you look through the British Columbia Oldsmobile Club photo albums from the
mid 1980’s, there are pictures of an Olds show at Wolfe Chev Olds in
Burnaby. Our Toronado is the
white 1978 pictured in the showroom. At
the time it belonged to my brother who bought the Toro when he lived in
Cranbrook during 1983. I bought
it in 1988 and have used it regularly since then.
1978 Toronado is the last of the big ones, using many of the same front drive
components as the first Toronado back in 1966.
Due the energy crisis of the late 1970’s, some “economy” measures
were taken. The engine was
downsized from earlier years to 403 cubic inches, a high gear economy vacuum
gauge was included as an option, the final drive ratio set at a tall 2:73, and
a computer was introduced to control the ignition spark timing.
On this car, we replaced the original exhaust system with a low
restriction dual system. As a
result of all this, it can get 22 mpg on the highway and can go 400 freeway
miles between fill-ups. This 1978
Toronado XS is loaded with every option in the book including sunroof, red
leather interior, 6 way power seats adjustable individually for the driver and
passenger, twilight sentinel headlights, tempmatic climate control, lamp out
monitor system, and a driver’s reminder audible alarm package for low
coolant, low fuel, Hi-Lo voltage, engine hot and lights on.
It also has the Driver Controlled Leveling
System option with rear air shocks and an under dash adjustable
pressure regulator and gauge.
“XS” designates the wrap around rear window model, which gives completely
unobstructed rear vision due to the absence of a rear pillar and, with a car
this size you need all the help you can get.
You have to wonder if “XS” also means “Excess” due to the
enormous proportions of the car. It
has a monstrous 122 inch wheel base, 227 inch length, and weighs 4800 lbs. but
has a shallow trunk that doesn’t hold much, massive seats but for only four
passengers. However, if you fold the arm rests up you can find seat belts for
six. Also, with a bit of care 4X8
plywood can be hauled in the trunk.
distributor has no vacuum or centrifugal advance because the spark advance is
controlled by the computer. 1977
and 1978 Toronados were the first GM cars to use computers.
The Toronado system is called MISAR and uses a custom built 10 bit
microprocessor. It senses
atmospheric pressure, engine vacuum, temperature and speed to determine
optimum spark advance, resulting in slightly reduced fuel consumption.
The 1978 system was improved over 1977 by moving the speed sensor from
the crankshaft pulley to inside the distributor. As with many new designs,
reliability can be a problem and as a result most of the Toronados that had
this system have had it eliminated by changing the MISAR distributor to a
conventional Oldsmobile HEI distributor.
The fuel system is not computerized and uses a conventional Rochester 4
Toronado will not be winning any awards for reliability.
It established this reputation when it was my brother’s car.
In 1986, he was driving to our wedding via the Coquihalla Highway when
the pin that holds the distributor drive gear to the shaft sheared off during
a shift into to high gear. It had
to be towed to Hope to get repaired. With
a family on the way, I bought the Toronado in 1988 with only 85,000 miles on
it to use in place of an incredibly reliable but ancient flathead 6 cylinder
1954 Dodge. Shortly afterwards
the Toronado had to be towed home due to a mysterious weak spark that was
with a new ignition coil. Several
years later on a fishing trip, it quit at the toll booth on the Coquihalla
Highway one summer. That was
cured with a new ignition coil after getting towed to a parts store in Merrit.
Fortunately the coil is the same as many other GM cars, however, the
rest of the ignition system components are unique to a 1978 Toronado.
After the two ignition failures I started to carry a complete spare
conventional HEI distributor in case I had to do a roadside conversion.
Just about 2 years later, on the way to Salmon Arm, the engine went
dead on the Coquihalla in Merritt. Since
the last two failures were due to the coil, it was my first suspicion.
The coil was too hot to touch! It seems there is something about my
MISAR system that overheats the coil. Five minutes later, after installing the
cap and coil from the spare distributor, we were mobile again.
The coil had failed less than two miles from the location of its
purchase several years earlier!
the spring of 1998 we drove to Los Angeles and back.
On the first day of the drive, the engine sputtered and quit in
Portland. The coil was changed
and we were on our way minutes later. After
that I took off the coil cover for extra cooling.
The remainder of the LA trip was completed without trouble.
A few months later while on a business trip around the province, I
drove most of the day to get from Kelowna to Prince George.
At the end of the day, as I pulled into the motel parking lot.
I noticed that the pulp mill odor seemed to have changed a bit from my
previous Prince George visits. The
new odor resembled something like hot antifreeze.
No wonder. After driving
all day, my water pump seal blew as I turned into the motel parking lot and
there was coolant everywhere!
Christmas Day, 1998, while driving from Logan Lake to Revelstoke, the Toronado
quit on the Coquihalla just before the descent to Kamloops.
Now the Coquihalla is not the only road this car has been driven on but
if you’ve been counting, this is four breakdowns with the same car on the
same highway! At 20 below with a
snowstorm approaching, I was not amused.
Hopefully a new coil would get us going momentarily but I was puzzled
that leaving the coil cover off had not solved the failures and I was also
puzzled that the coil quit after only 30 minutes in cold weather.
The previous failures were always after several hours of
hot weather driving. I
verified that I had plenty of fuel in the carb, so replaced the coil.
I had four spare coils in the trunk, of which at least three should
have been good. Four coils and 45
minutes later the car was still not running.
I was beginning to wonder what to do as we were still hundreds of miles
from our Christmas dinner destination. I
tried to change the whole distributor for the one in the trunk but the dead
one was and would not come out. I
decided to try one last longshot before giving up and calling for help.
I swapped the 3 pin MISAR electronic ignition module for the 4 pin HEI
module from the spare distributor and somehow with only 3 of the 4 pins of the
spare module connected, the engine fired up.
Even though there may be no spark advance, I didn’t care as we were
mobile and on our way. We arrived
at Revelstoke in time for dinner and to watch a snowstorm dump five feet of
snow in four days.
21 years on the road, I’m not sure how much longer it will be until this car
gets retired. It has been very
comfortable and safe transportation. One
day while stopped in traffic, I felt a solid nudge from behind and found a
Pontiac Firefly written off against my rear bumper leaving me with only a few
traces of the mishap. The front
drive winter traction has been a real plus and sometimes even entertaining.
Those of you that live in the Lower Mainland know that each year our
cars must be tested for emissions levels.
This involves putting the drive wheels of the car on dyno rollers while
measuring equipment checks the emissions under various engine conditions.
Twice now the testing staff have insisted that I pull forward until the
rear wheels of the Toro are on the dyno.
They have trouble believing that this big old boxy Oldsmobile is front
drive. A recent snow tire
purchase also required convincing the staff to put the new snow tires on the
for the ignition system trouble, other than replacing the aluminum rocker arm
pivots and repairing the alternator and starter, the engine has never been
apart. The body is actually quite
rusty but has been patched enough times to be almost presentable.
At just under 160,000 miles on the clock it still sounds and drives
like new. I think the engine will
last forever but if the transmission or final drive gives out, the car will be
parked until someone wants to restore it.... but who knows, maybe it will keep
going and I’ll be writing 20 years and a Toronado.