'69 Olds Toronado - Pull me, don't push me.

Guess what, citizens. Despite what you may think, front wheel drive is a luxury feature. At least, that's what Oldsmobile wanted you to think in 1969.

In our modern brains, front wheel drive is something that we associate with small cars, which in this country means "economy cars", which means "This is what I can afford. Get off my back." So, anything that smacks of big cars also smells of luxury. These days, that means rear wheel drive - or four wheel drive - and probably an air hockey table in your back seat rec room.

For those who care about what "front wheel drive" is: In '69 front wheel drive was sort of new to the mainstream market. Compared to your average rear wheel drive car of the era, it made your car steer better in dry conditions and way less squirrely in slippery conditions. Also, it meant that there was no "hump" running down the middle of the car's floor, which is where the drive shaft would normally go, because it had to turn the rear wheels. This meant better rear seat comfort... especially for the sucker who drew the short straw and got stuck in the middle. Also also, the car could be made lighter and simpler, because all the business was at the front of the car, and you didn't need to have a big heavy drive shaft going from the engine to the rear wheels to make them go.

Conversely, some people don't like the way a FWD car drives. It can be described as "numb" or "dull". These are usually "car guys", and it can drive them away from front drive cars, hurting sales.

In this ad, Oldsmobile is trumpeting the safety and stability of FWD. The front wheels pull the car along, whatever direction they're pointing. This made the car feel more composed and predictable. But these days, what with our onboard computers and traction control and whatever, FWD no longer has such a huge safety advantage over RWD. By assessing vehicle speed and direction a couple hundred times per second, the car's computer can selectively brake each wheel to keep the car pointing where you want it to go. This means that those car guys who don't like FWD can buy a rear drive car and enjoy it without skidding through a grammar school when a few drops of rain fall on the road. Basically, all cars built in the last fifteen years have electronic stability control of some kind, so when your aunt asks "Shouldn't I get a front wheel drive car because it's safer?", you can assure her that it doesn't matter, and she should get the car that comes in pink. The computer will do a good job keeping her out of the drainage ditch, even if that's where her pink monstrosity belongs.

For those who don't care what "front wheel drive" is: Front wheel drive is a thing in a car.

So, it's kind of funny to see Oldmobile selling FWD as a luxury item when it has, since then, become a hallmark of econo cars. These days, it's a bit of a bragging point if your car is rear drive, as it sets it apart from the herd or FWD Festivas and 4WD Explorers. It gives you some street cred as a car guy. This is in accordance with my often-stated principle that "Whatever is hard to acquire will be desirable." This is how exclusivity works. It's part of what drives attendance at Apple product launch events. It's also the theme behind the Dr. Seuss story about the Star-Bellied Sneetches.

This model in the ad looks pretty irritated. What's he there for? The people on the left are clearly ignoring him. He looks as if that's his car they borrowed for the shoot. "Are you done? Can I go now?" Don't be so angry, little model. It's not like your car is pink. Maybe in the next shoot you'll get to wear the Zorro costume.

Click for big.


Tim said...

For me, that era Toronado represents the last of the beautiful American car designs. While the chrome bits somewhat date things, but the overall appearance is still more eye-pleasing than the personality-free clones from the 40 years that followed.

Walt said...

I had an '84 Eldorado for a long while. It was quite large and FWD. It was pretty much unstoppable in snow.

Eldorado was just the Cadillac version of the Toronado.

When I had it in for an emission test, the guys tried to put the rear wheels on the rollers. They didn't believe me when I told them it was FWD.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Tim's right. The Toronado looks mighty good. I think the mainstream auto market could benefit from the same retroism that the American muscle car segment has recently enjoyed.

Nice observation about a heavy FWD car and snow, Walt. Thanks for contributing!


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