Fools Who Dream

The car that choreographed a Cadillac lawsuit (and won).

Image: consumerguideauto

McCormick Place, Chicago, February 1982 – a not entirely salubrious (or meteorologically appropriate) launch venue for a factory convertible. American and British tastes regarding the drophead differ considerably. Ever optimistic for the kiss of solar rays, Blighty could not be satiated. America however, forty years ago felt altogether differently.

Wealthy customers have always been happy to indulge independent coachbuilders in order to gain some open-topped thrills but the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado was the final hurrah for the factory built GM convertible. Sunroofs, however had become more popular, with one Lansing, Michigan exponent – the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC) – being in the box seats and quite capable of lopping entire roofs away, leaving quite agreeable results. Creating a stir at the 1981 Indy 500, two ASC-built Buick Regal convertibles were made as pace cars. The GM brass took notice but fittingly in such a tale it remains unclear who made the first move.

Faster sideways? Image: macsmotorcitygarage

ASC swiftly produced a Riviera convertible, driving the car to Detroit and Buick division leader, Lloyd Reuss, late into 1981. An official deal was immediately struck. Partly finished Linden, New Jersey-made Riviera coupés would be shipped to Lancing for decapitation. There, 32 stations staffed by 300 craftspeople took around ten hours to modify each car by hand. 

Already missing the headliner and rear seats, full interior removal was the first stage. Securely covered and protected, there followed the brutal roof removal by air powered tools. Structural reinforcing, electrical cable rerouting and welding would follow. Waterproofing and sealing can then take place after which, the folding roof, made off-side from the production line, joined play. Manufactured from a diamond grain, double textured coated vinyl, a rudimentary appearing jig assisted the workers to fit the lid. 

Many gallons of midnight oil were burned in the engineering process regarding the E-body’s rear quarter light. The glissade motion was not only a joy to observe but essential for the perfect fit. A four minute, 350 water gallon dose checked for leaks – the human checker inside rarely dampened.

The interior was then refitted accordingly. The convertible’s rear seats being slightly smaller than its coupé sibling. Another full check was made before the bodywork was treated to a coating of Mirror Glaze, a GM approved and recommended finisher. Should the build sheet receive full marks, another water blast test was conducted and only then, the car released to the dealers.

Image: Hemmings Motor News.

The engines and drivetrain remained untouched by ASC. Build rates hovered around thirty per day. Now, consider the pricing – a base 1982 hardtop Riviera Coupé, Buick’s big seller in the personal luxury car class cost around $15,000. This new, factory[1] model started at $24,500, with options well over $27,000. Still something of a bargain, considering a Mercedes sports leichte pushed over $40,000.

With such tags, exclusivity was perhaps the first tick-box, the Riviera Cabriolet being the General’s most expensive endeavour at the time. GM top brass from any given division were often seen driving the front wheel drive Riv Koop. Fortuitously, pragmatism also occurred, not only with lucrative specifications but also with build quantities, even from their wintry launch and delayed (by three months ) 1,248 models were built and sold for 1982. Available in only two external body colours, white or red Firemist (burgundy) with a maple (from 1982-3) or claret interior (1984-5). Vinyl tops arrived only in white.

Faced with increased demand, Buick upped the 1983 build quota to 1,750, alongside taller pricing, now starting at $27,702. This new model year barely changed from the last. Laced with standard items such as 8 track player, CB radio, white wall tyres surrounding locking wire wheel covers, disc brakes all round, independent suspension, torsion bar front and coil springs rear, the 1983 darker grille and an electronic control unit for heating and revealing your rpms.

Under that hood lay the standard 4.1 litre V6 or, at no extra cost, one’s purring boulevard cruiser could have the 5-litre V8. Go figure which one sold more – the 21 gallon tank requiring frequent sans plombs sorties as either mill would at best offer mid-teen mpg but at least the car could be steered by a solitary digit – featherlight operation on either standard Deluxe or (uglier) sports steering wheel – leather trimmed, with tilt and telescoping features.

Image: Hemmings Motor News

1984 saw an engine option only 47 customers chose, an $900 optional GM diesel engine. The following year witnessed the now seven year-old shape’s final bow. As the 4.1 litre engine was dropped, the five litre and prices climbed – ticking all the boxes (including diesel) knocked up a $31,250 bill. And then add in the competition. 

Just two months into Riv Koop’s life, Chrysler released the LeBaron convertible. Admittedly smaller but significantly cheaper by at least $10,000 and pertinently, available when advertised. Hot on Iacocca’s tail also came Henry’s drop-top Mustang. Defiantly, GM then briefly offered a Cadillac Eldorado also by ASC, causing that lawsuit[2]. A total of 3,898 Riviera Convertible’s were made in total, many residing on forecourts long after their manufacture. 

Yet forty years on, these hand-built relics garner more enthusiasm than they initially received. Touted as being blessed with longevity and decent build quality, the Riviera convertible is the epitome of eighties US cool. Examples are now highly sought after, in no small part due to an old head on young shoulders, jazz guy.

Ryan Gosling in a still from the movie La La Land. Image: Inverse

Seb is the character played by actor, Ryan Gosling in the 2016 movie, La La Land. The red Firemist example, like Seb himself, is a little ragged around the edges – a somewhat left-field choice for a younger fellow. He can play his jazz eight tracks and leap in or out without using a door, yet the pleasing, metallic thunk noises they emit when he does are legendary. The roof remains permanently folded (it never rains in these enchanting environments) yet the car’s charm oozes in the manner of a sassily played saxophone – a perfect fit for his character. 

A car containing no sporting zeal, an elongated birth and a protracted death – why, it’s the stuff of dreams – the only nightmare being there’s been nothing like it since.

[1] The car after all, already badged a Riviera by Buick.

[2] In 1984, following the introduction of the ASC Eldorado, a group of disgruntled customers took GM to court, citing they’d been misled into purchasing ‘the very last Cadillac convertible’ in 1976. The customers lost the case.

On a further celebrity front, one of these Riviera convertibles carried off Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger on his wedding day.

Huge thanks must go to Ron Henley whose website contains a plethora of information and resources.

Data sources: The Riviera Owners Association 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

11 thoughts on “Fools Who Dream”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. Thank you for this insight of the Riviera convertible. I’ve known about the coupe for ages, but this is new to me. I rather like it.

  2. Good morning Andrew, thanks four your article. I´m really lost when it comes to american cars and for me this is gold.
    You say the Riv is “Touted as being blessed with longevity and decent build quality”. In the ´80s Buicks were built in “Buick City·” in Flint, MI, a factory that was awarded by J.D Power and Associates for build quality. I even remember reading some Buick ads in magazines talking with proud about their cars quality.
    It would be interesting to compare ´80s and ´90s Buick and Cadillac quality; Cadillac´s is supposed to be superior, bearing in mind the price, but…

  3. Good morning Andrew and thanks for an interesting tale. It may seem perverse that convertibles are relatively unpopular in places like California, but the prevalence of sun and heat means that efficient air-conditioning is preferable to roof-down motoring for much of the time. Only a lunatic (or a tourist!) would drive through Death Valley or across the Mojave Desert with the roof down on a convertible. The cooling breeze as you drive along disguises the real risk of severe sunburn or heat-stroke in so doing.

  4. This iteration of the Riviera doesn´t appeal to me, whether with or without the roof. It´s an interesting story, the assembly. Am I correct in understanding that the cars arrived with their interior in place prior to chopping the lid off?

  5. The decline of convertibles in California, like so much else, can be laid at the feet of Howard Jarvis and Prop 13

    Municipal funding in America is mostly property tax. In the 70s, inflation and real estate speculation could cause the assessed value, and thus property tax, to increase tenfold in just a few years. Retirees were getting taxed out of the homes they bought over a lifetime of work.

    The public was enraged by this and passed Prop 13 – which overshot the mark, as it caps property tax increases at 2% pa, not just for the elderly on fixed income, but every California homeowner, so long as they do not sell or substantially improve the property. This exemption can even be passed on in death, creating what some people jokingly refer to as the closest an American can get to a title of nobility.

    A knock-on effect of this is huge swathes of California is still occupied by the original family, in the original condition. Adding a garage would trigger a reassessment, and a property previously taxed at $50k in 1978 could now be reappraised at $2M.

    The result is perfectly preserved mid-century neighborhoods – and young people that can’t buy a house, especially a house with a garage.

    No garages, no houses, and thus no convertibles.

    Thus the counterintuitive result that classic convertibles are actually more common in places like snowy Iowa, where real estate turnover and pricing make garages affordable for 25 year olds.

  6. Thanks for the article. Stories about the realities of north american car scene are welcome to us with continental european only experience. Things are working differently there as it seems. The choice of two colours is limiting, how much could a repaint cost the owner?

  7. The price tag of 27.000 seems low in relation to current pricing. What was a price of an ordinary car, then?

    1. Hi gpant. By way of comparison, the Chevrolet Celebrity mid-sized sedan launched in 1982 had a starting price of $8,588 so the Buick Riviera convertible cost roughly three times as much.

  8. An interesting detail of the Riviera (as well as the Eldorado and the Olds Tornado that shared the same platform) is the unique drivetrain layout. It’s longitudinal front wheel drive, the torque converter behind the engine but the rest of the transmission sits besides the engine, back to front, driven via silent chain.

  9. The Oldsmobile Toronado was also on this platform but curiously not offered as an ASC ragtop. Since Olds didn’t get a convertible version of their J-Car Firenza although there were Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunbird ones, that left Olds as the only GM division without a “factory” convertible by ’83-4.

    Hess and Eisenhardt converted a few FWD A-bodies, most of which were Oldsmobiles and Buicks largely for that reason and the fact it was substantially cheaper than the Riv ragtop, very few Chevys and Pontiacs since it would’ve been a lot more money than a J-body for something not blessed by GM.

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