Car of the Month — 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado

The Oldsmobile Toronado was a unique, a front-wheel drive coupe introduced by the Oldsmobile division of General Motors in 1966. At the time, it was the largest and most powerful front-wheel-drive car ever produced, and one of the first modern front-wheel-drive cars equipped with an automatic transmission. Designed to compete with the Ford Thunderbird and GM’s own Buick Riviera, the original 1966 model Toronado was powered by a 425 CID Super Rocket V8 engine rated at 385bhp, mated to a three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission. In 1966  the Toronado was voted the Motor Trend magazine ‘Car of the year’. The Toronado also placed third in the 1966 European Car of the Year contest, a distinction no other American car had achieved before.

The unusual Toronado powertrain, which combined an engine and transmission into an engine bay no larger than a conventional rear-wheel drive car, was dubbed the Unitized Power Package (UPP) and was used basically unchanged in the 1970s GMC motorhome. The Toronado was GM’s first subframe automobile, which means it was partly unitized, and used a subframe that ended at the forward end of the rear suspension leaf springs, serving as an attachment point for the springs. It carried the powertrain, front suspension and floorpan, allowing greater isolation of road and engine harshness.



In 1969 Frank Peterson of Lakewood Colorado took a stock 1968 model Toronado and built the car you see here to run in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. Frank was already a regular at the “Race to the Clouds”, one of America’s greatest races, where the course begins at just over 9,000 feet, and finishes at the 14,110-foot summit, and climbs to an altitude that leaves any car’s engines gasping for breath. In the mid-1960s Frank and Kaye began a long and fruitful partnership with Oldsmobile. The Toronado looked like a natural for the mountain, with its grippy front-wheel-drive layout and monster motor. For Frank, it was a pipeline into the factory that boosted him into the top tier of competitors. Frank built two Toronados for Pikes Peak in 1966, and in 1967 finished second after running out of gas in the last mile. In 1968, Frank had a hand in Toronados that finished 1-2-3.

And then there was our feature car, a highly developed ’69 model Toronado, that ran in the 1969 (second in class for Frank), ’70 and ’71 Hillclimbs, including a famous class win in the Stock car division for Frank in 1970.

“I had Oldsmobile sponsorship for 26 years. They used to help us a lot with engineering. On the ‘69 car, they built the motor and Hydra-Matic transmission for it,” he said. “They even built a special final drive for the car with 5.12:1 gearing. They had to make those gears, which was quite a process. I think at the time they cost about $20,000 each to make those gears, because I think they only made five sets of them, something like that.” The standard bore and stroke 455ci motor for the ’69 Toronado was built with titanium valves, Carrillo rods and Venolia pistons. Hooker custom-built a set of headers for the car. There were other factory goodies. “Oldsmobile had some experimental aluminum drums made,” Frank told us, “and we used those with sintered metallic linings. That also has a giant radiator. It’s really hard to cool cars at Pikes Peak because the air is so thin.”



After the Toronado was retired in 1971, it went into storage for several decades while Frank continued racing other Oldsmobiles. Still owned by Frank and Kaye, in 2009 it emerged to be given fresh paint and stripes by Gary Riley and Marvin Galbraith from Level One Restoration. The distinctive lettering was recreated by Joe Broxterman of Speedway Graphics in Denver. Remarkably, the engine started and ran with no drama.