How can muscle car collectors overlook anything this big?
The 1966 Toronado was America's first front-wheel drive car since the Cord 810, 30 years earlier. It was certainly Oldsmobile's (and possibly GM's) last stylistic tour de force. The post-1967 years became increasingly unfriendly to this type of individuality as committees, legislators, and focus groups took over American automotive design.
The project that eventually became the Toronado had a long gestation period and was cloaked in all the secrecy of a Cold War spy plane. The original designation, "XP-784," even sounds like black ops. The name Toronado was chosen to further throw off inquiring minds, as it was also the name of an unrelated 1963 Chevrolet concept car. Although it sounds like a cross between a beef entrée and a mobile-home-marauding twister, it actually has no meaning in any language-perhaps that's where the Japanese got the idea.
The reason for the car's long gestation period was its unique drive train. Europeans had been mass-producing FWD successfully since Citroën's Traction Avant of 1934, and Sir Alec Issigonis's brilliant Mini was already a micro-sensation. But there was strong doubt whether the concept was transferable to a full-sized American car with a large, high-torque engine. The Cord L-29 had shown a tendency to crack its frame and eventually abandon its front wheels, and the later 810 had greasily illustrated the limitations of constant velocity joints.
Olds aimed to make FWD work with a 425-ci V8 pounding out 385 hp and with a pavement-rippling 475 ft-lbs of torque. It seems a near-impossible task even today; a recipe for an ill-handling, badly balanced, massively torque-steering beast that disintegrates its driveline in short order. In fact, the Toro is none of these things.
Olds engineers realized that the success of all future FWD vehicles at GM rode on the outcome of Project XP-784. Unlike the bean-counter GM of the 80s, the project fell to a cadre of talented, crew-cut, skinny-tie-wearing, slide-rule-carrying engineers, all looking like Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13. And if they didn't actually utter the phrase "failure is not an option," they certainly lived it. They delivered a unique and bullet-proof solution to power the new Toronado.
Unlike most front drivers, the power pack in a Toro is not mounted transversely but longitudinally. The standard GM 400 Turbo Hydramatic transmission is situated on the driver's side of the engine, with the flywheel and torque converter mounted conventionally on the tail of the engine. The trick part is the chain that links the engine and the transmission. While a chain doesn't inspire thoughts of longevity with this amount of power and torque, the Morris Company engineered a pre-stretched rubber-isolated steel chain that was quiet and had an almost limitless life span. Suspension was by torsion bars in front and a beam axle in the rear.
While the Toronado was a conventional, assembly-line, serial-production car designed to make a profit rather than just a statement (unlike, say, a '56 Continental), there were some special touches in the standard of the assembly. Olds junkies maintain that Toronado engines are the best of the best-every bit as good as the 442 and W-30 engines. They were machined to closer tolerances, had aluminized valves set in big valve heads, high-compression pistons, and deeper oil pans that held an extra quart.
The stylists, led by the legendary William Mitchell, created an envelope befitting the engineers' accomplishments-a clean, flowing (except when fitted with an obnoxious vinyl top), pillarless fastback with little unnecessary adornment. The unique wheels, hidden headlights, and horizontal slatted grille were an homage to the Cord of three decades earlier. Jay Leno commissioned a fabulous "resto-mod" '66 Toronado and wisely did not change the appearance of the car (despite the eye-popping heresy of a Chevy engine and rear-wheel drive), down to crafting 17" replicas of the original Cord-like chrome wheels. Leno has correctly pointed out that some styling cues such as the muscular and prominent fender arches still look contemporary.
Although the sheer size of the Toro earned what may have been the first printed reference to a "land yacht," I don't think that Road & Track intended the negative connotation that we associate with the term today. In fact, they commented favorably on the car's handling, stating that it was among the best-handling big cars that they had ever driven and that it could "be driven through winding mountain roads almost as if it were a sports car." For emphasis, Bobby Unser won the 1967 Pike's Peak Hill Climb in a Toronado as part of a stunning 1-2-3 Olds finish. Only the typically numb Saginaw power steering and drum brakes let things down, although discs became available in '67. The big Olds also had a prodigious appetite for its specially designed Firestone front tires and the thirst of an Aussie drover for fuel.
The interior of the Toronado has both flat seats and floor, with seats covered in good cloth or leather. The floor is missing a drive shaft hump to allow a more spacious feeling. The dash, while unmistakably American, has full instrumentation, including a unique revolving drum-type speedometer, which works fine until the cable wears. Then it becomes as unreadable as the Edsel compass-type.
Toronado sales started with a bang in 1966, with 40,963 out the door, but plunged like the car's gas gauge from then on as the smooth design was progressively mangled. Sales dropped 50% to 21,790 in 1967, which is visually very similar with only an egg-crate grille to differentiate it. The next models appeared to have crashed into a six-foot mouth organ; but 26,454 were sold in 1968 and 28,494 in 1969, probably thanks to the new 455-ci engine. The hidden headlights were abandoned in 1970 for an alarmingly ugly aspect, but 25,433 cars were sold, including 5,341 GTs. By 1971 the grand experiment was over and a literally square redesign turned Cinderella into her ugly sister.
Truly fine '66-67 Toronados are a rare sight at auctions. Occasionally one sees well-preserved originals at shows and club events. These must surely be the ones to own, as I would hate to guess what a restoration would cost. The plating bill for the wheels and bumpers will send you reeling, and many trim items are unobtainium.
A Toronado is a hard car to pigeon-hole, which may contribute to the market's lack of interest in this arresting and original design. Some fans correctly maintain that it is the world's only FWD muscle car, which is supported by its massive power, roadability and 130-mph top speed. However, the Toronado's personal luxury overtones and the idea that "FWD" and "muscle car" seem diametrically opposed militate against this assertion. Regardless of how one categorizes it, as SCM continues to note, the field of cars that are interesting and different for $10,000 continues to shrink. The early Toronado must rank as one of today's best remaining sleepers.