The cars we loved.
Life was good for American car makers during the Seventies. Engines were big, gas was cheap and everything coming out of Detroit was being propelled by the rear wheels. Even as sales and profits were reaching record levels, a small few were planning for the future. A future of expensive gas, looming smog regulations and God forbid, the front wheels having to provide steering and power. Oldsmobile was one of those companies that was thinking about what could be and was not willing to rest on its laurels.
Oldsmobile had been flirting with the development of front wheel drive since the late 50’s and was waiting for the right time to bring the technology to market. The opportunity came in the form of a design, inspired by a random sketch penned by a GM stylist. The sketch eventually became the basis for Oldsmobile’s planned personal luxury flagship, a car intended to go head to head with Ford’s popular Thunderbird. This would be no ordinary car, as it would be large, powerful and be driven by the front wheels. Before the Tornado there had not been an American made car with front wheel drive since the Cord 810 of the 1930’s. In the 60’s a typical front wheel drive car in America was usually a dinky import with lawnmower grade engines compared to the big V8 of the period.
The yet un-named car went through seven years of extensive testing, not because it was a standard procedure, but to insure that all the new technology that would go into the big coupe would be reliable. A name was settled on after considerations included Magnum, Scirocco and Raven. Tornado was chosen probably because it was the name of a Chevrolet concept car from 1963 that had no chance of seeing production.
The Toronado would share its E body platform with the upcoming Cadillac Eldorado, but would look nothing like it. It was originally intended to be a smaller car, but cost efficiencies ruled out a whole new exclusive platform (that was more likely to be a Cadillac perk anyway). The Tornado was a striking design, probably more impressive due to the decision to go with a larger than originally planned design. Its long hood hid a powerful 7 litre V8 that produced 385 hp. Amazingly, so much power in a front wheel drive car produced surprisingly little torque steer. The press remarked that the Toronado performed much like any big American car of the time. As if to prove the value of front wheel drive, Oldsmobile featured the 68’ Tornado in ads going up Pikes Peak. Customers in cold weather climates already knew the value of the Tornado’s traction in snow as it was drivable while many rear wheel drive cars remained stranded in the harsh winter of 1968/69’.
Traction was assisted by a front weight bias that put force on wheels that in most cars was dead weight. Credit for the front wheel drive packaging of the transmission, steering and propulsion was due to the Unitized Power Package (UPP), Oldsmobile’s name for a compact engine/transmission module that could fit into the space normally allotted for a conventional front engine/rear drive setup. The “no replacement for displacement” motto was in full effect under the long bonnet. The 7.1 litre Super Rocket V8 in the Toronado had more power than those in a typical Ninety-Eight, due to a Quadrajet 4-barrel carburetor. Other innovations including the famous 3 speed Turbo-Hydromatic transmission would debut in the Tornado.
The massive 119in wheel base insured a smooth ride, but underneath the suspension would look much like any other big GM car, but with a twist. The front suspension used a torsion bar (GM’s first application in a car) while the rear used a simple beam axle with leaf springs. Brakes were initially drums all around until overheating problems prompted the addition of standard disc up front in 1967.
Specially designed Firestone tires were developed to handle the traction and weight demands placed on the Toronado that normal ployglass tires were not ready for. The weight alone of the car could approached 5,000 lbs, but did not hinder performance as the Toronado was capable of a 0 to 60 run in as little as 7.5 seconds. The breakthrough qualities of the Toronado did not go un-noticed by buyers or the media. The list of accolades began to grow as the Toronado was Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” in 1966. The big coupe even placed third in the running for “car of the Year” in Europe, where front wheel drive was more commonplace. Sales were very good. The sleek Tornado brought in the growing post-muscle car crowd, while driving traffic to other products.
The overall look of the Toronado changed little except for the front end which received a chrome frame around the grille. The pop up lights remained, but were now concealed in the grille after 1967 and eventually were exposed. The rear had its share of revision also, going from the a big chrome bumper below the tail lights, to a larger chromed lower half that encased slender lights. The look was not as elegant, but was slightly more performance oriented. The inside with its innovative draft free ventilation system stayed very much the same. The unique instrument arrangement framed by a stylized steering wheel was as distinctive as the car’s exterior.
Today, the first generation Tornado remains one of the most beloved Oldsmobiles in history – right up there with the 442s. And for good reason, as no one car has contributed so much to the modern car standard that we now take for granted from GM. The Toronado started GM’s infatuation with large powerful front wheel drive cars that has continued today.