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.
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.
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.
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”.