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It's hard to appreciate now just how earth-shattering the Toronado was nearly 50 years ago.

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This 1965 Olds PR Photo was designed to impress the viewer with the futuristic approach of front wheel drive.

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We Take Front-wheel Drive for Granted - But Back In the 1960s - NOT!
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By Society Staff – reprint with permission only

The Earth-Shattering 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

About 85% of the new cars you might jump into today are front-wheel drive (FWD), and whether it is FWD or rear-wheel drive (RWD), you don't notice the difference in daily driving. They steer the same, act pretty much the same, with the only real noticeable difference being there is no large "hump" between the left and right side passengers.

But back in 1965 and before, Americans and most Europeans saw FWD as either impractical, dangerous, or only viable in small (read "tiny") cars. When polled, most Americans would have told you they'd never buy a front wheel drive car.

There were also some legitimate reasons for this perception. First, the major experiments with FWD had occurred prior to WWII, and the major manufacturer of FWD cars had been Cord, a very expensive and hard to maintain luxury car.  Cord was a distant memory by the mid-60s, and we're betting that few people either remembered that car or had even heard of it.

But the engineers at Oldsmobile had done many studies in the early 60's and believed that FWD was the future, but they were first thinking of it as something for the new F-85 and they put together one, mostly from Corvair parts. They saw the advantages from a people packaging, ride, handling, and even an eventual cost reduction point of view. Of course, they were eventually smart enough to recognize that the idea had to be tried out on a high level car, for the simple reasons that they could pay off their investment faster, and they would find more "early adopters" in this market segment, which marketing surveys had validated.

The opportunity came with the decision to create a personal luxury car, to be named the Toronado.  Of course, when you are a major manufacturer like GM was back then, fitting a car like this into the process was driven by utilizing as many off-the-shelf components as possible.  Second was fitting the package into a chassis that was either on the shelf or contemplated. Last was durability and serviceability.

One thing that helped Olds engineers was that, at the time, GM was stressing engineering and driveline innovation – consider the Corvair, 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest , BOP aluminum 215 cu in V8s, and even the 1963-67 Corvette, with its IRS. All these were pretty radical approaches that were successfully put into production. Thus, when proposed, the go ahead was given to test the front-wheel drive approach.

Engineers first looked at large 1930s cars like the Cord and deduced that placing the transmission in front of the engine (essentially merely turning the engine/trans/differential 180 degrees in orientation) presented a packaging problem as it had to be pretty compact, and this led to smaller, fragile driveline issues. Even if this were feasible by installing current engines and transmissions, the engine compartment would need to be very long, something accepted in the '20s and '30s but not in the '60s.

Next, they studied then-current European FWD cars and also recognized that the engines were low HP/Torque-output 4 cylinders which could be turned transversely and once again packaged tightly. Again, while possible, this type of packaging was just not possible with the chassis GM had available.

But in a brilliant conceptual move, they placed the transmission alongside the engine, recognizing that the width of US big cars would allow this. This also allowed the use of then available automatic transmissions with little modification.  The chain drive between the V8 and the transmission was very innovative and initially worrisome, but we all know that this feature was never an issue. The differential was also unique, but for the most part used off-the-shelf pieces.

Then came the crucible – testing, of course, without letting the cat out of the bag.  The package was placed in a few Olds Delta 88s and driven for thousands of miles in all kinds of climates, road conditions, and types of driving cycles. As we now know, the package passed with flying colors.

But the test was not over. Two things needed to be done.  First, styling had to be very modern so that the car would convey its ground-breaking technology. This was accomplished with the desire to offer a new, sophisticated 1966 Buick Riviera that would set the stage for the body styles to be released in the new A-body car in 1968. Toronado was destined to use Riviera's E-body, so that was a good thing, and both Buick and Olds stylists worked to endure that the chassis and styling package fit each other's needs.  In fact, dual styling bucks were created – one side Riviera, one side Toronado, to ensure that both could effectively use the new offering.

Now, aside from the engine/transmission packaging, lots of other things would be unique to the Toronado, including the entire rear suspension, the front half-shafts, and the passenger compartment floor pan. These were accommodated in the chassis design with arrangement made for Olds to be able to replace the Buick traditional rear driveline with their simpler design, and Buick ensured that the front suspension attachment points would allow the FWD driveline, including torsion bars, unused by Buick, but essential to the Toronado.

The next test, would, of course, be public acceptance. Many people believed that FWD cars would not climb hills nor corner effectively. For that, Olds spent countless hours on making the Toronado's ride and handling as unobtrusive as possible.  They was very successful, with many Toronado owners forgetting their car even had FWD and placing their winter snow tires on the rear wheels!

Potential buyers also felt that FWD cars were fragile or would require complexity that would drive maintenance and purchase prices beyond what could be afforded. Olds solved these issues by putting Toronados in the hands of the media and asking them to beat the snot out of them.

Well, we all know that the Toronado was so successful that in the following year, Cadillac introduced the Eldorado – of course, using the same components, except for Caddy's V8 and their own "edge" styling.

We know that the Most US FWD cars now emulate European design and packaging, but it was the acceptance of the Toronado approach used from 1966 through 1985 in Olds, Buick and Caddy that made owning a FWD US car totally acceptable.

Check out this list of great articles we have detailing the Toronado's ground-breaking engineering, styling, and durability.

The driveline was both hugely innovative and yet very simple.

When you look at this PR photo, you see just how compact the arrangement was given the huge 425 cu. in V8 and T-400 trans is all stuffed in that small space. This is even more true when one recognizes that they were thinking that they were working with th

The front end even included a torsional damper (red arrow) to make sure there was not a lot of torque steer.

The rear end, while nothing more than two wheel hubs and no drive line, shows those innovative rear mounted shocks (red arrow) that reduced spring wrap up on deceleration.

The entire chassis and running gear were simple and straightforward.

The keys to success: (from left) Stan Wile, John Beltz, Ed Donaldson, and Chuck Jordan.

As part of the proof of durability and driving ease, Motor Trend took a 1966 Toronado cross country.

Car Life Magazine's test panel on the 1966 Toronado.

The 1930s FWD cars were inspirational in the Oldsmobile approach, but not of much use in the engineering process