If I could describe what I see in this picture in just a few words, it would be “generic-looking Eighties coupe”. And the sad truth is that’s just how someone would’ve likely described this 1988 Oldsmobile Toronado Troféo when new, with the possible omittance of “Eighties”.
Once among the most instantly recognizable cars in the world, the Oldsmobile Toronado became more conventional in design with each successive generation and restyling. By its third generation and first massive downsizing in 1979, the Toronado had evolved from a radically-styled, show-car-like design to a decidedly more conservative, Brougham-y design.
The 1980s saw the coupe market begin its decline, but the release of the 1986 GM E-bodies is often cited as the most pivotal nail in the coffin, at least as far as personal luxury coupes are concerned. Received poorly by consumers, sales took a sharp decline and never recovered, with Olds’ Toronado garnering the lowest sales of all.
The Eldorado and Riviera, despite losing a lot, and I mean a lot of buyers, still had some appeal when it came to their most loyal customers from before. The Eldorado, after all, was still a Cadillac and still the ultimate expression (at least in name) of personal luxury in an American automobile. There would always be those people who’d continue buying Eldorados no matter how visually unassuming they were, for the mere fact that they were “Cadillac Eldorados”.
Likewise, the Buick Riviera had its own core demographic of buyers (many whom I feel were little old ladies, and not young thirty-somethings who wore velour jogging suits) who wanted 90% of the Eldorado’s luxury amenities without the stigma and price premium of the Cadillac wreath and crest.
But just who were the Toronado’s buyers by this point? Traditionally, the Toronado had been a vehicle to showcase some of GM’s latest technology, such as the first post-WWII application of front-wheel drive in a mass-produced American car, Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor, secondary high-mounted stoplights, and a three-sided bent-glass rear window.
Yet by its third generation, the Toronado offered little in the way of uniqueness. Now sharing its platform with both the Eldorado and Riviera (the latter now also front-wheel drive), the trio shared the exact same wheelbase, basic body shape, and the same engines with minimal exceptions. Although each retained exclusive sheetmetal, they still looked an awful lot alike, and offered similar levels of luxury.
The Eldorado would always carry the extra snob appeal of the Cadillac name, placing it in a different league by default. As for the Toronado and Riviera, however, why someone would purchase one over the other largely lay in brand loyalty, preference of styling, or dealer incentives, as the two were essentially the same car wearing a different overcoat.
Which brings us to the fourth generation Toronado introduced in 1986. Losing over a foot in length and six inches in wheelbase, the Toronado suffered from the all-too-infectious “me too” mid-1980s GM corporate styling, that spanned from the cheapest Chevrolets to the most expensive Cadillacs, and nearly everywhere in between.
To give credit where due, Oldsmobile did restore some of the Toronado’s “high-tech” vibe, with blacked-out concealed headlights, aerodynamic ground effects, smoked full-width taillight lenses, the Troféo’s available thickly bolstered Strato buckets and “basket handle” gear shift selector, and a very driver-focused interior with that beginning in 1989 featured an available touchscreen Visual Information Center (VIC) with controls for radio and climate as well as various graphics.
On the outside, the Toronado eschewed its siblings more tradition styling touches such as chrome grilles, vinyl roofs, stand-up hood ornaments and thick chrome bodyside trim. In their place, Oldsmobile’s E-body coupe featured a flush black grille and concealed headlights for a full-width effect, and mostly black or body colored trim in the place of chrome. Toronado Troféos furthered this with no chrome sans the bumpers and monochromatic exterior paint, for an even more aggressive look.
Which brings me back to my question: just who did the Toronado appeal to by this point? Despite efforts made to bring the car up to speed and into the present with its techy image, so long as it shared its underpinnings with the current Eldorado and Riviera, the Toronado was never going to appeal to the ever important upwardly mobile younger buyer.
And before you cry out heresy for Oldsmobile’s the decision to not sell the Toronado with miles of chrome, vinyl roofs, opera windows, wood trim and loose-pillow seats, just take a look at its siblings. Traditionally selling in higher numbers, its not like they fared much better with the 1986 redesign, and they stuck to their same basic styling principles as before.
If I were to describe the typical 1980s Toronado buyer in my eyes, it would be a somewhat well-off male from a blue-collar background in his 50s or 60s. Right around retirement age, with kids grown and moved out, the Toronado was a car bought to enjoy, and something to show for years of hard work. With enough trunk room for two sets of golf clubs, the Toronado was a car with enough prestige to fit right in at the country club, yet not so much that its owners would receive dirty looks for using to make trips to the hardware store or haul bags of garbage to the landfill.
Even among the demographic that would’ve been most inclined to purchase a Toronado, the 1986-1989 car’s styling most certainly turned many of these buyers off. Although it was always the E-body with the least snob appeal, the Toronado was still a luxury car purchased to display one’s comfortable surroundings. But with the 1986 redesign, Oldsmobile’s most expensive model looked an awful lot like its compact Cutlass Calais which cost half as much — something even the mildest image-conscious buyer could be turned off by.
V8 power, a hallmark of past Toronados, and standard every year except between 1981-1984, was gone for good with the 1986 Toronado, replaced by a 3.8L Buick V6. At 140, horsepower was identical to 1985’s standard 5.0L V8, though at 200, torque was 40 lb-ft less in the V6. That being said, acceleration was quicker, with a 1.5-second drop in zero-to-sixty time, at 11.6 for the 1986 Toronado. 1988 saw the addition of a more powerful 3.8L V6 to both lines, upping horsepower and torque by 25 and 15, respectively.
The new generation’s improved performance was thanks to a 550-pound drop in base curb weight, resulting in a more favorable weight-to-power ratio of 23.6 lbs/hp versus 27.3 lbs/hp. Now of course, the fact that the 1986 Toronado offered substantially better fuel economy (19 city/30 highway/23 combined versus 17 city/22 highway/19 combined) was a far greater selling point, or at least it would of been had gas prices not at historic lows.
In many ways, the 1986 Toronado was actually a smartly-designed car. Objectively speaking, it offered better performance, increased fuel economy, and greater space efficiency than its predecessor. On a subjective note, it offered contemporary, understated styling, that walked the fine line of looking good either in European-like Troféo trim or with several of its available Brougham-like, albeit very toned-down and thus tasteful Brougham-like styling elements.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of prospective buyers did not want a Toronado that was “toned-down”, and those looking for a personal luxury coupe with understated styling, added performance and a enhanced technology were likely to be shopping in the showrooms of German brands or of Honda’s newly-introduced Acura brand, not Oldsmobile.
In practice, the 1986 redesign of the Toronado managed to alienate both its traditional clientele as well as any conquest buyers Oldsmobile was trying to go after. A few thoughtful improvements were made over the course of the car’s fourth, and ultimately, final generation. In an effort to appeal to import buyers even more, Oldsmobile added the aforementioned Troféo trim in 1987.
With FE3 touring suspension, thickly bolstered leather buckets, and monochromatic appearance, relative to overall Toronado sales, the Troféo was a hit, accounting for over 80% of total Toronado sales by 1992. Somewhat predictably, by 1989 the Troféo became its own sub-model, lacking the Toronado prefix and badging altogether in an attempt to further distance itself from whatever muddled connotation “Toronado” had at this point.
The most dramatic change came in 1990, where in a last-ditch effort, Oldsmobile literally tacked on nearly a foot of body to the car’s rear. Along with almost entirely new sheetmetal, this final update did give the car a decidedly more substantial appearance, as well as a more attractive rear end. Unfortunately, in this case size did not matter and it did little to reverse declining sales.
Production did jump up by about 50% for 1990, to a figure of 15,022, but this was negligible compared to the 42,185 final-year third generation Toronados sold for the 1985 model year, and sales sunk back to 8,053 Toronados for model-year 1991 and 6,436 Toronados for model-year 1992.
After three years in elongated form, Oldsmobile pulled the plug for good on the Toronado (and Troféo), ending the 26-year run of Oldsmobile’s flagship personal luxury coupe. By this point, Oldsmobile sales were at their lowest point since 1961, five years before the Toronado was introduced, and the brand was facing a severe identity crisis.
The Toronado’s siblings each received final full redesigns, the Eldorado for 1992 and the Riviera for 1995, in an attempt to win back buyers who found the 1986-vintage cars totally unworthy. Oldsmobile took the decidedly smarter route, and poured its resources into the 1995 4-door Aurora sports sedan instead, as coupes were no longer the preferred choice among the “personal luxury” demographic — the sports sedan had confidently taken over.
In short, the fourth and final generation Oldsmobile Toronado was a failure. Posting its best sales of just 16,494 units in 1988, total sales of this generation amounted to only 86,846 — a disappointing figure considering the Toronado sold 90,285 units of 1984 and 1985 models, the final two years of the third generation which dated back to 1979.
Although many may hastily point the finger at GM alone, the fact often overlooked is that all coupe sales were declining across the board. The highly disappointing 1986 redesign of the E-body contributed to this, but nearly every automaker was facing weakening coupe sales as a percentage of overall sales the 1980s progressed into the 1990s.
I attribute 80% of the final Toronado’s failure to GM’s downsizing and lookalike styling, and the other 20% to changing consumer tastes.