By Bill Vance

Motoring Memories: General Motors Ventures into Front Wheel Drive motoring memories
Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

Front-wheel-drive is now the most popular way of getting the power to the road in passenger cars, but its widespread use is a relatively recent development.

It was only during the 1980s that the North American industry made the transition in a big way, although there had been significant pioneering work done in both Europe and the United States.

Alvis of England and Tracta of France introduced production front-wheel-drive cars in the late 1920s. This was followed by Audi of Germany in 1931 with its truly advanced Front model, which forecast many of our present layouts with its transverse engine and four-wheel independent suspension.

The car that would do the most to popularize front-wheel-drive was the French Citroen Traction Avant. It came out in 1934 and lasted right through to the 1950s.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Christie Front Drive Motor Co. had front-wheel racers running as early as 1904, with production models available by 1905. But the best-known American front-drive car was the Cord, the first of which was the 1929 L-29 model.

Although front drive continued to be used in Europe, it languished in North America until it was revived in 1966 by GM’s innovative Oldsmobile division in the Toronado. It was followed a year later by Cadillac’s Eldorado coupe.

General Motors had introduced some imaginative engineering in the 1960s, including the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair, the Pontiac Tempest’s “hanging rope” driveshaft and rear-mounted transaxle, and passenger car turbocharging in the Olds F-85 Jetfire V-8 and Corvair Monza Spyder. But the item that would have the greatest long-term impact on GM’s future was the front-wheel-drive used in those 1960s Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.

The use of front-wheel-drive had been considered by GM back in the early 1950s for its LaSalle II Motorama concept car, but had been abandoned because of time and cost considerations. The idea was revived in the late 1950s and promoted by a bright young Olds engineer named John Beltz, who would go on to become general manager of Oldsmobile.

Oldsmobile wanted a specialty car to compete with the successful Riviera from its Buick sister division, and the very popular Ford Thunderbird. But Beltz wanted something different, something with a little engineering pizzazz. He rallied his colleagues, and soon convinced the corporation to let Oldsmobile build a front-drive car.

The front-wheel-drive Toronado that emerged in 1966 was a sensation. With a wheelbase of 3,023 mm (119 in.), an overall length of 5,359 mm (211 in.) and a weight of 2,042 kg (4,500 lb), the Toronado was a big car. There were skeptics who predicted that FWD would not be successful on such a large vehicle.

To power this much car required a substantial engine, and Olds provided it in the form of a 7.0-litre (425 cu. in.) overhead-valve V8 rated at 385 horsepower. It was mounted in the normal longitudinal position, with the torque converter in its usual location at the rear of the engine.

The three-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, however, was “folded” around 180 degrees and mounted on the left side of the engine. Drive was transmitted from the converter to the transmission via a 51 mm (2.0 in.) wide multi-link chain.

Because the drive axles passed through where the coil springs would normally be located, Oldsmobile used longitudinal torsion bars in front. Rear suspension was also novel, and simple: a beam axle with a single leaf spring at each end.

But what prospective Toronado buyers were most impressed with, at first, was the virtually flat floor. Eliminating the transmission hump and driveshaft tunnel had allowed Oldsmobile to build a true six-passenger car.

The styling of the Toronado was almost as dramatic as the engineering. It had a long nose, and the front end was made to appear even longer by fenders that stretched out ahead of the hood, no doubt to emphasize the front-wheel drive feature.

Hidden headlamps, which had been pioneered by the 1936 Cord 810, were also fitted. Substantial fender flares front and rear gave the car a muscular look, and the short, sloped fastback ended in an abrupt vertical chop, following the precept laid down by famous German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm.

The Toronado was well received by the motoring press and the public when it arrived as a 1966 model. It was Motor Trend’s car of the year, and Car Life magazine gave it their engineering excellence award.

Almost 41,000 1966 Toronados were sold, which would turn out to be the best sales year of the first generation model, which lasted until 1970.

Cadillac joined Oldsmobile in 1967 with its front-wheel-drive Eldorado, and these corporate clones remained GM’s front-drive flagships until the introduction of the 1980 X-cars such as the Chevrolet Citation.

The Toro/Eldo twins provided GM with a reservoir of engineering experience that would prove invaluable in their almost universal transformation to front-wheel-drive in the 1980s.