transmission). The Custom finish replaces the Deluxe and a vinyl roof is added as an option. Sales rose slightly (26,454 copies including 3,957 standard and 22,497 Custom) but the Riviera (with 49,284 copies) and Thunderbird (with 43,006 coupé and 21,925 4-door) remained comfortably ahead. Even Eldorado was almost sold out (24,528 copies)!
For the 1969 vintage, it was the rear end that was completely revised. The shape of the wings has been improved to reduce the impact back quickly and the trunk has been extended by nearly 9 centimeters to provide more space. Engineers recalibrated the engine mounts, shocks and springs and added more sound deadening materials for even more refinement. Sales are still developing (28,494 copies, including 3,421 standard and 25,073 Custom), but it is not enough against the Buick Riviera (52,872 copies) and Cadillac Eldorado (23,333 copies) in good shape or in front of the Thunderbird at a loss of speed (33,577 coupé and 15,695 4-door).
Although 1970 was the last vintage of this Toronado generation, changes were not lacking: new grille with exposed headlights, less rounded wheel arches, standard disc brakes, revised dashboard and new GT assembly ( special seats, console unit, GT logo, less than 1,000 units produced). Production will reach 25,433 units (2,351 standard and 23,082 Custom) against 37,366 Riviera, 23,842 Eldorado and 50,364 T-Bird (41,963 coupes and 8,401 4-door).
The Toronado did not achieve the career that Oldsmobile had hoped for but the amortization of the E platform investment in the 3 brands and the success of the Riviera and Eldorado meant that it would experience a new generation in 1971. But this is another story…
4 out of 100!
The rarest and most exclusive Toronados were built to celebrate Canada’s 100 years. It’s 1967 and the World’s Fair in Montreal attracts Canadians from all corners of the country, often by road. The Esso company organized a contest with instant prizes to be won as well as 4 cars in a draw.
And not just any car! Oldsmobile Toronados customized by Georges Barris (based in California and best known for the Batmobile) and called the 67-X.
The latter lengthened the wheelbase by 38 centimeters and increased the overall length to 6.12 meters. The exclusive bodywork is made of fiberglass. Inside, there is a rotating driver’s seat, two FM radios with headphones, a refrigerator, a special bench seat, a tablet to play with, unique lighting and more… The cars will win 4 random draws and go to Edmonton (Alberta), Okanagan Landing (British Columbia), Quebec and Thunder Bay (Ontario). Each car comes with free gas and oil, maintenance and insurance for one year. Today, only the 67-X won in Quebec has disappeared from the radar. The British Columbia work was on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria in 2017 for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Just back things up!