Auction Classic: 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado – Profitable Obscurity

Two of my favorite cars at the Houston Mecum spring auction were Oldsmobiles, not surprising since I have always had a soft spot in my heart for those great cars from Lansing. That other car was a 77 Cutlass, one of the biggest selling cars of the 70’s. The Toronado was the opposite, a relatively expensive specialty luxury car that during its first generation was never a huge seller. That obscurity just makes it a more special discovery in my book and a delight to find in the fine condition seen here. Click through to check out this pale beauty.

I am not old enough to have been around when these were new or late model used cars, so I don’t remember them being on the streets. At car shows or auctions, I’ve seen a couple 1970’s, at least one 67, I think a 68 and, of course, numerous 66’s. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid eyes on a 1969 model in the metal, and that fact had never occurred to me until I happened upon this one. That’s obscurity for you!

The Toronado was big news when it came out for 1966, mainly because of its front wheel drive. No American car had offered it since the short-lived Cords of the 1930’s. The Toronado was huge for a personal car, however the styling was quite tasteful and unique. The 1966 model’s horizontal bar grille and hidden headlights were a subtle tribute to the Cord 810/812, but by 1969 the grille and bumper had morphed into a busy, more ornate proboscis.

Besides the grille for 1968, the biggest change on the 1969 from the original design was on the roofline where it meets the rear fenders. The 66-68 had a smooth transition from the roof pillars to the sloping rear end for an integrated look that had not been done on a American car before. The change for 1969 gave it a more conventional ledge and level fenders, and the fender ends even sprouted tiny tailfins. You could say that Oldsmobile toned down the Toronado, though it’s hard to look at the front end and think “subtle”. Ironically, by becoming more garish, the car stood out less from its fellow Detroit dreamboats.

Though seldom seen, it was still available with the open steel wheels that were the only choice in 1966. These wheels also were reminiscent of the Cord. This picture is of another car that sold at a different auction.

Like the 77 Cutlass I found, this Toro was said to have only traveled a little over 10,000 miles since new. The claim was believable when I saw the pristine cloth upholstery and lots of other evidence of light use. It did not slap me in the face with its overwhelming pristine preservation the way the Cutlass did. It certainly was nice, but it was probably not treated as a museum piece from day one like that unbelievable car.

The interior had been revised somewhat since 1966 but still had the same general look including the unique barrel speedometer, mainly exchanging the space age steering wheel for a more generic late sixties style and GM discovering some “wood” under the previous metal trim on the dash, much as you sometimes find beautiful hardwood floors hiding under carpet in an old house. Was the woodgrain making a T for Toronado on the wheel intentional? One thing maintained from 1966: a flat floor and the largest gas pedal this side of a Greyhound bus.

The funny thing about the Toronado (and Eldorado) was that to a casual observer, the view underhood revealed no indication of its unique drivetrain layout. Closer examination would reveal that the engine sat slightly higher and farther forward than in its rear wheel drive brethren. The late sixties were peak engine in Detroit, seen in the 455 c.i. V8 resting in the engine bay. The standard engine had gained 30 c.i. since 1966, but somehow lost 10hp to a still-generous 375 gross h.p. Being the sixties, there was an optional W34 high performance package that increased horsepower to 400. It needed the power, weighing in at 4,500lb.

I call the car obscure not because it was slow seller. At 28,494 built for the model year, it was pretty close to the average for Toros through 1978 (72-73 were higher for some reason, the whole 79-85 generation sold better and naturally the 86-92 brings up the rear, saleswise). I think it’s obscure because if you asked any car guy who didn’t happen to be a huge Toronado or Oldsmobile fan to picture a 69 Toronado in his head, he probably couldn’t come up with more than a vague first generation shape. The post 1966 changes were not the least bit memorable and most people would consider them to have blemished the very nice original design.

I would agree, but that’s not to say I don’t like this car. I would welcome any well-preserved 66-72 Toronado in my driveway. Early Toros have loads of charisma, even in 1969 form.

The profitability of this car was not so much for Oldsmobile (though is was their most expensive car) as for the recent previous owner. The car was sold at Mecum’s Kissimmee, FL auction in January this year for $18,700. It was then sold again at the Houston auction in April for $30,800. If it had any significant work done in that time, the seller doesn’t mention it. Over 50% profit in 3 months, good work if you can get it! It appears there’s money to be made in obscurity.