If 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.


A 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.


The “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.


The 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 barrel carburetor.


Our 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 cured 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! 


In 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!


On 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.


After 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 front.

 Except 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.      

May 1998

Jim Carpenter