Some great cars win immediate acceptance, are praised by press and public alike and go on to everlasting glory. Then there are other great cars -- call them the Rodney Dangerfields of the genre -- that just, in the vernacular, "don't get no respect." And one of these, perhaps the number one of these, is the Oldsmobile Toronado. Introduced to a wondering public at a time when General Motors had a U.S. market share of some 60 percent, the cars left the general public and car critics alike with mouths agape. The sad truth about the Toronado is that most people didn't understand it then and don't understand it now.
I remember like yesterday reading an article in what must have been a 1965 edition of Popular Mechanics about the imminent arrival of a technical marvel from Oldsmobile. The car, said the magazine, was to be called Holiday, and it would feature FRONT-WHEEL-DRIVE. Front-wheel-drive? You mean like the legendary Cord 810? God lord, it was enough to set any teenaged boy's heart atwitter.
Well, the magazine might have got the name wrong, but it wasn't wrong about the front-wheel-drive. And wasn't wrong about the new system being a technical tour-de-force. The Toronado was a landmark car from a car company that didn't need to produce a landmark car. In fact, it seems the only reason General Motors decided to do the car at all was because it could.
How the mighty have fallen. As this is being written the last Oldsmobile has recently been built. Oldsmobiles are still for sale at more than a thousand new-car dealerships across the country, but Oldsmobile as a viable brand is just about done. General Motors, which had once relied on Olds for a significant portion of its profits, has pulled the plug, and soon an Olds dealer will be as hard to find as a Studebaker or De Soto dealer.
My bet is that if they were around to hear that news, Ransom E. Olds, who gave the marque its name and fame, and William Crapo "Billy" Durant, who helped make the brand a key link in the General Motors chain, would be angry but not surprised. After all, both men saw the fortunes of the auto industry turn alternately in their direction and then the other way, so it is doubtful they would be startled by the fact that Olds has finally succumbed. But that doesn't ease the shame of the proud brand's demise.
After all, Oldsmobile has been smart, innovative, popular and even fearless since that day in 1895 when Ransom E. Olds and his partner Frank Clark got together to build a "horseless carriage." By 1897 Olds Motor Vehicle Company was the first company engaged in the mass production of automobiles in the United States. But though the Curved Dash Olds was a ringing success, within a decade Ransom Olds had left the company that bears his name for good. He went on to found another car company, REO, while Oldsmobile ended up as an important piece in assembling the puzzle that became General Motors. Billy Durant made that play and others like it, but then, he, like Ransom Olds, was shoved unceremoniously out.
General Motors grew less speculative, more corporate, and Oldsmobile, run by more anonymous types, went that direction as well. As part of the Albert P. Sloan's overall plan for GM, Olds settled into a solidly middle-class existence, like Nash or Hudson or Dodge. But as the years passed Oldsmobile also gained a reputation as General Motors' "experimental" division. Perhaps it started with the Olds side-valve V-8 engines of the Teens and early Twenties or the pioneering use of chromium-plated trim. In 1937 Olds was the first to introduce the "Automatic Safety Transmission," one of the first workable systems to do away with the tedious chore of manual gear changing. AST required the driver to use the clutch pedal simply to shift between low and high ranges.
A far bigger advance was the introduction of what is generally regarded as the first commercially successful automatic transmission -- Olds Hydra-Matic. The revolutionary system was introduced in 1939 for the 1940 model year, and it was one of the biggest advances to ease motoring since the invention of the electric self-starter in 1912.
Charles Kettering, who was prominent in the development of the automatic transmission, went on to transform the automotive world yet again with the introduction of the high-compression V-8 engine in 1949. The Olds "Rocket" V-8 was a sensation in the marketplace, and it turned Oldsmobile into one of the early leaders on the NASCAR Grand National racing circuit. One could make the case that the Olds "Rocket" 88 with its 135-horsepower V-8 was the first "musclecar."
But before the brand was through, it had one more big innovation left in it, and that was the Oldsmobile Toronado. Of course, front-wheel-drive was hardly new, even in 1965. Numerous inventors had tinkered with it during the dawn of the automobile; racecars, including the phenomenally successful Millers, used it in the Twenties; and Citroen made a special place for itself with the system in the Thirties. And, of course, there were the two Cords -- L29 and 810-812 -- that hung their hats on front-wheel drive. Two decades later Alec Issigonis set the auto world on its ear using front-wheel-drive to achieve "packaging efficiency" in the original Mini.
Well, you can't claim Oldsmobile engineers were seeking "packaging efficiency" with the front-drive concept that became the Toronado. In fact, the Toronado was about as far from the Mini as one could get, yet the behemoth Toronado did feature front-wheel-drive.
Why did the Olds engineers go to the trouble of building the complicated front-wheel-drive system for their giant two-door personal luxury car? Mainly, it seems, to differentiate it from its competition, which in the way of the mid-60s world, came primarily from the Buick Riviera, another GM product.
When it debuted in 1965 as a 1966 model, the Toronado was not just among the largest production front-wheel-drive cars ever, it was also a pie in the face of traditional American motor car engineering. In America in the Sixties, virtually all cars were front-engine/rear-drive. Those that weren't, like the Chevrolet Corvair and Volkswagen Beetle, were considered contrarian oddballs. In those days, the vast majority of foreign cars from both Japan and Europe were also rear-drive, so the introduction of the front-drive Toronado created a sensation.
And why not? It was a sensational car. First there was the dazzling, if a bit over-the-top, styling job done by GM's William L. "Bill" Mitchell and his design crew. Few American car front ends of any era had the unique signature of the 1966 Toronado, set off by the "blinking eyelids" of its headlamp covers. (Inexplicably, they would be replaced by flush covers the following year.) When it comes to long hoods, one would have to go a far piece to out-distance the Toronado. In some ways the car seems to be all nose, while the truncated rear end says "afterthought."
It is fitting the car had a long hood because a lot was going on under there. First there was the mammoth 425 cubic-inch-displacement overhead valve V-8. (Yes, it was a "Rocket.") The engine was mounted in a traditional "north-south" orientation, and it transferred power to the TurboHydramatic three-speed automatic transaxle via a Morse chain. The most interesting technical piece was the split transmission unit, designed to be packaged here and there in the engine compartment. The torque converter was directly behind the engine, but the gearbox was located under the engine's left cylinder bank.
The mechanical arrangement also necessitated a less traditional front suspension. Instead of coil springs, the front suspension used lengthy torsion bars in conjunction with its conventional A-arms, and, of course, each front wheel also had a driveshaft reaching it from the transmission.
Past the cowl, the Toronado was "big American car," though it did feature a "futuristic" interior and tried to play up its flat floors front and rear. But for a car this huge -- it rode on a 119-inch wheelbase -- the interior is remarkably tight for the rear seat passengers.
While the 385 horsepower whirring out of the big V-8 seems impressive, it was confronted with the task of pulling substantially more than two tons (4,400 pounds) of automobile. So zero-to-60 acceleration took nearly 10 seconds, and the quarter mile run required a leisurely 17.7 seconds. Top speed of 124 miles per hour was respectable, but the Toronado was not built for top-speed running. Instead, it was built for making a statement, and it did just that. And the statement it made was that in the 1960s General Motors could do anything.