Monday, August 15, 2011
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
Award Winning, Front Wheel Drive Sensation
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
The automotive press was ecstatic about an all new car in the Olds camp at the beginning of the 1966 model year – the first front wheel drive (FWD) production car since the 1937 Cord called Toronado. The editors of Hot Rod said in their October 1965 issue that the Toro was “... the most technically interesting and significant car to come out of the American auto industry since the 1960 Corvair; they have scored a technical breakthrough.” This same observation was echoed by Road & Track when they noted in their January 1966 issue that “No American car has caused such a flurry of technical interest as the Toronado has since that other extreme of American car design, the Corvair.” Those who evaluated the new creation from Oldsmobile for the February 1966 issue of Car Life had mostly praise for the Toronado, but did note a few features that were not liked. More will be said on that matter later. The people at Motor Trend selected the FWD car the winner of its annual “Car of the Year” award and lauded the engineers for their achievement in overcoming numerous technical problems to make the Toronado a “truly outstanding car” and noted that “... never in the 14-year history of this award has the choice been so obvious and unanimous. The Toronado is symbolic of a resurgence of imaginative engineering and tasteful styling in the U.S. auto industry.”
The origin of the Toronado was with Old’s 1958 Advanced Design Group project dubbed XP-784. The group was basically given a blank check in terms of investigating ideas to build a better car. Numerous concepts were explored including front-engine/rear-transmission designs; even engineering prototypes of such were tested. However, within a couple of years, the FWD arrangement had emerged as the most inviting. Even so, the FWD arrangement was seen as being packaged within a car the size of Oldsmobile’s F-85 with a look very similar to that of the first Corvair. In fact, a prototype was built from production Corvair parts, but with an aluminum 215 V6 mounted crosswise using two chains with one connecting the engine and transmission and the other the transmission and differential. Testing revealed good points (like excellent directional stability and handling) as well as bad ones. Solutions for the various problems encountered (such as shudder, chain noise, etc.) were carefully evaluated and rejected. As progress continued, it became clear another setup would be desirable. Fortunately, the Olds engineers were fully capable of solving the problems encountered.
Concurrent with the engineering side of the program, a marketing survey revealed the F-85/Corvair like automobile was not the best way to go. Instead, the study showed that buyers in the personal luxury and sports car classes were much more likely to accept something different; the FWD car would certainly qualify as different since there had not been one built in the U.S. since the late thirties. Thus, a full-size car with a big V8 became the preferred vehicle to showcase the front wheel drive technology.
As the design gelled further, the problems with the technical side were being liquidated one-by-one. Torsion bars replaced the coil springs in front; these allowed for a lower silhouette. Mounting the engine in the conventional manner made the design of the cooling system easier and freed up much needed space under the hood. New solutions led to new problems, though. For instance, the oil pan had to allow the right driveshaft to pass under the center main bearing cap, but the first design was shown to provide a possible source of oil leakage. A better design dealt with that potential, but it could trap oil in the front of the pan under some circumstances leading to oil starvation for the hydraulic valve lifters. A baffle and trough system finally remedied the situation. Eventually, chain noise, reliability, cooling, oiling, handling, damping, space limitations, etc. were dealt with successfully and the Olds Toronado adapted the General Motors developed Turbo Hydra-Matic. By separating the planetary gearbox section of the transmission from its torque converter drive unit, and swinging the gearbox 180 degrees so it lay next to the converter, the two could be reconnected by a drive chain in the transfer case. This arrangement along with the spiral-bevel gearset and all-spur gear differential drove the wheels through short shafts and constant velocity universal joints. Smoothness in the drive train came via the use of chain and sprocket components manufactured by Morse Chain Company in conjunction with Oldsmobile. The high velocity chain consisted of 124 links across its overall 46.5 foot length. The sprockets had bonded- in rubber cushioning devices to enhance drive line smoothness.
Before this system was developed, many experts for various reasons said, “It couldn’t be done.” Just in case the naysayers were proven right, GM had a parallel program in the works as a backup. The naysayers were not just thinking negatively; they had known the Cord FWD setup was not entirely ideal. (For example, it suffered from considerable wheel wobble and feedback that could be felt throughout the steering system.) However, the benefits of FWD were just too good to ignore – flat floor and full-depth cushions in both front and rear seat, large trunk space potential with the elimination of the differential hump, compact drivetrain that not only saved space but reduced vibrations and eliminated the deflections characteristic of long drivelines, improved directional stability especially in a crosswind, better handling and cornering, plus a chassis layout suited to the styling trend of the time (long hood/short deck).
The program that began in 1958 was about ready to go into production six years later. A Toronado demonstrator was ready for engineering evaluation and managerial inspection in early 1964. Everyone was impressed with the car that appeared at the proving grounds; the decision to market a production version did not take long. The project was then shifted away from the Advanced Design Group and handed over to the regular engineering team who solved the problems of interchangeability, production costs, etc.
Once the new Toronado made it into public view, it created quite a stir. The first few paragraphs of the Motor Trend report were devoted to people’s reactions to seeing the car for the first time. Car Life reported that during their testing, “... everyone encountered expressed an opinion – positive or negative – or asked a question.” Car Life’s report had many very positive comments, but their evaluation noted just a few dislikes. The most notable was in regard to braking which is not too shocking since cars of this era were often noted for less than adequate braking. For the Toronado which weighed roughly 5,400 pounds fully loaded, the test car’s total swept braking area of 328.2 square inches “... demonstrated alarmingly unacceptable fade characteristics ...” Those with the magazine who gave their opinion of the Toronado also had a rather unusual complaint – the name itself; Car Life’s writer said it seemed to be a name “designed by a committee.” Regardless of the latter viewpoint or the braking inadequacy, the Toronado itself brought many customers to a stop at Oldsmobile dealerships across the country. Nearly 41,000 of the 1966 Toronados in standard and deluxe form were sold with most buyers opting for the deluxe version by a margin of nearly 5.5 to 1.
Although the new Toro was a hit, the FWD system was found to still had a few bugs that needed to be removed. The teenage kids of GM managers were the ones who found what the engineers did not. You might say they tested the FWD system more thoroughly than the engineers – on Woodward Avenue. Early examples of the model were often drag-raced along that famous stretch of pavement. At the stop light, these street racers would hold the brake while revving the engine up and then let it go! This action fatigued the universal joints and led to failure of the parts. Evidently, those testing the car at GM’s test tracks did not drive the car often enough in a similar manner. Action at GM to correct the problem was immediate. Managers at Cadillac had decided to wait for the ‘67 model year to release a nearly identical FWD Turbo-Hydramatic for their new Eldorado; thus the appropriate upgrades could be incorporated from the start.
The featured 1966 Toronado needed some upgrades when its owner, Tom Bilse, bought it shortly after a move to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1981. Within a few months after moving, Tom spotted the Toronado at a neighboring apartment complex. As he explained, “It caught my eye because it was a Toronado and because it was autumn bronze, a color that I had not personally seen Torondao's painted before. Thoughts of owning the car ‘danced in my head’, but coming from a frugal background I continually fought the desire. Eventually desire won and I placed a note under one of the car's windshield wipers. Rain fell that night, though; I took that to be an omen to not pursue the endeavor.” Tom pursued it anyway. He placed a note inside a plastic bag next time and the owner later responded by saying he had not considered selling the car, but would think about it. The owner told Tom he had been an Oldsmobile salesman and had sold the Toro to its first owner and later bought it back from him. Soon after that conversation, he called Tom again and agreed to sell the car for $1,800. Interestingly, years after Tom purchased the car, he found his original rain-spotted note in the glove compartment.
Tom soon discovered he was “totally naive about auto restoration ...there was much to do with this car. The interior (also bronze) was in great shape, but the right rear quarter panel consisted more of bondo than metal. The top undersides of the fenders were rusty, also. Someone installed a black vinyl roof on the car, an option which was not available until the '67 model. I took the car to a man who did restorations out of his garage, but was someone highly praised for his work.” When the restoration was complete, the Toronado had had its fenders, right door and quarter panel, floor pans, and trunk floor replaced. A repaint in its original color and some detailing completed the project. The Toronado now looks and drives as its designers intended – like a symbol of imaginative engineering and tasteful styling.
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
Base Price: $4,779
Engine: 425cid V8
Bore and Stroke: 4.126x 3.975 inches
Carburetion: Rochester Quadra-Jet
Wheelbase: 119 inches
0-30mph: 3.4 seconds
0-45mph: 5.9 seconds
0-60mph: 9.5 seconds
40-60mph: 5.1 seconds
50-70mph: 5.6 seconds
Standing 1/4 mile: firstname.lastname@example.org seconds
30-0mph: 29.5 feet
60-0mph: 167 feet
*Source: “Motor Trend”, December 1965 (Car of the Year issue) road test report on 4,800lb. test vehicle