The car that choreographed a Cadillac lawsuit (and won).
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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.
 The car after all, already badged a Riviera by Buick.
 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 www.Buickrivieraconvertible.com contains a plethora of information and resources.
Data sources: oldmotors.net/ The Riviera Owners Association