1989 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo: Something Special

1986 Oldsmobile Toronado-03

Perhaps it’s because they debuted right around the time I started noticing specific model years of cars. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with Volvo 240s and these cars seemed exotic and so different. Hidden headlights! Sleek lines! American made! Or maybe because I have a soft spot for cars that stumbled in the marketplace. I love Studebakers too.

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Now, although this post is about how I like the Mini Me (Dr. Evil: Come, Mini Me! Muhahahahaha!) 1986-89 Toronados, I also must point out that I am a big fan of the 1979-85 Toros too. As a matter of fact, it is my favorite of the three flavors of E-body in those days, despite the Riviera and Eldorado being more expensive. Maybe because they were less common? Anyway, this medium red ’85 Toro Brougham would look great in my garage, if there wasn’t currently a Town Car occupying it…

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But I digress. One thing we all can agree on–the 1986-89 Toronado was a very different car from its Broughamier 1971-85 predecessors.

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And yet, there was a lot of 1966 Toronado in the new ’86s. In 1966, the Eldorado, not yet a front-wheel drive personal luxury coupe, was a flossy über-lux convertible, while the Riviera and Toronado were sporty personal-lux coupes. The whole crushed-velour, opera-windowed, coach-lamped isolation chamber versions of both E-bodies would come along several years later.

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With the 1986 models, that sporty, well-handling idiom came back, instead of the boulevard ride and road isolation of the “wedding cake” Eldos, Rivs and Toros of 1971-78. It was the ’80s after all, and Brougham starting, somewhat, to be on the way out. Not QUITE yet, but getting there.

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The 1986 Toronado was all about efficiency, comfort, luxury and good handling characteristics. The new top-of-the-line model, the Troféo, emphasized this point dramatically. This was a luxury Oldsmobile? Well, yes and no. It was sporty and luxurious–if, that is, superficial buyers could get past the “Ooh, it’s a tarted-up Calais” schtick. That’s another old chestnut from unhappy Wet coast vantzes who never would have bought one in the first place. Whoops, I’m digressing again.

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Okay, it looks like a Calais? Well, vaunted Mercedes-Benz did the same thing! Take, for instance the 190E. It was a plebian, if well-engineered car, but in its home country you had them everywhere as buzzy little taxis. Hardly luxurious. Hardly plush. Hardly fast. But NOOOOOO! As John Belushi would have said on SNL when SNL was actually funny. That’s like, totally different, man…

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Then, at the top of the M-B food chain was the W126. While a much larger and more luxurious car (and beautiful, I won’t dispute that), and with a price tag to match–it looked JUST like the el-cheapo 190 for gosh sakes! Even the wheels were the same. The grille, taillights, side creases, and even the roofline were all very similar if not identical. Just like the Toronado. One was clearly bigger and more luxurious, but with more than a passing resemblance–just like the Toronado. One had more gadgets and a longer wheelbase–just like the Toronado. Yet the Toronado gets blasted from here to Kansas City and back and the Mercedeses get a pass? And hey, the Toro wasn’t fricking $60,000! And may I add, today, I can’t look at one of these without thinking of the one Jessica Walter drove in Arrested Development. Get me a vodka rocks! And a piece of toast…

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OK, where was I? All righty. Let’s say someone blindfolded you, bundled you into the driver’s seat of a brand-new 1989 Troféo, slammed the door and told you to put the foot to the carpet–after removing the blindfold of course. I daresay you would enjoy the experience. Until you saw oh noes! It was a damned Amercian car! Aw scheiss! Well, go get a Legend coupe then, bwahaha.

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For instance: the well-regarded 3800 provided forward motivation, and by ’89 had 165 hp and a healthy 210 lb-ft of torque, as well as sequential-port fuel injection. As savvier folks know, torque is much more crucial to driving enjoyment than horsepower–a fact lost on today’s bread-and-butter sedans with 350 hp. And with Teves four-wheel anti-lock brakes, they stopped just as well as they went.

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Inside was a real treat, with leather bucket seats that had power adjustment for the side bolsters, back contour and even lumbar support, a la Volvo.

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Steering wheel-mounted radio controls were newly available. Returning to the standard equipment list were a leather-wrapped steering wheel, FE3 Touring Car Ride and Handling package, Twilight Sentinel and lacy-spoke 15-inch aluminum wheels. One thing NOT available was a manual transmission, but this gunmetal-gray ’89 Troféo has one–clearly a modification by its owner, who no doubt must love this car to do such a major change! And while the hood was not up, a “Supercharged” logo on the left side of the trunk lid suggested this had gotten a boosted Riviera or Park Avenue Ultra 3800 V6 transplant.

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In addition to being the sportiest Toronado in years, the Troféo also had several 1966 cues on it, especially the full-width grille with hidden headlights. That and the full-width taillights are why the Toronado is my favorite of the three 1986 E bodies. The sporty styling wore much better on the downsized E’s flanks than the mini-Biarritzes and landau-roofed Rivieras of the time.

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And like the Riviera, the Toronado received the Visual Information Center, or VIC. It was an impressive technological feat for GM at the time, but woe to the Toro, Eldo or Riv owner who had it conk out. Replacements were super expensive, and later simply unobtainable. Like many early adopters, the touch-screens used on these luxo coupes just weren’t perfected!

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But the interior sure was swank, was it not? I love the interior on these–just a hint of the ’60s greatness here and there, yet modern and of course, comfortable.

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1989 was the last year of the “truncated” Toro; for 1990 they would receive a longer rear deck, which brother Rivvy got the prior model year. I like those too, and actually have a choice example of that final Toronado in my archives (peal white, burgundy leather, fabulous, spotted at a Jewel Osco while I was seeking gin and tonic water), but seeing this mildly modified Troféo at the Classy Chassy cruise night in Coralville on May 30 of 2014, I couldn’t help but do this one first! The five speed and early ’90s Cutlass Supreme alloys just look like they belong, and make for a pretty mean machine.

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Were they GM’s finest hour? Well, perhaps not, but they were still pretty damn nice cars and I really enjoyed seeing this survivor. And it’s a helluva lot better than the Karen-topia of combover overload we see now, in The Year Of Our Lord, 2021. I am sure its owner feels the same way. So here’s to you Troféo, at least two people in the United States love you!

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25 Replies to “1989 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo: Something Special”

  1. AvatarJohn C.

    I also agree that the Toro was the best executed of the 86s. I am more luxury than sporty though so my allegiance changes to Eldorado with the 1988 refresh

    Interesting that this one has a manual switched in. Back in the day, C/D reported that Olds was thinking about offering a Trofeo,(it means trophy in Italian according to Maserati that uses the name now on a four door sedan), with a circa 215 hp turbo HO Quad 4 but did not have a manual transaxle that could handle the torque. That might have been a little noisy and sporty for the 80s PLC buyer but imagine each of the three divisions E body coupes had their own division engine and the super light weight flexible platform running well but differently with three different cylinder configurations. Sure the W124 could do that too but they kept the 230E back in Europe because it would have been sad sack slow here.

    Reply
  2. Avatarstingray65

    Not a bad looking car for the time, and certainly the best looking Toronado since the 1966 original, but let down by the details. Nice interior except for the awful digital dashboard that was expensive to offer, difficult to use, and quickly gained a reputation for being troublesome and expensive to repair. Similarly, the 3.8 V-6 might have offered reasonably competitive power, but it was also the same engine used on the cheaper GM models, was a 25 year old design, and not very smooth or happy to rev, so not really worthy for the flagship Olds or in keeping with the tradition of powerful 425 Toronados from the past that the styling was trying to mimic. Now if GM had made a turbo or supercharged version standard or strapped on aluminum OHC heads to differentiate the 3.8 from the cheaper models and give it class leading power they would have had something, and doing so would have almost certainly been a better investment for GM than the troublesome digital dashboard. I also seem to remember that the fit and finish on these did not exactly keep the European and Japanese competitors up at night, and there is nothing less bragworthy for the buyer of a prestige model than for their expensive pride and joy to suffer from lots of rattles, creaks, and poor fitting panels when trying to show off to the neighbors.

    Reply
    • Avatarbenjohnson

      >>but let down by the details.

      Isn’t that the truth!

      My Old Acieva SCX was like that – for example because the front hood didn’t have depth, the intended swoopy hood looked more like a single front tooth. If you squinted – the front dash was from the space-age future, but if you looked at the details is was more Fisher-Price.

      Reply
  3. AvatarJMcG

    Tom, 99.9% of the time I’m with you. Not here though. That’s just an ugly car. Ford was putting the Thunderbird Super Coupe in showrooms at the same time as this car. It was head and shoulders and torso and pelvis above this.
    These cars are some of the reasons I stopped even looking at GM.
    I always look forward to reading your posts though, thanks for all the interesting information. With luck, we’ll chat over G&Ts one day. On me!

    Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      I would agree that the MN-10 T-bird Super Coupe was a better looking car than the Toronado, but it was also a better car mechanically with a supercharged engine, rear drive, an independent rear suspension, and equal or better build quality. The T-bird offered way more car for the money, and that is a major reason why the MN-10 greatly outsold the contemporary GM E-bodies and why you still see some MN-10 T-birds around but almost never a last generation Toronado.

      Reply
  4. Jack BaruthJack Baruth

    There’s a sad irony here, in the sense that General Motors went ALL IN on a gas-shortage future that never came true. They had a ton of cash from Roger Smith and they used it all. Meanwhile, Ford limped along on financial fumes and was stuck doing Fox rehashes.

    Now, in OUR universe Ronald Reagan put OPEC in their place and the much-feared future never came to pass. But if gas had wound up being five dollars a gallon, which would be $15 in today’s money, then this Toro and the other downsized cars would have been showroom superstars.

    Thankfully, GM isn’t making the same mistake now with electric vehicles… oh wait.

    Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      The CARB funded study released this week showed the about 20% of electric vehicle adopters in California switched back to gasoline on their next vehicle purchase, mostly due to frustrations with recharging time and infrastructure. Already I see the EV apologists are criticizing the study sample and suggesting that all the recent improvements in EV charging speed, battery capacity, and improved network of fast charging stations will make everyone happy to buy and stick with EVs. Perhaps they would like to try a little experiment to find out by seeing what happens to EV sales if all EV subsidies are dropped (including non-cash benefits such as access to carpool lanes), and electricity for EV recharging is taxed at the same rate as gasoline to pay for roads, public transit subsidies, and bike lanes. Perhaps such as experiment might also include power outages caused by renewable energy mandates such as those recently experienced in CA and TX, and some PR campaigns showing all the environmental damage and child labor involved with the mining of minerals needed for EV battery production, or the total lack of any environmentally friendly and economic process for recycling millions of dead EV batteries at the end of their useful life. I suspect such a study would lead to very poor EV adoption rates, but who am I to toss cold water on the “EVs are the future” mantra of GM, VW, Tesla, and the Biden administration.

      Reply
      • AvatarJohn C.

        Stingray, I am no fan of electric vehicles. However if a survey of California first time import owners in the 1980s found that only 20% went back to domestics on their next purchase, that would probably be a sign that they liked the import.

        Reply
        • Avatarstingray65

          I’m not sure that is a very good analogy. Recent EVs like many imports in the 1980s offer buyers lower operating expenses and in many cases a better driving experience than comparison vehicles (gasoline vehicles today or 80s domestic cars respectively), but the EV advantages are built almost entirely on subsidies (i.e. untaxed “fuel”, avoidance of rush-hour congestion, and tax credits on the purchase price), while 1980s imports advantages were built primarily on higher build quality, better technology and only to a minor degree due to government influences such as CAFE and exchange rates. Take away the EV subsidies, create greater public awareness of the poor environmental and social justice record of EV battery production, and throw in some EV “fuel” supply worries and the still slow EV refueling speed and limited range, and I expect the 20% EV owners returning to gasoline figure would end up being 90+%, which is a major problem because all the manufacturer interest in EVs and Tesla’s crazy stock price are all built on EVs taking a majority share of the car market relatively soon.

          Reply
          • AvatarTomko

            Q: How do you know stingray is having a rage boner?
            A: When he cranks out an 87 word sentence.

          • Avatarstingray65

            In my defense, there are 4 commas to allow deep breaths to be taken during the 87 word tirade, and about 20% of the 87 words are 2 letters or less.

          • AvatarJohn C.

            Stingray, even if I disagree with you that the it wasn’t a giant subsidy to voluntarily open the biggest then car market in the world to foreign makers, there is nothing wrong with a good rage boner. It makes the wife happy.

      • AvatarJeff Weimer

        I’m interested in buying an EV for my next purchase, but I will absolutely keep a backup car (12 Cruze Eco) *just in case*.

        Reply
  5. AvatarMD Streeter

    I’d be fine driving an EV… if I still lived in highly urbanized Japan where it actually makes sense. Here in very rural Upper Michigan, though? No way. Not in the foreseeable future. I hope we don’t end up legislated out of personal transportation in these isolated parts.

    As for the Tornado, my uncle had a facelifted version in all black. I always liked it (and it’s one of the very few GM vehicles I have a soft spot for) but I agree with everyone else on the T-bird. I like it a lot more.

    Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      “I hope we don’t end up legislated out of personal transportation in these isolated parts.”

      Don’t you know MD – people who live in isolated parts tended to vote for Trump and must be punished.

      Reply
      • AvatarMD Streeter

        Lucky thing about that is that we totally, legitimately, and without any suspicious shenanigans whatsoever turned our state completely blue so I don’t think they should hold that against us.

        Reply
  6. AvatarJohn C.

    I can understand why a lot of you want to bring in comparisons to the 89 Tbird. Despite how massive the flaws were on it. The really cheap interior, that makes this Toro seem like a Lagonda in comparison. Like the fact that it weighed 400 pounds more even in strippo garb. Like the fact the the Ford design staff is so overcome with import humpery that they design a big RWD personal car specifically not to be able to take the off the shelf HO Windsor V8. Jaguar did the same thing a few years before with the XJ40 because they thought poor BL would try to stick it with the non bespoke Rover V8. Here it was just that the 12 year old BMW CSI didn’t have one, and their designers being Godlike, that means the Tbird wouldn’t have it either. You can tell what a last second band aid the SC was for a way overweight design by the Mazda pickup transmission. Talk about bespoke, ha,ha

    It was however RWD and to a lot of you, that is what a big, expensive coupe should have. To that I would say, not a Toronado. A name synonymous with American front drive heritage. The Toro is a car you sell to a mature American man. He needs to have tradition and heritage all around him. That his labors and pressures are part of a grand heritage and there are other American men out there with the same troubles who came together and built this kick ass car, just for him. Not for some midget in the Korean cabbage field, or some Moldovan bottle girl, or some Hottentot from the Cape of no Hope

    We are coming to understand how much big business became international and hate their legacy America customers. It was a better world when this was not the case, and this Toro was a product of that better world.. That world was fast ending, the big three were appointing new management from their Euro outposts, to turn the cars European in the hope that would satisfy the bearded wonders. Suicide.

    Reply
    • AvatarCJinSD

      Do you honestly think the guys who made four-wheel-drum brakes standard on the Toronado cared about their customers on any level?

      Reply
      • AvatarJohn C.

        Bow down my brother, with CJ, to the European God of a minor component from a car from 20 years before. Then twist it to shit on your brother American, has Abbey Hoffman instructed.

        Stand up straight, pet a stray cat, and clean your room CJ

        Reply
  7. AvatarJMcG

    John, I was a 25 year old lineman with an ‘89 Jeep Weangler. My best friend was a 24 year old fresh out of USAF pilot training. I knew naught of any of the history at the time, but his SC was a really nice car. One of my foremen had bought a Trofeo for his wife. Not for love nor money would I have bought that car.
    On a slightly sour note, that Jeep Wrangler caught fire in that friend’s driveway a few years later with 64k on the clock. My insurance company said it was a known defect in the fuel system.
    I’d love to have couple of G&Ts with you as well.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      I was 20 in 89 and drove a Turismo, no fires but weak brakes, maybe the tires fault. No harm your eyes turned by a Tbird or anything else really. I suspect your foreman’s eyes were turned more by the Trofeo than his wife. Women only really look in the mirror Doesn’t make him a dunce. Everything does not have to be the same way but it is silly given the way things are now to go back throw shade on a time when things still worked. I instead presume that the guys for whom things worked were better since things went haywire after they left.

      Reply
  8. AvatarGeorge Denzinger

    Part of my wife’s childhood years were spent in Upstate NY and western Mass. Back in the late 80’s, while I was still rocking my Dodge Lancer ES turbo, we had Thanksgiving in the Berkshires with some of her old friends. It was a big, multigenerational gathering, with family and friends coming in from all corners. While there, I befriended one of her childhood friend’s father. He had one of this generation Toronado, just like the one in the lede pic. Initially I was not a fan of that generation of E-body, although as a young man it was not my style of car, either. I am more of a muscle/pony car guy. However, we took turns in each other’s car around the twisty roads in and around the Pittsfield area. I got my taste of a true PLC that drove well, and he got a taste of a, well, turbo boosted K-car with a half decent suspension and sticky tires.

    That long weekend forever changed my opinion of the “small” E-bodies and we remained friends for a long time after. The feature car with the manual is absolutely fantastic and I wish I could borrow it for afternoon. I love when folks pick and choose from the catalog of factory parts to make a unique creation. This car rings all of my bells…

    Reply

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