Friday, July 4, 2014

Grandpa's Toronado

Grampa's 1967 Olds Toronado looked exactly like this one, except that its wheels were painted silver.

I can't share Jay Leno's enthusiasm for the Oldsmobile Toronado, and I drove one for six years.  Here's Leno's short video interview of the car's stylist.  He makes the mistake that drove me nuts back then as a driving enthusiast: confusing "styling" with "design".

My mother's father loved cars: big cars and luxury cars, which amounted to the same thing in the 1950's and 1960's.  Grandpa didn't make a lot of money, so he bought late-model trade-ins or demos.  Before and during World War Two he drove a Packard.  His first car after the war was a "step down" Hudson Hornet.  When Hudson went belly-up, he switched to Oldsmobile: a '55, two '57's, including a snappy gold 4-door hardtop, an early '60's model I don't clearly recall, and his last and favorite: a '67 Toronado.  It was so long that he couldn't close the door of his small detached garage over it.

Grandpa's cars were always "full boat": electric windows, power seats, two-speaker radios, automatic headlight dimmers, and of course air-conditioning.  If it came with the larger V-8, that was fine with him.  If there was a comfort and convenience feature not on the Toronado, I don't remember it.  This was at a time when my Dad was driving entry-level Chrysler products with 6-cylinder engines, stick shifts, and windup windows--to save on transportation costs.

When he died, Grandpa's Toronado went to my Mom.  It was her first big car, and it must have made an impression on her: she replaced it with a Volkswagen Fox station wagon.  She gave the Toronado to my growing family.  Its lousy gas milage and large size made it unsuitable for the cut-and-thrust of freeway commuting, so I drove my Datsun 510 to work.  My ex used the Toro around town.  I have fond memories of family vacations in it.  We put pillows on the flat rear floor to give our toddlers room to lie down on long road trips.  Child safety seats were still in the future.  The miles rolled past placidly, if not quickly.

This brings me to my brief against the Toronado.  Grandpa's had the 455 cubic inch engine.  It got 13 miles per gallon: in town, on the highway--no difference.   You would think that 385 (claimed) h.p. and 475 lb./ft. of torque would move it along quickly.  Not so: it weighed 5000 lbs.  It handled like you'd expect a 5000 lb. car with 60% of the weight over the front wheels would.  Feeding in steering lock was a visual proposition: "That looks about bit more."  There was no feedback through the over-boosted power steering.  As for stopping: it is hilarious that Olds would hire the Unsers to run a Toronado uphill in the Pike's Peak hillclimb, to prove that the car's brakes were adequate (see video). The Toro was a fine car in winter snow.  With huge mass and front wheel drive, it just bulled through drifts.  The risk of getting stuck was low.  But if you did get stuck, an industrial grade tow truck would be needed to unstick you.

Styling is in the eye of the beholder.  The Toronado doesn't push my buttons like it does Leno's, especially compared with some of the other cars G.M. was doing at the time.  The stylist makes the point that the flared wheel arches chopped into a flat surface parallel to the plane of the tire have become a cliche.  Both my 2009 Honda Civic and 2008 Mustang have them.  I could live happily with a different wheel arch treatment, especially on the rear of my Mustang (they look good up front).

The Toronado had the worst size to weight to interior volume ratio of any car I've owned.  A large gas tank gave it adequate range but decreased trunk space.  The front seat was amazingly spacious.  The back seat was barely adequate for adults, and hard to get into.  The doors weighed a lot and required a basketball player's reach to open fully.

Hands down, no contest, the Toro was the most inefficient, hardest to park, least fun to drive car I've owned.  But Grandpa loved it...

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