Ransom Eli Olds’s Forgotten Children: 1981 Toronado vs 2002 Silhouette

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! This week is another theme week: discontinued nameplates. Not companies that went out of business, but marques that were abandoned by their parent companies. We’re starting off with General Motors, and a marque that never could decide if it was going to be all about luxury or performance: Oldsmobile.

Since there was no poll on Friday, I don’t have any winners to announce.  But the general overall consensus seemed to be that the Taurus was the most flammable, with the Saab and the BMW splitting the daily-driver vote. Myself, I’d daily the BMW and try my hand at rallycross in the Saab. And yeah, burn the Taurus. It’s just not special or interesting compared to the other two. If one’s got to go, it would be the least mourned.

But enough of that; we’re here to talk about Oldsmobile.

Founded in 1897, and brought under the GM umbrella in 1908, Oldsmobile had a storied history before being unceremoniously chucked out with yesterday’s lunch leftovers in 2004. Olds was the first to build cars on an assembly line (1902), the first to offer a fully automatic transmission (1940), and possibly the first car to have a song written about it (1905). They had the best-selling nameplate in the country – the Cutlass – for a few years starting in 1976.

And yet, by the 1980s and ’90s, Olds had developed an identity crisis, and struggled to find their place in GM’s lineup. They weren’t “sporty GM;” that was Pontiac. They weren’t “posh GM” either; Cadillac and Buick held that honor. “Baby GM” was Geo. (“Scary GM” was the Chevy Vega.) So where did that leave Olds? Sure, “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile,” but then, whose is it?

Well, one of these could be yours, if you want them. Let’s check them out.

1981 Oldsmobile Toronado – $800

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter V8, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Washougal, WA

Odometer reading: 76,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs, but needs going through before driving

The Toronado was another first for GM, front wheel drive, and the first American car to power its front wheels since Cord back in the 1930s. It’s not the conventional transverse-engine setup we’re used to now; the Toronado’s V8 engine sits longitudinally, like a rear wheel drive car, and features a heavy-duty 2 inch wide chain as part of the drivetrain. It sounds weird, but it proved tough: the same drivetrain was used in the GMC Motorhome.

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This third-generation Toronado isn’t the fire-breathing 455 Rocket-powered monster that the original was, but then, everything got slow in the late ’70s. Small, too; this car is about a foot and a half shorter than the previous generation. To make up for the lack of power and presence, Oldsmobile, like other automakers, cranked up the luxury, turning the Toronado into a comfy marshmallow of a car.

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Look at that interior! Looks like a mighty nice place to be, to me. And the lack of a transmission hump/driveshaft tunnel makes it nice and open-feeling inside, too.

This Toronado sounds like that rarest of vehicles, an honest-to-goodness barn find. It hasn’t been registered since 1991, and has been sitting in a shed all that time. That means it slept through several Presidents, a couple of wars, Harry Potter, Stereolab’s entire discography, and the whole production run of GM’s Saturn marque. It missed a lot. I just hope they broke the news to it gently about David Bowie.

According to the seller, the 307 cubic-inch V8 starts and runs, but as it’s been dormant since Law & Order was a new show, some work needs to be done before you hit the road. New tires are definitely called for, as well.

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If American personal luxury coupes are your thing, this looks like a pretty great deal, actually. I expect this car to sell quickly, especially for $800. It’s not exactly a collector’s item, but it’s the nicest example of this generation Toronado/Riviera/Eldorado that I’ve seen in a while.

2002 Oldsmobile Silhouette – $2,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: San Bernardino, CA

Odometer reading: 145,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but needs a new cooling fan to prevent overheating

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and well into the 2000s, GM produced a lot of cars that were virtually indistinguishable except for the grilles and badges. In side profile, it was difficult to tell a Buick Somerset Regal from an Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, for example, unless you knew what to look for. This redundancy in the models is what led GM to axe Oldsmobile, and later Pontiac, even though those two divisions produced arguably the most interesting versions of most GM cars.

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The Silhouette was Oldsmobile’s version of their controversial “Dustbuster”-shaped minivans, introduced in 1990.  The model carried over to this second, tamer-styled generation of GM front-wheel-drive minivans. But honestly, until I saw this van for sale, I had completely forgotten that fact, which further illustrates Oldsmobile’s late-life identity problems. The Silhouette was too similar to other GM products’, um, silhouettes.

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Inside, it’s a nice place to be, as befitting “the Cadillac of minivans.” I’ve written before about minivans making good beaters, because of their utility and relative comfort compared to SUVs, and that holds true here as well. Sure, it’s forgettable, but that just means everyone else will leave it alone.

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Nice as it may be inside, under the hood this van needs a little help. It overheats after driving a short ways, which the seller believes is due to a failed electric cooling fan. (They’ve already replaced the radiator, water pump, and thermostat.) Shouldn’t be too hard to fix, if that is indeed the problem, and it sounds like it may be a common problem with these vans. But the low mileage and the overall condition make it worth fixing, if you can do the work yourself.

So there they are, two products of a marque that lasted more than a hundred years, and ended not with a bang, but a whimper. One looks like a nice cool cruiser after you’ve finished revoking its Rip Van Winkle status, and the other is a decent people/stuff hauler that just needs a little mechanical attention. Which one do you choose?

Quiz Maker

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42 Responses

  1. OMFG! It’s like this article was written just for me! I can’t even vote, I must have them both! I’ll take the Toronado for myself and let the wife take theSilhouette. Now I must be honest though, my favorite Toronado will always be the first gen 66’ to 70’ and my favorite Silhouette will always be the “Dustbuster” style (90’ to 96’) but I can’t in good conscience ever pass up any Oldsmobile…my wife will not be pleased though, she’s probably signing the divorce papers right now.

  2. Silhouette. Although an overheating 3400 is usually an intake manifold gasket. Those motors typically run cool especially at a 45 mph cruise. Considering how ubiquitous the 3400 was in those days finding a new one should be easy. After that and a shift kit for the 4T65 this is a comfy 30 mpg highway cruiser.

  3. Toronado all day long, even though it has a few issues, as noted in the listing:

    “Has exhaust leak pass side manifold .left CV boot bad. Rust Free floors and trunk very straight. paint is Poor condition” .

    But even with these issues the price of $800.00 it is still a bargain!
    Added bonus: I can look like a member of the extended Sopranos family for cheap ! 😉

  4. Toronado is the winner for me. I drove an ’84 Eldorado in high school, which is essentially identical to this car. It was slow and handled like a cruise ship, but it was exceptionally comfortable. The seats are even more comfortable than they look and there is tons of space inside (the guy I bought it from was around 7 feet tall and he had plenty of room in the Eldorado, so a normal-ish size human like myself has tons of room in all directions). It also had an extremely smooth ride. You could hit a speed bump or drive off a curb and not even notice it. Driving the Eldorado was like driving a sofa floating on a cloud. This Toro looks like it is a bit rough, but I’m sure it would still be great to drive.

    It would be great if someone build a modern equivalent of this vehicle. The overwhelming majority of miles I drive come from long highway trips or my daily commute on an urban highway. A mobile sofa like the Toronado/Eldorado would be great for this kind of driving. I’ve found that modern luxury cars, even “boring” vehicles marketed as comfortable, invariably have harsher rides and less room than the Eldorado. Isolation luxury simply doesn’t exist in cars built today.

  5. Of these two, I’d take the Silhouette if I knew for sure it was just a cooling fan issue. More likely, it needs a radiator or a new intake gasket. Probably both.

    For the Toronado, we all know that $800 is just the starting point for car that’s slept that long. It probably won’t take a lot more money than you spend in tires to wake up, but you’ll definitely be putting in many more hours. The hours you put into waking up the Toronado are probably about the same as you’d spend replacing the intake gaskets and radiator on the Silhouette.

    The Toronado is never going to be a fun car. It’s interesting in a way, but a decent minivan is far more useful than a gas-guzzling highway cruiser. For that reason, I’d take the minivan.

  6. “Yes, but needs a new cooling fan to prevent overheating”

    HELL FUCKING NO IT DOESN’T. That’s a Silhouette with a new radiator, new water pump, new thermostat, and an LA1. Under absolutely no circumstances is it the intake manifold gasket; it has blown the rear head gasket, just like every damn one of these, and it is among the worst fucking jobs there is. If you think you’re doing it with the engine in the car, you’re high. The rear cylinder head is literally under the firewall bulkhead.

    Not only that, but the U body crashes worse than the Toronado. By an absolutely criminal margin. In even a typical front end collision, the occupant compartment completely collapses. Not small overlap; typical moderate overlap. It tested so badly, IIHS outright said that the 35MPH test would likely have resulted in the driver being killed. There’s a DAMN good reason you don’t see many of these on the road today, and that’s because pretty much ANY collision destroys the structure.

    I might hate the Toronado, and it is definitely a misery-mobile, but it’s the one that isn’t actively trying to kill the driver every time they get in it.

      1. Well I just did my recharge and it was completely empty. I use AC rarely I like fresh air. This was the 1st recharge since new on a 2001. And I lived in Texas, Mississippi and Arizona. But then again if I were doing all that work to get AC you can bet the fan would have been done too.

  7. I could make a pretty strong argument for the van. But you’re telling me the cooling fan… a part that you can actually see operate, a part that has to come off to replace the radiator, and maybe to replace the water pump… the cooling fan failed. Could be. Maybe I’ll try my luck with the Toronado instead.

  8. There is no way that I am touching that Silhoutte. Those 3.4l of those days are well known to be the last of the GM Dexcool era vehicles, and are well known to overheat from intake manifold gasket failure. If it was the fan that failed, it is most likely that the engine has failed as well. If the engine oil doesn’t look like a milk shake after idling for 10 minutes, you might have a chance.

    The 5.0l 307 V-8, while not the quickest engine is quite robust and reliable. $1000-$1200 for a long distance trip inspection, complete fluids flush, and a new set of tires will probably get you back to your destination in comfort!

  9. The Toronado for the simple reason that I’m sure it smells just like the various Oldsmobiles that people in the family owned. Aunts, Uncles, and don’t forget Nana all had 80’s Olds, and all smelled the same. I think it was the seats.

    $800 and a bit of wrenching for a trip down memory lane, then sell it on to someone else.

    1. My concern with the Silhouette is that the previous owner has been driving it with cooling problems for a long time. One or two incidences of overheating aren’t terrible, but if this thing has been regularly overheating, who knows what kind of damage has been done. Plus, if all it needed was a fan, why did the seller do all that work and not replace the fan??? That is a cheap and easy job. I think the seller isn’t being honest about what this van needs (either intentionally or through ignorance). This van is a risky purchase at $2200.

  10. Back in the day my exwife and I had a 2002 Silhouette and aside from our unlucky version’s desire to eat power steering racks, it was pretty much indestructible and unbelievably comfortable. We had it for road tripping as she hated flying. Ours had the air ride rear suspension (for load leveling) and it was like riding on a cloud. No other choice here. Reliable, comfortable and you can drive all day long without aching. Sure it’s a minivan, but they were popular for the same reason SUV’s are today. Spacious, drive like cars, etc etc etc…

  11. Had a Silhouette and loved it. Yes it ate it’s intake gasket and took the engine with it so I installed a reman motor and continued to run it right up till a guy in a red Lincoln (the image is burned in my brain) ran a red light and I T-Boned him.
    Still recall the air bag deploying. Bang! (the impact)…Pop! (the air bag).

  12. It’s so sad that Oldsmobile turned the brilliant and proud 1966 Toronado name and model into that malaise era turd, in just over a decade.
    What is the meaning of that half sliced through Family Truckster face? The big grillless nose hump, that first appeared in 1973, is probably a nod to the classic Cord of the 30ies, but I just don’t think it is working.

    The minivan is just fat and blubby: If it had been an earlier dust buster model, wih the lovely sharp futuristic lines, someone could have an opinion about it. Nobody can see if this is a Hyundai or Ford, or GM.

    My equivalent of $800-2200 went to a lovely southern France vacation anyway..

  13. Toro all the way.
    When we were young, my buddy had a Riv of the same era. Wonderful road trip car.

    That Silhouette probably needs a total rebuild, if not a long block, and pulling it isn’t going to be fun.
    Those repairs aren’t going to be done in frame.

  14. The Toronado is an odd duck to be sure, but no more work than an engine drop head gasket plus whatever other overheating damage has happened by now. If 1981 is old enough to dodge smog checks in your state … maybe even sneak a few more horsies out of it.

  15. The Toronado is at least a decade newer than I want it to be, but at $800 it’s purest triple-digit shitbox, like the first dozen cars I owned. I can replace anything in it that I don’t like, and even getting it to pass smog (probably with a modern swap) would be more fun than doing anything to that Silhouette.

  16. I voted Toronado, even though I had completely forgotten that that fwd setup lasted into the brougham era. It would make an excellent Lemons ride.

    Someone needs to send this to Derek at VGG!

  17. Gotta go toronado. Could be a fun learn to wrench project, or it could be an endless nightmare of perished rubber and corroded gremlins. The practicality of the minivan should be hard to argue with, but a known deathtrap bodystyle with a probable toast engine means anything else is superior.

  18. Back in the 80’s, several of my friend’s dads who had money drove the Toronado. The front seat leg room is unreal. The flat dash is like 4 miles out ahead of you. On the highway, these things eat miles like a dog eats cheese.
    And that 307 couldn’t rev to save it’s life, but boy did it have the low-end grunt. Even in max-malaise smog trim, it could accelerate “quickly” without breaking a sweat. Toro all day.

  19. I have zero interest in the Toronado. It’s another one of those cars where unless you have fond memories of it from back in the day, it just has no appeal. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t fun to drive, and it’s *checks watch* 41 years old. It’s also been sitting in a shed for 25 years, so who knows what has dried out, cracked, turned into varnish, or been chewed on in that time. Sure, you could go through the whole thing and fix all the problems, spending countless hours and thousands of dollars—and then you’d have an ugly but mechanically sorted malaise-era coupe which will probably still break on you because it’s 41 years old. No thank you.

    I guess I’d have to take the Silhouette, because at least that has the potential to be useful and reasonably reliable if you take the time to fix it up. Just needs a new cooling fan, though? Sure, buddy, sure. I guarantee it’s gonna be more involved than that—as a Subaru owner my mind immediately goes to the head gasket, although others here are saying that it’s probably the intake manifold. Of course, depending on how many times it’s overheated and how severely, it might need a new head gasket *now* even if it didn’t before. I can’t imagine a minivan’s engine bay is any fun to work in, either. It might still be an OK buy though, at that price. I’d bring a block tester kit to the sale and verify that it doesn’t need a new head gasket, and if it passes the test and seems to be running smoothly, I’d be willing to buy it and try my hand at fixing its problems.

    1. Ever watch King of the Hill? Great project car to teach your young Bobby how to work on a car. And frankly a big old comfortable beast easy in and out? Yeah as I approach that great goodnight I am not raging against it I’m going in comfort and style.

  20. I went with the Toronado as I just like them. No reason. For $800 it is worth the risk to see what it really needs.

    If I needed a people mover, then the Silhouette would be the better choice.

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