How Bill Porter turned the sow’s ear of the 1986 Buick Riviera into something so much better.
This article was first published as part of the DTW Facelifts Theme on July 02 2014.
In 1986, Buick sold a medium-sized two door coupé called the Somerset in the US market, built on the Oldsmobile-engineered N-body. In the way of GM’s demented renaming strategy, the Somerset tag was once a trim level of the Regal saloon but it escaped to become a separate line. The Somerset only lived for three years – the public didn’t take to the name, apparently. The Somerset had a transverse, front-mounted 2.5 litre 4-cylinder or 3.0 V-6 engine driving the front wheels. The wheelbase was 103 inches (Americans don’t do metric).
In terms we’d understand on this side of the Atlantic, it addressed the market that Volvo does with the C30 or Audi with the A3. Or if you imagine a 2-door Ford Focus notchback in Ghia trim you wouldn’t be wide of the mark. At the same time, Buick had available their upmarket Riviera, now a shadow of its glorious 1963 self. It ran on the E-body, with its 108 inch wheelbase, and had a 3.8 litre V6 driving the front wheels. In modern European terms, imagine something not unlike a Volvo S80 coupe.
While the cars’ dimensions and appearances were similar, the prices were not. So, apart from not really being all that nice to look at, the Riviera also looked like another, cheaper car people didn’t really want. In short order, Buick’s Bill Porter was tasked with facelifting away the similarities between the cheaper Somerset and the top-of-the range Riviera. In so doing, he managed to craft a handsome car.
The boot was both lengthened and reprofiled and a tidy boot-lid-to-lamp relationship created. There were other Buicks with full-width rear lamps but this version was very nicely executed; it joins the ranks of the few cars of the recent past that did not have their lamps wrap around the corners. The c-pillar was given more length and rake which suggested the ’63 if you looked hard enough. The lamps and grille got a shade more expression.
Most of the press photos stress the rear of the car, as it happens. This bootlift was then one of the rare ones that saved a car but was also a decent design in itself. The redesign gave the Buick Riviera a bit of a sales boost but, in truth, they need not have bothered as the big coupe market was dying and after one more iteration, the Riviera name disappeared entirely from Buick’s catalogues.
 See also Buick Park Avenue.
 Why do designers usually have the rear lamps draping around the corner from the rear to the bodyside? One reason is visual. You can take visual weight out of the rear wing by using a different material. Another is to make the car look wider since the lamps will be wider, more horizontal and will serve to bring the rear around to the side. Having a lamp at the corner means that if you bump the car there you damage something more readily fixable than bodywork. Finally, and practically, having the corner of the car occupied by as much lamp as possible means a shallower steel-pressing is needed and this is cheaper and simpler to do.
Editor’s note: This tail lamp treatment was also something of a Riviera visual signature, dating back to the original 1963 model. Another fun fact: the GM E-body which underpinned both 1986 and ’89 Rivieras also formed the basis of the Reatta model, recently profiled.