It may not have been America's first front-wheel-drive car, but in 1965 it was the only locally built version, and better still, it was blessed with superior traction and roadholding properties, combined with powerful acceleration, and offered a 126 m.p.h. limit with extraordinary quietness and mechanical refinement.
Behind the wheel, the Toronado had excellent high-geared power steering, although many car reviewers of the time noted the brakes were ordinary. The suspension was softly damped but roll-free.
The Toronado was first seen
at international car shows during the autumn of 1965, and no other car attracted closer scrutiny among the technical cognoscenti - nor perhaps drew more scepticism-than the 7-liter Oldsmobile Toronado, the largest and most powerful production car ever to have been driven by its front wheels.
The Boardroom Factor
Although the great General Motors combine had brought off revolutionary coupes before (the Chevrolet Corvair
, for example, with its flat-six air-cooled engine in the tail), it had also muffed one or two. Even allowing for the "boardroom factor" in the 385 advertised b.h.p., how could the Toronado possibly compete in New York's block-to-block races between traffic signals? Questions remained, such as would shutting off power suddenly, when midway through a corner, cause an understeer-over-steer transition that would be un-manageable for ordinary mortals?
To make sure that people would buy the Toronado despite any doubts or prejudices about f.w.d., G.M. styled it boldly, and indeed took no real advantage of the FWD layout's benefits in "space utilization." The enormous frontal overhang, for instance, was strictly non-functional since there were no mechanical components - other than the fan - forward of the wheels.
With the widest track of almost any then current production car (5ft 3·5in. front, 5ft 3in. rear), overall width of 6ft 6·5in. and 17ft 7in. from bumper to bumper, it was truly massive for a 2-door coupe, and the styling was both bold and original. The Toronado featured a separate box-section perimeter frame extending back only as far as the forward eyes of the single-leaf rear springs, a subframe welded to the underside of the body supporting it from this point back. The front wheel assemblies were carried on wishbones and sprung by longitudinal torsion bars, the back axle being a rigid beam.
Offset to the right of the car's centre line, the big V8 engine had a two-stage torque converter on the tail-end of the crankshaft, and behind this a toothed chain-and-sprocket drive to a 3-speed automatic gearbox lying to the left of, and parallel with, the crankcase. From this the drive was taken forward to a hypoid bevel drive with planetary differential. Drum-brakes, with serf-wrapping shoes in radially finned light alloy drums, were all outboard.
If you get the opportunity to sit in the drivers seat of hte Toronado, you will likely be somewhat overawed at first by the length and breadth of the great prow, which has no fall-away to give you a sight of the road close-to. The multiplicity of controls is likewise rather forbidding until you learns their purposes and where-abouts, but their arrangement is excellent, as is the use of different types of switch for the variou functions.
The drivers seat could be adjusted for height and tilt as well as reach using three switches set in the door. The relationship between cushion and backrest was fixed on the driving seat, but the passenger's had a lever-release adjustment for the backrest. Then the rake of the steering-wheel could be set to any of six angles, from " Mini" to near-vertical, by simply lifting a short lever on the column. The hub served as a locking ring for a spring-loaded telescopic adjustment of the column, with a 3in. range. This was extremely easy to operate, needing very little effort to unlock or lock securely.
Even in cold weather, the engine displayed no flat-spots or other carburation shortcomings. For hot starts the accelerator was pushed about halfway down before turning the key. There were no vibration periods right up to peak revs. In fact, compared to contemporar American V8's, the Toronado was arguably the smoothest and quietest, the transmission was virtually silent at any speed and in any gear. Better still, there was very little wind roar around the body, right up to the maximum of 126 m.p.h.
Provided you never extended the Toronado, it was unlikely you would detect any difference between it and the conventional type in normal conditions. No pull or other influence came back through the power steering to the driver's hands, even on full lock; in fact, some motoring journalists of the era thought it would have been better if there were a little less assistance and more "feel." But where a wet road might find you embarrassed with spinning wheels and sliding tail in a rear-driven car, the Oldsmobile's superior traction would get you off the mark much more smartly and with much more directional control.
Pointing the Toronado nose upwards on a 1-in-3 hill was where most road testers thought they would bring about the undoing of the FWD setup. But, assisted by the gentle power delivery of the hydraulic torque converter, the Toronado would move off without wheelspin. Not convinced that the incline was actually 1-in-3, one road tester turned the car nose down with parking brake applied, only to find it sliding forward with its rear wheels locked. Pointing upwards, the park brake could manage a 1-in-4 incline. Even in the wet and with full power applied from the word "go" there was astonishingly Iittle wheel-spin, and the consistency of performance figures remains to this day remarkable.
Oldsmobile Toronado vs. Buick Riviera
The quarter-mile post would be passed at 88 m.p.h., the half-mile at 106. It is interesting to compare the Toronado's performance with that of the Buick Riviera - the engine capacities were almost identical, but the Riviera had a larger bore and shorter stroke, produced peak power at lower revs and yet was lower-geared. Running in perfect weather conditions, the Riviera was quicker off the mark, reaching 40 m.p.h. in the time it took the Toronado to reach 30, after which none of its figures up to 110 m.p.h. were more than 1 sec slower. But the Riviera's single-gear figures were appreciably better at lower speeds, where its engine torque was stronger.
The Toronado, on the other hand, was a few m.p.h. quicker and used less fuel. On fast straight roads the Toronado was stable as an arrow, having over 60 per cent of its 2t tons on the front wheels. Driven normally, ran easily and accurately round corners - once you had learned not to overdo the "one-finger" steering - and almost without roll. However, if you were tempted to cut the throttle suddenly in a bend, the front-drive characteristics would become quite prominent. With the throttles open the front tended to run wild; when they were closed the tire slip angle was reduced and the nose turned in, as with smaller f.w.d. cars. But the transition was neither violent nor unstable, and you could use it to advantage.
The Achilles Heel - Cooked Brakes
The ultimate cornering power was extremely high, and the Toronado was much more stable and had better traction in wintery conditions than its conventional compatriots. The Toronado's tires were specially made by Firestone; their behaviour was extremely creditable under all conditions, and from inside the car with the windows shut you could barely hear them. As with most American cars, the Achilles heel of the Toronado was in its braking system. Drive most American cars from the 60's and it seems as though the designers thought there would always be plenty of "cooling time" between vigorous braking. But if there was any stirring of the loins, vigorous driving would have the brakes "cooked" beyond capacity long before the car has come to rest.
Thankfully their recovery was rapid. At low speeds they were fierce, and needed to be more progressive. Even in dry weather the need for an abrupt stop could be a bit unnerving, as the self-wrapping shoe action was liable to lock the back wheels and slew the tail. Since there was no pressure limiting valve between front and rear systems, the braking stability was at its best with the petrol tank full and a good load on board. Fortunately this big and heavy car's handling characteristics were such that you could quickly and safely from A to B without depending much on the brakes, and the transmission allowed you to change down for extra engine braking from any speed.
The governor being inoperative with S (for Super, alias intermediate or 2nd) selected, you needed to guard against doing this above 85-90 m.p:h. Low gear also had an un-governed manual hold. When performance testing best results were achieved with the automatic change-point from low to intermediate, but holding the latter gear (with the selector at S) up to about 85 m.p.h., or 5,000 r.p.m. The springs were a bit firmer than the American norm, but many would have preferred stiffer damping of the front suspension. As it was, the nose heaved slowly up and down in nautical fashion much of the time, sometimes with a slight corkscrew motion, and after a big spring deflection the movement took several seconds to die out.
Back-seat passengers rode as comfortably as those in front, but sat rather low and thus had a reduced view of the landscape rushing past them. The Toronado had a clumsy turning circle - well over 40ft between kerbs - but we must give credit for the combination of a small (15in.) wheel and relatively high gearing at a time when many had truck sized tillers. The vacuum-operated lifters for the dolly's eyelid headlamps took about 6 to 8 seconds to do their job, and some lucky Toronado owners we have spoken with have told us how they soon become accustomed to anticipating the need for them. There was no flasher control, and the light intensity was not overly strong on either high or low beams - although with modern globes this problem would by now have been well and truly sorted - we mention it for historical accuracy as this is how they were when the Toronado rolled off the production line.
Red and white (safety and courtesy) lamps were set in the inner panels of each door. In addition to a dozen fuses for the electrics, there were also circuit breakers for the most important ones.
An innovation was the drum-shaped speedometer with horizontal spindle. It
was commendably steady and near-accurate, but not so easy to interpret at a glance as a traditional needle on a dial. Among the many luxuries and detail refinements were screenwashers squirting intermittently, the wipers automatically starting in conjunction with them. The two-speed wipers were very effective up to about 85 m.p.h., after which they began to paw the air. There was a sad lack of stowage for maps and oddments -- simply a small locker in the facia, and not even a shelf behind the back seat. This seems especially strange, coming given the distances travellers would likely clock up behind the wheel of the Toronado.
The heating and ventilation system included refrigeration combined with an extremely powerful 4-speed blower for the front and two-speed demister for the back window. Apart from a temperature setting lever, there were six push-buttons for the various functions. Scheduled servicing requirements were extremely few. All in all, the Toronado was a dream car that lived up to its exotic appearance in most respects, and blew away any illusions about front-drive being unsuitable for very large and powerful vehicles.