Once in a while a landmark car is launched, announcing a change in design direction for years to come. One of the best examples is the Oldsmobile Toronado of 1966, which re-introduced front wheel drive in the United States. Although the first production car to feature front wheel drive, the 1929 Cord L29 was American, it was not used since the Cord 812 was terminated in 1937. In Europe the layout was quickly becoming popular on small cars, because it offered more cabin space than comparable rear wheel drive cars, with either the engine up front or in the back. In North America the need for small and space efficient cars was not very big, which might explain why the front wheel drive layout popularity had not blown over.
After GM had already launched the groundbreaking rear engined Corvair, it was not surprising that they were the first the explore the front wheel drive route. Although it was more space efficient, a vehicle using the 'new layout' would require much more development time and money, which would make it unsuitable for a small car. So GM set out to design the biggest and most powerful front wheel drive the world had ever seen. To make sure the launch did went by unnoticed, the Toronado featured a very distinctive shape with a large front overhang and a chopped off tail. Among the most striking features were the recessed and concealed pop-up headlights.
Under the bonnet, which was large enough to play a ping-pong match on, a 385 bhp V8 was fitted, which gave the Toronado muscle car like performance. The drive went through a torque converter and a three speed automatic gearbox to the front wheels. This freed up a lot of interior space, with no room needing to be reserved for the driveshaft and differential. Although the Toronado's handling received much praise in the press, there were also a lot of complaints about the drum brakes fitted all around; they were simply not up to the job of stopping the huge and heavy 'Olds'.
A year after the Toronado launch, the same 'E-body' body/chassis design was used for the new Cadillac Eldorado. The first generation Toronado remained in production until 1970, albeit with a completely restyled body. In the following decade the American automotive industry steadily reverted to the front wheel drive layout 'pioneered' by the Toronado. Although the Toronado is historically very important, its high price and unique looks did not make it a best seller in its day.
Featured in the first six shots is the very first Toronado constructed, which is now on display in the General Motors Heritage Centre. The second example pictured is seen here at the 2006 Eyes on Design Concours d'Elegance, where it was awarded 'best in show'.