Feature Story

HISTORY: FWD IN AMERICA

by Bob Hagin

October 25, 1996

The year 1966 marks the 30th anniversary of a monumental event in the history of the American automobile industry. It was an automotive breakthrough that has affected almost everyone in this country who has bought a new American-built car in the past couple of decades and, ironically, most of those buyers never even gave the revolution a second thought. And for the most part, buyers in the future won't give it much attention either.

It was in 1966 that the Toronado rolled out of Oldsmobile showrooms and became the first modern American car to be equipped with front-wheel drive. Since then, the front-wheel drive system has been used on the vast majority of US manufactured cars and most of the autos that have been imported from Asia and Europe as well.

I know that the auto buffs who read this column are bristling with indignation by now. They will remind me that those fabulous American classics, the 810 and 812 Cords of 1937, also drove through the front wheels and that several European auto makers utilized front-wheel drive as well. Citroen has been producing its "traction avant" sedans since 1934 and such now-obscure German makes as DKW, Adler, Goliath, Lloyd, Gutbrod and Wartburg were front-drive, too.

But the operative words here are "modern" and "American." Before the advent of the Toronado, Americans could buy front-drive cars but they were either the aforementioned off-beat German makes, the quirky Saab, the stately but weird Citroen, or the now legendary British Austin/Morris Mini econobox. But these cars had several features in common that made them unacceptable to Americans for the most part: They were all fairly small, short on horsepower and carried less that eight cylinders under the hood.

Think back to 1966. It was the era of the American Muscle Car. Horsepower ruled and the big V8 engine was the standard of the industry. The oil shortages of the '70s were years in the future and the American car business was scrambling to find innovative new products to tempt buyers. All the other General Motors lines had been into innovative breakthroughs except Oldsmobile so when it came time for that division to produce something "flashy," the full-size, front-drive, V8-powered Toronado coupe was the result. Few big cars that came on the American car market in recent memory were as "different" as the "Toro" and its front-wheel drive train was its most spectacular attribute. Within a year, Cadillac had its own front-drive coupe, the Eldorado, on the market.

It isn't that the American auto makers hadn't toyed with front-drive cars before the advent of the Toronado. During World War II, Ford had experimented with one that mounted a six cylinder engine transversely (crossways) in an experimental sedan. The Checker Motor Corp. did the same, hoping to produce a more internally spacious vehicle for it taxi line. Even the ill-fated Kaiser-Frazer Corp. tried the system, hoping to get a foothold in the US market.

And major American companies also developed front-drive cars through their overseas branches, especially in the early '60s. Ford of Germany produced its small Taunus in '63 while Chrysler developed front-drive cars in France through ownership of Simca.

But it was the appearance of two small front-drive imports in the early to mid-'70s that really put front-wheel drive in front of the American public. Honda overcame its toy-car status by introducing its economical and reliable little Civic in 1973 and Volkswagen supplemented its venerated air-cooled Bug with its front-engined, water-cooled, front-drive Rabbit in 1975. But there was one major difference between these two little foreigners and their technical cousins from General Motors. Their small, four-cylinder engines were mounted transversely in their chassis while the muscular Americans used up space by mounting their big V8s in the conventional front-to-rear manner.

There may have been several factors that lead to the overwhelming success of the Civic and the Rabbit. Fuel prices went sky-high, the political-incorrectness of big gas-guzzlers may have preyed on the collective American conscience and parking spaces became smaller and less plentiful. For whatever reason, the Civic and the Rabbit were hot sellers.

But it wasn't until the 1978 introduction of the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon twins that the American front-drive revolution began in earnest. The Omni/Horizon saved Chrysler financially and put the American car makers on a front-wheel drive course that it still travels.

Today, there are few American cars sold in volume that aren't driven by their front wheels. The Corvette, Camaro, Firebird and Mustang are all performance-oriented. The big Ford products (Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car) are holdouts but I think their days are numbered. All '97 General Motors passenger vehicles are now front-drive or truck-based.

The front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado last appeared as a 1992 model but it left lots of its progeny behind. Chances are, you are driving one yourself.

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