Curbside Classic: 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado – Reading The Tea Leaves Near Stage Left

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A humble confession:  This car has been pestering me continually throughout ten vain attempts at some degree of literary (in)justice over the last fifteen months.  While this continual plea for adequate attention could be perceived as frustrating, it really hasn’t been – it has led to a mind-blowing epiphany.  Of sorts.

So what exactly is this spine-tingling, bladder control losing epiphany?  This grand realization is the Oldsmobile Toronado was one of the most malleable cars of its time, easily reflecting its period in history better than nearly anything else available.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s put our Turbo-Hydramatic in Drive and go for a spin.

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Introduced in 1966, the Toronado was front-wheel drive in an ocean of rear-drivers and visually quite unlike anything else being sold in the United States at the time.  It was quite the automotive sensation, despite some key components – primarily the brakes – not being fully sorted.

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Other items, such as the Unitized Power Package (UPP) would be highly durable in a number of applications, not only in subsequent Toronados, but also in less obvious applications, such as the GMC motorhome of the 1970s.

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The Toronado’s front-wheel drive was proving its adaptability – and malleability.

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Oldsmobile really banged the public relations drum to tell everyone about how different the Toronado was from anything else at the time.  It was certainly eye-catching and made for a novel entry in the personal luxury coupe market.

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In a way, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was like Nancy Sinatra.  Carrying a familiar name with known DNA, it was a similar type of eye-catching shape but with a distinctly different flavor.  Like the UPP, Nancy put her boots into a number of applications.

It’s also amazing how many topless pictures of her pop up in a Google search – she was no longer twenty-six when she was photographed, and what I saw is definitely a reflection of durability.  Sort of like our featured Toronado.

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But times were quickly changing; walking in your boots was woefully out of step in the new sandal-laden age of aquarius.  There had been a distinct change of guard in the White House, social upheavals were as frequent as the tides, and it was all fodder for lampooning on such shows as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.  What had been stylish and in vogue in 1966 was suddenly so four years ago.

By 1970, the Toronado had grown a bigger butt and had a face that resembled a person whose eyes were set too closely together.  By this time the Toronado was not exactly the most elegant conveyance ever produced by General Motors, but it worked reasonably well for the times if a person liked a vinyl veneer on their cellulite.  Sales were around 26,000, an amount which had been fairly consistent since the sophomore 1967 models.

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The Toronado for 1970, with its poor space utilization in a front-wheel drive package, offered no lack of mixed messages and visual turmoil.  Much like the times themselves, Oldsmobile was walking a bridge over troubled water.

Perhaps that bridge was crossed on a midnight train to Georgia.

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Then came the 1971 models, a car that remained virtually unchanged physically for 1972, and a redefining of what constitutes a Toronado.  Like the new GM B- and C-bodies that year, the E-body Toronado appeared to have succumbed to a bad case of what is called, in medical terms, Funkolicious Lardassification.

Yet surprisingly, weight was only up fifty to eighty pounds.  The Toronado still tipped the scales at a delightfully porkulent 4,500 pounds – enough to make the Olds 455 cubic inch (7.4 liter) V8 standard equipment since 1968.  Of course, Olds was also looking for some degree of prestige, so a big engine helped mold and shape that perception.

In a move that once again kept its finger on the pulse of society, Oldsmobile encapsulated all that is 1972 (and 1971) into a Toronado that comprehensively reflected its times.

This early second generation Toronado almost comes with its own soundtrack.  And, no, that Outta Space title is not a reference to someone trying to park one of these.  Despite any nay-saying these aren’t liking trying to maneuver a self-propelled football field or Mega-Mart; at 220″, the Toronado is only a foot longer than an A-body of the same year.

Should you doubt what I submit as an unmitigated reflection of the times by the Toronado, let’s consider another iteration of the second generation before I delve any further…

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While distinctly different in appearance, and again reinforcing my thesis on the malleability of the Toronado, how many are able to look at the 1977 Toronado and not hear this?  Or even this?

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T-tops, wide whites, and a red gut do rather resemble the open shirt, gold chains, and polyester that defined the disco era.

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In finding this particular Toronado, I could not remember a time in which I’ve ever seen another example from either 1971 or 1972.  I’ve seen a few 1973 models, but those were also the zenith of all-time Toronado sales at 55,000.  The 1972 model was knocking on that door with 49,000 finding homes.

One trait of this Toronado, likely a simple styling gimmick, was a definite glimpse into the future.  See the rectangle beneath the left side of the rear window?  It had a twin on the right side, and served as a third (and fourth) brake light.  The blinkers were also wired into these lights, trumping the brake light on that particular side if attempting to make a turn.

While used to some degree during the 1940s, such a light – in a singular fashion and without signaling ability – would be federally mandated on automobiles sold in the United States starting with model year 1986.  A taste of the future – and aren’t most cars now front-wheel drive?

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The early 1970s were confusing times (or so I hear as I don’t remember much before 1976) and even those in the higher echelons of GM seemingly weren’t immune, despite so many of them appearing to inhabit a glass bubble of sorts.

For me, the confusion of the 1970 Toronado evolved into different forms of confusion for 1971 (and 1972) with its epicenter being the demeanor of its air-inlet containing Pontiac-esque schnoz.

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See what I’m saying about that front end?  The front of this Toronado seems to have almost as much Pontiac DNA as a Bonneville with a vinyl toupee.

One of the many prior versions of this article postulated this front-end was the product of internal espionage carried out by a cherubic faced intern being cajoled with alcohol and hash brownies by naughty Pontiac design executives.  However, I determined that to be too heavy handed as the front end wasn’t the only design element the Toronado cribbed from another GM division.

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The profile of the 1972 Toronado, primarily the greenhouse, was a duplicate of that used in the prior generation Cadillac Eldorado.

If it worked for Cadillac, it could work well at Oldsmobile.  You can’t blame GM for wanting to build upon their premium priced success from Cadillac.  It’s just good business.

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There would be a repeat performance of this approach in a few years when the roof line from the 1975 Cadillac Seville was grafted onto the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme sedan (and Buick Century and Pontiac Bonneville and Chevrolet Malibu).

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It wasn’t like sharing rooflines and trickle down styling was any newly created practice at GM.  Most reports indicate GM had experienced an admirable degree of success and market penetration while doing so during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

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It just took decades of repeat performances before anyone called foul.  The resulting ruckus did have substantial merit due to the recipients being so closely related.  Yet, in a smaller sense, it always seemed like much ado about nothing as this wasn’t exactly a new practice.

Variari cogitationes.

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Previously performing such skin grafts on the lower production Toronado was acknowledged but not criticized.  When these were introduced for 1971, the Toronado was seen as a great alternative to a used Eldorado as it combined the styling with a slighter lower price.

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Thinking about my original theory, it has become abundantly clear I need to amend it to reflect broader thinking.  I do so as there have been just enough instances of the Toronado not being only malleable but also being more than slightly clairvoyant.

The Toronado saw its best sales years during the 1970s; Oldsmobile would follow a similar trajectory, sometimes even being the third best-selling brand in the United States.

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These peak years at Oldsmobile were accompanied by a downsized 1979 Toronado, perhaps the best looking one after the original 1966 model.

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A tragic, and second, downsize in 1986 resulted in a two-thirds drop in sales down to a level of roughly half that of the 1967 to 1970 models, wounds from which the Toronado would never recover, with the nameplate being axed after 1992.

Oldsmobile, as we all likely know, continued its downward spiral of relevancy until it ingloriously bit the dust in 2004.

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Thus, I submit the Toronado was ultimately a predictor of sorts for Oldsmobile itself, a tea-leaf reading symbol of what was to come.  There aren’t a tremendous number of cars that can claim similar.

Based upon this theory, it appears the Toronado, while one of the best and most malleable automotive barometers of its time, also knew when and how to make a graceful exit.

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Found June 2015, Wichita, Kansas