The decline and collapse of General Motors is a long sad story. The question of when exactly GM first started committing its many Deadly Sins is subject to debate, although I did make a stab at at it once. But it all boils down to hubris, the arrogance and over-confidence that so commonly afflicts those at the top. And was GM ever on top. In 1962, about the time the program leading to the Toronado was approved, GM’s US market share was over 50%. The Divisions all had their own Engineering Departments, with plenty of money to burn on all sorts of sexy fun projects that might have gotten their start over the water cooler: How about we build a gigantic seven-liter high-performance personal luxury coupe with front wheel drive? Brilliant! Just what the world was waiting for.
Understandably, GM’s Best and Brightest had been mentally fooling around with the idea of fwd for quite a while. It was kind of like kinky sex; highly attractive to think about, especially compared to engineering another plain vanilla sedan with a frame and a conventional drive train like all the others in the past fifty years. Who can blame them? Coming out of WW2, GM was boldly going to redefine modern motoring, and fwd seemed like it just ought to be part of it. Actually doing it, and for the right reasons, was another story. Like this La Salle II roadster, of 1955: it “had” fwd, just not functional. GM’s fwd mental masturbation was in high gear (neutral?), and in a roadster no less.
1955 was also the year Citroen’s fwd DS arrived. Compare the DS with the Le Salle above it. Which was the more forward-looking car? Oops, wrong subject; we were talking about sex. Oops again. Maybe it was something about the American idea of sex at the time.
Let’s give them a break. The Big Three’s Engineering and Design mavens deserved to let their inhibitions run loose a bit during this period. All too soon, they would be busy scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make engines run cleaner and more efficiently while still running at all, barely. The engineering challenges of the seventies were like the AIDS epidemic, and soon enough even plain vanilla engineering sex went the way of safe sex. But in those last years before the EPA and CAFE – branded condoms were handed out, The GM Engineers went on an orgy.
Every permutation of engine and transmission positions were tried out: rear-engined Corvair, rear-transaxle Tempest, mid engined Corvair and Corvette prototypes, electric engined Corvairs, and a very kinky fwd van concept, the L’Universelle, with a roof intake for the mid-mounted radiator. That’ll work well. And that’s just that’s the short list. Ironically, the one thing that wasn’t on the list, even the long one, was a fwd small car. As in, where fwd would have made the greatest difference in terms of space utilization, weight savings, and other benefits.
Admittedly, Olds did have a fwd program for the 1961 F-85. With a 112″ wheelbase, the F-85 was already closer to a mid-size car than compact, let alone a true small car. And the program got a late start, and didn’t get all that far. Probably a good thing, as there were enough issues with Olds’ aluminum V8 that resulted in it being ditched after three years. One less future Deadly Sin.
GM wasn’t playing the fwd game alone. Ford too was also indulging fwd fantasies, one of which was along the lines of the Toronado, turning the ’61 T-Bird into a front-driver. But Ford also put their forward-thrust energies into something eminently more suitable: the Ford Cardinal small car. Designed in the late fifties as a true VW competitor, it had perhaps the most compact engine ever built, a 60 degree V4, with a balance shaft to minimize vibrations, sitting just ahead of the front transaxle. This very forward-thinking approach might have been expected out of Lancia, or? But it was conceived and developed in Dearborn, and came within a cat’s whisker of being built.
When it became obvious that the highly vanilla 1960 Falcon could be built as cheaply as the Cardinal, Ford pulled out at the last minute, crated it up, and sent it to Germany, where it appeared in 1962 as the Ford Taunus 12M (above). Thanks to the space-saving advantages of fwd, the 12M was shockingly roomy for its class at the time, and was a much more substantial and better riding car than the tinny, bouncy and narrow Opel Kadett A. The Cologne V4 was eventually adopted by Saab, and spawned two more cylinders to become the basis for the engine that powered millions of Explorers, in its triumphant return to America. In an SUV. Who could have foreseen that?
Let’s forget about what could have been (a fwd Pinto with a very roomy body?) and get back to Dr. Oldsmobile. Having lost the competition that led to the 1963 Riviera, Olds was given the green light to join the party for the second generation of the E-Body for 1966. Designer Dave North’s rendering for a smaller specialty car, the “Flame Red Car” was chosen, but had to be scaled up to the E-Body size, as a larger volume was desired for that body. There’s no question it was a dramatic and bold statement, and a rather groundbreaking one, especially in the continuity of the rear quarter into the sweeping C-pillar and roof. I was very impressed at the time; this really hadn’t been done before.
The blade front fenders weren’t exactly original, owing a debt to the 1961 Continental. And the horizontal bars in the front grille undoubtedly were meant to invoke that last great attempt at an American car fwd, the Cord 810. It would be easy to say that the Toronado was essentially a modern take on the Cord, right down to the forward thrusting fenders, hidden headlights and even the shape of wheel’s brake-cooling cutouts. So let’s stick to the harder stuff.
Like the Toronado’s very long front hood. I don’t know the exact measurement in inches, but undoubtedly it was the biggest to date. A very manly car indeed. And it spawned a whole race for ever longer front ends. All thanks to the space-saving miracle of front wheel drive!
There’s no question that the Unitized Power Package (UPP) that the Olds engineers finally arrived at was successful in executing its intended mission. The brand new THM 400 three-speed transmission was split into two, and the “Hy-V0″ chain transmitted power from the back of the torque converter to the rest of the now-dubbed THM 425 transmission. Final drive was via two equal-length half shafts, the right one passing under the engine’s oil pan.
This meant that the 385 (gross) hp 425 cubic inch (7 liter) Olds V8 had to sit unnaturally high in the engine bay, necessitating a very low intake manifold and drop-down air cleaner, as the valve covers were only a very short distance below that massive hood. This undoubtedly didn’t help the center of gravity. Never mind that the Toronado carried over 60% of its weight on the front wheels. Welcome to the future! At least the UPP turned out to be a reliable unit. And found its true calling in a motorhome.
So let’s focus on the Toronado’s presumed advantages. Yes, traction in snow was improved. And Olds managed to make the handling of the Toronado quite decent, but given the standards of 1966, that wasn’t exactly Rocket science. Anyway, a comparable rwd Riviera GS was the better handling of the two. Turns out there is a reason why high-buck high- performance cars, especially sporty coupes are almost exclusively rear wheel drive.
And then there’s the most important Toronado advantage of all: a flat front floor! Yes, that was the critical advantage in a high-buck personal luxury coupe, because we all know that the drivers of these cars inevitably had two passengers in the front seat to share it with. That’s why they’re called “personal luxury coupes”. For what it’s worth, the Toronado was the best car ever to take to the drive-in, if you could get your hands on Dad’s. Which wasn’t too likely.
Sadly, benefits often come with a price to pay. And the Toronado extracted its. It weighed some two hundred pounds more than the otherwise similar but rwd Riviera. Oops. The bias-ply front rubber wore out quickly from all the combined forces placed on them. Never mind that Citroen fwd cars had riding on steel-belted Michelin radials since 1948.
But the biggest flaw was the Toronado’s braking ability, or the lack thereof. The fact that Olds sent the Toronado out in the world with drum brakes is almost mind-boggling. Given that it weighed almost two and a half tons, and with its intrinsic front-weight bias, the front drums were quickly overwhelmed, fins and all. But that’s only half the story; the rear drums locked up all-too easy, as GM made the same blunder it repeated with the fwd X cars: no brake proportioning valve.
Optional (!) front discs arrived in 1967. But there is simply no reason as to why the Toronado didn’t come standard with discs and a proportioning valve in 1966. By this time four wheel discs were becoming common in Europe. The lowly Fiat 124 sedan even had standard four wheel discs.
OK, it’s easy to criticize. What should Olds have done instead? How about the goal of perfect weight distribution and better ride and handling (other than freeways)? Take up what John DeLorean started with the 1961 Tempest, but use the THM 400 in a rear transaxle, and a proper independent rear suspension. Now that would have been forward looking, and still allow an essentially flat floor for those three-way front-seat hookups.
Or let’s kick it up a notch. In 1967, the tiny firm of Jensen introduced the Interceptor FF, with the world’s first full-time all-wheel drive system AND anti-block braking (with four wheel discs). Hello GM! It’s not 1955 anymore. Front wheel drive wasn’t exactly the latest and hottest thing, except for where it belonged, on small cars.
If the Toronado had beat the Jensen FF by one year with its list of leading-edge attributes, this could have been a GM Greatest Hits. Instead, the Toronado’s fwd as well as its styling quickly became passe, and within a few years, its owners probably didn’t even know which wheels to put the snow chains on. But fear not; all that effort wasn’t wasted, as the hundreds of million spent on the Toronado’s fwd technology was soon put to good use in that highly space-efficient and practical import killer, the fwd Vega. In our un-sexy dreams.
(author’s note: GM’s Deadly Sins are numbered by when they were written, not in order of their heinousness or when they were committed. Also, in case it isn’t clear, a Deadly Sins label doesn’t mean the resulting cars were necessarily bad. It may be as much or more a reflection of the decision making process that resulted in them being built)