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Thanks to Mike Markowski and Jay Leno, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado is Getting Its Due.
Story: Jim Koscs
Photos: Bill Erdman
“Revolutionary” is a word that gets bandied about haphazardly by many car brands, overused by over-zealous marketers to describe even mild restyling jobs. Once in a while, though, the word really fits the car. In 1966, Oldsmobile sparked upheaval within luxury coupe ranks with the first Toronado. The big, sleek Toro emerged from what had been an especially vibrant and pioneering period for General Motors’ design and engineering.
Today, Mike Markowski of Hummelstown, Penn. – with wholehearted support from his wife, Marjie -- fights for the cause of keeping the Toronado’s legacy alive. He shares his passion for this classic Oldsmobile with late-night TV personality and inveterate car collector, Jay Leno. During a phone interview, he played an old voicemail message left by Leno, who called to acknowledge seeing Markowski’s restored red ’66 model on the cover of Hemmings Classic Car. “I’ve got it on my office wall,” Leno can be heard saying. (Leno occasionally prowls Los Angeles freeways in his own ’66 Toronado that features a custom-built rear-wheel-drive chassis and a 1,000-horsepower twin-turbo Corvette V8 engine.)
Markowski, an aeronautical engineer and motivational author and publisher, was a college student when Oldsmobile introduced the 1966 Toronado. He was smitten by the design, which had originated in 1962 as a concept drawing for a compact sports coupe by then-25-year-old GM designer, David North. Oldsmobile instead adapted North’s design to a larger luxury coupe, what would become GM’s first front-wheel drive car, the Toronado. General Motors’ Cadillac Division would use the same basic chassis for the equally striking but quite different 1967 Eldorado.
The Toronado introduced a new coupe design paradigm, blending the roofline into the rear quarters. That really was revolutionary; other coupes kept the roof a separate design element. GM later applied the design theme to other models, and competitors adopted the idea, too. And, today, the severely flared wheel arches the Toronado introduced are sprouting on everything from economy sedans to top luxury models and SUVs.
Impressing automotive critics, the 1966 Toronado garnered Motor Trend Magazine's “Car of the Year” award, and Car & Driver called it the “Best Personal/Luxury Car” and “Best All-Around Car of 1966.” The revolution wouldn’t last, though, and GM switched to more squared-up and subdued (but better-selling) designs from 1971 until ending the Toronado model in 1992.
With a base price over $4,500, the 1966 Toronado was out of reach for then-student Markowski. By the time he graduated a few years later, he’d turned his sights to the Corvette. (See Wheel People, September 2009.) In the early 1970s, the entrepreneurial engineer introduced hang-gliding on the East Coast and appeared on TV’s “To Tell the Truth” to talk about it.
Markowski finally got his ’66 Toronado in 1999 when he bought a highly optioned but rough-condition model to restore. He was encouraged, he said, both by his wife and by his late friend Chip Miller, founder of Carlisle Productions, which hosts major car collector shows and swap meets in Carlisle, Penn. Miller, a noted Corvette collector, had expressed disappointment that the collector market had been overlooking Toronados, which discouraged owners from investing effort and money into restoring them.
The 106,000-mile Toronado that Markowski bought from a friend had been stored in an Oregon barn since 1988. Its body and chassis were solid and rust-free, but the interior was trashed. “After a complete assessment was made, we questioned our sanity, but decided to forge ahead anyway,” said Markowski. He had the car shipped to Jeff and Nate Shaw in central Pennsylvania for restoration.
“We essentially remanufactured the car to what we believe is better-than-new condition,” said Markowski. The 425 cubic-inch V8 engine was rebuilt, with a few modifications for extra performance. Markowski had his personal touch applied to the Toronado, including the red paint (originally white) and tan leather interior (originally plum-colored vinyl). He added front disc brakes from a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado to address one of the ’66 Toro’s acknowledged weaknesses, four-wheel drum brakes. This Toronado is equipped with nearly every factory option, including the tilt-telescopic steering wheel, Comfortron automatic heater and air conditioner, cruise control, rear window defogger, power antenna, courtesy lights and AM-FM Wonderbar radio.
Markowski hopes that his efforts with the Toronado will help raise awareness of the car’s stature as a landmark automobile and its value among collectors. In the meantime, he enjoys driving it, along with an original-condition gold 1970 Toronado GT that he added to his collection of GM luxury cars.
“The Toronado is an absolute blast to drive and be seen in, not to mention the great fun of taking it to car shows and cruise-ins, coupled with the fact that we’ve preserved a significant piece of automotive history,” he said.