The Story Behind The Mysterious Oldsmobile Toronado Airstream The Internet Is Obsessed With

Aironado Top

For many years, there has been a mystery that I have been wanting answers about. Decades ago, someone saw an Oldsmobile Toronado and an Airstream Globe Trotter then came to the conclusion that they needed to be paired together. Now, years after the camper first caught my interest and the rig has been shared all over the internet, I think I’ve come closer to solving this mystery. If documents sent to me are to be believed, this is the work of an Oldsmobile engineer that felt the GMC Motorhome should have been an Oldsmobile.

I still remember the first time that I saw this thing. I was in high school in 2010 and back then, pretty much all of my time on the internet was spent looking at cars. My favorite sites were places like America’s Smart forum, the old lighting site, and eventually, I’d become a part of the awesome Opposite-Lock community. I can’t quite place my finger on when or where, but I remember seeing a picture of a baffling camper shared. In this image–which had to have a resolution no greater than 400×300–there was an Airstream camper, but there was the front end of the car sticking out. I remember speculation that this had to be a Photoshop because it just can’t be real.

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Mike

It’s funny to think that I spent the better half of my teenage years knowing about this thing, but, like everyone else, I had no idea who did it or why. Over all of those years, the camper continued to get shared on various blogs and forums. Pictures of this creation have resurfaced yet again on Reddit and Facebook, and this time we have a story explaining how it was created.

I spoke with Mike, the Power of Attorney for the actual owner of the camper, his mother-in-law. Mike tells me that a lot of work has gone into restoring the camper. The work was carried out by Michael Greene, the former President of Sierra Motor Corp., a company that built horse trailers with living quarters before it was sold to Lakota Horse Trailers. Mike, along with the trailer’s previous owners, has been trying to piece together the camper’s story. It’s a custom build, but one that was apparently done well.

There’s a story about how this camper was created that’s been passed down from owner to owner. We haven’t been able to confirm any of it, so keep that in mind. Take it as more of a fun story than something concrete.

In the documents sent to me, the previous owners called it the Aironado, which is a fitting name. As the story goes, an unnamed General Motors fabricator was upset about the GMC Motorhome. First produced in 1972 for the 1973 model year, the GMC Motorhome marked an innovative moment in RV history. The typical motorhome of the day rode high on a truck chassis, and an engine mounted up front drove the rear wheels. The design worked, but it made for large, ungainly vehicles with crude designs.

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General Motors

Earlier this year, I wrote about how GM flipped the RV construction script and in doing so created one of the coolest motorhomes ever. The GMC Motorhome first did things differently with front-wheel-drive. Powering the Motorhome was Oldsmobile’s Unitized Power Package (UPP). This system compacted the entirety of a vehicle’s powertrain into one unit and was famously used on the Oldsmobile Toronado.

In the UPP you got a longitudinally mounted 265 HP 455-cubic inch Rocket V8 and a TurboHydramatic 425 three-speed automatic. Later Motorhomes would get the 185 HP 403-cubic inch Oldsmobile V8 after the former engine’s discontinuation in 1977.

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General Motors

Using the Oldsmobile UPP meant that the GMC Motorhome’s floor could sit just 14 inches above ground. It also allowed the Motorhome to get the sleek, wind tunnel-tested profile that it was known for. An aluminum body frame extruded from the steel ladder frame. From it, fiberglass panels made up the lower portion with more aluminum on top.

Combined with its air-ride suspension, vast windows, and modern interior, the GMC Motorhome remains a high-water mark in RV design.

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General Motors

And that brings us back to the Aironado. The alleged General Motors engineer is said to have felt that since the Oldsmobile UPP was so central to the Motorhome, it should have been branded an Oldsmobile. As any mad scientist would, the engineer then decided to make their own Oldsmobile-branded camper.

The fabricator started with a 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado with a 455-cubic inch V8. As Hemmings notes, the standard V8 put out 375 HP. However, checking the W-34 option bumped that power up to 400 HP. The documentation sent to me by the seller states that it’s a W-34 code engine. Now remember, these are juicy gross ratings, not the more realistic net ratings.

The front end of this car, including its gauges, was welded into the front end of a 1967 Airstream Globe Trotter Land Yacht. As I’ve said before in another piece on Airstream history, the Globe Trotter launched as a camper that could “go anywhere an automobile can go and still have the facilities of comfortable living.” 

Globetrotter Overview Features Modernrevival
Airstream

Land Yacht was the highest trim level of an Airstream of the day. You can still buy a Globe Trotter new, today, though the name is now just “Globetrotter.”

The documents go on to say that the builder added stainless steel panels that were through-bolted to the trailer’s frame. An aluminum cowling was also made to smooth out the transition between camper and Oldsmobile. That cowling houses a windshield from a 1953 Ford truck.

Front
Mike

And in what will be the first of interesting engineering quirks here, the documents say that the windshield has its own set of shock absorbers so that bumps don’t break the glass.

Behind that glass is the Oldsmobile’s full set of gauges mounted onto a dashboard so well made that it almost looks like a factory job. The sheet notes that those gauges include amperage, oil pressure, oil temperature, water temp, and tachometer; all good things to have in an RV.

Another thing noted to be an innovation is the addition of a bathroom heater. This heater takes a supply and return hose from the heater core to radiate coolant heat into the bathroom.

Aironado
Mike

Our Jason Torchinsky scratched his head at that one, asking if the bathroom is up front near the engine. It isn’t, and the build sheet says that the hose runs along the side of the trailer to the bathroom then back. This hose is also said to pass through the sleeping area behind the driver seat, providing the person sleeping there with a heated bed. So this thing has a huge cooling loop.

The documentation concludes that it took the engineer until 1982 to finish the project, spending some 4,000 hours building the thing. But it didn’t stick around for too long, as the project was already on its third owner when the fourth owner picked it up in 2000. It’s unclear how many more owners it’s been through to get to the current one.

As with most projects, different owners added their own touches, like the semi-tractor exhaust stacks turned sideways that dump under the camper. Someone also carried a Harley-Davidson Sprint on the back. One of the previous owners is said to have owned 60 Oldsmobiles, including 22 Toronados. Sounds like me, with Oldsmobiles.

Aside from the build itself, which the seller says really does feature crazy stuff like the really long cooling loop, we haven’t been able to confirm the story. And we aren’t the only ones searching. RV history site Tin Can Tourists has been trying to find the engineer since at least 2005. It looks like they hit a dead end, too. The car was said to have been written about in Car Craft Magazine in the 1980s, but I’ve yet to find the issue. Car and Driver wrote about it in 2007, but only in a single sentence blip.

Future Coupes
Mike

Mike tells me that while he doesn’t own the rig, he has driven it. And at 55 mph it’s surprisingly smooth with almost no rattles. After owning several motorhomes, he didn’t expect it to be that solid. Remember, this is just a trailer with half of an Oldsmobile sticking out of the front. But it holds its own. He also says that he’s had it appraised and inspected, and those people are said to have been impressed with the craftsmanship.

But he, like us, is still missing that piece of the puzzle of who exactly built the thing. As I mentioned before, Mike is selling the camper. It’s located in lower Michigan and he’s looking to get $49,900 for it. More information can be had by texting the number on the windshield.

Much like that Chevy S-10 conversion van from earlier this week, if you have any information on this Aironado, I’d love to read about it!

Hat tip to Adam!

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38 Responses

  1. My first thought was “I feel like I saw this in Car and Driver back in high school” sure enough, 2007 and is that a 10 Best issue? So it would have been January, and that would have been my junior year. I was an AVID reader back then.

  2. If anyone else is curious about the difference between gross and net horsepower (it’s not something I really knew about up ’til now) this page has an excellent explanation: https://ateupwithmotor.com/terms-technology-definitions/gross-versus-net-horsepower/

    Basically, gross HP is the output of the engine on a test stand, with no accessories, no air filter, and straight pipes, under ideal atmospheric conditions. Net HP is still on a stand, but it includes losses from engine-driven accessories like the water pump and alternator, as well as the intake and exhaust equipment. Depending on the engine and whatever political games the manufacturer was playing at the time, the difference can be anything from 5% to 40%.

    Interestingly, this is a big part of why horsepower ratings plummeted in the 1970s. Automakers liked to advertise cars with the higher gross figure, but by the late ’60s it had gotten so detached from what consumers could expect from their actual cars that from 1972 onward, California required automakers to advertise net horsepower only. As goes California so goes the nation, so starting in 1972 the advertised ratings took a big hit across the board. (They also became more realistic.)

    Emissions equipment and the switch to unleaded gasoline did also have a negative effect on horsepower throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, but a big part of the reason why cars of that time period have such low horsepower ratings compared to cars from the ’60s is simply that the method of measurement changed!

    Some of you probably knew all about this, but it was news to me!

    1. This, but…

      Where did you measure? Did you measure lake temperature from the river downstream? I mean, what is a useful measurement? Take a 500HP 6000lb SUV (sadly too common these days), start adding up parasitic losses and then throw your 1.5 overweight children in one of the seven seats. How does a a naive consumer even begin to know what to expect when they try to peel away from the drive though?

      We need a real burgers to burgers comparison!

  3. It seems like it would make more sense to attach the trailer aft of the cabin of the toronado. Why give up that space in the trailer and the fantastic seat of the car?

    In any case, Mike is the Attorney in Fact for his mother in law. He holds her power of attorney, subject to any limitations in the granting document.

    1. The total is less than the sum of its parts. Props for the mad skills in making this beast but I am one and done. See it, drive it, be done with it. Own it? Nah. It would be better if the shiny aluminum skin of the trailer matched the silver matte paint of the car. The awkward arch at the union makes me cringe. And the Cyrano DeBergerac nose is too ungainly.

  4. The difference between the 375 and 400 horse models was single vs dual exhaust. 400HP and 4800 rpm vs 375HP at 4600. Who knows what it is in this application with whatever it has for an exhaust. From 1967, the Toronado and Eldorado were both using the UPP although with make specific engines. If the builder had gone with the Eldorado, it could have been the Cadillac of RVs.

    I will add that ’69 was the best year Toronado. My dad owned one when I got my driver’s license. It was my favorite at the time.

  5. My family vacations were all camping from the late 60’s thru the 70s’, you’d see those old mismashed car campers on occasion. Either a 50’s Cadillac with a camper built in or some other conglomeration. So cool some not so much.

  6. Can someone explain the windshield shock absorbers to me? I would have thought that a truck windshield could be used in a similar (ish) application without having to worry about cracking.

    Too much flex because of the Toronado / trailer frame connection?

    1. The windshield shock absorbers are not at all explained in the documents or by any of the owners. But I would think that you’re right. The windshield sits right about at the connection between Olds and camper, so perhaps the builder thought that there would be a lot of flex there.

      1. I was wondering if the shock absorbers are primarily intended to keep the frame (and entire vehicle) from breaking in half, as opposed to protecting the windshield? It seems like the bottom of the windshield has a bit of an overhang, so it doesn’t directly contact the hood (or at least loosely connects with the hood, and not in a structurally meaningful way).

        The necessity for the shock absorbers makes me wonder about the overall structural integrity of the vehicle. Of course, it could just be a paranoid engineer overthinking things, and may be unnecessary (incidentally, are there other vehicles that use shock absorbers for this purpose?). Either way, it is still an unbelievably cool vehicle.

  7. I remember seeing this in a big coffee table book of custom cars when I was in middle school in 2002 or 2003. Come to think of it, I think I may have seen it in a Ripley’s believe it or not book as well. I always thought it was cool and have looked back at it when thinking about off the wall projects.

  8. My work son and I stopped to see this on a trip back from Muskegeon a week ago. It’s very interesting. I have (my second) ’78 GMC motorhome – and I’m going to Jackson Center, OH to Airstream in a two weeks. It was like being at the mashup where worlds collide.

    The craftsmanship is not as good as the StarStreak (CADILLAC ELDORADO BASED HOMEMADE MOTORHOME for a trip down that google rabbit hole) , but it’s interesting.

    In the GMC, the coolant heater loop is for the bathroom hot water heater. It uses a heat exchanger insert to make domestic hot water from the engine (or electrically.) This is probably similar. We decided this would be the ultimate 24 hours of LeMons pit crew RV – and they have some wild ones now.

  9. The radiant heating is clever, but I have to think a bit impractical, since you aren’t going to be idling the engine all night while sleeping, and it is very unsafe (and, I think, also illegal) to be sleeping in bed or taking a shower while the vehicle’s cruising down the road

  10. Ah, V8’s from the 70’s. 455 cubic inches and it makes….noise and heat? Certainly not power. Perhaps a bit of torque. Talk about a hotseat in that bed and bath with a heating loop from that lump of a V8. Of course when you want all that heat you’ve been parked so the engine is cold.

    1. There was once a time when a good deal of important paperwork was stored in drawers. And it’s been my experience that some folks, particularly state-level administrative types, really really really hate to be bothered to open them.

    1. The total is less than the sum of its parts. Props for the mad skills in making this beast but I am one and done. See it, drive it, be done with it. Own it? Nah. It would be better if the shiny aluminum skin of the trailer matched the silver matte paint of the car. The awkward arch at the union makes me cringe. And the Cyrano DeBergerac nose is too ungainly.

  11. Somewhere on an old iPhone5, I have a screenshot of this from the old lighting site. Glad to hear it’s still around and to get some more details. Would love to see a 10min walk around video of all the custom work that went into this. If it doesn’t sell right off, perhaps the owner would consider allowing one to be made: it might pique some interest.

    I especially want to see that cooling loop (personally, I’d be inclined to go with a small propane heater for the bathroom) and the interface between the car & camper.

    1. I took a ton of pix. It looks like you’d think. The ‘heating loop’ of coolant is probably like the GMC. Domestic hot water, and maybe also a rear heater like you’d find in a school bus or in the cab of contstruction equipment.

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