Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era-Part 5

muscle to malaise part 9 cover

(first posted 5/2/2015)

The transition years, 1969-1974

It’s time for the first front-wheel-drive entrant in this Muscle Cars to Malaise Era series. As you can probably guess, we won’t be talking about Toyotas.

1968-1970 Oldsmobile Toronado

The first generation 1966 Toronado was a breakthrough design back when GM was fearless and had plenty of resources to get radical.

1966 olds toronado

While I fawned over the original Riviera, it was mechanically conventional beneath that pretty skin. The Toronado was born with front wheel drive because Oldsmobile needed a personal luxury car to compete with the Thunderbird, and there were some key proponents of FWD propulsion in the Rocket Division. Engineering Chief Andrew Watt had been experimenting with front drive since 1957. He passed his drive for front driven wheels on to John Beltz, then assistant chief engineer, who was promoted to Olds General Manager by 1969. Beltz was a big champion of the Toronado, even though it failed to achieve commercial success until much later in life. Sadly, Beltz died far too young at age 46 from cancer in May 1972. But his Toronado lived on for many more years. So why all this talk about the driven wheels, when we are supposed to be talking tumblehome and fixating on fastbacks? Because for all the effort that went into making the Toronado front wheel drive, it didn’t have the proportions we expect today in a modern transverse engined 4-cylinder Corolla. Instead, a 425-cubic inch V8 torque monster coupled with a Turbo-Hydramatic 425 (basically a TH400) to form the so-called Unitized Power Package. This required a sporting dash-to-axle ratio and the designers stuck on plenty of thrusting front overhang for good measure. There are many excellent technical treatises out there about this innovative powertrain, I won’t go into the details here.

However, in a 1970 Motor Trend interview, Beltz pointed out that the driven wheels were not emphasized in Oldsmobile marketing. According to Car And Driver, even the owners manual never mentioned which end of the car provided propulsion. Other than better wet weather traction, the similar Buick Riviera outperformed the Toronado in handling and braking. The Buick was lighter and less expensive to boot. To standardize the designs and drive down unit costs, both cars shared the windshield, A-pillar, door side glass, roof panel and backlight. When introduced in 1967, the mechanically similar but more expensive Eldorado, (by some $2000), outsold the Toronado. And since the Toronado did not look related to the rest of the Olds lineup, the halo effect was dubious. They could have learned a lesson from Ford, who drew obvious connections between the T-Bird and its more pedestrian siblings. Not the most subtle marketing strategy, but it was effective.

Ok, but what about the design already? The origins of the Toronado’s shape came from a design painting by stylist David North, known as the “Flame Red Car”. Is it a coincidence that some early marketing collateral (see above) featured a red Toronado with a similar red background?
red flame olds toronado2

If you want to learn the obscure yet important details about a particular car design, Google is your friend. Check out this behind the scenes story by Dick Ruzzin, who was a Jr. Creative Designer at Olds. According to Mr. Ruzzin, one Don Logerquist deserves the greatest design credit. He originated the theme that led to the red rendering and ultimately the actual car. You had the slatted grill up front, paying homage to the last American FWD car, the Cord 810. (Talk about an extravagant dash-to-axle ratio, but that’s for another discussion.) The popup headlights lent an aerodynamic tilt to the nose, similar to the Corvette.

The strongly flared wheel arches served two purposes – to emphasize the powerful V8 within and to visually relieve the tall front fender line, which was necessitated by that Unitized Power Package. The tops of those tall front fenders dropped down to form a jutting undercut that blended right into the front bumper and framed up the grill. On the side, your eye was drawn to the dramatic bodyside sculpting which seemed to encircle the lower quarter of the car, humping up over the giant, radiused wheel wells which were connected by a very strong character line that didn’t quit until it joined the neatly integrated rear bumper. The effect is at once powerful, clean, and exciting.

No discussion of Toronado design would be complete without mentioning the extreme tumblehome of the greenhouse and c-pillar that blended the roof into the trunk in a nearly unbroken line. This styling treatment really gave the big coupe a distinctive shape that I can’t recall seeing before or since. However, the personal luxury market was all agog for formal, vinyl encrusted rooflines, landau bars, and sequential turn signals. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Thunderbird.)

Sadly, you could sum up the original Toronado as an excellent answer to the question nobody had asked. It was a car guy’s car, a darling of the automotive press, and it though it gathered a lot of public attention, when it came time to crack out the checkbook, prospective customers couldn’t pull the trigger. Olds product planners were already retooling for the transition years.

Toronados were similar through 1970, and they don’t really split into different generations as I have delineated them here. But I feel like they changed enough for ’68, in response to the sales drubbing they were getting from the Thunderbird.

1968 olds toronado

So clearly the answer was give the public what they wanted. Vinyl roofs made an appearance in ’69, like your Uncle Louie’s bad hairpiece. Also, more formal rear fender contours were grafted on to make the Toronado look like, well, a Delta 88 from the rear. Chief Stylist Stan Wilen was instructed to make future iterations look more like the rest of the Olds line. And presumably the Thunderbird, Eldorado, and Riviera.

This doesn’t explain the front end, which could never be mistaken for a Ninety-Eight or Delmont. The hidden headlights now sulked behind a massive, split nose, honeycomb grill, flanked by two big wraparound parking lamps/turn signals. I think the new nose was very discordant with the rest of the car. The original face was so cool. Aggressive yet not loud, and absolutely unique. The new one looked like it was giving up, and letting the Riviera take the design lead.

The most frustrating thing about the Toronado, is the less attractive and distinctive it became, the better it sold.

1978 olds toronado XS

I know what some of you are thinking, “you said the ’71-’73 Riviera was a transition mobile, and here you are laying the malaise label on its cousin, the ’71 Toronado!” Let me explain myself. My concept of peak – transition – malaise must be considered within the context of the individual car. In the Riviera’s case, it just broke out that way, and remember they radically restyled the Riv for ’74. The Toronado’s body shell lasted for eight years, in full-figured E-body form. The watchword for the design team may have been, “since we never got around to making it look much like an Oldsmobile, just make it look like the Eldorado.” I think the front end of the ’71 looks like one of those safety study test mule cars that they would ram into concrete barriers at 50 mph to see if the dummies died.

Hardtop styling, such as it was with the formal roof and tiny rear windows, gave way to opera windows by ’75. The kindest thing you can say about the ’78 XS pictured here is at least it didn’t have opera windows. The body got fussier over the years, with character lines running to no place in particular, just sort of wandering around that giant body looking for a place to die. Each year both front and rear got busier and busier, until by ’78 it had achieved full-on pimp status. I will conceed that riding in the back of an XS must have been at least interesting, with the bent-wire glass ultra-wraparound backlight letting you experience life as a goldfish.

It’s ironic, because the execs rejected front-wheel-drive for use in a smaller, compact car back in the early 60s. Seeing the utterly conventional Falcon just take the Corvair out behind the woodshed and lay a sales spankin’ on it year after year made them realize that the economy car buyer was nervous about newfangled technology. So they reasoned that the wealthier customer in the market for a personal luxury car would be a more willing early adopter of unconventional advanced engineering. Never mind that the mechanically conventional T-Bird sold like hotcakes all through the 60s, unless Ford made it look tasteful and clean by accident like the ’61-’63 Bullet Birds. So what did Olds do? They built a radically engineered, radically yet tastefully designed personal luxury car. And everyone nodded, agreed it was amazing, and wrote checks for everything else.

There was a psychological factor with the 1960s personal luxury car buyer that Oldsmobile didn’t understand. Suburban driveway envy. Something about the Eldorado, Thunderbird, Mark III, Grand Prix and Riviera, cultivated that little green monster in everyone else not ensconced in their naugahyde and vinyl seats, cruising to the Bamboo Lounge for mai tais and dinner. And that’s exactly what the buyer was looking for. He didn’t care that the Toro (or Eldo for that matter) could climb Pike’s Peak in a blinding snowstorm. Nice, but so what? Mr. Suburbia just wanted to roll his 4000 lbs of long hood, short deck glitzmobile past his pesky neighbor who thought he was the big man for getting a new John Deer riding mower. In the end, the original Toronado was a sales failure because it failed to pander to people’s worst instincts. It also may have marked a transition of another kind. GM’s transition from a leading, risk-taking company interested in testing new engineering solutions to a cynical sales obsessed organism with an eye only for the bottom line.

The final entry in this Muscle Cars To Malaise Era series will be an examination of the Ford Galaxie / LTD. Look for it in a few days, I need to recover after the Toronado trials.

See all my other posts at my blog, Wired On Cars. It’s about car culture; the focus is on car shows, car museums and car design. But all things automotive are fair game.

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