Yesterday’s tomorrows – from the studios of Bill Mitchell.
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.
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, even if it never quite knocked the T-Bird off its perch.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
 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?
 This cleaner treatment had allegedly been intended for the original car, as seen in the Silver Arrow concept of 1963.
 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.
 This would prove prescient.
 These later iterations sit outside the scope of this article.