Under the Knife – That Riviera Touch

Yesterday’s tomorrows – from the studios of Bill Mitchell.

Image: wildaboutcars

Sometimes it is necessary to go wildly overboard before one finds the precise quantum of sufficiency. Somewhat akin to party-going children having run amok; gorging on fizzy pop and cream buns, the American motor industry exited the 1950s with a decidedly queasy sense of untempered excess. A new decade would precipitate a fresh creative approach, and a wholesale shift from the baroque flights of jet-age fancy to a more sober, less mannered visual sensibility.

The 1960s would go on to represent the motor car’s stylistic apogee, not just in the US, but across the developed automotive world, but the changes wrought in Detroit were probably more profound given how far and fast they had travelled. Certainly, of the handful of car designs which could rationally be cited as America’s finest (of this era at least), all would stem from this brief decade.

Image: adclassix

In stylistic terms therefore, the original 1962 Buick Riviera is American design royalty. If Ford largely defined the Personal Luxury Coupé segment, then Buick lent it the class and sophistication that had somehow eluded the rather flashy Thunderbird series. Created under the stylistic oversight of Bill Mitchell, and originally the work of GM stylist, Ned Nickles, the Riviera was a superb melding of Detroit flair (and scale), with the proportion and elegance of the Italian carrozzeiri and the coachbuilt rectitude of olde England.

Not that the Riviera could necessarily be termed restrained. But by contemporary US standards it was not simply refreshingly free of chintz and frippery, it was quite simply a great looking motor car. Owing something of a thematic debt to Pininfarina’s 1957 Florida II concept for Lancia, it was not only critically acclaimed in its home country but hailed by such old world design luminaries as Sir William Lyons and Battista Pininfarina. The Riviera would be hugely influential,[1] even if it never quite knocked the T-Bird off its perch.

1965 Riviera. Image: clickamericana

In 1965, the Riviera received a subtle facelift, the most notable alteration being the removal of the four headlamps from their inset, grille-mounted position, newly relocated to the blade-like extremities of the front wings, mounted vertically and hidden behind clamshell covers. Also cleaner were the flanks – the faux-side scoops below the rear quarterlights being deleted – although whether this actually marked an improvement is a matter of debate. Aft, the rear bumper was larger and encompassed the wider, slimmer tail lamps, which replaced the rather pinched-looking originals.[2]

1966 Riv. Image: wildaboutcarsonline

It might at this stage have behoved Buick to have aped the Lincoln Division in Dearborn by leaving well enough alone – certainly, by mid-decade the least criticism one could level at the Riviera was that of appearance. There is little question that the model line had carved a niche for itself, which it probably could have maintained largely unaltered. However, such was the stylistic pace of change and the fact that both Oldsmobile and Cadillac were poised to offer similarly sized (and dramatically styled) offerings in this sector, it was necessary for Buick to react.

The 1966 Riviera was therefore a full reskin, albeit still based upon the same basic basic platform, sharing a largely carried over technical (RWD) specification. However, not only was the styling all new, the Riviera was now a larger and more ostentatious vehicle, and if the casual observer noticed a vague outline resemblance to Oldsmobile’s Toronado which made its dramatic debut the same year, they were partially correct – in that elements of the upper body (and screens) were believed to have been shared.

’66 Riviera. Image via flickr

Whatever commonalities existed outside of some basic body architecture however, the ’66 Riviera was still a striking motor car. The fastback silhouette appeared a less formal approach however, and for all its visual appeal, the Riviera touch was less in evidence. A 1968 refresh saw an even more Toronado-esque front end, which received a further tweak for 1969, marking the closing point of this space-age late-1960s aesthetic.

Debatable: 1968 Riviera. Image via ebay

For 1970, the Riviera, while still retaining the basic body structure and frame, received a major reworking. While still semi-fastback in style, the 1970 car gained the suggestion of a three-volume silhouette with the by now de rigueur vinyl roof covering. As befitting a new, more reactionary era,[3] the Riviera’s nose gained an prominent upright vee-shaped grille and exposed twin headlamps. At the rear three quarters, half-spats could be optioned, while along the flanks, a pronounced dipping feature line (something of a Buick signature) was added.[4]

1970 Riviera. Image: vintagecarbrochures

It looked a lot like retrenchment, but this appeared to be the direction the market was taking, as America came down from the lurid highs of the previous decade and faced up to some deep uncertainties – the fact that Ford’s unfortunate ‘beaky’ looking Thunderbird of the same year was no stylistic paragon may have aided the Riviera’s cause.

By the following year however, it became clear that this was merely a drawing of breath, before the next visual sucker-punch from Bill Mitchell’s Detroit studios. That year’s Riviera would prove to be perhaps the most outlandish of the model’s entire run, and certainly the most polarising in style. Nobody was on the fence for this design. Originally intended for a more compact platform, it seems the budget was not forthcoming, necessitating a late in the day shift to a carry-over base, and a larger vehicle.

Best angle? Image: oldcarmanualproject

Of course the bigger canvas could be said to have given the style more space upon which to breathe, but even the model’s most ardent sympathisers might admit that the resultant design, while wildly dramatic, didn’t entirely pull off the desired effect – especially in person. Not that it wasn’t without appeal, but while one cannot question the visual flair – especially regarding the tail treatment – one must ask whether it was entirely appropriate for a car of the Riviera’s standing?

Image via flickr

It mattered little, for the boat-tail model was not the hoped for sales success, and while it suffered the immediate knock-on effects of the 1973 oil embargo, it is possible that buyers simply didn’t warm to the style. Quality too it seems suffered during this period.

For 1974, the Riviera once again went under the facelifter’s scalpel, retaining the centre section of the bodyshell, but vastly reworked both forward of the front wheels and aft of the doors – the latter retaining the same pressings. At the front, a more upright, formal nose referred back to that of the 1970 car, which in this case lent it more of a Cadillac feeling, while the huge 5-mph impact absorbing bumpers were as clumsy looking as they were on everything of this lamentable era.

1974 Riviera. Image: barnfinds

Now once again a distinct three-volume shape, the rear three quarters gained what were termed opera windows, more often found swathed in a vinyl Landau Top, which it would appear, no American car with upmarket pretentions could live without by mid-decade. Regardless of its creative retrenchment, this Riviera iteration proved more to buyers’ tastes, marking a sales resurgence for the model, but despite the preferences of the personal luxury coupé buyer by mid-decade, the Riviera in this iteration was now just another oversized, brutalist barge from General Motors’ central casting.

’76 Riv. Image: oldcarbrochures

But change (of a kind) was in the offing, and in 1977, the Riviera was unceremoniously (and incongruously) downsized onto the smaller, if still rear-drive LeSabre platform, pending the development of a more compact front-wheel drive model which would see the model into the 1980s and towards its swansong 1999 iteration.[5]

What is evident from this trawl through the first two decades of the Riviera’s lifespan is that the style of the car swung wildly from the elegant formality of the 1962 original, through the louche informality of the mid-decade cars to the banality of the later designs – the 1971 design of course being a notable exception. But really, it is the original design which is the true outlier amongst this collection. For while it represents the motherlode of Riviera style and the one which defined the breed, its shape had perhaps the most fleeting influence upon those which followed.

While the 1962 car could be read as a reaction against the giddy excesses of the previous decade, by the close of the 1960s, the Riviera become entirely untethered from its original creative mission. The customer is of course always the final arbiter in these matters, but one must wonder if in this case, they were misguided, or if in fact Buick simply failed to adequately communicate what the Riviera actually stood for – or articulate it with the necessary conviction?

[1] It’s possible that without the Riviera, Jaguar’s original XJ6 might not have emerged as it did – Sir William Lyons being so taken with the Buick that he was determined to rival it. So too it seems did Fiat – 1969’s 130 berlina doffing its hat to the ’62 Riviera’s frontal treatment, while Pininfarina’s Paolo Martin also referenced it in silhouette with his 1971 130 Coupé – Cambiano returning the compliment perhaps?

[2] This cleaner treatment had allegedly been intended for the original car, as seen in the Silver Arrow concept of 1963.

[3] In political terms at least, the 1970s were a conservative (and turbulent) period, but socially, they were, if anything, more permissive than the decade before – for a time at least.

[4] This would prove prescient.

[5] These later iterations sit outside the scope of this article.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Under the Knife – That Riviera Touch”

  1. Good morning Eóin. Thanks for taking us through the different iterations of the Riviera. The 1965 is my favourite if the lot, but I like them all to a greater or lesser degree, until it goes HORRIBLY wrong in 1974. What an ugly, detestable barge!

    I know Buick is still going, thanks to China, but it’s really fallen a long way from the halcyon days of the Riviera, thanks to GM’s neglect. Still, its great to have this in your back-catalogue:

    1. I’ve outed myself elsewhere as a lover of the Boattail, but the 1965 Riviera you posted really is a beautiful piece of automobile. (The rims are a little too much over the top, but the colour!!! Lovely.)

    2. I didn´t know the Boattail Riviera was controversial. It always stood out to me as one of those “I wish they could still do that kind of things today” designs. The rear glass is astonishing and the pressings for the metal are so deep they were showing off. Today metal pressing can achieve very crisp edges but the depth isn´t there, not as far as I can see it. The result is shallow pressings with a lot of low-relief shapes pressed in to disguise the flatness. The mid 90ss to 2010s were a bit of sweet spot for how designers added interest to flattish gross forms – all that brain power expended on making joint lines, shutlines, scultping and graphics allign was lovely to behold. With the 1971 Boattail I suppose they expended brain power on getting as deep a draw on the bodyside as they could. The lesson I get from this is that there is a battle going on among designers and engineers to see how far they can push the production methods of the day. Some firms have engineers who say “here´s the limit” and others where they say “I´ll have a go at pushing it a bit”. To give VW credit, they have pushed metal pressing quite a long way if the sharpness of their products are anything to go by. The downside is that every VW brand is doing it at the same time. Well, plus ca change – look at GM and Ford in the 1980s. It´s probably unavoidable.

    3. I guess that the boat tail can trace its roots back through the Corvette Stingray and ultimately to the Alfa Romeo BAT cars.

      There are some smaller similarities with the rather upright-looking Plymouth Barracuda, too.

  2. It all went wrong in 1974. That was just a large coupe with 45 design features thrown at it. The boot is especially lamentable. GM again: ruin a good idea and let sloppy management have its way. In part the problem comes down to a restless need for change despite things being fine as they are. The 1962 car could have soldiered on until 1970 as M-B might have done it. No-one went after Benz for their long model cycles and indeed it was a feature not a bug. Since GM lacked the deep down quality, change was forced to cover for the superficiality of much of what they did. GM could have had faster model cycles for their cheaper brands and slower ones for their upper-price cars. But they treated everything from Chevrolet to Cadillac to the same recklessly frequent changes. I suppose they thought they´d never run out of ideas or that good designs could endure.

  3. There was a 1963 Riviera around in my city for some time. I haven’t seen it for years. It was in a lovely shade of blue called ‘teal mist’. Here’s a shot of a similar Riviera.

    Once a friend and I walked passed it. He was studying architecture like me and unlike me he worked in a garage for classic cars. I pointed out the Buick and he thought it was nothing special, just another Yank tank. I absolutely loved it and still do.

    I have an Automobile Quarterly that features the Riviera’s models through the years. I’ll have a look this weekend, but suffice to say that I agree with Daniel that in went wrong in ’74, coincidentally the year in which I was born.

    1. The story behind the Riviera is quite interesting. Hope to read it here one day on DTW.

  4. Thank you for this article about one of my favorite American cars Eòin- I side with Daniel on the 1965 model as the best, but all three years of the first generation were and are magnificent. The second generation was a good looking car too, but the 1968 -and especially the 1970- facelifts were not very fortunate aesthetically.
    The 1971-72 “Boat-tail” Rivieras (I don’t consider the 1973 to be a true boat-tail anymore as the pointy rear aspect was toned down quite a bit and did not longer protrude much) I have a soft spot for also; DTW readers may know that I owned a 1964 Lincoln Continental at some point, but at the time that I was on the lookout for a classic American car, a 1971 or 1972 Riviera was on my shortlist as well. It even went so far that I had arrived at a verbal agreement with a good friend of one of my fellow car brochure collectors in the USA; he was an elderly gentleman that apart from a 1972 Riviera also had two other Buicks (1975 LeSabre convertible and a mid-eighties hearse), a beautiful 1942 Hudson and as his daily driver a 1985 Buick LeSabre sedan. He would sell the car to me for $5000; it was a really good looking car, not a concours winner but very sound and with an almost new interior. It also drove like a dream. Unfortunately, not long after he suddenly passed away and his estate was divided among his relatives. So I kept looking and ended up with my Lincoln instead. But in the back of mind I have always regretted this one that slipped away… as they say in The Netherlands “Gelukkig hebben we de foto’s nog” (well, at least we still have the photos):

    1. “Dat is een uitdrukking die ik lang niet heb gehoord”

      That’s an expression I haven’t heard in a long time.

  5. Some extra info on the relationship between the 1966 Riviera, 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado , as stated by ex-GM designer Dick Ruzzin:

    “The Toronado was one of a series of three cars that also included the Buick Riviera and
    the Cadillac Eldorado. The chassis was engineered to be capable of both front drive for
    the Toronado and Eldorado and rear drive for the Riviera.
    There was a balance of both interchangeable parts and specific parts for the individual cars.
    The windshield, A-pillar and door side glass was shared by all three cars.
    The roof panel and backlight were shared by Toronado and Riviera.
    Door inners were shared by all three as well as various underbody panels.
    Each car’s individual sheet metal pieces allowed the unique appearance achieved by all three.
    The only piece that you could really see as common was the windshield pillar.”

  6. Just by way of accuracy, while the first Riviera was introduced in the fall of 1962, it was a 1963 model.

    When the concept of moving to the smaller A-body was rejected, the ’71 was forced to share a great deal with the also new for 1971 B-body LeSabre, including doors and side glass, windshield, cowl and dashboard.

  7. I presume readers can see how the 1963 Riviera became the template for Opel´s mid-60s cars. Ironic given that Opel eventually supplied Buicks in recent years.

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