The Oldsmobile Toronado’s Design is Striking, Dishonest
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.