Curbside Classic: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado – Personal Luxury, Oldsmobile Style

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It has been a tough winter in Indianapolis.  We are very near to a seasonal snowfall record and have had some extreme cold to go with it.  From the perspective of a car stalker, these are the doldrums.  Sure, there are plenty of old beaters plying the streets, but a guy can only get so excited about another old Taurus or Lumina (or yet another GM B-body.)  But for all the interesting old iron, snow brings salt, and salt brings rust; so, anyone who cares about old wheels will leave them parked until spring rains wash all that salt off the streets.  But very rarely, and only if you have been a very good boy or girl, you will see something like this.

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It has been a long time since I chased a car in the hope of getting some pictures, but I chased this one.  Maybe it was because it was the first really interesting car I had seen in months, crossing in front of me as I sat at a red light on my way to the office.  Maybe it was because I have not seen an early Toro in the wild since, well, who knows? Or maybe because I was suddenly seven years old again and had just seen the coolest car of my entire life.  Whatever the reason, I saw it turn off of a busy highway, and when my light turned green I headed off to intercept it.  It took me a few minutes, but I finally bagged it. Here it is.

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Paul Niedermeyer wrote up a ’66 Toro (here), and his take was that it was one of GM’s first deadly sins.  I re-read his piece, and there is not a lot there to argue with if you are going to approach this car in a logical and dispassionate sort of way.  While I often agree with his perspective, this is one instance where I must differ and offer an opposing viewpoint.  Who says the Fairness Doctrine is dead?

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My love for this car starts with the fact that I grew up in an extended family that was awash in Oldsmobiles.  Back in the good old days of GM’s brand hierarchy, you could see how your place in the world sort of corresponded to one of GM’s car Divisions.  There were Chevy people (young folks or working people), and there were Cadillac people (wealthy retirees or hotshot executives with an image to project).  We were Oldsmobile people, and by that, I mean the middle of the middle.  Whether the conservative Indiana and Ohio Lutherans or at least some of the Philadelphia-area Catholics, we were mostly regular people who tried not to be too big for our britches (my father’s tendencies towards Lincolns notwithstanding).

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Our Oldsmobiles were mostly Cutlasses, with some 88s thrown in for variety.  None of the fancy-schmancy Ninety Eights for us, thanks.  The problem with this kind of consistency is that for a kid, it gets mighty boring.  My Uncle Bob’s 1961 Super 88 bubble top was the only really interesting one in the bunch.  Our ’64 Cutlass hardtop with the bucket seats and console wasn’t bad, but when you ride in it every day, even an interesting car can become blah for a kid with an insatiable appetite for new automotive experiences.

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When I first saw the Toronado, I knew that it was an Oldsmobile, yet unlike any other Oldsmobile I had ever seen.  Little did I know then that I had a lot of company.  Paul has ably covered all of the unique and ambitious engineering that went into the Toro, so there is no need to repeat it here.  All I knew was that this car was exotic.  I mean, a flat floor — who else has that?  For a kid who had spent quite a number of rides in the middle of someone’s front seat, this was no small thing.

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And that dashboard–I’m not sure I really appreciated it at the time.  The first two-thirds of the 1960s brought us some pretty fabulous instrument panels, and this is one of them.  Pardon me while I stare at it for a while longer. . . . .

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But the biggest draw about this car was its shape–its bold, hulking, powerful shape.  To my seven-year-old eyes, it was the shape of a football lineman lunging forward after the center has snapped the ball.  From my adult perspective, it is a groundbreaking look among U.S. cars.  The fastback was the height of style in 1966, at least for a short time.  Some cars did the look better than others, but I always thought that the Toro did the look as well as any of the larger cars that tried it.  Beyond the fastback, however, came the C-pillars that integrated into the rear fenders, sweeping out of them like flying buttresses.  This complete break from the “Thunderbird roof” (with roof pillars inset from the fenders, it looks as though the roof is a separate piece from the rest of the body) was groundbreaking, at least in the mass market.  This look would be picked up by the fuselage Chryslers by 1969, and with few exceptions, the style has remained the norm all these years later.  It is a shame that so many of these messed up the look with a vinyl roof.

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More importantly, though, were those big, bold, sexy open wheels.  Oldsmobile had re-introduced the full open wheel cutouts in the 1965 88, but it was the Toro that added the exaggerated fender flares that have been the bane of every body-and-fender man since.  Of course, I had no way of knowing at the age of seven that many lines on the Toro payed homage to the classic Cord 810 of 1936.  Its open fenders that were so suggestive of the pontoon fenders of the ’30s, and the bold, slotted wheels were two of the more obvious tips of the stylist’s hat, as were the Toro’s hidden headlights and grille texture.

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Those wheels are also a clue that Olds engineers knew there were issues with the car’s brakes.  One close look makes it clear that Job One was getting air flow around those (over-matched) finned drums.  After all, can you think of any other Detroit car of its era that did not even offer full wheel covers?  All early Toros got these little hubcaps on deeply inset and slotted wheels.  The only wheel option (on the base Toro) was the stainless trim rings that are absent from this car.  For seven-year-old me, these styled wheels were just one more thing that made the Toronado special.

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As a full-grown adult, I now know that a big fastback was never destined to have any staying power as a personal luxury car, especially one that eschewed the close Thunderbird-style cockpit, with its big console and sporty bucket seats.  And who needed front-wheel drive in a big luxury coupe?  Pretty much nobody, neither for its traction characteristics nor for the increased interior room created by its packaging advantages.  There may have been a few people swayed by the front drive, but in 1966 it really turned out to be more novelty than anything else, and certainly in a car like this one.  No matter how fabulous this car was to a seven-year-old, that demographic does not buy many cars.  And of course, nobody in our family ever bought one.

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I guess that Oldsmobile’s approach to personal luxury was understandable, though.  Everyone knows about GM Divisional General Managers like Ed Cole and John Delorean, but did you ever hear of Harold Metzel?  He was the Olds Chief Engineer behind the turbocharged F-85 Jetfire and the 1964 4-4-2.  He became Oldsmobile’s G.M. in 1964 upon the retirement of Ed Wolfram.  And when he retired, in 1969, from a forty-one year career at Olds, he had his own Chief Engineer, John Beltz, groomed and ready to take his place.  Oldsmobile, in those days, was an engineering-centric place, so it should come as no surprise that the Toronado failed to tickle some of the same brain receptors as its E-body Riviera and Eldorado siblings.  I guess we can think of the Toronado as a left-brain car in a right-brain market niche.  At least it was a beautiful left-brain car, which is probably what saved its bacon.

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There are some things I miss about the General Motors of the 1960s.  Although hindsight tells us that the rot that would eventually take the company down was beginning even then, you had to be in awe of a company that could afford to keep throwing dart after dart at the board, each one a new and different take on what a modern car should be.  From the Corvair, to the Y-body compacts, to the GTO, to this Toronado, GM was certainly not playing follow-the-leader.  Sadly, very few of its bold new ideas paid off in a significant way, and the adventurous GM of the 1960s would become the conservative GM of the ’70s, a trajectory that seemed to continue as time passed.

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When I was in sixth grade, my teacher owned one of these (in turquoise), along with a beige 1964 88.  The 88 was a total teacher car, but to my mind that Toro was still an exotic, in the same way a Flairbird or an Avanti was an exotic.  Soon after, I recall Special Interest Autos magazine doing a feature on their predictions for the most collectible cars of the 1960s, and this Toro was high on the not-very-predictive list.  However, the Toro never really became an ordinary used car, either.  There were many cars that were cheaper to buy and run as they aged, and these Toros sort of went quietly away, either into old guys’ garages or to junkyards.

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The owner of this very original example told me that he’d actually rescued it from a junkyard, and having put some of the mechanical parts of the car back into shape, was now looking into a more presentable paint job.  This is a base model (not a DeLuxe, which would have added interior rear door handles, among other things) but I didn’t really care.  The melody of 425 cubic inches of OldsMobility coming out of those twin exhausts put me into a swoon from which I am still recovering.  Rarely, one of these, in all of its husky athleticism, still comes out to play in the snow.  And we are all the richer for it.

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