A Facelift Better Than the Car It Was Meant To Save

How Bill Porter turned the sow’s ear of the 1986 Buick Riviera into something so much better.

1989 Buick Riviera. Favcars

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.[1] 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.

Buick Somerset. Image: Free Library of Philadelphia
1986 Buick Riviera. Image: oldcarbrochures

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.[2] 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.

[1] See also Buick Park Avenue.

[2] 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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

17 thoughts on “A Facelift Better Than the Car It Was Meant To Save”

  1. I note how adding length to the C Pillar was an essential part of the facelift. A wide C Pillar is one of the indicators of a classy car – see Rolls Royces for decades. It suggests that you need privacy back there, for whatever reason. Is that why the Golf has always had a perceived classy edge? Safety regulations excepted, Is that why small glass areas are so popular now? And privacy glass? What is with us these days that we all want to hide? Is that healthy?

    1. Good point, Sean. I’ve dislike the rear privacy glass as soon as it became a thing.

  2. The Buick Somerset was a coupe version of not of the Regal but of the Skylark, one size down from the Regal.

    1. Thanks Peter: I find the structure of GM´s product hierarchy rather hard to follow. It´s easier to remembet it as you describe: Somerset = Skylark coupé. I´d have just called it a Skylark coupe. So was there a Regal coupé?

      Isn´t Bill Porter´s Riviera just lovely though?

    2. It looks like the Buick Regal coupe of that period was one of the older generations of cars and not directly related to the Regal coupe sold at that time.

  3. There I was, waxing lyrical about wonderful, evocative American car names yesterday and the Buick Somerset pops up as a glorious exception! I’m sure Somerset is a very nice county, but it was a weird name to choose for a Buick.

    Here’s the original Somerset car:

    This was a short-lived Austin model, produced from 1952 to 1954. It replaced the Devon/Dorset and was itself replaced by the Cambridge, apparently.

    Returning the the facelifted Riviera, it was certainly a competent job. Reducing the size of the rear side window and making the C-pillar wider made it look like a proper ‘personal coupé’.

    Is there a hint of Lancia in the tail treatment?

    It reminds me of the Kappa coupé:

    1. The Riviera´s rear lamps and general tail treatment is much tidier. The chrome garnish on the Kappa was plain odd. There´s a super chance for a wierd dual-car classic road test comparison.

    2. Only on this site would you have such an obscure cultural cross-reference! I doubt many Riviera owners know what a Lancia is, and just as few Kappa owners would care to know what a Riviera does!

  4. I’ve had to think about this one. The Buick Somerset doesn’t work for me. The 1986 Buick Riviera is better, but the 1989 Riviera is an improvement. In my book the upright rear window and sloping rear end shouldn’t work together, but somehow they do and I can’t really figure out why.

    1. The facelifted Riviera had very well-managed transitions. It´s so much more refined than much of what GM did at that time. Like the Rover 75 and the current Volvo S90 it has what I call surface richness. They also painted it rather well.

    2. I must concur with Richard on this – the revised Riviera really does (stylistically) amount to a good deal more than the sum of its revisions. It is – by any standards, but especially contemporary GM ones – a very nicely executed piece of work. I’d quite fancy one of these to hiss about in. Whitewalls and all…

      I’d go as far as to suggest that this ‘did’ Riviera better than the last of line model which replaced it.

    3. The Somerset (later renamed Skylark) didn’t work for a lot of people. It and the Oldsmobile version, combined, were outsold by the Pontiac Grand Am which was the only really successful N-body.

  5. I’m afraid I can’t get beyond the truncated cabin, however
    nicely the details have been managed. Austin Somersets
    were to be seen in 50s Melbourne, my brothers and I,
    opinionated yobs in short pants all, thought them foolish,
    puffed up A35s.

  6. Is there a time-warp thing happening here, can I ask? I noted the date of Sean’s response as I was delighted to see his presence on site, but, alas it seems to be a comment from a long time hence.

    1. SVR: Amongst my editorial powers, I also have the ability to bend time. Like all great powers, it must be wielded with great responsibility. Meanwhile, I would direct you to the note appended at the beginning of the piece.

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