Journal: The Oldsmobile Toronado's Design is Striking, Dishonest

The Oldsmobile Toronado’s Design is Striking, Dishonest

By Yoav Gilad
January 9, 2014
13 comments

Oldsmobile was killed a few years ago as its relevancy (and more importantly, revenue) shrank. However, there was a time when Oldsmobile was not only relevant, but also innovative and fresh. For instance, the world’s first turbo-charged production passenger car was the 1962 Oldsmobile Turbo Jetfire. Oldsmobile was also the first American OEM to build a front wheel-drive car since the 1930s, the Toronado in 1966.

Amusingly however, the Toronado was never intended for production. In fact, it wasn’t even intended to be a show car. No, the Toronado began life as a design painting by Oldsmobile designer David North in 1962 and was intended as a small, personal luxury sports proposal (think of crosstown rival Ford’s Thunderbird). Aside from possessing a strong theme, it was blessed with serendipitous timing. A few weeks after North completed it, Oldsmobile was informed that they’d be permitted to manufacture their own personal luxury coupe along the lines of the Buick Riviera and his painting was immediately chosen for development.

Against North’s, and GM head of design Bill Mitchell’s, wishes the Toronado would be based on the Buick’s larger platform, due to budgetary constraints. You see, while North had penned the car to share the F-85 (intermediate) platform, Oldsmobile had been experimenting with and spending heavily on front wheel-drive architecture. The time (already over four years) and cost invested dictated that it premier on a large, expensive car.

Basing the Toronado on the larger platform was a blessing in disguise when it came to the design, though. Since this was GM’s first front wheel-drive powertrain and they were apparently unable or unwilling to use a transverse mounted engine, Oldsmobile was forced to place the automatic transmission sort of beside and below the engine (the right drive shaft passes through the oil pan) dictating a rather tall hoodline. But let’s talk about the Toro’s proportions first.

Viewed in profile, there are absolutely no visual cues that communicate that this is a front wheel-drive car. Thus some might criticize the honesty or purity of Oldsmobile’s design; however, in context, one must realize that this car represented a radical departure in engineering for the company. And while you can fault Oldsmobile for not styling this car as dramatically as befits the first new drivetrain variant in their history, you cannot criticize the Toronado’s proportions for pretending to look like a rear wheel-driver.

Everything in GM’s lineup looked like it had rear wheel drive because (with this one exception) it did. Its A-pillars begin well aft of the front wheels and the doors are much closer to the rear wheels than the front. By placing the main visual mass of the car as close to the rear wheels as possible, the car achieves a typical GT’s strong cab-rearward emphasis with a very long hood and short deck.

As noted earlier, the tall hood was a necessity due to the transmission’s placement in relation to the engine. But visually, the Oldsmobile design team’s successful finessing transformed the fender’s height into an asset rather than a liability. The wheel arches used to break up the surface became half of the first-generation Toronado’s styling theme (the other half being the hoodline/windshield/descending roofline).

Interestingly, while the majority of the Toro’s surfacing is completely in line with Bill Mitchell’s ‘knife-edge’ styling direction, the fender arches used to hide the fender’s height are significantly more organic than anything else GM designed for 1966. While the arches were squared off in 1970, they lasted those four years despite being at odds with Mitchell’s directives because they were so central to the car’s theme.

In side-view, the first generation Oldsmobile Toronado’s jewelry is limited to the car’s name in script fore of the front tires (perhaps this was GM’s concession to front wheel-drive in order to stretch the front overhang), large chromed bumpers, side markers on the Deluxe model, well-detailed wheels (based on Cord’s design from the 1930s) and the chrome trim surrounding the windows. The sparse detailing in profile (with many of the heavier accents staying low to the ground) is intended to give the car visual speed, keep the viewers eye moving from front-to-back.

The front and rear views however include much more decoration, still relatively low on the body, to communicate the luxury and performance of the car: a broad, shiny grill speaks to the large amounts of air needed by the 7.0 liter, 385 hp engine. Dual chromed exhausts poking out underneath the bumper and louvers below the backlight speak to the also-considerable airflow exiting the car.

And finally, those big, round wheel arches once again emphasize the power that this Oldsmobile produces. Yes, it is powerful, futuristic and has presence. The form language even recalls the ascending space program. But a design painting with a strong theme that was never intended as a front wheel-drive, luxo-cruiser was suddenly headed for production as such. That is the Toronado’s problem. Sadly, the icon of the rebirth of American front wheel-drive is a fraud.

Most people, including myself would argue that the Toronado is an unequivocally beautiful, striking car. It is. Unfortunately, design does not occur in a vacuum. And while Oldsmobile was reviving front wheel-drive in the US, they were still very much stuck in their old ways. The Toronado makes me feel conflicted as a designer: as speed-form sculpture it is a staggering success, but as industrial design it is an impure, dishonest failure that doesn’t speak to the bones beneath the skin or honor its engineering.

Image Sources: oldcaradvertising.com, oldcarbrochures.com, oldcarbrochures.com

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Dean AmrheinDaniel GuerraGiuseppe FilipponeJeff LeonChristopher Gay Recent comment authors
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Daniel Guerra
Daniel Guerra

The engineering in this car is amazing for the time it came out. I am the proud owner of a 1966 model and I believe the car is understated. Then again that is what drew me to the car, the fact that not a whole lot of people knew about it. It is something different and certainly a head turner when I drive it around, but I love it and although it is a pain to find parts for I wouldn’t sell it. I know I’ll never get my money back on what I poured into it restoring it but… Read more »

Giuseppe Filippone

I cant say I feel so strongly about the dishonesty of the car. I feel that, if the engineering talent of the day was clever enough to come up with a way to keep the engine longitudinal and get the driveshafts through the oil pan on the car and still have it be reliable enough to make production with that kind of horsepower, then they earned the right to proportion the vehicle according to their whim, whether or not that meant paying homage to rear drive-esque proportions or not. Frankly, in most instances, I do not believe front drive proportions… Read more »

Jeff Leon
Jeff Leon

What a great write up! Loved your detail analysis on the background of this design.

The stance is the biggest failure. The nose is shooting for the sky. A little rake goes a long way.

I’m looking forward to more of these articles.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

The Toronado was one of many, many vehicles my father owned over the years. Although I do remember riding around in the vehicle, my main memory was when it overheated on the 5 south on a summer day somewhere in central California. He must’ve cobbled something together to get us by, and we collected some irrigation runoff from a nearby orchard to top it off. I remember the car had a nice ride and it seemed roomy. This was in the late ’70s. *Side note: a cooler memory of a different car was when the clutch went out in the… Read more »

Doug Staab
Doug Staab

…forgot to ask: Do you know if the attached is the image of the painting by David North? When I click view page for that photo, a podcast comes to the page from Deans Garage so I can’t get any info from that search.

Doug Staab
Doug Staab

The car pulled hard with that torque & front drive. It was fun to drive especially in snow.

The brakes on the 66 & maybe 67 were often criticized.

Good point about the hood height

pjrebordao
pjrebordao

I love the Toronado styling, but I wonder how it was to drive with 385hp going to the front wheels only… in 66’…
Can anyone offer some hands-on experience ?

Dean Amrhein
Dean Amrhein

My dad had a gold 1966 Toronado. By the time I was old enough to drive he had traded it on a maroon 1969 model. That was the car I drove when learning how to drive. It was awesome, powerful, and a fantastic snow car. It had a 455 with incredible torque and everybody but me had problems with the wheel getting yanked out of their hand and the car turning right when they stepped on the gas hard. Since it was the only car I had ever driven I didn’t know any better and just assumed that was normal… Read more »

Jonathanwcmills
Jonathanwcmills

I am a fan of the styling, if not the drivetrain, of this classic car. It’s understated looks have held up remarkably well, and as a writer I can’t help but remember Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Half’ and character George Stark’s black Toronado with the classic bumper sticker “High Toned Son of A Bitch”. When I read that book I immediately had to figure out what kind of car a Toronado was…and wasn’t disappointed.

Nice article Yoav.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox

Styling, unfortunately, is subjective. I’ve always maintained that cars which kids point to are generally captivating, if not more pure (because kids don’t understand monetary or social value; they just see form). While I was probably biased more than my peers at appreciating art, I found this car immediately ugly and, I admit, a bit of a lazy exercise in styling. I would have been pre-double digits when I saw my first one. The car looked enough like all the current cars not to be radical like the Corvette, but it also wasn’t quite right. To me, it looked like… Read more »

David Wiles
David Wiles

I was around when this thing came out and loved it then. I’m a little surprised at how well the design has held up.
It feels like a classic.

Brett Evans
Brett Evans

The designers did their job well; I’ve never noticed how large those fenders are nor how high the hood really is.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle

I for one have always been a big fan of the Oldsmobile Toronado from its industrial styling to the innovative drivetrain it had under the body.. the car always seemed like a wonder to me and so different from any other american car company at the time. Oldsmobile may not have been the first to do but it was the first to do it in big way with such a powerful model. Besides the Mini at the time there was very few cars with front wheel drive especially american cars. The other cool thing about the car like the article… Read more »