Vintage Road Test: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado – “Who’d Buy A Car Like That?” – Oldmobile’s Stylish, Innovative and Compromised GT

I’m pretty certain this is one of the few ’66 Toronado reviews we haven’t featured at CC yet. I’ll kill the suspense right now; its assessments don’t differ much from the conclusions others had about the model. Praise is heaped on the car’s innovative drivetrain and styling, but serious questions are raised on several areas that keep the car from being an accomplished machine. In sum, Oldsmobile’s ’66 Toronado was an innovative, yet compromised and somewhat confusing product. And as the market would eventually show, a technological tour de force with nowhere to go. Rather than a revolutionary new dawn, a dead branch on the automotive FWD evolution tree.

One can cut some slack to Oldsmobile’s confusing first entry into the Personal Luxury Car segment. In fairness, all of GM’s divisions had struggled to come up with an answer to Ford’s trendsetting Thunderbird. And by the mid-60s, even Ford knew the original Thunderbird-formula was getting old. Some scrambling was bound to take place before anyone figured out what the future of the PLC segment looked like.

Before I get too many rocks thrown my way (Hey, it happens!), I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I love the looks of the ’66 Toronado. And I could gush over the car’s styling at length… but its main mission, to sell decently, wasn’t accomplished. As known, sales proved lackluster from the get-go, rapidly shrinking in the following years.

Thanks to hindsight, one can see the seeds of GM’s eventual downfall behind the model’s conception (Even if taking into account the flux into which PLCs were at the time). I’ll forgive Oldsmobile’s doubtful application of FWD in a large luxury vehicle. After all, the memory of the upscale FWD Cords from the ’30s was probably at play behind the division’s reasoning, and while FWD was making quick gains in European compacts, it was yet far from standard.

But mainly, the vehicle is the result of GM’s different departments pushing forth their projects, trying to find a way through the corporate maze. On one end, a talented research staff with new technology waiting to reach production. In this case, Olds’ toying with FWD tech since the late ’50s. On the other end, a killer styling department with cool-ass designs hoping to reach showrooms -in the case of the Toronado, a sporty car design meant for a smaller platform. Finally, a management structure that after giving in to pressure from market needs, moves forward with the groundbreaking proposals created by their talented staff. All without quite knowing what to do with them, and often compromising the final result through bewildering cost-cutting decisions.

Despite all the compromises and conflicting visions behind its birth, the resulting Toronado was a success in many areas. And in general, Car Life’s review of the model is quite complimentary, calling the Toronado “a big, bold fastback gran turismo automobile with an exceedingly strong engine…” Finding that the car’s large 385bhp, 425CID V-8 provided effortless and lazy cruising at 80mph.

Also, as the road test attests, the Toronado’s styling caused quite a commotion with bystanders. “Everywhere the car was taken during Car Life’s test period, everyone encountered expressed an opinion -positive or negative- or else asked a question. Everyone had something to say.”

A little girl called the car “Smooth.” While an older lady was confused by the car’s name (Tornado?). Finally, mechanically inclined individuals had more poignant queries, like a jackhammer operator:

“Is this one of those front-wheel-drive rigs?”

With FWD being a novelty, the vehicle’s handling characteristics get a good deal of coverage. “Does the Toronado handle differently? The answer must be a qualified yes and no.” Under normal freeway use, “the Toronado cannot be distinguished from that of a rear-wheel driven car of like weight and size.”

Those mechanically inclined bystanders had further questions, like an Electronics Engineer: “It understeers pretty badly I guess.”

“Yes, the Toronado understeers, but not badly… Hard into the corner, when it seems the Toronado’s massive front end will slew the outward arc of the bend, all that is required is a momentary letup on the accelerator pedal… Therefore, to avoid an untoward shunt into a barbed wire fence, the trick is to make the front wheels do an accurate job of leadership with judicious seesawing of the accelerator pedal. This requires practice.”

Befitting a PLC, the Toronado offered a smooth boulevard ride. For the most part. “At high speeds on straight expressways, the passenger compartment seems to float…” In rural roadways, the car’s front heavy weight resulted in a “suspension system… (that) works hard and somewhat ponderously in the attempt to soften the ride… Altogether, the ride offered by the Toronado is smooth -like Rocky Road ice cream, which has a few lumps here and there.”

Like all other period reviews, the Toronado’s brakes get much ire. “The engineering which resulted in the Toronado’s drive system should have extended to the car’s braking system.” The Toronado’s 4-wheel drum brakes were wholly insufficient for the car’s hefty 5400 lb., and suffered “alarmingly unacceptable fade…” An unintentional panic stop during CL’s road test resulted in a “…driver with trembling hands, icy perspiration, and a total lack of desire to drive the Toronado ever again…”

Further annoyances appear once the tech wonders of the platform are pushed aside. For an FWD vehicle, interior packaging was compromised; the hip room was deemed good, but a 6ft. 3in. CL staffer found the legroom disappointing. An especially unsatisfying trait, considering the car’s overall 211-in. length, and 119-in. wheelbase. The car’s fastback shape also meant limited headroom for rear-seat passengers.

CL’s Toronado also suffered from many quality woes, not befitting Olds’ tradition for higher workmanship; “Pillar and window moldings fitted well at some points and did not at others. The large, bin-like glovebox was sticky… Door hardware… set up sympathetic vibrations for a distressing buzz… Evidence of shoddy workmanship appeared suddenly when a piece fell off the Toronado onto a test driver’s foot.”

These, among other assembly issues; “… the sum total of these manufacture and production engineering deficiencies indicates that Oldsmobile has made up in the interior, trim and fittings the amounts of money lavished underhood, especially on the drive-train. The effort was apparently to keep the Toronado’s price down.”

We know the Toronado nameplate had a rather star-crossed career, with more misses than hits in its three-decade production run. As usual, GM slowly corrected the production shortcomings of the ’66 Toronado, adding optional discs for ’67, and improving assembly. All while taking the model towards a plusher Broughamier fate to gain on the market. The results – over time- were rather mixed.

Talking about quotes, two final ones appear near the review’s end that pretty much foretell the ’66 Toronado’s fate in the marketplace. First, a physicist who drove a Mercedes Benz 180 and bought a Ford wagon for his wife:  “Who’d buy a car like that anyway?”

And finally, a college student: “When do you think Chevrolet will bring out the Mako Shark?”


Related CC reading:

The Great 28, Car#4: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, The Almost A Riviera

Curbside Classic: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado – GM’s Deadly Sin #16 – Let’s Try A Different Position For A Change