A classic of the 1960s, the stylish Oldsmobile Toronado re-introduced front-wheel drive to American cars.
I already know your first question about this car. You’re wondering, what exactly is a Toronado, and wouldn’t Tornado have been a more marketable name for Oldsmobile’s new coupe back in 1966? Allow me to explain, back then there was already the Panavia Tornado fighter jet which laid claim to the tornado name. Thusly, Oldsmobile’s marketing came up with a vaguely Spanish/Italian sounding alternative, the Toronado. That translates to “bull tornado” and also happens to be the title of my yet-to-be-produced Sharknado prequel script.
The forward-thinking Oldsmobile Toronado was part of a now extinct class of American cars. Ford marketed their Thunderbird as a “personal car of distinction.” That apt designation covered cars like the Thunderbird, the Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Oldsmobile Toronado as semi-luxury two-doors, often of boat-like dimensions. The Toronado most of us have in our heads is the distinctive first-generation car with its long hood, flip up headlights, and front-wheel drive architecture. But the Toronado had an impressively long tenure in Oldsmobile’s lineup, lasting from 1966 all the way through 1992 and spanning four generations.
The Oldsmobile Toronado had two important things going for it: an eye-catching exterior design and the radical return of front-wheel drive. That’s right, back in 1960s, no American car company was making front-wheel drive cars and hadn’t been going back to the Cord 810 and 812 in 1937. GM’s engineers had been working on a front-wheel layout since the mid-1950s but it took until 1965 to see it finally come to fruition with the advent of the Toronado.
The Toronado’s striking design, penned by David North, has more than its share of interesting features. First, there’s the exceedingly low beltline which only rises to accentuate the prominent wheel arches front and back. The front end is also compelling with its long hood, hidden headlights (complete with little eyebrows), and protrusions to each side of the bumper. An interesting interior features was the Toronado’s scrolling speedometer.
Under the hood of the Toronado was Oldsmobile’s signature 425 cu. in. Rocket V8 making 385 horsepower and 475 lb ft of torque. Good numbers, but the heavy Toronado still needed around 8 seconds to hit sixty miles per hour. Despite its luxury pretensions, the Toronado’s chief weakness was a less than stellar ride thanks to a split suspension of torsion bars up front and a single leaf spring set up in the rear. The Toronado’s drums brakes also came in for some criticism, with the company even fielding it at Pike’s Peak just to prove the detractors wrong.
Despite these minor flaws, the Toronado was a critical success, earning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1966.
The Toronado would see a string of changes in its first years of production. In 1967, the Toronado got a new egg crate grille, optional disc brakes, and the eyebrows were deleted from above the folding headlights. A new 455 cu. in. V8 arrived in 1968, along with a redesigned front end. The 1970 model squared off those distinctive wheel arches and new, non-retracting quad headlights were added.
The second-generation Oldsmobile Toronado followed the basic trend in luxury cars of the 1970s, go big or go home. A move to GM’s B-body platform saw the Toronado grow from 119 to 122 inches in length. The car’s design was boxier and far less radical than before. A new coil spring suspension improved ride quality. New vertical taillights and a hood ornament were added in 1973, and that classic luxury hallmark of the 1970s, the opera window, was first offered in 1974.
Two new concept version debuted in 1977, the XS and XSR. The latter of these had retractable T-tops, but engineers couldn’t seem to keep them from leaking in the rain. The resulting XS, which did make it to market, had a more standard retractable sunroof. (For more awesome T-top cars, click here.) That same year, the Toronado traded its 455 for a smaller 403 cu. in. V8 to help meet new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards.
For its third generation, the Toronado shrunk a full 16 inches in length. The car was smaller and was even more nondescript than its prior generation. A 252 V6 was introduced for the 1981 model year. This V6 proved to be grossly underpowered and was discontinued after the ’84 model year. A 350-cu. in. diesel V8 was also offered and saw a warmer reception thanks to its good fuel economy. Unfortunately, the engine was also notoriously unreliable.
The fourth-generation Toronado moved to a unibody design. Even though the car was duller and smaller than ever before, the Toronado’s price still went up. The V8 engine was dropped in favor of a new 231 cu. in. (3.8L) V6. Buyers were nonplussed as gas prices in the mid-1980s had dropped substantially from their Oil Crisis peaks and fuel economy ceased to be a major selling point.
To inject a bit of interest back into the Toronado, Oldsmobile introduced a new sporty variant, the Troféo, in 1987. The Troféo had a new exterior design, standard leather upholstery, and a sport-tuned suspension. In 1989, the Troféo would drop the Toronado badging altogether.
The Toronado got one last redesign in 1990, gaining back some 12 inches in length and a marginal amount of curb appeal, before its eventual cancellation after the 1992 model year. While the Toronado might have faded away, along with the popularity of the personal luxury car, it will always be remembered for its unique looks and forward-thinking engineering.