8 January 2016

First Love, Best Love: The Toronado that won an esteemed collector’s heart

Many automobiles are prized for their stylish shapes. Others are highly valued for the innovations they introduced. Coveted as well are those that carved out a unique place in automotive history. But most treasured perhaps are the cars that take us back to a special time and place.

For Ken Lingenfelter, who owns approximately 250 automobiles, including some of the world’s most sought after exotics, that most treasured car is a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. The special time is the mid 1960s and the place is the Fisher body plant in Euclid Ohio, where his dad once tested prototypes and gauged the quality of new Fisher creations.

The love affair began when Ken’s dad was deeply involved in the development of the stylish Toronado, a car that broke new ground for both General Motors and the industry. “After dinner, dad would take me to the plant,” said Ken in a telephone interview. I was already a car geek but seeing that car put me over the top – burned memories into my brain.”

It was the first front-wheel-drive American car produced since Cord breathed its last in 1937 and was undoubtedly a bold move for the usually conservative Detroit automaker.

“The car was a marvel of its time with fastback styling, flip-up headlights, front wheel drive and big motor,” said Ken. Every time I see one, it still catches my eye.

Ken, whose collection includes approximately 250 vehicles, is fond of many automobiles, but for years his first love, the sleek Toronado, eluded him. Determined to find an excellent example of the car his dad had helped create, he scoured trade publications and classified ads from across the country. Finally, he saw a classified listing for a ’66 Toronado in Old Cars Weekly; the ad described the car he had been searching for. After phone and mail negotiations, he took delivery of it sight unseen. The gamble proved worthwhile: the metallic blue ’66 Toronado is a one-owner car that looks brand new and shows only 40,000 miles on the odometer.

GM’s Toronado began life as a styling exercise by designer David North. His 1962 creation was meant to be a compact car, but expediency and GM’s existing E-body platform dictated otherwise. Meanwhile GM Engineers, under the direction of John Beltz had been developing a front-wheel-drive system called the Unitized Power Package. The North design and the UPP were a good match, and GM slated the Toronado for production.

That 1966 model was powered by a 385-horsepower version of Oldsmobile’s 425 cubic-inch Super Rocket V8, mated to a chain-driven version of GM’s THM 400 three-speed automatic. The automaker claimed a zero to 60 mph time of 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 135 mph for the 5,000-pound car.

“The interior was groundbreaking for GM,” said Ken. “The steering wheel and speedometer were non-conventional. Not having the transmission tunnel hump was a big deal. As a kid I’d sit in the middle of the front bench seat.”

The Toronado’s novelty and good looks caught the attention of both press and public. Motor Trend named it Car of the Year, and in their review, they wrote, “The mere sight of the Toronado had an electric effect upon some motorists we’d overtake or meet. The typical driver would let us pass and pull away a short distance, while he digested what he’d seen. Then suddenly he’d accelerate, overtake, and seesaw back and forth by us several times while he checked the nameplate and thoroughly looked us over.”

Ken’s Toronado now occupies a place of honor in the Lingenfelter Collection, much of which is housed in a spacious Brighton, Mich. building. Because one can never own too many versions of a very special car, Ken has since purchased a 1970 Toronado — the last example of the first generation. The later car is powered by Oldsmobile’s W-34 powertrain, which features a 400-horsepower 455-cubic-inch engine with cold-air induction and modified valve timing, backed by a transmission that shifts as though it means it.

The Lingenfelter Collection isn’t open to the public on a regular basis, but Ken stages frequent events, ranging from car-club pizza parties to black-tie gatherings for automobile-loving philanthropists. The collection’s principal mission is as a venue for charity fundraisers, and it succeeds well in that role.

While some car collections are mere moribund displays, Ken’s is vibrant and alive. A crew of technicians maintains the automobiles, keeping them on battery tenders and ready to go. All are started and exercised regularly, and it’s not uncommon to find Ken behind the wheel of his first love — the car to which his dad devoted so much time and energy.

“The ’66 Toronado still turns heads when I drive it,” said Ken. “That pleases me, and I’m sure it would have pleased my dad."

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