1966 Olds Toronado offered unique styling

1966 Olds Toronado 1966 Olds Toronado Photo Credit: Wheelbase Media

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Just look at it.

Even now, the Toronado is a gorgeous piece of sculpture. But that's all most people will ever see.

More importantly, as the first modern-era, full-size, front-wheel-drive domestic car on the market, it will forever remain a marvel of innovative engineering.

By the mid-1960s, the styling department at General Motors was the hot ticket in Detroit. Led by Bill Mitchell, a man known for his toughness, determination and fierce support of his department's creations, GM was turning out some of the best looking cars anywhere. Included in this celebrated group were the 1962-'64 Pontiac Grand Prix, 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and Buick Riviera, the 1965 Chevrolet Impala fastback coupe and second-generation Corvair. These cars, plus a host of others, helped ring up record sales and market share for the world's largest corporation.

But the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado managed to eclipse them all by a considerable margin.

The success of the neat-looking Buick Riviera, not to mention Ford's Thunderbird and Chrysler's 300-series cars, proved there was a growing market for medium-priced V8-powered four-seaters that comprised the personal-luxury group.

Automobiles in this class sold for upwards of $4,500, a pittance by today's lofty standards, but $1,500-$2,000 more than your average two- or four-door sedan. These were the kind of cars that generated lots of money, not only for the manufacturers, but for the dealers and their sales staff.

The division heads at Oldsmobile wanted to make their own personal-luxury statement and grab some of the action. What they envisioned was a long-hood/short-deck body style that was typical for this type of car, but with the look and feel a European road machine (or at least its North American equivalent).

What they got was a spectacular fashion statement penned by one of Bill Mitchell's understudies and approved for production virtually unaltered from the original renderings. Branded with the Toronado nameplate, the body featured a fastback rear end, bulging wheel cut-outs, hidden headlights and a properly discreet amount of chrome trim. The result was simple, clean, elegant and powerful. It was also a rolling work of art.

The Toronado's gorgeous sheetmetal told only half the story. Olds' engineers developed a front-wheel-drive system for the big coupe, the first such application devised for a mass-produced American-made car since the Cord 810/812 series from the mid-1930s. As if this wasn't challenging enough, they adapted an existing rear-wheel-drive chassis and borrowed one of the biggest, heaviest motors in Olds' arsenal: a monster 425 cubic-inch V8 positioned longitudinally inside the cavernous engine bay.

The front-wheel-drive system included a three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission located under the left-hand side of the engine block and connected to the torque converter by means of a chain drive. Since both the engine and transmission remained behind the front wheels, there was only a minimal 54 percent forward weight bias, which aided handling.

With 385 horsepower on tap, the 4,300-pound Toronado was capable of chirping its front tires on the way to reaching 60 mph in less than nine seconds, running out of breath at about 135 mph.

In marketing the Toronado, Oldsmobile had a lot of explaining to do and its advertising and promotional material went to great lengths extolling the benefits of front-wheel-drive to potential buyers accustomed to fitting their snow tires out back.

As with any new model, the Toronado had its weaknesses and its skeptics. Its doors were massive, making them unwieldy in tight parking spaces or when perched on a nose-up incline. The standard four-wheel drum brakes tended to fade during regular use and the front tires would wear out in short order. Fuel consumption, and premium fuel at that, averaged a thirsty 10-13 mpg.

The overriding concern, however, was with the Toronado's groundbreaking front-wheel-drive setup. Despite first-year sales of more than 40,000 units (about 5,000 shy of the Buick Riviera and well below the league-leading Ford Thunderbird), some critics claimed the car's complex driveline was unnecessary and ultimately hurt sales.

The naysayers, however, remained a distinct minority. Motor Trend magazine bestowed its Car-of-the-Year prize on the Toronado, finding its handsome features, smooth ride, power-everything creature comforts, exhilarating performance and excellent road manners hard to resist.

Although there was only a single body style available, viewers of the long-running (1967-'75) TV detective series, Mannix, got a good look at a beautiful Toronado convertible specially created for the show by famed customizer George Barris.

For 1967, GM rolled out the Cadillac Eldorado coupe that employed the front-wheel drive system pioneered by Oldsmobile. That year's Toronado also received minor exterior tweaks, including a toothy grille that clashed with its otherwise unfettered lines.

It was already the beginning of the end for one of the coolest cars on the street. The following year, 1968, a bulbous one-piece chrome grille/bumper appendage was bolted to the car's front end, spoiling its low-key Euro styling for good.

But for that single, inaugural year, the Toronado was a right-on-the-money automobile that set new standards for design, content and across-the-board performance, all in one shot.

It rarely gets any better than that.


 

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