Curbside Classic: 1977 Oldsmobile Toronado XS — Cruising California

I’ve driven from San Francisco to Bakersfield, from Los Angeles to San Diego, I’ve even done the Pacific Coast Highway. For years, I’ve dreamt of doing a Great American Road Trip, sketching routes in my free moments. And yet, if you told me I could only explore one state, I’d still pick California. There are so many places I’ve yet to see: Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Mount Tamalpais. Exquisite desert scenery, breathtaking coastlines, awe-inspiring national parks. Dreaming of traversing these wide open spaces makes me appreciate personal luxury coupes like this 1977 Oldsmobile Toronado XS even more. These cars were built for the American landscape, designed to lope along highways and devour miles.

I spotted the featured Toronado while Brandon and I passed through Palm Springs last fall. There’s something resolutely charming about that town, with its cacti and palm trees and wonderfully preserved mid-century modern architecture. The town became a haven in the 20th century for stars seeking some fresh desert air and has now become somewhat of a gay Mecca.

Sadly, we were only passing through on our way to San Diego and therefore didn’t get to explore too much. Well, we have to save something for that road trip…

I’m not sure I could live in Palm Springs. While a dry heat is always more palatable than a hot, humid climate, 108 degree days in the summer are not something I could deal with. And while the featured Toronado XS undoubtedly has air-conditioning, black is hardly an ideal paint color for this climate. I’d rather the Buckskin Metallic, or maybe the attractive Mandarin Orange. Perhaps a beige car in a desert town is too Pueblo-esque so a Light Blue Metallic would look best—a little contrast is nice.

Imagine spending a relaxing weekend in Palm Springs before returning to reality in Los Angeles or San Diego. Cruising along I-10 as you luxuriate in that industrial-strength GM air-conditioning and sink into the soft, loose-cushion seats. The rocky desert peaks and barren expanses gently blur past as you loaf along. Maybe Tom Petty’s “Running Down The Dream” is playing on the stereo, or “Gold” by John Stewart.

If you had purchased a Toronado XS instead of the cheaper Brougham, your rear-seat passengers would still have a surprising lack of rear seat room – especially considering the sheer size of the vehicle – but they would have greater visibility thanks to the wraparound, bent-glass rear window.

The aesthetic merits of the XS’ window treatment are, shall we say, dubious. This isn’t the beauty queen a ’77 Impala or Caprice coupe is, their bent-glass rear windows blending more elegantly with the crisp Sheer Look lines. But the Toronado design otherwise wore well during the 1970s, the peculiar ’71-72 façade making way for a more conventional look once the larger bumpers were added in 1973 and 1974. XS window aside, the Toronado had a rather clean and elegant visage, bereft of fussy detailing and with styling cues inspired by the stunning ’67-70 Cadillac Eldorado. While the ’71-78 Eldorado screamed new money, the Toronado gently suggested old money.

Those old money buyers were often loyal to the Toronado, with Popular Mechanics’ Owners Reports revealing many Toronado owners were repeat buyers and over a third purchased the Toronado because of its front-wheel-drive. That front-wheel-drive traction comes in handy if you’re going out to Tahoe for some skiing.

For ’77, one of the Toronado’s E-Body cousins – the Buick Riviera – was moved to the new, downsized B-Body platform. It was more efficient and manoeuvrable and yet, despite this fresh new internal competition – not to mention the enticing new C-Body Ninety-Eight in Oldsmobile’s own showrooms – Toronado sales actually shot up by around 10,000 units to just over 33,000 units for ’77. That was still down from the beginning of this generation but an impressive showing for a pricey, full-size coupe in a market flooded with cheaper personal luxury coupes.

The wind turbines you pass in Cabazon will remind you that your Toronado was hardly an eco-friendly choice, even if the ’77 did receive a smaller 403 cubic-inch V8—blame that 4600-pound curb weight.

You would be lucky to get 15 mpg on the highway so if you forget to fill up in Palm Springs, you’d better hope there’s a Chevron coming up soon—you don’t want to be stranded in the night, chilled by the frosty desert air and the howls of coyotes.

If you wanted to let some fresh air into the cabin, the XS came standard with a power sunroof. Well, Oldsmobile had to provide more than just a fancy rear window to justify a price tag a whopping $2500 higher than the regular Toronado Brougham. They had experimented with power t-tops and produced a prototype, badged XSR, but recurring technical glitches caused GM to shelve the project. Embarrassingly, this occurred after they had already printed brochures and advertisements.

Sure, t-tops would be delightful for a cruise on a sunny day but a sunroof is nice, too. It wasn’t quite enough for buyers at the time, though, with only 9% of Toronados sold during 1977-78 being the pricey XS model. Lest you think Toronado buyers were frugal, the base Brougham was still over $1k more than a top-line Ninety-Eight Regency coupe.

I love modern cars. I love the progress automakers have made in driveability, handling, fuel economy and safety. But even a stone-cold pragmatist such as myself can see the romance of cruising through the Mojave in a gigantic personal luxury aircraft carrier. There’s nothing built today that resembles the Toronado XS, so while you may find a splendid desert road trip experience can be had in a new full-size coupe like a Mercedes S-Class or a Dodge Challenger, it’s not the same as sitting in loose-cushion seats and staring down the long, long hood of a Toronado XS.

Yes, a 4600-pound front-wheel-drive coupe with a tight rear seat is rather daft, if you think about it, but it has a distinctive character of its own. Does it make sense to live in the middle of a hot desert, hundreds of miles from a major city? Not really, but over 40,000 Palm Springs residents do. You don’t always have to be sensible.

You’re not going to want to take one of these onto the winding roads of Pinyon Crest—that goes without saying. But one doesn’t take their sailing yacht through rapids, or attempt acrobatic manoeuvres in their private jet. The Toronado XS is a car for the American highway, so fill up the tank and let’s go for a drive.

Related Reading:

Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Oldsmobile Edition, Part I (includes Toronado XSR)

Curbside Capsule: 1977-78 Buick Riviera – The Placeholder

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