Curbside Classic: 1979-85 Oldsmobile Toronado – The Forgotten E-Body

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(first posted 8/20/2014)   In GM’s E-Body line of personal luxury cars from 1963 to 1992, the Oldsmobile Toronado occupied the lowest position in the divisional hierarchy and for the most part, carries the lowest stature among car collectors today.  Aside from the original 1966-67 Toronado, the Toronado did not have the impact of the early Buick Rivieras of 1963-65 and 1966-67, nor the prestige of the Cadillac Eldorado from its debut in 1967 into the 1980s.  Nevertheless, spotting this 1982-ish Toronado (it has the grille of a 1981, with the badging of an ’83) in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC reminded me that these were very good cars in their own right, by bringing up memories of personal experience with them when they were new.

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The 1979-85 Toronado and its corporate cousins were a radical revision of the E-Body personal luxury car concept that changed it from the bloated 4,600+ pound, 225+ inch long two door barge that it had become by the mid-1970s to a far more trim and efficient 3,800 pound, 205 inch long coupe with more interior room and vastly improved driving dynamics.  The Toronado, Eldorado, and formerly rear-wheel drive Riviera all used the longitudinal V-8 front wheel drive Unitized Power Package that the 1966 Toronado had pioneered, now with independent rear suspension that improved both handling and rear seat and trunk space.  Like the downsized GM B-Bodies that debuted in 1977, the 1979 E-Bodies corrected a decade of metal inflation while retaining the space and comfort that buyers had become accustomed to, and they went a step further by also introducing more advanced chassis engineering.

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Market acceptance of the downsized E-Bodies was excellent.  Toronado sales more than doubled from 24,815 in 1978 to 50,056 in 1979, averaging almost 43,000 a year from 1979 to 1985.  Even in its lowest year, the recession year of 1982, Toronado production was 33,928.  The Riviera experienced an even more dramatic rise, from 20,535 in 1978 to 52,181 in 1979, and averaged almost 54,000 per year.  Eldorado sales rose considerably as well, from 46,816 in 1978 to 67,436 in 1979, selling an average of over 60,000 a year.  With over 1 million produced and sales still going strong at the end of their seven year run, the 1979-85 E-Bodies were a success for GM in an era riddled with such failures as the X-Cars and the Oldsmobile diesel V-8.


Toronado sales consistently trailed those of its corporate cousins, with the Eldorado leading each year and the Riviera in the middle.  The Toronado also trailed the others in not officially offering a convertible, after the introduction of a Riviera convertible in 1982 and an Eldorado convertible in 1984.  Oldsmobile offered special trim packages, such as the Toronado XSC of 1980-81 and the Toronado Caliente of 1984-85, but the only Toronado convertibles were aftermarket conversions by American Sunroof Company.


The market turned against the further downsized 1986-92 E-Bodies and then away from the entire personal luxury car segment during the 1990s, however, so the Toronado disappeared after 1992, followed by the Riviera after 1999 and the Eldorado after 2002.

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In my early teens I was no stranger to the characteristics of this class of cars, because I already had several years of what I consider the Maximum E-Body Experience: regular passenger time in a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.  A friend’s father had picked up this massive 10 mpg land yacht for peanuts in 1981 or 1982 because the first owner had traded it in for a downsized Cadillac, and the dealer found it difficult to sell at a time when the public had turned against “gas-guzzlers.”  Figuring that the total cost of ownership would be no worse than that of a more fuel-efficient new car because of the low price and minimal further depreciation, he made it his daily driver.  I rode in that Eldorado’s back seat regularly in junior high and high school.  The car was a revelation to me, accustomed to riding in a 1972 Nova or a 1976 Cutlass Supreme: space to stretch out, soft leather (probably the first leather seats I’d ever sit on, in a car or a house), and total silence at all times except when the top was down.

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The downsized Toronado ended up becoming part of my personal automotive history as well.  Around 1979-80, there was a considerable amount of family dinner table conversation about the Toronado, I believe because my mother wanted one to replace her 1972 Nova that was falling apart.  A decade of driving two Cutlass Supremes had turned my father into an “Oldsmobile man,” somewhat like the father in A Christmas Story, so lobbying for a Toronado would have been a good way to get the most luxurious car that she could.  Instead they purchased a 1980 Omega, however, and it had every infamous X-Car problem and more, resulting in it becoming the last domestic car that they ever bought.  Thus, their buying a X-Car instead of an E-Body ended up contributing in a small way to the eventual demise of GM, as that bad experience cost GM a previously loyal customer who then bought only Japanese cars for the next 20 years.  It could have been different if my parents had bought a Toronado instead of that Omega.

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Several years later, after a couple of years of riding in the 1976 Eldorado, I got to experience being a regular passenger in a 1979-85 Toronado.  It was in a weekly carpool ride to and from a Saturday morning class for “gifted” children–essentially a way for parents to waste their money and their kids’ time by having them sit in a classroom for an extra half day each week–and the ride was pleasant, every bit as much as that of the Eldorado.  The owner was a rather tall African-American woman, who along with her very big and tall son had plenty of room in the flat-floored front.  Even with the front seats moved way back for them, there was more than enough room for me and the other passenger, a very cute and friendly girl who made me not mind that the huge C-pillars made it impossible to see out.  The Toronado was quiet, smooth riding on Washington, DC’s potholed streets, and thoroughly comfortable, not feeling like a lesser car from being either downsized or from a lower division than Cadillac.

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The Toronado disappeared over 20 years ago, and 30 years after the last of over 300,000 1979-85 Toronados rolled off the assembly line, few are still seen on the streets.  This particular car is the first of its kind that the author has seen in at least a decade.  Not many remember this Toronado, but it and the contemporary Riviera and Eldorado were successful and popular during their time and were bright spots for GM during a difficult period.  Fortunately, at least one well-preserved 1979-85 Toronado remains on the streets of Washington, DC as a reminder of what these cars once were.

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