How John Fitch built the Phantom, a better Oldsmobile Toronado
John Cooper Fitch understood how underdogs could be heroes. An Army Air Force pilot in WWII, Fitch, flying the prop-driven P-51 Mustang, became the first American pilot to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first jet fighter. After the war, Fitch became a hero race driver on tracks around the world. His victories in Chrysler-powered Cunninghams stunned established European marques, for which Fitch also drove with success.
Before another WWII pilot and retired racer, Carroll Shelby, began building his faster, better handling Mustangs in California, Fitch had been doing that for the Chevy Corvair from his small shop in Connecticut. His inexpensive and straightforward modifications turned the Corvair into the Fitch Sprint, a legitimate “poor man’s Porsche.”
When Oldsmobile introduced its groundbreaking front-wheel drive Toronado for 1966, Fitch saw the potential for a new kind of American grand touring car. With encouragement from Olds, Fitch put together a comprehensive performance and luxury upgrade for the Toronado, calling the result the Phantom.
The Phantom showed great promise and also predicted future trends. But it also lived up to its name by disappearing after just two were made. The one that survives offers evidence of an intriguing “what could have been” chapter in the extraordinary career that Fitch built around cars and auto safety.
The fear factor
Car collector Kevin Fear knew of the Fitch Phantom for many years. He was familiar with Fitch’s cars, having grown up around Corvairs and Fitch Sprints thanks to a father who was devoted to those models. He acquired the Phantom about 10 years ago.
“It was my understanding that it was Oldsmobile’s idea to have Fitch do something with the Toronado,” says Fear. “And he did some interesting things with the car.”
The Toronado already had a hotter version of Oldsmobile’s 425-cu-in Rocket V-8, with 385 horsepower. Fitch added a lower restriction air cleaner and exhaust system to give it another 20. Electronic ignition powered by a Judson magneto promised greater reliability.
The Toronado earned praise for its handling, but Fitch took it further. He had the stock factory wheels widened by two inches (to eight) and fitted with Goodyear 235/15 radial tires. (Olds had originally intended to give the Toronado radials but reportedly saw excessive wear in testing.)
Fitch replaced the shock absorbers with heavy-duty adjustable Konis, including the rear horizontal shocks, and also reduced boost to the steering and brakes to increase feel. The ’66 Toronado’s four-wheel drum brakes were a notable weak point. To offer some improvement, Fitch installed sintered metallic brake linings, which he claimed did not require the warm-up usually associated with such parts. (Olds added front disc brakes for the 1967 Toronado.)
A five-speed automatic… in 1966?
In the Phantom’s brochure, Fitch touted a “five-speed automatic transmission,” 30 years before the auto industry introduced them. Fitch, though, had not performed some kind of magical surgery on the Toronado’s Turbo Hydra-matic three-speed. Rather, adopting a hotrodder’s trick, he installed an electric switch on a custom column-shift lever handle, which let the driver manipulate the variable-vane or “switch-pitch” torque converter that many GM large cars used in the mid-1960s.
The stator element of a switch-pitch converter used movable vanes—fan blades, essentially—that, when triggered by a throttle switch, automatically toggled between high and low angles to create two levels of stall speed. The high stall speed position eliminated creep at stoplights and boosted torque multiplication for takeoff; a lower stall speed once underway reduced slippage to improve fuel economy. (Buick’s older Dynaflow and some GM two-speed automatics also used a switch-pitch converter.)
With the switch that Fitch installed, the driver could engage the high stall speed position at will, raising the engine revs to create a kind of “downshift” for bursts of acceleration. Fitch also modified the shifter to make it easier to manually select second gear, in which the “switch pitch” could also be engaged. It’s hard to imagine Toronado customers driving that aggressively, though.
Luxury ahead of its time
Fitch sought to make the Toronado a complete, high-speed grand touring car and, frankly, there was no real benchmark at the time. Britain’s Jensen Interceptor, introduced for 1966 and powered by a Chrysler big-block V-8, was probably closest in general concept.
The Toronado interior could be optioned with some luxury features, but nothing like the Fan-Aire ventilated front seats that Fitch added to the Phantom, predicting a future automotive trend. He also added a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a tachometer and a light monitor system that alerted the driver to burned out headlights and taillights. (Chevy introduced a similar feature on the 1968 Corvette.)
A Lucas driving light and a fog light were fitted in the front bumper. The driving light could be flashed for passing maneuvers and was also wired to flash with the horn. Available options included a fold-back fabric sunroof and a Muntz four-track tape player. Respecting the Toronado design, Fitch limited exterior modifications to two-tone paint, a blackout grille and Phantom badges. Fear says some of the original workmanship, such as switches for added accessories, seems a bit crude.
Fitch indeed transformed the Toronado into a real handler, according to a Phantom road test by Popular Mechanics. “Even in the most vicious corners, I could sense no lean whatsoever,” wrote Alex Markovich for the magazine in 1966. “I wouldn’t have believed that the Toronado’s already fine handling could be improved without hurting the ride, but Fitch has done it.”
The Phantom was quicker than a stock Toronado, with 0-60 in 8.0 seconds versus 9.4 for the stock machine, though Markovich explained that the stock version tested had been somewhat out of tune. Passing performance was better than the stock Toronado’s, notably in the 50-70 mph test, where it was eight-tenths quicker (4.8 sec. vs. 5.6 sec.).
Priced to fail
The Phantom conversion cost $2000 on top of the Toronado, which started at $4600 but was typically optioned above $5500. Fitch had planned to build 500 Phantoms and offer them through Oldsmobile dealers, but it didn’t work out that way.
Fear blames the car’s high price, for one thing. He has documentation showing that his Phantom was originally leased by the Hartford Insurance Company for its president at a cost of $294 per month for a two-year term—a huge sum in 1966. Also, Fitch might not have been fully prepared to produce the Phantom conversions in an expeditious manner. In a letter to Fitch, the president’s assistant reminded him that the car’s delivery was over a month late. (He also thanked Fitch for his presentation on the Fitch Inertial Safety Barrier, the crash safety system widely use on American highways.)
After the lease term, a Hartford employee bought the Phantom and kept it for 40 years before selling to Fear. He also put Fear in touch with the man who had owned Phantom #1, which he’d scrapped due to its dilapidated condition. The seller had first removed all of the Fitch-added parts, which Fear bought.
Fear exhibited the Phantom at the 2018 Greenwich Concourse d’ Elegance reunion of Fitch cars. Next, he hopes to find a new owner that will give this unique piece of Toronado and Fitch history the restoration it deserves.