Getting Personal

Analysing three different takes on the personal luxury car of 1963.

All images: The author.

The personal luxury car is a uniquely American phenomenon; its closest cousin in concept would have been the European GT, but this transatlantic specimen was a larger, softer (but on a straight piece of road not necessarily slower) breed. There is a fairly general consensus that Ford was the first to introduce the genre with the first four-seater Thunderbird of 1958.

Even though the 1955-1957 two-seater Thunderbirds were only a few years old, they already had created a strong following and many customers lamented the fattening up of the Square Bird with the loss of its two-seat configuration at the time. Ford would be proven right in changing course nonetheless, because sales of the new and larger Thunderbird immediately increased by a sizeable margin; the 1958 model sold more than the previous two model years together, and this in a recession year.

It would take a few years for the competition to react. Pontiac had its answer of sorts for the 1962 model year with the Grand Prix, but in essence this was a sporty version of the regular full-size Pontiac. Brooks Stevens cleverly facelifted the old Loewy/Burke Studebaker Hawk to create the 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk. At least for the first decade, personal luxury cars were usually, with a few exceptions, intermediate sized, seating four to five.

It was not until the 1963 model year that the Thunderbird was confronted with some serious competition: the Buick Riviera and the Studebaker Avanti.

The Riviera was initially planned to revive the La Salle nameplate but Cadillac management was not interested, and neither was Chevrolet. However, both Buick and Pontiac expressed a strong interest in the car. Ultimately, it was decided to give the Riviera to Buick because the Flint nameplate was in trouble after the sales highs it enjoyed in the early to mid fifties and it was hoped this new model might revive its fortunes.

Studebaker; not enjoying the luxury of being part of a large automotive empire like Buick, was by this time in dire straits, making the fact that they were capable of producing a car like the Avanti at all even more impressive. It was styled in record time in a rented holiday bungalow by a team of young designers under the guidance of Raymond Loewy; few realised that the modern, svelte fiberglass body was sitting on top of a slightly modified Lark Convertible chassis.

Instead of the Avanti, the Gran Turismo Hawk could have been included in this comparison but as the Avanti was newer it prevailed for the purpose of this article.

The projectile look Thunderbird was first introduced for the 1961 model year, and apart from a character line added to its previously smooth flanks, some trim shuffling and a change from a generator to an alternator, it had not changed much. Under the skin, the Thunderbirds shared a cowl and windshield with the Lincoln Continental; they were also built on the same assembly line in the Wixom, Michigan factory.

Dimensionally, the Thunderbird and Riviera were reasonably close. The Ford has a wheelbase of 113 inches while the Buick’s is 4 inches longer. The Avanti’s front and rear wheel centres are 109 inches apart; a result of the more compact base of its underpinnings.

As one would expect, all three offered a standard V8 engine. The Thunderbird was powered by a 390 cubic inch V8 delivering 300 horsepower, with a 340 horsepower version optionally available. The Riviera had a 325 horsepower 401 cubic inch Nailhead V8 under the bonnet; a 340 horsepower 425 cubic inch version could be ordered as an option.

An interesting fact about these Buick V8s is that they were used to assist the starting up of the jet engines of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spyplane; a so-called start cart with two V8 engines on board revved the jets up to about 3000 Rpm after which they could be fired up completely.

Studebaker offered not two but three different V8 engines, named R1, R2 and R3; the standard R1 was rated at 240 horsepower. With the R2 a supercharger was added which increased the rating to 285 horses. The also supercharged R3 engine delivered well over 300 horsepower but was very rarely fitted.

As far as pricing was concerned the three contenders were quite evenly matched: the Riviera was the cheapest at $4333, the Thunderbird and Avanti both left their respective showrooms for $4445.

After the 1963 model year had drawn to a close, a clear winner had emerged: the Ford Thunderbird with total sales of 63,313 vehicles. Impressive for a car that was on the last of its three-year styling cycle. The Riviera did not disappoint either – around 40,000 found owners – it played an important role in restoring Buick’s fortunes after some difficult years. For unforunate Studebaker the Avanti’s sales results were disheartening: only 3834 cars were sold.

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Comparing the three brochures, the Thunderbird is victorious in that it displays the nicest production values of the three with a simple but stylish white cover that has “Thunderbird by Ford” embossed upon it in a fancy script. Inside, the first and last pages are onion-skin paper and the choice of photography and models are pure JFK-era Camelot.

Both Riviera and Avanti brochures are smaller and less elaborate; that of the Studebaker also having its name embossed on the white cover. Somewhat puzzling is the red-white-and blue motif that looks like a French tricolour – Avanti being an Italian word after all. Did Loewy want to remind people that the styling of the Avanti was done under his supervision? The photography and locations evoke a noticeably more modern style compared to the Thunderbird catalogue.

Finally, the Buick sits between the two in terms of both size and choice of photography: neither expressly modern nor fashionably contemporary. Unlike the two other cars, most of the photography inside the Riviera brochure appears to have been carried out in a studio which was not yet very common at the time.

Because of its low sales, the Avanti brochure is the most difficult to find, nowadays. More common is simpler folder, which is not as attractive. For the Riviera, two different brochures were printed of which the one illustrated here is the more elaborate. The other item is smaller and square in format (about the size of a CD box) but uses mostly the same photography and is easier to obtain. For the Thunderbird only this plush catalogue was produced, but as quite a lot were printed, it is, relatively speaking, the easiest of the three to acquire today.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

18 thoughts on “Getting Personal”

  1. About the sporty gm full size. I believe Oldsmobile arrived at that party one year ahead with the Starfire. Though that first year was as convertible only.

  2. Brrrruno, I always enjoy your brochure-related articles, and this is not exception.
    For instance I never noticed that “Robby the robot” expression of the Avanti, I suspect it could have something to do with its selling numbers…
    As to the French flag on the brochure, I suppose that the brochure was mainly directed to the US public, and I suppose also that, for them, France may not be the first possibility coming to mind.

    1. Could the the red, white and blue logo be a stylised version of the Studebaker badge?

  3. The Riviera was the subject of my MA Automotive final year project so I have a soft spot for the car. Back then information was scant and I had not the budget for brochures. I´d rather like a Riviera brochure, just for its art value. The trio are all very elegant – good design is ageless. And I suppose for similar reasons Car magazine´s style around the late 90s borrowed similar tropes: clear, dramatic photos and carefully structured text layouts (squares, rectangles and lots of white space). These days, like most magazines it´s too busy.
    We can link this article to the recent Opel pieces by noting the way the 1963 Riviera served as an inspiration for Opel for the 1970s. And why not, it was one of the most elegant American cars produced.

    1. Great stuff, Bruno, thank you. The Thunderbird may have been the biggest seller of the trio but, for me, the Riviera looks a generation newer, being a much cleaner and more elegant design:

      The Thunderbird, although no longer having tailfins, still seems to retain the late 1950’s fashion for rather brash chrome ornamentation:

      The Studebaker was a very credible effort for the impoverished company, but is not in the same ballpark as the other two:

      As Richard says, the Riviera was a positive influence on much later Opel models, so was a really forward looking design.

      The brochures are all lovely, being visual and tactile treats. It’s a long time since we last bought a new car. I still have the brochure for our 2014 Mini, which is fine, but not special in any way. Do car manufacturers bother with physical brochures anymore, or do they rely wholly on their online presence.

    2. Isn’t extraordinary how some people seem to fear the very notion of white space? A misplaced sense of economy, I suppose…

  4. Daniel O, Fiat at least is all online. If you request a brochure they only ask for your email address and then send you a download. Unfortunately most of them are in MHTML format which a lot of devices can’t read without a seperate plug in. Oh for the time when I had to use my parents to dodge calls from the salesman at JCT600 who’d had my details passed on by Alfa Romeo UK as I’d requested the Alfa 166 brochure and was I available for a test drive? I was about 14 at the time… I got a proper brochure though, through the post.

    1. Thanks, Richard, that’s what I expected and it’s a shame. I recall that VW and Fiat brochures from the 1970’s, although not extravagant in any way, had a lovely crisp, modernist style.

    1. The Riviera is in the top ten best car designs, there´s no question. If I can make a distinction though – I´d argue the Riviera is what you´d call objectively excellent, a stand-out that many people should be able to appreciate. One could also have a personal top 10 that didn´t include it. I´d include it on my general and personal top 10. Funnily, it´s not especially innovative. Even in 1963 it was conceived in terms of classicism. It´s not the DS. But it is an excellent synthesis.

    2. Maybe not a major innovation, but as far as I know the ’63 Riviera was the first production car where the rear window was glued in place. It was done from the inside of the car.

  5. As someone who lived through these new car introductions as a car nut, I think the Avanti is streets ahead of the other two for looks. Studebaker could never get its fibreglass body producer up to speed, which limited production to perhaps a mere 5% of what they had wanted to make during 1962, so 1200 total. Then the general word was getting out that Studebaker was a dead duck, so the 1963 production suffered from people being shy of buying a car from a company about to go phut. It beat the Riviera to the market with the coke-bottle body shape, barely, by a couple of months. Personally, I admit to staring for hours at the pictures of the Avanti in magazines back in 1962 – couldn’t get over it, was just fascinated. I gave the Riviera but a mere glance in passing seeing the vestigial vents in front of the rear wheels as typical American schmaltz, and the T-Bird Mk 3’s claim to fame in a LIFE double-page spread advertisement the year before when it first appeared was “genuine simulated wire wheels”. Right.

    There’s an original Avanti putting around these parts in my province of Canada, its longevity assured by the fibreglass body. Compared to modern cars which are much bulkier physically, it actually looks relatively small and delicate, lithe even, and very low, its age shown more by the tin wheels and chrome fixings, such as they are. It’s the same feeling I get when a couple of local E-Types are paraded in a normal non-virus Spring. They look tiny and narrow, and the detail work and chrome is from an earlier age of fabrication techniques. The Avanti doesn’t look narrow in the least, and the owner always has a grin from ear-to-ear. If there are Rivieras or Mark 3 Thunderbirds at the parade rallies, I must confess they haven’t registered on my brain whatsoever. People always gravitate to the Avanti and the E-types. Just the way it is.

    Many people who care about such things find the ’66 Riviera a much cleaner design than the ’63 which is puffy-fendered and has a stance compromised by wheels set too far inboard. Pontiac was on its wide-track gig at the time, but it took a few years to spread to other GM nameplates, and then not so overtly.

    The Thunderbird had the best engineered body of the three cars, a tank of an over-engineered unitary platform, while the Buick was blighted with an X-frame separate chassis, and Studebaker had a willowy one as well, dating back to the late ’40s. It was also very front-heavy with its Studebaker old-style full cast iron V8, so an understeerer according to the reviewers. Nevertheless, at the time, I salivated over the Avanti just for its looks, and banished thoughts of its handling from my mind. One thing it did have was front disc brakes. The old wealthy types who bought Rivieras and T-Birds wouldn’t have known a disc brake from a cheese pizza, and the genuine simulated wire wheel lasted right through the middle 1990s on American cars. Nothing said sporty like wire wheels to the American public for almost 40 years!

    1. I’m with Bill on this. At the time, here on the eastern side of the pond, the Riviera passed me by as just another (in the accepted idiom of the day) ‘Yank Tank’. The Thunderbird looked a little less offensively brash, but the Avanti was, quite simply, a gob-smacker. Who would have believed that the US could produce such a beautiful car? And I hardly dare admit it, but I thought that from most angles (particularly from the front) it was better looking than the E type.
      Now, many years later, I can (with the help of DTW) take a more considered view of the likes of the Riviera (et al) – but the Avanti remains, for me, one of only two American cars on my “if money were no object” list (the other’s a Cord).

  6. Thank you for your comments;
    Andrew Ryan: I agree about having to include the 1961 Starfire- thanks for the correction.
    Charles: Yes, your explanation with the badge seems quite plausible; that must have been the reason.
    Jonathan Wadman: The Continental Mark 2 was certainly a luxury car, but as you pointed out yourself it lived in a much higher stratospheric price range- most personal luxury cars were (at least for a sizeable portion of the market witness their good sales) priced at a level many could at least hope to someday be able to afford .

  7. Concerning the influence of the Riviera on some subsequent Opels- here’s a nice example; 1965 Buick Riviera and 1970 Opel Diplomat:

    1. The Diplomat is a Riviera saloon. This borrowing from Buick by Opel became ironic and sad when Opels were sent over to be badged as Buicks (the Astra and Insignia) once Saturn had been knifed. I adore those KAD cars; I won´t forget seeing one in Sweden on a foggy day at some airport. It was impossibly cool.

  8. I don’t think that the term “personal luxury car” was in widespread use until the mid 1970s*. Rather, the term used for the 1960s Thunderbird and its competitors was “specialty car”.

    The aforementioned 1963 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, note the Thunderbird style roof.

    * Wikipedia is wrong to classify the Avanti as a personal luxury car, use of the word “personal” in Studebaker’s marketing copy notwithstanding.

    Despite its pedestrian chassis bits, a stock Avanti equipped with the optional factory-installed Paxton supercharger was much faster in a straight line than any stock 1963 Corvette. Accordingly the Avanti garnered legendary status in the annals of dry lake/salt flats and drag racing competition.

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