1972 was the year that the Oldsmobile Toronado outsold the Buick Riviera to become the most popular of the GM E-bodies. In part, Oldsmobile’s success could be attributed to the boat-tail styling stumble at Buick. However, another factor in the Toronado triumph was likely its very close styling kinship to the first generation FWD Eldorado. Beyond its pseudo-Cadillac looks, what else did the ’72 Toronado offer high-end personal luxury buyers? To answer, Road Test Magazine offered a full review in June 1972.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So Cadillac should have blushed when designs for the 1971 generation Tornado were approved: in many ways it closely followed the crisp lines that had made the ’67 – ’70 Eldorado such a successful style leader.
It wasn’t a bad strategy for Oldsmobile. While first-year Toronado sales were strong and had come fairly close to the Riviera (40,963 versus 45,348 for 1966), results dropped dramatically from there. Toronado sales plunged by 47% for 1967 while Riviera sales stayed strong, and for the rest of the 1960s Oldsmobile E-body sales remained about half of Buick’s. Meanwhile, the new 1967 Eldorado had come on strong, and was only about 10% behind the Toronado in sales each year through 1970, in spite of having a much higher price tag.
Olds tried various facelifts for the first-generation Toronado, including a more massive front-end for 1968, sharper rear fenders for 1969, and yet another revamped nose along with jutting, blade-like front fenders and new body side sculpting for 1970 (more Eldorado-like, perhaps?). Nothing seemed to help, however, as 1968 through 1970 Toronado sales remained flat, trailing 59,141 units behind Riviera and just 8,678 units ahead of the pricier Eldorado. So a new approach was in order for Oldsmobile as the division’s plans for the 1971 E-body were firmed-up.
For the new-for-1971 E-bodies, General Motors decreed a great amount of commonality with the also-new B-body. Thus the revamped personal luxury cars would be really big. Cadillac played that size for all it was worth, puffing up the Eldorado and layering it with glitzy detailing. The lean, sculpted look of the ’67 to ’70 Eldorado was lost as Seventies-style excess took hold.
Bill Mitchell pushed a radical look over at Buick for the new Riviera. There’s no question the boat-tail theme was unique and striking, but it did not come off quite right on the very large E-body platform. Further, for many of Buick’s relatively conservative clientele, the new Riviera styling was too extreme. Sales stumbled badly, and by 1972 Buick lost its coveted position as the GM market leader in high-end personal luxury coupes.
Thus, the more conventionally styled Toronado was able to assume that E-body leadership position, at least for a few years. But how good was the second generation full-size FWD platform? Beyond style, what else did the Toronado offer to attract discerning buyers?
The irony of the Toronado (and Eldorado) was that some owners did not even realize (or care) that their cars were front-wheel-drive. The drive train was as reliable as a regular rear-wheel-drive system, and for average drivers there was not much difference in driving feel. The anecdote about the Lake Tahoe service station operator trying to install snow tires on the correct drive wheels, only to receive pushback from Toronado owners, pretty much summed up the blissful ignorance.
Road Test noted that the Toronado was more agile than the Eldorado, though it was hardly ready for a gymkhana. The trade-off for the slightly better handling was reduced ride quality. Under hood, Oldsmobile’s 455 V8 was hard to beat, offering plenty of smooth power, seemingly unfazed by the additional performance-sapping emission control equipment required for 1972.
Unlike the first Toronado in 1966, which only offered drum brakes, the 1972 Toro with front disc brakes was a strong stopper, at least for such an enormous, heavy car. Where the Toronado excelled was in creature comforts, as befitting a personal luxury cocoon. Virtually any option to be had on the Eldorado could also be found on the Toronado.
While black-on-black is the de facto color combination for luxury cars today, it was quite unusual in the 1970s. Of course, with 15 exterior colors, 5 vinyl top colors and 6 interior colors to choose from for the Toronado, including a broad array of the then-popular earth tones, all-black would have seemed to be a very dull choice for 1972.
One of the biggest faults of the Toronado (and Eldorado) was that they had a number of issues associated with front-wheel-drive, such as heavy front tire wear, while offering virtually none of the packaging efficiencies that were truly the purpose of the FWD layout. 13.5 cubic feet of trunk space is pathetic in a car over 18 feet long, and a “flat floor” for center seating positions is silly in a personal luxury car designed primarily for no more than four passengers. Oh well, at least the Toronado had traction in the snow, assuming the snow tires were mounted on the correct drive wheels…
Price was a key advantage for the Toronado versus the Eldorado. The loaded Olds was out the door for $7,394 ($42,636 adjusted), equating to the base price for the Cadillac. A similarly loaded Eldorado would cost an additional $2,747 ($15,840), which simply bought more snob appeal rather than significant product enhancements.
Between styling, pricing and Oldsmobile’s reputation for quality, there were ample reasons for 48,900 personal luxury buyers to take a Toronado home for 1972. The next year was even better for Toronado sales, which reached an all-time high of 55,921–a milestone the Toronado would never again achieve as the Eldorado took the lead beginning in 1974. But for that brief time in the early 1970s, the Toronado was the king of the E-body fleet.
Curbside Classic: 1972 Buick Riviera Boattail – Swan Song Or Big Ugly Duck by Paul Niedermeyer