Denied, or swerved? We examine a lost Buick concept.
The conglomeration of niches and target customers explored by car makers in the conceptual realm have for the most part enjoyed a better than average tendency towards termination on dead-end street. Concepts may showcase design flourishes or preview the latest in technology, but rarely see production reality – more often appearing as a feature flick here, or a garrulous gamut there. But as the millennium approached, and their once-proud Riviera model withered on the vine, Buick sought to answer questions yet to be asked. The resultant concept bathed today in DTW’s wobbly spotlight almost made the finish line.
The Riviera had always been a two door personal coupé. Come the century’s close however, GM chairman John F. Smith Jr. outlined what he believed to be the model’s primary drawback – not enough openings. Hence, the General began examining the feasibility of a four-door version they believed might be market-suitable. A Riviera with four doors – how the rumour mill intensified! At least Flint conjured an appropriate moniker for this newcomer: Cielo, Spanish for sky.
Utilising a Regal Gran Sport chassis, the general idea wasn’t too far-fetched. The Regal measured some thirteen inches less than the last-of-line Riviera, but width and internal measurements were practically the same. Here the similarities would end. First shown at the 1999 Chicago motor show, the Cielo arrived replete with unchanged mechanicals but sheathed with bodywork few could excise from the mind’s eye. Shod with concept-favourite 20″ wheels, bespoke Michelin tyres (incorporating the tri-shield in the tread), where does one’s eye cast first?
To the front then: Mike Doble, Buick’s then head of advanced concepts, volunteered this aspect as being the toughest, taking the longest to pin down. Resembling (of sorts) a fifties Buick waterfall grille, the upturned, toothy chromed edifice could as easily call to mind an evilly grinning piranha. The halogen projector-beam headlights were hidden behind triangular covers, a homage perhaps to earlier Riviera lamp displays. One definitive concept-only piece was the windscreen – handmade, no less.
Shifting sideways, the coach doors blended into a physical sweep spear, another (longstanding) marque attribute. The doors’ opening effect certainly aided access, which Doble openly admitted to being purely theatrical. Assisting with the inevitable extra body strengthening was a stub B-pillar, an internal bolt holding the doors together, which also housed side-impact structures. The placement of the Fisher Price aping rear-view mirrors did little for the overall effect, however.
Heading rearward, the lines became smoother, more sculptural. The centrepiece triple exhaust broke up an otherwise rounded tail-end, devoid of much else other than a home for the full width lighting unit. A recessed flute, adorned with badge, lead the eye up towards the high-level brake light, again presenting, to these eyes at least, a less than wholly convincing effect.
Humans remain habitually concerned at keeping the weather outside, whereas carmakers spend an inordinate amount of time and money allowing such elements to enter the cabin. To the roof elements then, for which the Cielo gained its renown, while simultaneously losing it again to the wind’s eddies. With the side rails fixed in place, the entire roof, consisting of two metal panels and rear glass pane, could glide away, drawn by cables in the rails, one at a time into the boot space, the whole business taking around 32 seconds. Poetic engineering; a delight to the eye, all undertaken by eight motors. Preserving occupants’ coiffures, the rear glass panel, or its equivalent directly over the front seats, could be left in-situ. Contemporary reports suggest that wind noise and buffeting sans panels, side windows closed, was almost non-existent.
A singular, incontrovertible fact was delivered by Buick General Manager Roger Adams at the concept’s unveiling: “This is a no-compromise convertible,”he stated. “Enough to encourage those never having considered one before.” Quite.
In total, the roof mechanism added an extra 109 pounds in weight over a standard Regal. In order to effect the transition, the Regal required substantial alteration. Air suspension was fitted to the rear. Retained was Buick’s proven 3.8 litre V6 engine, in this instance supercharged and mated to a four speed auto-box. The wheelbase gained three and half inches, the track an extra inch and a half. All that extra strengthening added weight above the beltline, important for those roll-over situations, but a disaster for a fluid-handling, luxury car. MotorTrend magazine nevertheless managed a short drive in the Cielo, where aside from typical concept car provisos, they felt that the car “handled and rode well.”
An interior as radical as the Cielo’s exterior falls next under scrutiny. Buick was keen to promote the Cielo’s voice control. Pressing a button and saying, ‘open roof’, would (theoretically) cause those panels to move. Similarly with the doors, heating, lights and sat-nav, all commanded by both digital and vocal inputs. The transmission was also button-operated, as indeed was the start/stop procedure, banishing keys and gear knobs.
Sumptuous looks on the show stand are all well and good: people, after all, can dream of the open highway, driver and occupants cultivating that aloof-without-trying look. However, be they folding metal roofs or plain old ragtops, the competition offered similar benefits in an easier on the eye package. Roof up, the Cielo simply looked odd. In reality, reliable air conditioning would probably have worked better.
Comprising all the bells and whistles Buick could muster, the Cielo came within a whisker of (limited) production. Concerns over pricing even appear to have been surmounted, but it failed to pass the final hurdle. Transpiring next was the Regal Cielo Concept, which apparently came even closer to production reality. Based on the conventional Regal bodyshell, the Cielo’s roof mechanism was applied, resulting in a more obscure creation – the bastard son of Cielo, if you will.
Another concept car to be filed under what if, credits must go to the design team for their imagination and ingenuity, albeit tempered by a surfeit of debits in the feasibility column. At the concept’s debut, one motor show wag allegedly suggested that he’d seen better looking tacos, the retort from his companion being, “A flying burrito, more like!”
A five minute video presentation
 Pronounced “See-A-Lo”.
 The Chicago show was allegedly famous for manufacturer concept reveals.
 Another possible influence was the 1938 Y-Job concept – [ED].
Data sources: motortrend.com, caranddriver.com, motor1.com, mycarquest.com