What Is It?

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Last week’s photo showed the front of the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, the country’s first front-wheel-drive car in decades. You can tell the year by the horizontal strips in the grille; the otherwise identical 1967 had a crosshatch grille.

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Although some translate Toronado as “floating bull” in Spanish, the name actually just sounded good and had no specific meaning. The huge, six-passenger two-door hardtop was manufactured through 1992.

As several readers pointed out, the car in the photo is from Jay Leno’s collection. See an article about Leno’s cars in today’s Augusta Chronicle.

Chosen randomly from the correct entries was the name of Larry Anderson, of Perry, Fla., who wrote:

“In the early ’70s, I had just got back from Vietnam, and the car I had left at my mother’s house in Columbia (a 1961 Mercury) … was on its last leg. I happened to buy a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. If I remember right, the price was right. I paid $500. (Keep in mind $500 in 1971 was a lot of money, especially for someone in school.)

“The Olds ran fine, and I remember it rode nice and the engine was strong, but after a month or so the pop-up headlights stopped working and would not come up anymore. I checked at the dealer, and to fix them was $600 – more than I paid for the whole car!

“I couldn’t afford to fix them, so I manually pulled them up at night and would wedge a screwdriver in each one, and sometimes I would hit a bump and the screwdriver would fall out and the lights would close. I remember driving down Interstate 26 one night, and all of a sudden the lights fell down and of course no lights! This got to be too much of a hassle, so I traded the car on a (Triumph) TR-4, a little red convertible that was a little better.

“At the time my friend James Covar he told me it would be cheaper to get another car than to have to keep on buying new screwdrivers. He was right! I got rid of it with good timing because the 425-cubic-inch engine was a gas guzzler. At 29 cents a gallon, gas was no problem, but when the gas crisis of 1973-74 hit, I was glad I was driving the Triumph.

“In my first experience with a front-wheel-drive car, I was concerned about the transmission and drivetrain, but as it turned out they were fine. It’s the lights that drove me crazy.”

We thank Anderson for his reminiscence. Here are the other readers identifying the vehicle; unless specified otherwise, they correctly guessed the 1966 Toronado. We had to trim the entries for space, but they appear in full online:

AIKEN: Raymond Richards wrote: “1966 Oldsmobile Toronado with front-wheel drive and retractable headlights a la Cord, Graham, etc.”

Roger Hudson said the Toronado was a 1968: “It had front-wheel drive, a solid rear axle and a big engine. It was the first front-wheel drive in a long time. I got a 1968 Cadillac Eldorado, which is first cousin to the Toronado, at a junkyard.”

Bob Barker thought it might be a 1960 Thunderbird.

AUGUSTA: Lowell Fritsche: “We had one in our company when I was in New Hampshire. I drove it some during the winter. It was great in snow.”

Norman Lewis: “This week’s car was an easy one for me. It’s a 1966 Toronado, the name that’s almost a word. When I was stationed at Fort Bragg in the ’70s, I rode with one of my good friends who owned one. It had the 455-cubic-inch, 375-horsepower engine and a propensity to break front axles. It was really weird on the drag strip to see the front wheels burning rubber. Otherwise, it was one of the best-looking, smoothest-riding cars around.

“The distinguishing characteristic of this automobile is the flat floor and front-wheel drive. It differs from today’s front-wheel drive cars because the engine is in the normal longitudinal position of a rear-wheel drive, rather than transverse like modern cars.”

Gary Engen: “Conceived as Oldsmobile’s full-size personal luxury car and competing directly with the Ford Thunderbird, the 1966 Toronado was historically significant as the first front-wheel-drive automobile produced in the United States since the demise of the Cord in 1937.

“The Toronado won Motor Trend Car of the Year honors in 1966. It was originally powered by a 425-cubic-inch V-8 that was connected to the front wheels via a robust transaxle, a combination which predated the industry’s almost universal conversion to front-wheel drive by about 15 years. The word ‘Toronado’ never really meant anything and never stood for any concept. It just sounded good to the designers.

“I grew up with Oldsmobiles, as my parents’ family cars, as best I remember, went from a 1949 Olds to a 1954 Olds Super 88 to a 1959 Olds 98 and finally to that 1966 Toronado. I was a college grad, off to military service and away from home when Dad purchased his Toronado, so I didn’t get to drive or ride in it much.

“I read that TV personality Jay Leno, who has an enviable collection of cars, owns a modified 1966 Olds Toronado that looks original but has been converted to rear-wheel drive with a 425-cubic-inch V-8 engine hopped-up to an unbelievable 1,076 horsepower. Wow, must be nice!”

Dalton Brannen: “I knew immediately that the automobile was a 1966 Toronado. My best friend in high school’s girlfriend’s father bought one new in 1966. Then we both were more interested in the car than the girl. It had flared fenders and hidden headlights (the car, not the girl). It was a beautiful blue, and the styling was striking for the time. This was the first front-wheel-drive, full-size American car since sometime in the 1930s.”

Victor Loftiss: “The car pictured is a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. It came with the Olds 425-cubic-inch engine and was front-wheel drive. You’re absolutely right in saying that the design was one of the cleanest ever built; they’re absolutely beautiful and highly sought after. The Toronado was a big, heavy car, and buddy, it was truly wild to see someone light up the front tires on one of these guys.

“Thank you so much for your What Is It? feature each week; it reminds us old hot-rodders of some beautiful automotive art from the past and the events in our lives that coincided with those times. Thanks again.”

John Hayes: “I think today’s car is a 1966 Olds Toronado.”

Carolyn Ogles said the 1966 Toronado was the first front-wheel-drive in a L O N G time.”

Walker Mobley Jr.: “The 1966 Toronado offered by GM, I believe, is the first American-made auto featuring front-wheel drive since the 1929 Cord. I think I’m correct on this. Cord production stopped after the 1938 model year.

“The 1966 Toronado came with a 425-cubic-inch, 385 horsepower V-8 engine as standard. It also featured a flat front floorboard because of the transmission being to the rear of the engine.

“The Toronado stayed in production until sometime in the early ’90s and really evolved into a good-looking and stylish car of that period. The first models, I thought, were a little radical looking but still good looking.

“As always, keep the older ones coming. I don’t think I’m alone in this line of thinking judging by the number of responses last week.”

Gerald Byrd guessed it was the 1968 or ’69 Toronado: “A gorgeous automobile, very high style; it looked more expensive than it was.”

CANTON, GA.: David Anderson wrote: “This is one of my Top 10 favorites, rated right up there with the 1967 Camaro, 1966 T-Bird and the 1965 Riviera. With its totally flat interior floors and that unique roller drum speedometer, not to mention the first American front-wheel drive platform since the 1937 Cord, the 1966 Toronado will certainly grab your attention.

“Overall styling, however, is right in line with the theme of the day with the loooong-hood, short-fastback rear-end and even the ‘cow-catcher’ front-end styling. The styling technique of the elongated front fenders on this and many other cars of the day was eventually and harshly criticized as dangerous to pedestrians because they could actually scoop and drag them directly in front of the car.

“Although referred to as a personal luxury car, the Toro weighs an average of only 400 pounds less than the comparable Cadillac De Ville of the same year and is only a little more than a foot shorter. I believe that it also has the longest doors ever put on a two-door coupe. Each door includes a second inside door handle at the very back edge so that any back-seat passengers could open the door themselves. Unlike most of today’s two-door coupe models, this car actually had an adult-size, usable back seat.

“I could have bought one of these in 1972 when I came across one on a downtown used-car lot. I cannot remember which car lot it was or even what the car color was, but I do remember its being low mileage and in good condition. I decided to pass on it for the time being, even though I was not satisfied with the burgundy 1967 Pontiac Lemans I was driving. As fate would have it, only a few weeks later, my dear old dad showed me an ad for a 1971 GTO being sold through the local Avis Car Rental. We looked, I saw, I bought! It was my dad that had also found that Lemans. He may not have scored a home run with that Lemans, but he certainly did with that GTO!

“As soon as those winning lottery numbers come to me in a vision, I will go out and buy all of those classics that have slipped through my fingers over the years!”

EDGEFIELD, S.C.: Justin Shobert

EVANS: Bill Harding: “How I miss Oldsmobile! In its glory days, Olds was known as (and widely respected for being) the engineering division of General Motors. In 1940, Olds offered the industry’s first fully automatic transmission. In 1949, Oldsmobile (along with Cadillac) developed the U.S. industry’s first modern overhead-valve V-8 engines. In 1966, the Olds Toronado became the first American V-8-powered front-wheel drive car ever and the first front-wheel drive car since the 1937 Cord.

“The Toronado was based on Buick’s Riviera, which had debuted in 1963 as a rear-wheel-drive personal luxury vehicle. Olds totally restyled the E-Body and used its own 425-cubic-inch V8 and unique front-wheel drive. Olds had been planning such a car for over six years, and the components were so well-engineered that they were also used in GM’s motor homes. Even now, 48 years later, the coupe’s styling seems right, but the car’s 5,000-pound weight probably doesn’t.

“This was to be Oldsmobile’s last successful engineering innovation. Twelve years later, the division introduced a line of gasoline engines that had been modified for conversion to diesel use. The modifications did not turn out very successfully, and the engines were prone to failure, right after warranty expiration in a lot of cases.

“The Toronado’s styling is just so tasteful. What a beautiful automobile. One thing that’s good about being both old and being a car nut is that I coex­isted with classics such as the Torona­do, and the ’63 Riviera, for that matter. When the Eldorado came out, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, because I thought the Buick and Olds versions of the E-Body were more appealing.”

Jeff Brown: “The top of the line at the time for Olds. Jay Leno owns a great one. It definitely is a clean and classy design, but it’s also a bit odd, and there seem to be the lovers and the haters for the car. Definitely an interesting car!”

Larry Heath: “Introduced in 1966 as a sport personal luxury automobile. The major innovation was the first use of front-wheel drive in an American auto since the 1930s. It came with the 425-cubic-inch engine rated at 385 horsepower. This was also the GM introduction of the TH400 automatic transmission, which was widely used in years to come. The car initially had sleek fastback styling and and handled well in addition to having numerous luxury features. In retrospect, it was a well-rounded autom, but at the time the Olds 442 was the muscle car that ‘car guys’ were more interested in.”

Scott VanEssendelft: “The 1966 Toronado was the first production front-wheel drive car since the 1937 Cord. It had a 385-horsepower, 425-cubic-inch V-8. Imagine the burnouts!”

Ted Shelton: “This week’s car is a Toronado (not ‘tornado’). I’m thinking it’s a ’68 or ’69. I remember hitch manufacturers using them to demonstrate ‘equalizing’ trailer hitches. They could adjust those hitches to raise the rear of the Toronado off the ground, take off the rear tires, and drive it around. Pretty cool. I never knew anyone who owned one. They were rare and expensive.”

Wayne Wilke: “The 1966 Toronado was the first postwar front-wheel-drive car. It had a powerful 425-cubic-inch V-8 with 385 horsepower and would accelerate from 0-to-60 mph in 9.5 seconds, which was amazing for a 4.300-pound car. It was Motor Trend’s 1966 Car of the Year. The base model cost $4,617, and the deluxe-trimmed version was $4,812.”

PJ Rodgers: “This is the 1966 Toronado, its inaugural year. Vehicle designers had actually wanted this vehicle in production a year or so earlier, but as a Chevrolet.”

Neal Little: “The 1966 Toronado was introduced about the time I was beginning to drive, when I was also beginning to pay more attention to cars, especially new models. This car really caught my attention. I thought it was one of the best looking vehicles I’d ever seen, and seeing it again just confirms that I still think it’s an exceptionally beautiful automobile.”

Also, Jerry Paul and Paul Perdue

GROVETOWN: Jack Williams thought the Toronado might be the 1973 model. He pointed out that the Olds was the first front-wheel-drive American car in years: “It was a pretty sporty car, with a V-8 engine. You don’t see any of them today. It was a nice car.”

HARLEM: Robert Powell

HEPHZIBAH: Herman Keith figured it was the 1967 or ’68 Toronado.

KEYSVILLE, GA.: Glenn Widner: “The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was the first front-wheel-drive American-made car since the Cord. It was called a personal luxury car, competing directly with Ford’s Thunderbird. A 425-cubic-inch engine delivered 385 horsepower to the front wheels. And it needed it all to motivate an almost 5,000-pound car. Similar to the Buick Riviera, which was rear-wheel drive.”

LOUISVILLE, GA.: Bob Holbert:The car is a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, the first car in many years to feature front-wheel drive. It was considered to be a futuristic design with a clean body to cut the wind. As I recall, however, the sheer weight and size of the car put too great a strain on the front drive, causing severe handling problems and front suspension woes. Beautiful car at the time, however.”

MCBEAN: Robert Lamb

MARTINEZ: Lloyd B. Schnuck Jr.: “It’s a first generation (1966-70) 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. It represented the revival of FWD, not seen since the 1937 Cord. A full-size personal luxury coupe on an E-Body shell. Powered initially by a 425-cubic-inch engine (a 455 in 1968) with a three-speed automatic to move the 5,000-pound car.

“Unfortunately, one of the oldest American marques (its roots founded in 1897 by Ransom E. Olds) built its last vehicle April 29,2004, as GM was financially struggling.”

Jeff Keevil: “Today’s car is a 1966 Toronado and the first year of production for that model. Beyond its good looks, it was equipped with a new front-wheel-drive system and powered by a front- to rear-mounted 425-cubic-inch V-8.

“Back in the 1980s I was a spectator at a drag strip when a very stock-appearing Tornado pulled up to the line. I was amazed when it shot down the strip like a scalded dog. The fellow next to me knew about the car and said the owner had installed a second Toronado engine and transmission in the rear!”

Travis Starr knew it was the 1966 Toronado, and for good reason: “My grandfather and my father were Olds men. My first new car was an Olds, a 1970 Cutlass Supreme. I also had a used ’64 Cutlass Supreme in college.”

Cheryl Cook: “It’s a first-year-off-the-assembly-line 1966 Toronado with the first high-volume front-wheel-drive produced by GM. Originally powered by a 425-cubic-inch V-8 that was connected to the front wheels via a robust transaxle, a combination which predated the industry’s almost universal conversion to front-wheel drive by about 15 years. Wow! What a car! Jay Leno has an original ’66 in his garage of classic cars that he loves.”

Jim Muraski not only guessed this week’s Toro but also last week’s Cadillac Escalade, but we inadvertently left his entry out. We apologize. He said of the Toronado: “I came really close to buying one of these back in the mid-’70s!”

NORTH AUGUSTA: Paul Brewer: “This is the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. It was its first, and best year, for it got progressively fatter and slower in subsequent models. It was the first front-wheel-drive car produced by the Big Three” since the Cord bit the dust. I had a buddy in Richmond who owned one. It was a fairly sporty performer, in a straight line!”

Ernie McFerrin: “This week’s car featured the innovative front-wheel drive. Initially, I thought the car was first developed in 1968 but further study proved 1966 was the first year. It was a game changer.”

John Simurda thought it was the 1967 version of the Toronado.

WARRENVILLE: James Covar

THIS WEEK’S QUIZ

Can you tell us the year and make of this vintage vehicle? If you know what it is, e-mail glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com or call (706) 823-3419.

Please tell us your name, city and telephone number, and please spell your name when you call.

You have until midnight Tuesday to respond. Entries might be edited for space, style and content. As always, we’d like to hear your personal stories of the car. We will publish your entries next Friday.

– Glynn Moore, staff writer


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