The Flying Burrito, Brother

Denied, or swerved? We examine a lost Buick concept.

1999 Buick Cielo concept. Image: Consumer Guide Auto

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[1]. 

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[2], 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[3]. 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. 

Image: trishield.com

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.

Image: Consumer Guide Auto

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.

Image: oldconceptcars

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 

[1] Pronounced “See-A-Lo”.

[2] The Chicago show was allegedly famous for manufacturer concept reveals.

[3] Another possible influence was the 1938 Y-Job concept – [ED].

Data sources: motortrend.com, caranddriver.com, motor1.com, mycarquest.com

Author: Andrew Miles

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

30 thoughts on “The Flying Burrito, Brother”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. Another schoolday for me, I didn’t know about this concept car at all. It’s not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.

    I’d rather have a ’63 Riviera. Or maybe the ’65. Listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers. (another musical reference here on DTW) ‘Wheels’ might be my favorite, even though that song is about motorcycles.

    Coincidentally I’m reading Robert Pirsig’s book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ now.

  2. Thanks for showing us this car, Andrew! I don’t think I’ve seen it before.

    Despite all its design flaws, I actually kind of like it. Maybe it’s just the orange colour. It would make a good big sister for an orange Citroën C3 Pluriel, a concept a bit less controversial that actually made it to production.

    But besides the Pluriel, the first picture instantly reminded me of another car. I had to search around a little, but now I’ve found it:

    A Matra 530.

  3. Thank you Andrew, for reminding us of one of the many forgotten US concept cars; as far as the styling influences for the Cielo are concerned, here is a quote from the press kit I have in my collection that sheds some more light on it:
    “Jerry Palmer, director of design at GM North America, noted that Cielo builds on Buick’s great design equity. The strong vertical grille is a hint of the famous Y-Job concept car produced by General Motors design chief Harley Earl and Buick Engineering in the late 1930s. Cielo has fully functional ventiports (portholes) for added airflow, a feature that first appeared on the memorable ’49 Roadmaster.”

  4. Good morning Andrew. Another school day for me too. Like Simon, I immediately thought of the Pluriel when I saw this, er, beauty. It looks like some sort of deep-sea monster. Actually, that might be the best place for it.

    Seriously though, it is good that designers are allowed to let their imaginations take flight, in the hope that some ideas they generate will have production potential.

    Now, here’s a funny thing: since writing the first paragraph above, I’ve stopped to take a proper look at the images, and the Cielo is growing on me. The front, rear and flanks are nicely resolved and very much all of a piece. The roof, to which your eye is immediately drawn, distracts you from the good work elsewhere.

  5. Two things ruin the car on the outside. One is the silly grille which belongs in 1955. A modern grille would have been just fine (and easy to do). The other unwelcome feature is the way the a-pillar and mirrors are done. The solution also goofs up the interior a-pillars. From the rear the Ciela is a-okay and so´s the side. I expect a production interior would have been less flouncy-puffy-ruchy than the one shown. The arc that flows from front to rear door card results in a triangle of body-coloured metal just where you don´t want it.

  6. Thank you Andrew – add me to the “another school day” list. This one works for me – the niggles are easily resolvable without any major alteration to the basic concept. The mirror problem would now be solved by having cameras instead, for example and the grille is surely a matter of taste. For me it instantly identifies the car as a Buick; without it we could be looking at a Lancia (Aprilia, Aurelia quattro porta B50, B56S, B56 Florida…. and now this?)

  7. Good morning Andrew. An excellent musical reference indeed. What could you do with “ The New Riders of the Purple Sage” I wonder?
    I watched the video as well as reading the article and agree that designers do need to express themselves. Not sure what they were thinking about on the front grille. Then there are the wing mirrors and the screen next to the steering wheel that looks like it obscures the forward view. The interior colour is too much for me but overall a pretty good effort.

  8. We could widen this to a discussion of Buick´s sad state in general. In the US they have six crossovers all with a name beginning with E. That´s a remarkable loss of biodiversity. Buick´s Chinese website is a much more entertaining affair. They have two saloons, a minivan, a load of crossovers and something called the Electra. https://www.buick.com.cn/electra/. The Lucerne or Lacross lives on there too. They are all plausibly Opels though. The Cielo was a car for when Buicks had to look like Buicks – hence the awful grille.

    1. Hi Richard. Stay tuned: more Buick ‘what-ifs’ to come from Andrew shortly.

  9. I’m showing my age here, but this is what the Cielo reminds me of.

    Anybody else recognise it? (Hint, it isn’t a real fish!)

    1. I do – and I thought of it earlier – it looks as though it’s from Stingray. I think it’s in the opening titles. Is it called something like the Gorgon?

    2. Well done, Charles. It was called the Amphibian Terror Fish and was a submarine used by the bad guys:

      I was actually much more of ‘Thunderbirds’ fan. 🙂

  10. Frankly, allowing for the period in which it was created and the corresponding colour schemes, I don’t think it’s that bad. If you normalise the roof line a little (although the whole contraption can go as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t much work on the Pluriel either), as well as the a pillars, it’s actually palatable (or cromulent), I think:

    The grille would have to be a lot more sensible too, obviously, as would the little quarter light on the side (although in this case it has the opposite function). Without the silly roof concept, you’ve pretty much got Buick’s Arteon. Maybe the C-pillar (although the car doesn’t techincally have a B-pillar) could be a little thicker, but otherwise I like the slim pillars:

    Here’s the original for comparison:

    The Regal Cielo concept doesn’t do the roof concept any favours either, I think. A popemobile-before-the-invention-of-terrorism:

    https://cdn.motor1.com/images/mgl/B6MPm/s3/2000-buick-regal-cielo-concept.webp

    (images: motor1.com)

  11. Relatively speaking, I don’t think the Cielo is so cromulent since I’ve seen more realistic looking tail lights on Tamiya RC models, and shouldn’t it have side windows? I know what this car needs: Some Bob Lutz (returns to GM in 2001), and an extra strong dose of Ed Welburn (starts his tenure as VP of Global Design in 2003).

    There wasn’t a corresponding Buick four door saloon concept in 2003, but…

    1. If one views the 2015 Avenir concept alongside the Chevy SS and Sixteen, I think it goes very nicely, but it’s from 12 years later and notice how Buick was still mining the same exact retro themes they were chasing in 1999. The brand has been lost for at least that long, IMO.

    2. You’re right about the concept car details of course. In that sense it reminds my mostly of Peugeots from a few years later. Maybe this is more along the lines of what I mean: imagine it in the metal without the silly details. It’s a crude photoshop, but frankly I’m disinclined to spend much more time on it.

      I like the muscularity of these later concepts – if not their execution in production reality – but I also like it when a car doesn’t feel the need to flaunt all those muscles.

  12. On the plus side, three exhaust pipes: impossible to hate.

    (It’s for the turbo’s waste gate, in case you’re wondering how that works on a V8)

  13. The Ferrari Testarossa initially had its rear view mirror at a similarly stupid place

    This was changed very quickly.

    1. It does look stupid. Form follows function, eh? Is it not possible that the better-looking location was wrong in relation to the driver´s eyeline? Or what?

    2. Apart from its stupid positioning, did the Testarossa really not have a passenger-side as standard? Maybe Ferrari thought that, because it was so fast, the driver didn’t need to worry about what was going on behind them.

    3. A single mirror was standard equipment for the Testarossa but a second mirror was available at (horrendous) extra cost. Twin mirrors were not yet mandatory at that time. The flying mirror got them numerous complaints because it created a large blind spot.
      The original position (nickname ‘flying mirror’) was the result of some mis-interpretation of EU regulations on Ferrari’s behalf.
      Later Testarossas had twin low mounted mirrors

    4. Is there anything Dave doesn’t know?

      He – as well as the DTW authors – make me aware every day that all I really know is that I don’t know anything.

    5. I was once told that too much knowledge is not good for you…
      Just saying 🤔

    6. Really? I thought it only referred to too much alcohol is not good for you. Do you sleep as badly with too much knowledge as with too much alcohol?

    7. I´ve never heard a reputable source discuss the possibility of too much knowledge. That sounds like it´s from the same school of thought that generates terms like “clever clogs” and “too clever by half”.

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