Curbside Classic: 1991 Oldsmobile Toronado – Lost In A Changing Landscape


1991 Oldsmobile Toronado. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, May 30, 2021.

A couple of years ago, I had written about a pair of Lincolns parked curbside near one of my favorite, then-newly discovered destinations, Rogers Beach, in the Chicago neighborhood just north of mine.  What I had loved about the chain of little, separate, side-street beaches in this city’s northeasternmost district was that they seemed private, secluded, and exclusively populated by the diverse residents in the immediate area.  My first trip to Rogers Beach was on the evening of Wednesday, July 4th, 2018.  I had to work the next day, but I didn’t feel like just sitting at home, so I headed north on foot that evening with my camera to get out of the house in the hope of catching some fireworks and exploring some of that area which was unfamiliar to me despite having lived in this area for over a decade.

Loyola Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Wednesday, July 4th, 2018.

Nearby Loyola Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Wednesday, July 4th, 2018.

I was met with what seemed like such a joyous celebration of life in these multicultural United States.  The smell of barbeque grills and the sounds of music from many speakers complemented the brightly-dotted panorama in front of me, inclusive of Brown, Black, and White people all getting ready for the fireworks.  I had been newly single for about a month following the end of a five-year relationship and had really needed to get outside of my own head.  Simply being among other people, even if I wasn’t interacting with any of them outside of snapping a few photographs, seemed to be exactly what I had needed in that moment.  It was Independence Day for me in more ways than one, and this specific Wednesday evening was perhaps the catalyst for the still-blossoming affection I will probably always hold for Rogers Park.

Rogers Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Wednesday, July 4th, 2018.

Rogers Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Wednesday, July 4th, 2018.

Rogers Beach itself, when I had discovered it in 2018, was a fascinating, little stretch of waterfront.  Backed by a rectangular park with lush, leafy trees, it was also framed on dry land by a tennis court on its south side and beautiful, old, four-story residential buildings to its north.  I remember looking up at the windows of these homes and wondering what it would be like to wake up on a Saturday morning, throw on my flannel pajamas, and saunter outside with a hot cup of coffee to the concrete ledge that separated the beach of sand and pebbles from the grass behind.  This beach seemed so cozy and personal that I wondered, if I had lived there, how often I would be tempted to leave my residential block to go to the “party beach” further south in Edgewater where larger numbers of people gather, socialize, and engage in festive shenanigans.

Rogers Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, May 30, 2021.

A series of devastating storms at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 left Rogers Beach, and a couple other beaches in this area, partially destroyed.  Water levels during the summer of 2019 had been at their second-highest on record since 1986, and combined with erosion of these waterfront areas and residential flooding, it was decided that something drastic had to be done.  The precautions I had taken last year amid the (still not yet over) COVID-19 pandemic had kept me from venturing that far north by foot, as I also realized that I couldn’t just stop into a convenience store to use the washroom when nature called.  The shoreline fix that was implemented was the addition of barrier rocks, called riprap, to three of these local beaches, including Rogers Beach, Howard Beach, and Juneway Beach at Chicago’s northernmost edge.

1991 Oldsmobile Toronado print ad, as sourced from the internet.

It was against this backdrop that I had spotted our featured ’91 Olds Toronado almost exactly one month ago, while walking north from the Rogers Park neighborhood to the adjacent city of Evanston.  What immediately struck me was how I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen one of the final-edition, 1990 – ’92 Toronados up close and in person.  It has previously been documented at Curbside how the Toronado’s extreme downsizing for 1986 was not successful, so instead of retreading that territory, I’ll just state that I loved the 1990 restyle, which would last through this model’s swan song model year.  What’s interesting about the lengthening of this car, with most of that at the rear, was that the redesigned ’90 Toronado’s overall measurement from bumper-to-bumper made the new car just four-inches shy of the 204″ length of the larger ’85 models.  Just over a foot was added to the ’86 model’s 187.5″ length to get there, which also increased trunk space by 2.5 cubic feet.

1991 Oldsmobile Toronado brochure photo, as sourced from the internet.

I had forgotten how relatively rare Olds’ E-Bodies of this vintage were between the Toronado and its companion, the upmarket Troféo which was introduced for ’88.  I couldn’t find a breakout of ’88 production figures between the base-model Toronado and the Troféo, but the latter had outsold the former going back at least as far as ’89 right up until the end.  The 1990 redesign was effective insofar as demand and overall production increased by 50%, to about 15,000 units from 1989’s 10,000 figure.  After that, though, things were back to the previous, dismal normal, with Olds E-Body sales falling to 8,000 units for ’91 (including only 2,705 base Toronados, like our featured car), and then only 6,400 total units before this storied nameplate, and the Troféo, were given the axe.

The 3,500-pound, ’91 Toronado was powered by a 170-horsepower 3.8L V6, which was the only engine available, paired with a four-speed automatic transmission.  I couldn’t find a definitive 0-60 time for this car from a period test, but one source listed that number as being in the 10-second range.  With prices starting at $23,795 thirty years ago (over $46,000 today), this was an expensive car, from which I would have expected better off-the-line performance, even if it was a personal luxury car not marketed with any serious sporting pretensions.

1991 Oldsmobile Toronado. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, May 30, 2021.

When I saw this penultimate-year Toronado, I realized that there were a few parallels between it and Rogers Beach.  During the lockdown that had taken place for most of 2020, I had sorely missed being able to sit on that concrete wall facing Lake Michigan amid the sparkling fireflies, and hearing crickets chirp and waves lapping at the nearby breakwater.  Last year, I grew to accept that I would have to forego many things I had previously enjoyed in years past until a later, undetermined time, while I tried to give attention to things in my life that needed it.  While 2020 was far from a wasted year from me, it did feel like lost time in some respects.  The disastrous ’86 restyle of the Toronado, which lasted another three, official model years in that form, made it seem to me like the flagship Olds was running on much lower energy levels than in years past and “absent” in some intangible way.  The truth is that I think the ’86 Toro is a great-looking car, taken on its own merits, but just not necessarily the best in the line of memorable Olds E-Bodies that had come before it.

Rogers Beach. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, May 30, 2021.

By the time the 1990 restyle arrived to give the Toronado (and Troféo) a renewed sense of flair and good looks, the personal luxury car market had shriveled to next-to-nothing.  This felt a lot like my eventual, anticipatory return to Rogers Beach for the first time in two years only to discover I could no longer sit on that ancient, concrete ledge, dangle my legs over it, and walk up to Lake Michigan’s edge amid the beautiful mosaic of people sharing this stretch of shore with me.  The personal luxury market had been covered with riprap, and Olds’ own, new Aurora sports sedan, considered by many to be the Toronado’s spritual successor, was not set to hit showrooms until the 1995 model year.  Erosion of demand for this kind of car by the late 1980s was just one piece of evidence that the automotive landscape had forever been changed by the time the last Toronado rolled off the line.  The riprap may eventually be removed from Rogers Beach, but there will never be another Toronado, nor another new Oldsmobile.

Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, May 30, 2021.