Bold and the beautiful. Luxury coupe put front-wheel drive back on the map in America.
It’s easy to think of American cars of the 1960s as dumb land-yachts – gas-guzzlers with front-mounted V8s, rear-wheel drive and cart suspension; unimaginative reskins of the 1950s, stumbling zombie-like towards the fuel crises of the 1970s. In fact, the 1960s were a pretty bold time, and not least at General Motors. In 1962 it had released the Oldsmobile Jetfire, a groovy, hardtop coupe whose V8 engine featured the industry’s first turbocharger.
Just a month later, GM turbocharged a variant of the Chevrolet Corvair, itself a complete turnaround from Motown convention in having a rear-mounted, aircooled, flat-six engine. In this context, a luxury grand-touring coupe with a 7.0-litre V8 engine and front-wheel drive didn’t look so weird. In fact, from any angle the Oldsmobile Toronado of 1966 looked pretty damn gorgeous.
Oldsmobile began developing front-wheel drive in 1958, concurrent with Mini designer Alec Issigonis across the pond. America’s last FWD effort had been the Cord 810 in 1936 and, like Cord, Olds was more concerned with the configuration’s directional stability and comfort than packaging efficiency. Taking its new 425ci (7.0-litre) big-block V8, Olds developed a longitudinal, parallel drivetrain, with the modified TH400 transmission running below the left cylinder bank. A specially developed chain took drive from the torque-converter, at the rear of the engine, to the transmission.
If the tech spec raised eyebrows, the styling dropped jaws. It originated in a 1962 sketch known as the ‘flame red car’. Designer David North stretched the proportions (to a 5400mm overall length) and, at marketing’s direction, gave a nod to the Cord 810 in the ‘sandwiched’, slatted grille. Pop-up headlights were, sadly, replaced in ’1968, the model shown above.
Initially slow to sell, notably against sibling rival Buick’s rear-drive Riviera, the Toronado was soon acclaimed for its unusually firm yet comfortable suspension tune and extremely spacious cabin. The Toronado was assembled on a dedicated, slow-moving line, and build quality was several notches above mainstream GM fare.
Cadillac would base its new-for-’1967 Eldorado coupe on the Toronado’s platform. The Caddie’s sudden sales success ensured that the second-generation Toronado (1971-’1978) would be bigger, squarer and dumbed-down. Just over 143,000 examples of the elegant Series 1 (1966-’1970) were produced.
The Toronado-only ‘Super Rocket’ variant of Olds’ 6965cc iron-block V8 copped a big Rochester carb, higher compression, a lumpier cam and bigger valves to make 287kW/644Nm. Trans was a modified three-speed TH400 auto. The torque-steer potential of a V8 and a 2177kg kerb weight was mitigated by double-CV-jointed half-shafts.
SPACE AND GRACE
Interior was suitably futuristic, with a Cessna-inspired wheel (three-spoke from ’1968), drum speedo, ‘Strato Bench’ front seat (pictured) or optional buckets, and ciggie lighters for everyone. Incredibly spacious seating for six was aided by a flat floor. Suspension was tuned for driving enjoyment, with unusual torsion bars up front and a leaf-sprung beam axle rear.
2294 PIECES IN THE COMPLEX HY-VO TRANSMISSION CHAIN
1968 TORONADO FINISHES 1-2-3 IN STOCK CLASS AT PIKES PEAK
1.99 OVERALL WIDTH, IN METRES
100M TORONADO BUILT IN MARCH 1966 CLAIMED TO BE GM’s 100-MILLIONTH VEHICLE