Brisk Business in the Bakery

On the quiet streets of Skive I found this alien space ship, gently landed from the end of the 1960s.


Pedestrian safety and low-speed crash regulations did away with this kind of design. Subsequently, General Motors’ own mismanagement and a radical shift in the car market gradually killed the brand attached to the car. If we want to see a turning point in US car design then look no further than the 1966-1970 Buick Riviera.

It’s an unusually clean and clear design, especially considering the excesses of the era. The graphics are simple and the sculpting expressive without being over-wrought.

“Riviera – by Buick”

The bumpers are integrated rather well too. The subsequent 5 mph regulations savaged them but I think that US engineers made a meal of the legislation. To my knowledge the Japanese marques did not make their ’70s cars endure the kind of ironwork that afflicted Detroit cars for the decade.


This version of the Riviera followed the legendary 1963-1965 model. In a situation not unlike the later Audi TT, there was no way for Buick to go after the initial success of the first car. On its own this is a very decent bit of US iron: the graphics front and back are simple and effective – that letter-box grille is a statement of confidence.

However, the 1963 was one of those gold-medal, Olympic designs that could not be bettered. Even the 1971 Boat-tail version only partly met the challenge. The promise of the rear was not met by the banality of the front; the 1966 is at least homogenous and consistent.

1974 Buick Riviera: source

For the rest of its life, with two exceptions, the Riviera kept getting worse and worse. After the Boattail came the disastrous 1974 model which had styling cues borrowed from standard Buick saloons. The front end accumuluted even more decoration; the sculpting of the body-sides became overly busy and the collonade roof lacked grace or identity. Whereas the first three iterations of Riviera were distinctively their own car, the fourth version had become what appeared to be a coupé version of the Electra.

1974 Buick Electra: source

That said, the actual 1974 Electra seems to be much less fussy than the Riviera. So what happened? Before I did some googling, I’d have thought the 1974 Riviera front design was similar as the Electra of the same period. What actually happened was that the 1974 led the way for the mediocre, fussy shapes of the mid 1970s.

As discussed recently, there’s a tension between consistency and relevance: do you stay the same or stay relevant? The Riviera indicates what happens when the pursuit of relevance goes wrong. Indeed, the car became gradually more and more irrelevant as the 1970s wore on.


It is hard to guess why GM’s managers felt compelled to abandon the strong identity of the very successful first Riviera. It is as if they thought good ideas grew on trees and that perhaps another ’63 was just another model year away.

Idly, I wonder has anyone done any folk ethnography about the designers’ views of these changes. Did they they think in 1972 that the clay model they were whittling for 1974 would be such a turkey?

I’ll put that another way. How was it that the people who had the good taste to style the previous cars went on to create the ornate, baroque vehicles of a year or two later? And from whence did that styling theme come? I suspect Victorian furniture inspired the details of the 1970s. The exteriors seem sui generis. They could have gone in so many other directions but something said to them “Let’s double down on extraneous detailing”.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “Brisk Business in the Bakery”

  1. Examples of American excess with yearly restyling to lure prospective buyers into upstaging their neighbours. I grew up there during this era and remember it well, the yearly visits to showrooms to view and sample the latest, the test drives, the fast talking salesmen, the brochures and gifts, i was given a model of the 55 thunderbird at its intrduction, of course it was my father who was the prospective buyer I was just along to notice details he might have missed.
    It was not only styling with a sprinkling of engineering but colours galore and in many combinations. One could have a tri colour car if you were brave enough! After previously owning a yellow with black top Mercury dad ordered a 55 in lime green with black top! Followed that in 57 with a lavender and white combo!
    This 57 four door pillarless is the car I passed my licence test in.
    Although not an outgoing sort dad was obviously making a statement with his purchases!

    1. Good morning Richard. “Do you stay the same or stay relevant?” is an excellent question that in turn poses another one, “Who determines what is relevant?”

      It is such a shame that designs we now regard as beautiful and iconic were regarded as disposable by the US automakers in their determination to drive new car sales with annual facelifts.

      I remember my secondary school English teacher, who was the first person I ever met who was properly aware of the environmental damage being caused by our consumerism, using the phrase “built-in obsolescence” with regard to the US auto industry. I wonder who coined that phrase?

      On a more prosaic note, I wonder how that wonderful pointed wing detail was formed? Was it done mechanically or did it require a lot of manual work? It looks extraordinarily complex for a machine.

  2. Metal pressing is not my area of expertise; that said, I´ll use what little I know to guess that the wing required more than one pressing operation. One of the interesting changes over the last 50 years has been the waxing and waning (do things ever wane and then wax?) of metal pressing technology. In the 1950s steel pressing could achieve very complex forms. Look at what Jaguar used to do. The very flat cars of the 1980s were the result of an intense determination to simplify manufacturing. Those flat shapes involved simple pressing operations that saved time and money. Today we have more fluid, organic shapes (the cars´s profiles are very smooth) but I am not sure the forms are deeper or more difficult than what skilled, highly-paid steel pressing technicians could do in 1960.
    If anyone reading this has first hand knowledge of changes in steel pressing technology please feel free to write. I am prepared to be educated and corrected on this topic!

    1. We’ve already been at this some time ago.
      Look at the picture and imagine how a press tool might work to produce this:

      in today’s world of taylored blanks, sheet metal being heated up before being pressed and hydraulic presses operating with varying pressure enormously large panels can be produced with very good quality. Porsche needs no more than six Schuler presses to produce the Panamera’s body.
      In this video starting at about 0:50 you can see how the body structure of an A class is built by robots from just six pressings:

    2. Dave: thanks for that. Yes, we did discuss this a while ago and I have forgotten what little I learned. It is a pleasure to learn it again. The video has the most appalling sound track though. My specific question was about the changes for good or ill in steel pressing technology. I see the MB parts are huge (an advance) but probably not all that deep. The particular quality of the 1960s was the depth of the draw. And the designers/engineers were willing to compromise with more hand-work or smaller parts. Aerodynamics militates against very ornate sculpting so it´s not just a fashion thing. In some ways the 1960s were the high-water mark of car design/engineering flair. After that other things get better though not nicer – with plenty of fortuitous exceptions. Right off the bat, the Alfa Romeo 164 is both an efficient shape but also strikingly beautiful. And the Rover 75 and many Jaguars are testimony to the continued willingness to push the boat out in the pressing game.

  3. After my wife quited her company, we actually wanted to go on longer trips. Since you should spend life – as well as traveling – in style, we were looking for a suitable vehicle.

    The Buick Riviera Boattail (1970–1973) was shortly on our list for a (disposable) touring vehicle. The outer shape was quite an argument. This series was one of the most beautiful things that the US automotive industry has produced – I don’t want to say a word about its technology.
    After visiting a US classic car meeting in Hamburg, we decided not to “be put in that drawer”, as we say in Germany, we didn’t want to be tattooed in our old days either.

    (It then became a Rover 75 in Damson Red with Interior in beige fabric. Traveling in style, but traveling is no longer possible for the foreseeable future. Life’s a beach …)

  4. As far as I know today’s crease fest is a result of higher pressure used in metal pressing. But like you Richard, this is not my expertise. But at least I know what shoes you wear 😉

    The Riviera is an interesting car. I stumble upon one of these every now and then at US car gatherings. Sometimes a 1963 and a boat tail version turn up too.

    Fun fact about the 1963 car: together with the Buick Special, Olds F-85 and Pontiac Tempest the 1963 Riviera were the first cars that used glued windshields. I think the 1963 Riviera was the first to use a glued rear window as well. The glue was a co-development of GM’s Fisher body division and Thiokol.

  5. Excellent article and comments.

    All kudos for and demerits of these cars’ design and styling and year-to-year changes can be laid at the feet of Bill Mitchell,who is said to have lorded it over staff. He seemed to be at his best with the first bodies on a given new chassis as they were introduced. ’63 Riviera, this ’66 and the ’66 Toronado and so on. Don’t think he spent much time on the annual model changes after that, with perhaps the ’61 to ’64 full size Chevrolets being the earlier exception; each year was good, each year was an obvious derivation of the year before but stood on its own merit. I always thought that clever compared to everyone else’s mundane efforts.

    Then he went coke-bottle hips on the new chassis ’65 Chevrolet and Pontiac. I can tell you that even we college sporty foreign car nuts thought they looked fantastic on the road. But the followup ’66 through’69 models inexplicably just got dowdier overall in their lines and stance, even if adorned with more geegaws and spritzed up with more plastichrome each year. Chevs and Pontiacs sold in vast numbers, much more than Buick and Olds specialty cars, so were more important for the company. That ’74 looks like a slightly modified Impala, not a Buick. I wonder if Mitchell was flagging by 1970 – he’d been at it for 30 years by then. He at least managed the new look smaller ’77 full-sizers before he shuffled off to retirement. Considering the actual millions and millions of cars sold under his styling aegis, perhaps 40 million minimum from 1958 to 1977, he’s really the Big Daddy of them all.

    Whatever. The way this article flows and the questions it poses? First Class.

    1. Mitchell “lorded” but it was often a battle with engineers (as with the split window C2 Corvette, where a compromise was the ultimate result and it’s famous signature feature was relegated to a single year, 1963) or with management (boattail Riviera). Mitchell almost never got exactly what he wanted, so he turned his dreams into show cars which he lent himself for personal use and drove around to flaunt. One such car was his rejected proposal for a 1967 C3 Corvette, which became the Manta-Ray show car. Another was his Silver Arrow III concept, a boattail Riviera modified by Mitchell himself, and much like the original Silver Arrow, used by him as his personal car. Many people wanted to see exactly what the smaller A/E body hybrid proposal looked like, with it’s split-V windshield and trimmer, wilder and sportier personality, as related here:’71-boattail-riveria/

      and by some sort of minor miracle, this uncredited photo turned up last year. It meets the designers’ description of the proposed and rejected A/E hybrid version exactly:

      Now we can clearly see how this relates to the Silver Arrow III concept:

      as compared to the production model:

      It is easy to imagine that Silver Arrow III is what Mitchell wished for the ’74 facelift.

      Sure, the ’77 B/C full sizers were considered a triumph for Mitchell, but read about the Pontiac Phantom to get a clearer picture what he really loved. “You know, years ago when you went into an auto styling department, you found sweeps…racks of them. Now they design [cars] with a T-square and a triangle.”

    2. Good morning, Bill. That a very interesting point you make about Bill Mitchell being at his best with the first iteration of his designs. It must have been deeply frustrating for him to see his masterpieces (and that’s what many were) compromised and, ultimately, destroyed by the unnecessary annual facelifts.

      He may have appeared arrogant and imperious, but I can fully understand why that would have been the case. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been required to give the Mona Lisa an annual facelift!

    3. Hi gooddog,

      I think I prefer the production model out of the three cars. A bit like the KA for a lot of readers here 😉

    4. NRJ, I think my nine year-old self would agree, the production version was quite adequate. But that vinyl roof has to go!

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